Can the Greens change their colours?

Greens often make conservatives and populists see red – or Reds. In 2004, Australian politician John Anderson called his country’s Greens ‘watermelons…green on the outside, and very, very, very red on the inside’. His fruity metaphor has become something of a conservative cliché. It is easy to see why.

Green policies are frequently further to the left than those of Democratic, Labour or Socialist parties, and their public representatives more egregiously egalitarian and politically correct. Populists in particular often view Greens as enemies of the nation, reject their warnings as hysteria, and take pleasure in baiting them as elitists and hypocrites. President Trump’s sons pose with elephants they have shot, Nigel Farage consoled himself for Brexit delay by yanking terrified sharks out of their element, and Jair Bolsonaro blamed environmental activists (without any evidence) for the wild-fires that devastated parts of the Amazon.

Such provocations elicit ill-tempered responses, and entrench mutual misunderstanding and dislike. This weakens the populist cause, alienating it unnecessarily from a cultural constituency concerned about the environment, including many young people. This is not to mention stymying vital, meaningful cross-border, cross-party action to protect and restore the natural world we all share, and ought to prize. The environment is far too important to be consigned to any single faction.

Etymology alone shows that the environment should be a central concern for the Right. Conservation and conservatism are adjacent lexicographically and inseparable logically. Those who cherish traditions must necessarily cherish the places where those traditions have taken root. National character is deeply dependent on the natural character of the redolent places where a nation’s inhabitants have embedded themselves over centuries, and geography has ensconced itself in folk-memory and everyday awareness.

What would England be without the White Cliffs, Home Counties fields, North Country moors, or the east’s vast Fens? What would Ireland be without its ‘forty shades of green’? What would Germany be without its Gothic greenwood – or France its timeless Profonde – or America the untrammelled West? Every state has emblematic animals and plants without which it would be subtly yet utterly different – America’s eagle, Australia’s kangaroo, Austria’s edelweiss, China’s lotus, Egypt’s crocodile, England’s oak, India’s tiger, Russia’s bear, or Wales’s daffodil.

The Republicans and Tories were once implicitly parties of the country, with representatives knowledgeable about farming, hunting, local customs and all other aspects of rural life. This reality was given fictive life in Sir Roger de Coverley, Joseph Addison’s kindly eighteenth century baronet – an unpretentious gentleman living in a big house but acutely conscious of obligations, and discerning divine imperatives in daily sounds, like when the crows calling in the nave of the ruined abbey ‘seem to be cawing in Another Region’.

A real exemplar was Edward Goldsmith. He helped set up the first environmental party in Europe, and was founder-publisher of The Ecologist (which was edited by his nephew, the Conservative peer Lord Goldsmith). He deplored the destruction of traditional societies at the homogenizing hands of capitalism, and was called a fascist for associating with France’s thoughtful Nouvelle Droite. Had the Conservatives not embraced economic liberalism during the 1980s, maybe the modern Green movement would have a different political hue.

Or maybe not, because the ideas percolating through other areas of society were also acting upon Greens. Far from celebrating, or even remembering, the complex connections between nations and nature, Greens started to signal contempt for such parochial attachments. Culture wars started to be waged against existing understandings of the countryside, most prominently hunting, which was seen as perpetuating old class orders – although the critique was normally couched in terms of animal cruelty (an argument, oddly enough, not extended to the more working-class recreation of angling, although that affected millions more animals). The Countryside Alliance ran a huge campaign against Tony Blair’s ban – one day, half a million rallied in Whitehall, accompanied by hounds and horns, listened to speeches and then went quietly home, leaving hardly a scrap of litter – and ultimately making no difference. Perhaps if they had been less conservative, they would have had more impact.

Caught up in Frankfurt School fashionability, mainstream Greens opted for cool instrumentalism, wherein the environment was seen as mere ‘resource’ – and universalism, seeing Western traditions as tainted. They kept nervily silent on immigration, while op-eds cavilled at the ‘lily-white’ hinterland, a supposed stronghold of philistine primitivism. Revolutionary conceptions ironically permeated a party dedicated to preserving nature’s equilibrium.

Conservatives should therefore care for animals and plants as cultural continuators, but also in their own right, as beautiful and interesting parts of a common world-organism – which some still call Creation. In Genesis 1:26, mankind is famously given

dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth

Human nature being what it is, this sanction was long used to legitimise cruelty towards animals and over-exploitation of resources. However, Genesis 2:15 adds the qualification –

And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it

This verse is cited by adherents of Christian Stewardship as evidence that the Earth has always been a sacred trust, enjoining careful cultivation of soils almost as much as souls. In Leviticus 25:5, God tells Moses the sublunary world requires regular respites, a sort of Sabbath, or ‘year of rest unto the land’. Christianity, the British vicar Giles Fraser wrote in UnHerd in August 2019, strongly implies living within limits, and without waste –

Give us our “daily bread” goes the Lord’s Prayer. Note daily. Not enough for the next several weeks.

Comparable sentiments may be located in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism and Sikhism. But scriptures of any kind are generally disdained by Greens, who tend towards either atheism, or a salad-bowl of ‘New Age’ beliefs, ranging from aromatherapy to Wicca. This is something else which distances them from conservatives and populists, who even when not personally observant feel residual affection for the religion of their parents.

Climate change is a key point of divergence – Greens often over-dramatic, populists too willing to dismiss dire prognostications as hyperbole or hoax. It seems unlikely to me that bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are more motivated by politics than by science – although even if they were, that would not mean their warnings should be ignored. If there is even a small chance that climate change is being caused or exacerbated by human activity, a truly conservative approach would be prudential avoidance.  

An irony of all this is that post-war conservative governments have usually been far better at environmental protection than non-conservative governments. Greens make many salutary points about the ugliness, unviability (and un-conservatism) of big business, free trade, and the throw-away society – but the worst polluters of recent history have been communist regimes. The erstwhile USSR was strewn with toxic towns, most notoriously Chernobyl; in China, the worst aspects of central planning have been combined with the worst of avaricious consumerism. The white dolphin of the Yangtze, which swam through Confucian and Chinese consciousness like a benign ghost, seems now to have become a ghost in earnest – a lovely, irreplaceable creature sacrificed for no reason whatsoever. The course of the Yangtze contrasts strikingly with that of the Thames, which was declared biologically dead in 1957, but now again hosts hundreds of species.

Properly elected governments and image-aware capitalists are infinitely more responsive to public pressure than tyrannies. The Republican record is mixed, but amongst other eco-achievements Theodore Roosevelt established the United Forest Service, five national parks, and 51 bird reserves. Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed both the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, while Ronald Reagan designated more than ten million acres as wilderness, the highest possible protection.

In November 1989, the supposedly ruthlessly Darwinian Margaret Thatcher made a resounding speech to the UN General Assembly, one coloured by her childhood Methodism as well as knowledge of chemistry:

The environmental challenge that confronts the whole world demands an equivalent response from the whole world. Every country will be affected and no one can opt out.

In 2012, former head of Friends of the Earth Jonathan Porritt reflected, slightly wonderingly,

Thatcher…did more than anyone in the last 60 years to put green issues on the national agenda.

Groups like ConservAmerica and Britain’s Conservative Environment Network strive to capitalise upon such achievements, citing Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and many others in support of their ideal organic, self-sustaining communities in harmony with the biosphere.

Unfortunately, public pressure can work both ways, and populist client-groups can be as myopic as any. This is why President Trump thinks it politic to weaken protections for endangered animals, Brazil’s Bolsonaro facilitates land clearance and logging, and Germany’s AfD prioritises private cars over public transport. But those understandably irked by P.C. posturing should pause, and think of Margaret Thatcher’s truly Tory warning, her insight borne of history and theology

No generation has a freehold on this earth.

Republished from the October 2019 issue of Chronicles: The Magazine of American Culture. All rights reserved by the Charlemagne Institute

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