April 5, 2020

The environment is a shared concern, and we should be glad that it has come to the top of the agenda now, while there is still something to be done. It has been presented as a divisive issue, about which we do not discuss, but we fight. Environmentalism has therefore acquired all the hall-marks 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 cause recruits the intelectuals, with facts and theories carelessly bandied about, and activism is 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. When led by a child it generates a collective hysteria comparable to that of the millenarian enthusiasms of mediaeval Europe.

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 realise 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 that Burke defended as the conservative archetype. Its fundamental aim is not to bring about some radical reordering of society. 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, and which we see today in the polluted rivers, destroyed landscapes and airless cities of China. Its cause is local attachment not global control, and it stands against globalisation in all its forms, not least that advocated by environmentalists themselves, whose aim is to fit us to a world-wide agenda of prohibitions.

Roger Scruton
Environmentalism is the quintessential conservative cause