Conservatives have to live in the same environment as everyone else – don’t they?
Today’s Guardian features an earnest article by Paul Foote, director of the Conservative Environment Network, in which he attempts to bridge the political schism that consigns conservatives to a perpetual – and arbitrary – opposition to all things environmental (Why environmentalism is a conservative concern). This is a subject that does need further examination, but only if we factor in the elements that the author has omitted.
The first is political polarisation; although I get a fair amount of stick for associating climate change denialism with the political right, even the author concedes the connection, albeit in broader ‘environmental’ terms. What he doesn’t include in his analysis is the cause/effect relationship we can see in this forum on any given day – that the opponents of environmentalism and the AGW theory associate the science behind it as being political, and socialist. From this position, one is obliged then to find a conspiracy or collusion with political motivation in order to explain how the science of climate change could, on a global basis, be forced to fit into an ideological framework.
Unless the right is prepared to separate cause and effect, we will never find common ground. If the right were to accept the science as genuine and honest, and stop attacking it and the scientists who conduct it in a horrid mimicry of past inquisitions, persecutions, star chambers and McCarthyism, we could debate that part of the issue which is germane to, and part of, a framework of ideological solutions, and which certainly deserves a debate that would both develop acceptable solutions and remedies, and allow sceptical concerns to be taken seriously. It is very problematic for conservatives to foster genuine discussion when the terms they set are so confrontational and so very intransigent.
Science is not, and cannot be, political. It is in fact the most egalitarian of disciplines, its discoveries the same for every person on the planet. There is no socialist version of Boyle’s law, there is no fascist version of blackbody radiation. While the right conflate socialism with climate change science, they effectively disenfranchise themselves from meaningful discussion and the obduracy they demonstrate, which may be fitting in the adversarial arena of politics, does nothing but hamper any discussion of appropriate taxation, efforts to recognise and address differentiated responsibility, the need for concerted global action and the many and various socio-political issues that bind us all together.
The trope that conservatives have no interest in the environment is as fatuous and gross as the similarly unhelpful notion that AGW is an issue promoted by conspiring communists en route to some world government/social control/dictatorship/egregious taxation scheme. Yet it is the right who force us all to discuss these issues in such a context for, in their confusion, they are the ones that created it.
Three other issues lurk in the subtext of this article, two of which are stated, and the third an allusion found in one of the quotes I noted:
People are acquisitive, they want to better themselves…We must go with the grain of human nature.
It is here the author fails to take the radical step. Does betterment have to be built on a foundation of acquisition. After all, much of the world’s society has, from time to time, found happiness, joy, illumination, epiphany and spiritual enlightenment, outside of a desire to continually acquire more things, more goods, more money, more land, more status and so on. In fact, where does the drive to secure a standard of living end, and the relentless process of consumerist greed begin? People may have been acquisitive in the past, but then again, most of them had bugger all.
But when, here in the developed world, we no longer live as serfs, when we are emancipated and have the right to free speech, to protections against iniquity under the law, when we have socialised medicine (in the civilised parts, anyway) and a right to education, the potential for meaningful employment and a roof over our heads we can own and know cannot be taken from us arbitrarily, we are no longer struggling to achieve the basic standard of living that all should have, all should accept is the entitlement that birth alone confers. To extend that into the consumerist nightmare of constant acquisition, and to believe this is the only way to better ourselves, is to be trapped in the growth paradigm that conservatives so admire, but can’t explain how such benefits could ever be global, fairly distributed and maintained – because we don’t have enough of any resources to make this happen, and such growth largely ignores the very problems of climate change and energy sources we are discussing now.
As for the ‘grain of human nature’, I’ve read enough history to know that the common grain is one of rampant inequality, of local and intra-national violence, of conquest and slavery, of rank exploitation and blatant discrimination, of intolerance and hatred. Between the wars and the injustices, brave men and braver women have created great art, music, sculpture, architecture, and of course the marvellous edifice of knowledge that is culture, history, science and technology. But let’s not underestimate the nature of that grain – which for the most part is exactly as destructive as the history of the 20th century alone records with such terrible clarity.
And my last point concerns discussions that define conservatism in the bucolic terms used here:
“Preserving our natural heritage, the beauty of the landscape, the farmed environment; promoting social justice by beautifying urban spaces and greening energy supply; enhancing public health, national security, economic competitiveness – these are all challenges that require action both in the UK and the US”
These values belie the fundamental problem both with conservative ideology and AGW. These things are very nice, but they are hardly the concerns of all people on this planet. Such a parochial viewpoint isn’t going to make anyone in rural India or China feel any more enlightened. It will not secure water supplies for millions now under threat, it will not stop inundation of sea water into rice paddies, poisoning the land. It will not stop injustice, or warfare, or any of the other issues that beset so much of the world who don’t have time or energy to worry about the beauty of the landscape. They cannot enhance public health when there is no infrastructure to provide basic sanitation, any more than they can admire the beauty of a landscape in which they may – in western terms – be buried rather prematurely. Over-simplifying this issue will not help us understand it.