Flat White

Conservatives as conservationists

13 February 2018

2:00 PM

13 February 2018

2:00 PM

There appears to be a general consensus among self-described conservatives that environmental protection should be placed way down any list of policy priorities. Instead, economic success seems to be the primary concern for the vast majority of conservatives in positions of government. This is something typified by the fact that Scott Pruitt maintains close ties with leaders in the fossil fuel industry; even in his role as Environmental Protection Agency administrator in the Trump government.

Such is the nature of environmental debate across the Western world; that you would be forgiven for thinking that protection of the natural environment lends itself to being a leftist stance more than a conservative one. However, after reading two of the most prominent conservative scholars, Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott, this standpoint quickly disintegrates. Indeed, it is conservatives who should be the natural champions of the environmental cause.

Edmund Burke is widely regarded as the philosophical father of modern conservatism, and the case for environmental protection within Burke’s writings can be found in one of his most famous assertions; namely that “society is a partnership of the dead, the living and the unborn”. This is Burke’s version of a social contract theory, and in it lies numerous implications. Indeed, according to Burke’s social contract, the living have a place in a continuous chain of humanity; with a responsibility to uphold the benefits inherited from previous generations, in order to pass those benefits onto the unborn. The benefits we receive are not ours to spoil for personal gain in the here and now.

While the spirit of Burke’s social contract is often invoked by conservative politicians for the protection of rights such as free speech, and institutions such as marriage, there is no reason why it should not be more readily applied in the case of the environment. Those who currently profit from rampant environmental destruction do not have the right to do so; they have an obligation to protect the natural heritage of their forefathers to pass onto the unborn.

A similar argument can be mounted using the theories of Michael Oakeshott. Oakeshott defined conservatism not as an ideology bound to a specific text like communism or Islamism, but instead asserted that conservatism is simply an orientation that aims to conserve the current order. While this ‘mentality of maintenance’ is often applied in the political and social spheres, it is remarkably lacking in the realm of environmental protection.


In its essence, conservative philosophy recognises that rapid change to anything causes its destruction, so conservatives should seek to delay that change. This central conservative tenet of delay should be readily applied to environmental protection; where rapid ecological devastation is taking many forms, such as toxic pollution, overfishing and land clearing.

So why aren’t conservatives rallying behind the cause of environmental protection? Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, in How to be a Conservative, attributes this to two factors. The first is the influence of big business in conservative political parties. As Scruton states, “the conservative cause has been polluted by the ideology of big business, by the global ambitions of the multination companies, and by the ascendency of economics in the thinking of modern politics. Those factors have led conservatives to enter into alliance with people who regard the effort to conserve things as both futile and quaint”.

The second reason for the reluctance of conservatives to jump onto the environmental bandwagon is the alarmist propaganda of prominent left-wing environmentalists; and the subsequent environmental protection ‘solutions’ that manifest as a result of this. These ‘solutions’ are often incompatible with a conservative worldview. An example of this is the international treaties that are often sought as the only supposedly credible response in tackling the perceived issues of global warming and melting ice caps. Scruton refers to such measures as “radical internationalist schemes that involve a surrender of sovereignty”; hence they break the cardinal sin of conservatism by weakening the nation-state.

So what would a uniquely conservative approach to environmental protection look like? For starters, it would be implemented on a national level; so that sovereignty is not impeded. It is also arguable that such a method would have greater success than the current international approach. A model of environmental protection, with the nation-state at its centre, would tap into a collective feeling Scruton refers to as Oikophilia; essentially the love of one’s home and country. By harnessing this patriotic spirit, conservatives have the potential to be more successful in engaging the broader public than the current internationalist measures.

In a time when many on the environmental Left are also blaming capitalism and even the free market for environmental destruction, conservatives have actually been presented with the opportunity to promulgate a sensible alternative for environmental protection. Such a logical approach can stem from what Scruton refers to as “the truth in environmentalism” in How to be a Conservative; namely that “the environment is degraded because we externalise the cost of what we do”. From this “truth”, Scruton states that the conservative response is to “find the motives that will return the costs to the one who creates them”.

This approach is both logical and implementable; a truly conservative method of environmental protection. What Scruton is essentially proposing is a legislative framework ensuring that businesses and producers do not unduly cause environmental costs to the public for their own personal gain. Such a framework would include measures that charge companies in an appropriate manner for their cost externalisations, such that they are ultimately discouraged from this practice. The politics of compromise, so rightfully cherished among conservative thinkers, would be paramount in forging the specifics of this strategy.

Such a conservative approach to this matter would ensure the public environmental interest, in what would still be a free and open market. Crucially, this method is also implementable on a national level; and would assuage the fears that many in the wider community have about rampant and unchecked capitalism.

Overall, conservatives can and should be environmentalists; but environmental protection should also be a goal that conservative political parties aim to make their own. Conservatives should not join the prevailing alarmist and internationalist approach to environmental protection, but should instead pursue their own path, constructed on conservative principles, in order to maintain Burke’s social contract for generations to come.

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