Conservatives Must Reclaim Environmentalism

Kayaking in Lake McDonald with American Rocky Mountains in Background

Conservatives must reclaim the value of environmentalism. For too long, conservatives have let the Left define what it means to be custodians of the natural world; nearly every green party in the world is left of centre. The Left’s political monopoly on environmental preservation will only be broken when right-wing politicians realise that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created. Those on the Right must embrace conservatism’s centuries-old interest in protecting the environment, not only due to electoral necessity, but because conservation is integral to the ideology. 

The idea that conservatism is indifferent to the environment is founded in ignorance of the conservative tradition. Conservative philosophers have long advocated for conservation of the natural environment, starting with Edmund Burke, the movement’s founder. In 1792, Burke, wrote that, “the earth, the kind and equal mother of all ought not to be monopolised to foster the pride and luxury of any men.” 

This is the only logical position a conservative can take. The environment is a physical manifestation of society, not least because the natural world is the physical home of a people, but also because it is analogous to a society. It is an inheritance that must be protected such that it can be passed onto posterity, in the same way that social institutions must be preserved and passed on. This is the core premise of conservatism; it is hard to create good things, so we must endeavour to protect the good things that we have. In his magnus opusHow to be a Conservative, Sir Roger Scruton described it as following, “conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.” Conservatives often employ this sentiment when defending cultural institutions, but rarely regarding the environment.

If a local community wishes to defend an ancient forest, they have quite a simple task: create regulations that prevents deforestation and employ people to enforce such regulations. In this manner, all members of the community might be able to enjoy its fruits. The people have been given a good thing; they have the simple yet important task of preserving it. However, if you were to give the same community a plot of land and instructed them to create a forest of the same grandeur, you have given them a much greater mission. Not only does this second scenario require deliberate action, as opposed to deliberate inaction, it requires time; oak trees, for instance, take decades to reach maturity. Good things are easily destroyed but not easily created.

Up until recently, conservative politicians have understood this. President Nixon was responsible for establishing the Environmental Protection Agency, Margaret Thatcher was instrumental in the passage of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and Edward Heath created the United Kingdom’s first Department of the Environment. In 1988, Thatcher echoed Burke at the Conservative Party Conference, saying, “No generation has a freehold on this earth.”

Secondarily, conservatives must care about the environment because voters do. In a recent poll by Pew Research, 63% of US adults were found to believe that global climate change is affecting their local community. This figure is in line with previous years’ results of the same survey, which found that a similar proportion of people thought that climate change was affecting their community. This figure was 71% when excluding people who lived more than 25 miles from a coastline. In the UK, YouGov found that 74% of voters are concerned about climate change and that 27% of people believe that the environment is one of the top three issues facing the country. The issue ranked as more important to voters than immigration, housing, and education.

If conservatives wish to hold onto power for the foreseeable future, they must formulate meaningful environmental legislation. It is much easier to preserve the environment we have than it is to build a new environment. The 2019 Conservative General Election Manifesto was promising in rhetoric. It re-affirmed a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050; placed a moratorium on fracking; and invested £4 billion in flood defences. In Britain, though they have faltered, conservatives never rejected environmentalism.

Nevertheless, across the Atlantic, things seem more dire. US Republicans rarely propose environmental policies at the federal level, rather choosing to stand back and laugh at the idiocy of proposals like the Green New Deal. And while the Green New Deal would be unreasonable, unsafe and destructive, it is better than what the GOP currently presents: nothing. Instead Republicans choose to take large sums from fossil fuel companies; this year alone, Republicans have accepted $33.3 million dollars in donations oil and gas companies. President Trump, instead of accepting environmentalism as vital to nationalism, has chosen to ignore the effort. Not only would this improve his popularity amongst voters, it would fulfil the ideology he purports to hold. Conservation is conservative.

Sir Roger Scruton described environmentalism as the quintessential conservative cause. As cultural institutions must be fought for, so must the environment. Conservatives must reclaim their ideological heritage and thus, reclaim the environment.

Nathan Omane is a secondary school student from the United Kingdom.