A Righter Shade of Green

By Scruton, Roger | The American Conservative, July 16, 2007 | Go to article overview

A Righter Shade of Green


Scruton, Roger, The American Conservative


[a charge to keep]

While the Left pursues environmentalism to advance its global agenda, conservation is best entrusted to local stewardship.

CONSERVATISM IS ABOUT preserving intrinsically valuable things - economic capital, social capital, and natural capital. I use the word "capital" deliberately, for its opponents say that conservatism is nothing but the apologetics of capitalism. That is absolutely right - provided you understand that capital embraces many things that are not translatable into economic terms.

So why have conservatives been so slow to capture the environmental cause and the agenda that has been built around it? And why have their opponents been so eager to prevent them?

First, the damage done to our environment is connected in many people's thinking, and to a great extent in reality, with the activities of business. You don't do damage if you are not interested in changing things, and the usual reason people change things is to make a profit. And undoubtedly some of the big players in various markets that impact the environment have been extremely unscrupulous - even if their profits usually depend on their ability to meet demands made by the rest of us.

The second reason the environmental cause has been avoided on the Right is that ecological degradation is on the whole a byproduct of prosperity. After all, when people are too poor to turn the world in their favor, they leave the environment alone. And prosperity is a product of capitalism, the old enemy of the Left. To be a right-wing environmentalist is to risk obscuring what was once a clear confrontation, and who, at a time of confusion, wants to do that?

There is a third and I think more interesting motive for the Left's capture of the environmental cause: the cult of the victim. There has been a tradition on the Left, going back to the 19th century and to Marx in particular, of judging every form of human success in terms of its victims. It is assumed that when someone makes a profit, someone else must suffer a loss. This idea of human society as a kind of zero-sum game, in which every benefit is matched by someone else's cost, is dear to a certain kind of left-wing thinking. And in the Earth, we have a wonderful victim - one bigger than any human being, who suffers the results of all of our profiteering.

The fourth reason the environmental movement has been appropriated by the Left is that it is a paradigm of a global cause. What is going wrong with the environment is going wrong everywhere. The world is an interlocking and mutually adapting system. If there is damage in one place, it will emerge in another. There seem to be no solutions to environmental problems that don't involve transgressing national boundaries and linking people across the globe. This connects to a longstanding desire on the Left to abolish nations and national governments - those centers of loyalty and power that seem to be at the heart of human conflicts - and to replace them with some kind of transnational, multinational, or even global government.

The most articulate environmentalist in Britain, George Monbiot, is also a well-known advocate of global democracy. He tries to envisage institutions that might work on the global level, so as to absorb information from every relevant source of data around the globe and deliver a single collective solution. This recalls the old Communist Party agenda, explicitly stated by Marx. For Marx, the nation-state is made necessary by the local needs of capitalist exploitation and would vanish once the proletariat, the victim class, unites across the world.

Environmental issues seem to lend themselves to statist solutions. The problems seem so large, so diffuse, so without local definition that the only way to solve them must be by some gesture of control from above in which enlightened intellectuals direct the benighted profiteers. That is a cherished motive on the Left: the hope that progressives will be able to take hold of the state and use it to dictate to the rest of humanity, supposedly for the benefit of everyone.

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