May 21, 2010

Climate Change and Conservatism: Why Greens May Go Blue

The fading of green politics during the current economic downturn suggests that environmentalism is a luxury good. Does this mean that it has conservative properties? It just might, for in the coming decades, green may turn out to be as close to Tory blue on the ideological spectrum as it is on the electromagnetic one. This is because prioritising reductions in global climate change will increase inequality and strengthen national traditions at the expense of cosmopolitanism.

Stepping back from the political fray, and with the benefit of a longer time horizon, it is clear that green issues are basically conservative in nature. Indeed, the Latin root con servare, translated as ‘to protect from loss or harm’, gave birth to both the words conservatism and conservation. This is no accident. As John Gray has argued, concern for the environment ‘is most in harmony with the outlook of traditional conservatism of the British and European varieties’. He urges conservatives to embrace the holistic tenets of Gaia philosophy. Bruce Pilbeam cites at least ten areas of overlap between conservatism and environmentalism. These include the desire to respect limits, a suspicion of Enlightenment humanism and science, a belief in what is ‘natural’ and harmonious, a concern for inter-generational continuity, and a belief in community and authority.

Red, the colour of the American Republicans, is many shades further from green than British Tory blue. This is only fitting, since the neoliberal ideas which advocate unimpeded markets, high mobility and unrestrained resource extraction lie at the heart of American ‘conservatism’. In fact, such ideas are better described as classical liberalism. True conservatism can instead be glimpsed in the philosophy of the Tory refugees who fled north after the American Revolution to create Canada. Their cause placed the accent on preservation and evolutionary change rather than revolution. This older, Burkean conservatism lost prestige in the coming centuries since it was, rightly, associated with foot-dragging over reforms which would extend the benefits of liberty, equality, democracy and consumption to the masses.

People too often forget about the consumer revolution. Prior to the eighteenth century, consumption was regulated by sumptuary laws which stipulated the forms of dress and even the cuts of meat which members of the great unwashed could consume. These laws discriminated against the untitled and were challenged by liberal writers like Montaigne. However, it was the advent of mass production, especially around the turn of the last century, which led to great changes. Where once most people wore homemade clothes, the new ready-to-wear fashions allowed the poor to dress above their station. ‘Only a connoisseur can distinguish Miss Astorbilt on Fifth Avenue from her father’s stenographer or secretary’, crowed American social critic Stuart Chase in the 1920s. ‘To the casual observer all American women dress alike.’ (Ewen 1992)

The postwar economic boom spread modern conveniences like the automobile, radio and television to the masses. Though income inequality has recently widened somewhat in certain countries, research suggests that consumption inequality, even in America, continues to decline. This is because the price of basic consumer goods has fallen relative to luxuries. Increasingly, the poor in developed societies enjoy similar physical comforts to the wealthy, and are distinguished only by status symbols. As a recent article notes, ‘ the distance between driving a used Hyundai Elantra and a new Jaguar XJ is well nigh undetectable compared with the difference between motoring and hiking through the muck’. (Economist, Dec 07) 70 percent of those below the poverty line in America own a car, and the expansion of chains like Wal-Mart has greatly reduced the price of basics like food, clothing and consumer electronics, disproportionately benefiting the less well-off.

The explosion of cheap food and consumer durables is being driven by economies of scale and long-distance transportation between global centres of production and consumption. This makes globalisation and rising consumer equality a carbon disaster. One option is to attempt to preserve equality of consumption by apportioning a fixed carbon ration to each individual. This would exact such a colossally high economic price that it is a political non-starter. Instead, it is generally agreed that the most effective way to reduce global warming is either to impose a carbon tax or to establish a system of tradable carbon-emission permits. Either way, inequality will widen. Carbon taxes, like all consumption taxes, are regressive in that they disproportionately impact those with thinner wallets. A ‘cap and trade’ system of emission permits has the same effect since the wealthy can afford to purchase permits from the poor and therefore consume more energy. Living space and household temperature, food, travel and electronics will be affected. Unlike the purely symbolic difference between shopping at Wal-Mart and Harrods, energy inequality will widen the comfort gap between the haves and have-nots that has been narrowing for a century.

Some old Tories hark after the social hierarchy that prevailed before the consumer revolution, but most have become far more attached to the romantic ideal of  the nation. Since the advent of the Romantic movement in the early nineteenth century, nationalism has placed a premium on authenticity, and the physical landscape of a country often serves as one of the nation’s most potent symbols. In many cases, nationalists have sacralised the organic link between the land and traditional lifestyles. The Arabs have their desert Bedouin and Europeans romanticise the peasantry and their bucolic agricultural lands. Wild landscapes are also important. Americans and Russians sing the praises of frontier cowboys or Cossacks on their great plains and the Swiss take pride in their Alpine ecology. Canadian and Scandinavian art and literature has been dominated by paeans to the solitude and cleansing harshness of their northern vistas.

Romantic nationalism shades readily into conservation. After all, if cities, with their pollution, ethnic diversity and high density were ‘unnatural’, their polar opposite had to be preferred. It is therefore no accident that one of the greatest American conservationists was Theodore Roosevelt. Frederick Jackson Turner, who influenced Roosevelt, emphasised the importance of the frontier in moulding the character of the nation, implying that the taming of the wilderness would lead to moral degeneration and a loss of authenticity. Ecological conservation was a means of preserving the American landscape, and hence the nation’s character.

The same logic animated the national movements of turn-of-the-century Europe, which favoured scout-type wilderness activities to build character, reconnect to the land, and forge national belonging. The Nazis envisioned an organic connection between the German forest and the German race, and when they came to power, they enacted the first Nature Protection Law (1935). Starting in the 1920s, Hermann Göring’s interest in conservation helped inaugurate the practice of sustainable forestry. In Europe more generally, tree-planting, which is difficult to justify due to the century’s wait between planting expenses and harvesting revenues, received a strong boost from nationalism.

Climate change has the capacity to melt, flood, erode or dessicate sacred landscapes. This poses a threat to cherished national symbols, and foregrounds the connection between natural and national preservation. As a Canadian, I am well versed in the defining role of the North in the country’s self-conception. When climate change forces Swedes to abandon their loppets and transforms English gardens into vineyards, this will grate against well-grooved national identities. National schools of art and literature have romanticised particular landscapes and lifestyles, and these die hard.

Conservative nationalism is often the greatest foe of liberal globalisation, and here again, the battle against climate change favours conservatism. Cosmopolitanism has tended to flourish along the world’s coastlines because international mobility discourages insularity. In the United States, the relatively cosmopolitan Democrats are powerful on the coasts and have disproportionate strength along the Mississippi River, a major internal transport route. Inland, they are in the wilderness. The need to curb carbon emissions will curtail the geographic mobility of the past few decades. The boom in international tourism will grind to a halt as the true ecological costs of flying are passed on to the consumer. The rise in global migration will falter as nations cut back on population growth to meet their greenhouse gas emission targets.

This last point is worth considering in greater detail. Chinese minister Ma Kai recently claimed that China’s one-child policy had averted 138 million births since 1979, resulting in a saving of 330 billion tons of carbon. According to Andrew Watkinson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, three quarters of climate change is caused by population growth. When an individual migrates from an underdeveloped nation to a developed one, their carbon output soars. In 2006, 191 million people in the world were immigrants, up from 76 million in 1960. The aging of the developed world’s population will generate an increased demand for immigrants to keep wage costs down in the service sector. This adds up to a considerable increase in carbon emissions which has not been factored into current targets, all of which may incline governments to opt for a conservative strategy of low immigration, higher retirement ages and increased automation.

The synergy between green and blue is particularly pronounced in fast-growing regions of the developed world like California, where immigration from Mexico has been the principal force pushing the state’s population toward 38 million –  up from 20 million in 1970. This sparked ructions in the American environmental movement. One might have assumed that cosmopolitan, highly-educated greens would express uniformly liberal attitudes to immigration, but in 1998, and again in 2004, the immigration issue was at the centre of deep rifts within the Sierra Club.

Widening consumer inequality and declining international connectedness are hardly laudable goals for mankind. Nonetheless, the environmental crisis will probably force societies to move in this direction until a technological fix can be found. If anything positive can be salvaged from these developments, it may lie in the capacity of nationalism to be harnessed for the global common good. After all, nationalism is double-edged, and can have both malign and benign effects. From the bourgeois revolutions to anticolonialism, democracy, liberty and equality owe a great debt to nationalism and its revolt against monarchy and empire. Nationalism also drove the antislavery crusade in Latin America and the United States. Can it be pressed into the service of the global environment? Perhaps. As James Lovelock, founder of Gaia theory, wrote, ‘My hope [for the planet] lies in that powerful force that takes over our lives when we sense that our tribe or nation is threatened from outside.’

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