Conservative Policy and the Environment

Roger Scruton has wise words for those who want to reclaim environmentalism as a conservative virtue.

Res Publica has been publishing a series of essays on “Changing the Debate: The New Ideas Redefining Britain,” which is an ambitious effort to make a case for their vision of 21st-century conservatism (full list of essays here).

Most recent in the series is an essay by Britain’s leading philosopher, Roger Scruton (who moonlights as an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute)—on the subject of environmentalism. In recent years, the American environmental movement has become more diverse and less radical, with conservatives and Christians starting to emphasize stewardship. But Scruton raises points that such good people would do well to mull over as they consider what, precisely, conservative environmentalism should look like. Since much of his essay is U.K.-specific, I’ve shared a few highlights below.

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Conservatives should not assume that “environmentalism” only means what the Left says it means. “People on the left don’t on the whole mind aesthetic pollution [more on that here]. …Conservatism denotes the attitude that we all share, which is the desire to look after what we know and love, and to ensure its survival. However the Coalition’s programme for government addresses environmental issues that have been placed on the agenda largely by the left. Matters that trouble conservatives—the local food economy, Green belts, town planning, the countryside and the architectural heritage—are not widely seen as environmentally significant, since they are dismissed by left-leaning Greens as concerns of the ‘middle classes.’”

Government planning and no planning are not the only two options. “There are few success stories in environmental politics, but one of them is the 1946 Town and Country Planning Act, which saved our countryside from destruction by ribbon development, and helped to prevent the suburbanisation that has blighted the towns of America and made it impossible to manage an ordinary life without driving for two hours a day. There are conservatives who are suspicious of planning controls – planning, they think, is a dirty word, signifying government interference in matters that ought to be the citizen’s concern. But there are two kinds of planning – that favoured by the left, in which government initiates and controls the process, and that favoured by conservatives, which encourages enterprise but which constrains and limits what can be done. The Coalition rightly recoils from the first kind of planning; but it does not seem sufficiently to recognise that this increases the need for the second kind.”

True environmentalism is enlightened self-interest, not altruism—so incentives matter. “Stewardship will only revive if those who reside in the countryside are once again given the motive to look after it, which is why the Coalition is right to put the repeal of the Hunting Act on the agenda, if only at the bottom of it. But that measure should be integrated into a wider agenda, which is to lift the burden imposed upon our environment by the subsidies and regulations which stand in the way of our natural desire to maintain it. […]Conservatism therefore means trusting people to act for themselves, while creating the incentives that will permit them to do so. It means respecting small-scale local initiatives, facilitating the culture of volunteering, and lifting the burden of regulations that prevent people from taking responsibility for themselves and for those who matter to them. Many of our environmental problems are the direct result of the burden of health and safety regulations which impede every small scale initiative.”

A conservative environmental policy is as much about society as about trees. Thus ends and means both matter, and conservative means will tend to look very different from liberal ones. “By undermining people’s love of country and their sense of peaceful settlement, aesthetic pollution destroys the motive from which real stewardship springs. It brings about a transfer of environmental problems from the people to the government, which then confiscates the solution and makes a mess of it. …I am confident that [British Prime Minister] David Cameron is, at heart, a Tory of the Burkean school, who prefers small things to big things, personal relations to impersonal organisations, and honest accounting to the habit of passing on costs. …Cameron is right to insist that conservatism is about rescuing society from the state. For state solutions are rotten with unintended consequences, are operated by bureaucrats who escape the net of accountability, and are in the long run simply ways of augmenting the growing list of state dependents. The ‘big society’ is another name for Burke’s ‘little platoons’; and if any problems admit of social solutions – solutions conceived and executed by volunteers, acting for the common good – environmental problems are first among them.”

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