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Does Caring About the Environment Actually Make You Conservative?


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, dishevelled, 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 twentiethcentury 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 leftwing myths, comparable to the “crisis of capitalism” prophesied by the nineteenthcentury socialists.

 Not As Left As You Think

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 dishevelled; 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.


Excerpt from "Conservatism Means Conservation" by Roger Scruton, originally published in the "Modern Age" Vol. 49, No. 4, Fall 2007.


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