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The Return to “Green” Conservatism
You might not know it today, but conservation is a conservative principle.
While trying to protect our planet has become an issue defined by the left and often ignored by the right, embracing environmentalism would actually be the continuation of a powerful conservative legacy.
The first U.S. president to act on environmental stewardship was the outdoor enthusiast and Republican Teddy Roosevelt, who called nature’s wonders “the most glorious heritage.” Conservative intellectuals have long held environmental concerns in high esteem.
The late Roger Scruton believed that “conservatism and conservation are two aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources and ensuring their renewal.” As he saw it, “the goal is to pass on to future generations, and meanwhile to maintain and enhance, the order of which we are the temporary trustees.”
For Scruton, environmental protection was part of what he called oikophilia, the love of one’s homeland, which inspires a natural desire for protection.
Richard Weaver wrote “that man has a duty of veneration toward nature,” since it is “the creation of a Creator.” Further, “nature is not something to be fought, conquered and changed according to any human whims.”
The poet T.S. Eliot, meanwhile, saw a clear link between environmentalism and religious beliefs: “We may say that religion . . . implies a life in conformity with nature,” and a “wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God.”
Environmental stewardship is, after all, thousands of years old and has a deep biblical foundation. Let humans “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” (Gen. 1:26), Yahweh commanded in the very first chapter of the book of Genesis.
Humanity’s dominion over the world also entailed taking proper care of it. Breaking this rule would cause His anger: “I brought you into a plentiful country, to eat the fruit thereof and the goodness thereof; but when ye entered, ye defiled my land, and made mine heritage an abomination” (Jer. 2:7).
As for more contemporary conservative thinkers, Daniel Hannan calls conservatives “natural conservationists” in the new pro-market environmentalist book Green Market Revolution, to which he contributed. According to him, “the environment, more than anything else, embodies Edmund Burke’s definition of society as a partnership between the living, the dead and the yet unborn.”
But that’s not the narrative that has taken hold of environmental debates.
The Not-So-Green New Deal
Fueled by publicity stunts such as the Extinction Rebellion protests, it is easy to think that modern environmentalism is inextricably linked to left-wing politics.
Yet it is painfully clear that such proposals as the Green New Deal aren’t actually about saving the planet. Instead, they’re Trojan horses for a wider economic and social agenda: “the overthrow of capitalism,” as far-left environmental writer George Monbiot puts it.
This anti-capitalist element is, however, precisely what the environmental status quo gets so wrong: it assumes that politicians and bureaucrats know best how to solve environmental issues and that individuals and communities are incapable of doing so. Examples such as the Soviet Union, which all but destroyed the Aral Sea and vast swathes of forest in the pursuit of industrialization, prove the opposite: central planning and socialism fail the environment.
Political processes are always subject to regulatory capture, lobbying, corruption, and personal self-interest, while ignoring all the incentives that serve the environment well, such as private property rights and market accountability. Even more moderate, nonsocialist countries tend to hinder environmental protection when their governments become too involved in environmental protection. For instance, governments around the world still spend $10 million per minute on fossil fuel subsidies, while European Union policy has essentially mandated the depletion of European fisheries and incentivized excessive levels of nitrate pollution in agriculture.
The truth is that conservative principles underpin better solutions to protecting the planet. Many environmental problems can be solved simply by restoring power to communities and individuals, by acknowledging their sovereignty rather than stifling it through centralized, top-down decision-making.
The conservative alternative is to focus on local and decentralized forces wherever possible.
As Nobel Prize laureate Elinor Ostrom showed throughout her career, resource management is often best achieved at the lowest level of the political order. Her prime example was that of Swiss villages managing their communal grazing lands. The lands were technically owned by no one, and yet the local farmers came together to voluntarily establish coordination and enforcement mechanisms that allowed their cows to graze without abusing the pastures.
Over decades and centuries, these mechanisms have developed slowly and are based on mutual trust, local knowledge, and community traditions—none of which a central government can provide.
Even when it comes to more global problems that cannot necessarily be solved locally—such as, of course, global warming—conservatives can put forward more effective solutions. They should emphasize that the government’s primary role here is to empower individuals, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists to collaborate and come up with innovations that will solve climate change.
This is the natural state of affairs when property rights are secure and markets are allowed to function properly. Creative minds can develop their ideas when they are not regulated and taxed to death, and achieve better environmental outcomes as a result of competition, innovation, and the profit motive. Under a property rights system, those that care about conserving the environment can voluntarily protect the land they love by unleashing their philanthropic endeavors and buying up land they deem valuable enough for protection (which is something that governments often prevent them from doing today).
And that is precisely the most conservative aspect of this vision for the environment: personal and communal initiative, as well as duty and responsibility. At the end of the day, if we want to protect the environment, we must take matters into our own hands, by living up to our personal best selves and by coming together with people we trust to take sometimes small, but ultimately cumulative, steps to protecting our natural heritage.
An Emerging “Green” Conservatism
There’s reason for hope.
Young people in the United States and across the globe are advocating for a return to conservative principles of conservation. Recently formed organizations such as the American Conservation Coalition and British Conservation Alliance have latched on to the legacy of conservative philosophers such as Roger Scruton and Russell Kirk, galvanizing thousands of students in the U.S. and U.K. to buck the left-wing narrative. Among these young, right-leaning voters, 77% now consider climate change a top priority, while 76% want to see greater conservative leadership on environmental issues.
Their progress is encouraging. For instance, Republicans in the U.S. have recently introduced various environmental bills, such as the American Energy Innovation Act and the Great American Outdoors Act. Honoring America’s rich legacy of conservative environmental stewardship, these congressional Republicans have started leading on conservation efforts.
And there is certainly an appetite among conservative voters beyond this. In polling released by the Conservation Coalition and the Conservative Energy Network, 69% of general voters declared that they would view President Trump more favorably if he embraced a conservative approach to climate change. That number rises to 73% for voters between the ages of 18 and 34, and to an astonishing 90% for GOP voters aged 18–54.
Making the world a greener place should be ingrained in the conservative psyche. Doing it locally and by means of personal responsibility, entrepreneurship, and the power of voluntary collaboration through the market economy is not only the best way to achieve that—it’s also the most conservative.
About the Authors
Kai Weiss is a Research Fellow at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member at the Hayek Institute in Vienna, Austria.
Christopher Barnard is the National Policy Director at the American Conservation Coalition (ACC) and co-editor of Green Market Revolution.
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