The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 20, 2019

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Conservatives Are Conservationists
Roger Scruton (MA 49:4, Fall 2007) - 04/11/08

Environmentalism has all the hallmarks of a left-wing cause: a class of victims (future generations), an enlightened vanguard who fights for them (the eco-warriors), powerful philistines who exploit them (the capitalists), and endless opportunities to express resentment against the successful, the wealthy, and the West. The style too is leftist: the environmentalist is young, disheveled, socially disreputable, his mind focused on higher things; the opponent is dull, middle aged, smartly dressed, and usually American. The cause is designed to recruit the intellectuals, with facts and theories carelessly bandied about, and activism encouraged. Environmentalism is something you join, and for many young people it has the quasi-redemptive and identity-bestowing character of the twentieth-century revolutions. It has its military wing, in Greenpeace and other activist organisations, and also its intense committees, its odium theologicum and its campaigning journals. Environmentalists who step out of line like Bjørn Lomborg are denounced at the important meetings, and thereafter demonized as heretics. In short, it has the appearance of those secular religions, like socialism, communism, and anarchism, which turned the world upside down during the twentieth century. Hence conservatives are instinctively opposed to it, and begin to look around for facts and theories of their own, in order to fortify their conviction that global warming, loss of biodiversity, rising sea levels, widespread pollution, or whatever, are simply left-wing myths, comparable to the “crisis of capitalism” prophesied by the nineteenth-century socialists.

However, the cause of the environment is not, in itself, a left-wing cause at all. It is not about “liberating” or empowering the victim, but about safeguarding resources. It is not about “progress” or “equality” but about conservation and equilibrium. Its following may be young and disheveled; but that is largely because people in suits have failed to realize where their real interests, and their real values, lie. Environmentalists may seem opposed to capitalism, but—if they understood matters correctly—they would be far more opposed to socialism, with its gargantuan, uncorrectable, and state-controlled projects, than to the ethos of free enterprise. Indeed, environmentalism is the quintessential conservative cause, the most vivid instance in the world as we know it, of that partnership between the dead, the living and the unborn, which Burke defended as the conservative archetype. Its fundamental aim is not to bring about some radical reordering of society, or the abolition of inherited rights and privileges. It is not, in itself, interested in equality, except between generations, and its attitude to private property is, or ought to be, positive—for it is only private ownership that confers responsibility for the environment as opposed to the unqualified right to exploit it, a right whose effect we saw in the ruined landscapes and poisoned waterways of the former Soviet empire.

But how should conservatives shape their environmental policies? What laws should they pass, and what resources should they protect? The temptation is to embrace some comprehensive plan, like Theodore Roosevelt’s plan for national parks—to protect some part of the environment in perpetuity, and meanwhile to control by law the use of the remainder. However, such statist solutions go against the grain for conservatives—they pose a threat not just to individual liberty but also to the process (of which the free market is the paradigm instance) whereby consensual solutions emerge. State solutions are imposed from above; they are often without corrective devices, and cannot easily be reversed on the proof of failure. Their inflexibility goes hand in hand with their planned and goal-directed nature, and when they fail the efforts of the state are directed not to changing them but to changing people’s belief that they have failed. The ruination of the Dutch and Danish coastal landscape by banks of hideous windmills is a case in point. They stand in looming white ranks on every horizon, waving white arms like disconsolate ghosts, blighting the landscape with their nightmare vision of judgment day. People put up with them because they have been told that they are the solution to depleted energy resources. Yet they produce only a small amount of power, will never be able to replace the coal-fired power stations that provide the bulk of the country’s electricity, and have all kinds of negative environmental effects, not least on the populations of migrating birds. However, states don’t easily admit to their mistakes; and the official propaganda continues to speak as though the windmills were the lasting proof of socialist rectitude.

Another and more serious example is observable in the United States. The most important man-made environmental problem in this country is that presented by the spread of the suburbs. Suburbanization causes the increasing use of automobiles, and the dispersal of populations in ways that exponentially increase the consumption of energy and non-degradable packaging. Conservatives argue that this is a result of freedom and the market. People settle outside the towns because that is what they want. They are moving out in search of green fields, wooded gardens, tranquility—in short, their own little patch of nature. But this is not so. They are not moving out in search of a natural environment, but in search of a suburban environment, and they are doing so because the suburban environment is massively subsidized by the state. The roads, the infrastructure and the schools—all are state investments, which entirely imbalance the natural economy of the town, and make it easier, safer and cheaper to live on the edge of it—an edge that is constantly moving further from the center, so destroying the advantages offered to those who move to the suburbs just the year after they move. The mechanism here is not a free market mechanism. Much of the expansion of the suburbs proceeds by the exercise of “eminent domain”—that provision in American law which gives the official bodies powers of expropriation equal to, and sometimes exceeding, the powers exerted by the socialist governments of Europe. Roads are one obvious instance of this, and the mania for building them in order to maintain traffic flows at a level arbitrarily imposed by official bodies, is the most important cause of the reckless mobility of American society. The true market solution to the problem of traffic congestion—which is to get out of your car and walk—is not, in America, available, since there is no way that you could walk to your destination. Be it the shop, the church, the school or just your nearest friend, suburbanization has put your goal beyond pedestrian reach.

But you cannot live in the center of the cities any more, the suits complain: they’re not safe. Downtown is for blacks and Hispanics; for bums and drop-outs; the schools are appalling, the crime rate soaring and the place rife with drugs, alcohol and prostitution. Well yes, that’s exactly what happens, when the state subsidizes the suburbs, imposes zoning laws that prevent proper mixed use in the towns, and engages in its own gargantuan housing projects which drive the middle classes out of the city centers. All this occurs in defiance of the market solution and, as Jane Jacobs pointed out in The Death and Life of American Cities, it deprives the city of its eyes and its ears, of its close communities and natural fellowship. Do the Italian cities have crime-ridden centers like the American? Why is it that everyone wants to live in the middle of Paris and not on the edge?

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