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Conservatives have to live in the same environment as everyone else – don’t they?

November 12, 2010

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.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. adelady permalink
    November 12, 2010 3:43 pm

    Why is it that in this arena conservatives abandon one of their commonly expressed views? The responsibility and importance of parents and their obligations to their children.

    For people who constantly nag about their claims to want to do “the best” for their families, and strongly criticise others who ‘neglect’ such virtuous behaviour, I find the absence of concern for children and grandchildren morally repugnant. If you firmly hold the view that you want to leave a good inheritance for your descendants, why do you not think about the environment you and your generation are leaving for those descendants?

    Perhaps I’m not a socialist after all, because my main concern is for my children and my grandchildren’s grandchildren. I have some lovely china as well as lace made by my greatgrandmothers to leave for these unknown descendants. But what’s the point if they’ll be struggling to afford food made prohibitively expensive by droughts and floods? They can’t eat vases and candlesticks.

  2. Graham Wayne permalink*
    November 12, 2010 4:49 pm

    This puzzles me too. I think about clever executives running big companies, and wonder how they can possibly rationalise the stuff they get up to when they look at their kids over the dinner table, right after they’ve shovelled loads of money into the hands of the Cato institute or some other propaganda outfit. These people – most deniers actually – cannot possibly be taken in by all the sceptical rhetoric, so it’s entirely about self-interest and business as usual – either that, or it’s a crusade against the lefties. (OK – there is another option, but it’s really scary – they actually believe all this stuff. That really would signal the end of civilisation).

  3. Jack Savage permalink
    November 14, 2010 4:09 pm

    Yeah…and if we had believed Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome….waay back then?
    You see…the promised apocalypse never gets delivered and no matter how hard you yell….”But this is different…Man made global warming /climate change/Climate disruption is real and here…..your children will suffer.
    My children did not suffer as a consequence of our ignoring the Club of Rome.. au contraire.
    Even when you have all the media and the politicians on board, a lot of the public are just going to say that they have heard it all before and ignore it.
    Prophesying doom and then having to endlessly postpone it puts you in the position of a cult when their “End of the World” date goes by without the doom occurring. There have been some interesting books on the subject.
    Who knows. One of these days you may be right. It may, I suppose, be today. One day a doomsayer will get it right, if only by the “million monkeys” approach. It is a pity you could not have put this kind of effort into combating and allieviating the genuine real present day far more easily solvable problems like hunger,poverty, disease, unemployment, exploitation and illiteracy. Is it because you then do not get to grandstand about “Saving the World”? Are those problems just too unsexy and boring? Is it because those problems involve doing something rather than just demanding something?
    Believe me, your behaviour is just as much puzzling to me as is the “clever executive’s” to you.

  4. Watching the deniers permalink
    November 15, 2010 2:09 am

    @ Jack…

    Actually a recent review of the projections of the “Limits to growth” found they were broadly in line. A CSIRO scientists looked at the projects and then compared those to 30 years of historical data since the publication of LtG.

    The report concludes the data matches closely with the “standard run” of the World3 model.

    http://www.csiro.au/files/files/plje.pdf

    The whole “Club of Rome was wrong!” is a myth.

    Think about it for a minute: a direct comparison with projections and 30 years of data that matches.

    Or have all the data been manipulated as well?

    However, sadly I suspect you won’t read it. You’ll claim it is “just modelling” or “they fudged the data”.

    What strikes me as incredible is how the criticism of science from “conservatives” is an exact mirror image of left-wing post-modernism.

    Both claim that knowledge is a the product of “political views” and that AGW can only be described in terms of a socialist mindset is incredible.

    It’s text book Foucault/PoMo:

    “Postmodernism is a tendency in contemporary culture characterized by the rejection of objective truth and global cultural narrative or meta-narrative. It emphasizes the role of language, power relations, and motivations…”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism#Post-postmodernism

    PoMo arguments infect all sides of the political spectrum. When you don’t like the results of science, question it’s authority. Whether that be GM foods, AGW, the safety of vaccines every argument of these anti-science movements can be described as attacks on the motivations and world view of “scientists” or “elites”.

    Chemistry and physics does not chose sides.

    It just is.

  5. adelady permalink
    November 15, 2010 4:03 am

    Maybe Jack it’s because we’ve seen the results of our forebears messing about with our environment. In my state, I regret to say that at least 3 of my 16 great-great grandfathers used horses and fairly primitive equipment to literally scour the surface of thousands of hectares of delicate arid sandalwood-supporting vegetation (they sold the sandalwood for a pittance for Indian funeral pyres). 2 of them at least didn’t go broke in a few years like most of their neighbours, one because he was a very good businessman who concentrated on long-term contracts to supply meat to mining and other ventures in the region, the other because, according to my mother, he was bone idle so couldn’t be bothered trying to grow crops. He just ran sheep and rounded up a few for the abattoirs whenever he needed money.

    But the mid north and several other regions of South Australia are almost moonscapes because of such foolish behaviour by several generations of misguided farmers, esp those who insisted on trying to grow crops by the mysterious, futile and devastating process of ploughing half a dozen times a season. (The mythology of ‘rain follows plough’.)

    And my generation and many to follow pay for that in the loss of soils and of water courses and of the lost nutrient and (limited) bearing capacity of those lands. Other foolishness has prevailed in slash and burn agriculture where people have never learned the value of composting or other nutrient retention procedures possible in other environments.

    The climate issue is the same thing writ large, global in fact.

  6. Graham Wayne permalink*
    November 15, 2010 7:50 am

    Jack: “Yeah…and if we had believed Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome….waay back then?”

    If we had listened (not believed) – we’d be better prepared than we are now. This argument about Erhlich is rather strange to me. He got most of it right, but got the date wrong. Your position is akin to Churchill predicting that the Nazis would invade Poland in June 1939, and when they didn’t, people like you would claim – ‘see, we told you the Nazis were nothing to worry about”. (Apologies for the Godwins law transgression). What Erlich forsaw is taking place Jack, or do you want to deny that as well? Is the population explosion nothing to worry about now, all of a sudden?

    “…a lot of the public are just going to say that they have heard it all before and ignore it…”

    So what? The mob have never been right, never known their arses from any other part of their body, and usually back the wrong horse because probabilities are beyond their comprehension. I don’t give a stuff what the public think and no environmental policy should be based on the consensual ignorance of the masses. (That’s not genetic ignorance, BTW – it’s a mixture of seriously duff education and crass complacency – virtually everyone I ever met, read about and studied seemed to get their humanist education after they left school or uni. You cannot understand or influence a system unless you stand outside of it, as every well intentioned politician has discovered. In a corrupt place, you have to do business on terms set by the proprietor).

    “It is a pity you could not have put this kind of effort into combating and allieviating the genuine real present day far more easily solvable problems like hunger,poverty, disease, unemployment, exploitation and illiteracy”.

    No Jack, I’ll tell you what’s a pity. It’s a pity that concern trolls were not more in evidence before the turn of the millennium. We had 50 years since WW2 to fix a lot of the injustice and hardship, but we didn’t, did we. Nobody gave a stuff, actually – it was all reduced to the annual comic relief, a red nose, five quid on your credit card and job done. (Either that or a quick trip to see Geldorf and his mates in the park). Your concern is fake, and much too late. People like me were campaigning for action to address the very things you allude to here, and we were roundly ignored by Thatcher’s generation, too busy with their noses in the troughs to take any notice. Returning to your first point, if you’d listened to us, to Erlich, to Oxfam and even Christian Aid, many of the problems would be rather less pressing than they have been allowed to come. This happened on your watch buddy – so where the fuck were you and your regressive mates then? Your pleas are fake, merely more denialist smoke and mirrors. Anyway, if these problems are so bloody important, what’s stopping you – if you want to address these issues, be my guest…or are you too busy being cynical and writing crap about climate change to actually do something. Stop complaining Jack – nobody’s stopping you, so if you and your mates care as much as you claim, then do something.

    And finally, I find your position to be really disingenuous – and quite distasteful. You mention the science of climate change not at all. Do you really think this little diatribe of cynicism can disguise the fact you have utterly ignored the evidence Jack – it’s the science that makes this case unlike anything we’ve ever faced before. You deniers spend your entire lives looking backwards, twising and revising history to find some rationale, some excuse for your foolish, knee-jerk opposition to climate change mitigation. You don’t disagree with the science because you have other science that suggests it might be wrong, you disagree because you have deliberately conflated science with ideology. Until you get your head straight, and understand the point that WatchingtheDeniers made, you’ll be consigned to the irrelvancy your position has doomed you to. Deniers, by their intransigence and foolishness, have marginalised themselves. By insisting on being part of the problem, you will neither influence nor shape the solution, when it finally develops.

    You are an intelligent man. To see you betray yourself, your intelligence, and the society in which you live, is very disturbing and rather sad. You will likely get what you deserve, truth be told. Too bad I and others must be forced to drown with you, but there are never enough lifeboats.

  7. fred permalink
    November 24, 2010 6:02 pm

    I think you are rather too harsh on Jack.

    First he makes a valid point. If you spend your time forecasting calamity and it doesn’t happen then of course people will stop taking you seriously.

    Second the Club of Rome lot never really answered the Beckerman crticism of them. They were at heart a centrally planned economy bunch of people in a centrally planned economy time. But now that we know what a complete catastrophe central planning was, both from a theoretical point of view and from the Soviet and Chinese experience, we ought to know much better.

  8. Graham Wayne permalink*
    November 24, 2010 7:11 pm

    Sorry Fred, but Jack has history – he posts in the Guardian a lot and so I know what he’s about, as indeed he understands my position. Anyway, while the point you single out is indeed logically valid, it isn’t what I was criticising. It is also a manifestation of an argument I find infuruating – the millennium bug deniers. I’m in that industry, and we fixed it – one of the most effective global engineering projects I am aware of. Jack’s argument can also work in the same way the bug deniers couch it – because we stopped the planes falling out of the sky, the threat was never there in the first place.

    As for centrally planned economies, what else would you call the global trade paradigm we are all living in right now? Practice makes perfect, apparently…

  9. Greg H permalink
    December 1, 2010 7:19 pm

    Thanks for a thought-provoking essay that addresses a number of questions I’ve been wondering about.

    Unfortunately, the only answer I’ve been able to come up with is that conservatism in general, and climate science denial in particular, represents an overarching failure of the imagination.

    So when you say, “It is here the author fails to take the radical step.” I respond, he can’t. I don’t know what the answer is, but the question is not about science.

  10. Graham Wayne permalink*
    December 1, 2010 8:56 pm

    Hi Greg. I agree that some failure of imagination is involved, but consider also the way that so many of us dislike change, and try to resist it. Much of history documents the way those with power thought it could be consolidated by making tomorrow the same as yesterday. I have always relished change but I do acknowledge that for many, the constant, unending demand to adapt and learn are arduous.

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