Can Conservatives Go Green?

Students take part in a “youth strike to act on climate change” demonstration in Nice, France, March 15, 2019. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)
Yes, as long as it isn’t just an excuse to impose a leftist political agenda.

Can conservatives capture the Green movement? Journalist Ed West hopes so. He points to the recent coalition government in Austria between the conservative immigration hawk Sebastian Kurz and the Green party as one hopeful example. He writes this conscious of the Australian bush fires: “Walking through Victoria Station, and seeing giant television screens portraying apocalyptic scenes of Australia on fire, it did strike me that this is exactly how I imagined the future when I was younger,” he says, and confesses that “owning the libs is somewhat less important to me than not living in Bladerunner 2049.”

Well, sure. But I’m not sure that’s the choice.

West points to some obstacles to an alliance between conservatives and greens, namely that green activists repulse him. “I want them to win as much support as possible, but I can see them doing literally everything possible to alienate me, completely needlessly sometimes. (Emma Thompson flying 5,000 miles to a climate protest could not be more perfectly scripted).” He also mentions their lack of interest in crafting a message designed to appeal to the psychological profile that conservative voters have.

West is much more sympathetic to the greens than the average conservative is. I’ll speculate that it is because he has the rare psychological profile that inclines him toward a sense of imminent doom and destruction. He shares this with another English Catholic conservative, Malcolm Muggeridge, well described by Scott Alexander here. This is a burdensome weight to carry around in your soul, but in the hands of both Muggeridge and West it is often valuable.

Valuable, but misleading. It’s also a relief that the Green movement is now getting old enough that its record of false predictions of doom is starting to outrank those of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Consider a report from The Guardian in 1999, extrapolating wildly from a study, that in the next few decades, “Spain will be ridden with malaria, the eastern Mediterranean will be as hot as the Sahara desert, flash floods will swamp parts of the American coastline and there will be almost no snow in the Alps.” Even a few years later, The Guardian would predict that by 2020 shipping lanes would have opened up to heavy traffic through the Arctic. While one ship recently got through, those predictions are being pushed out to the middle of the century.

West comes closer to the truth when he writes that “Green parties tend to be progressive graduate-identity movements” and that some of them have “an anti-capitalist agenda aside from the planet.” These two points are connected, in fact.

I would argue that the Green movement is often enough another attempt at finding a replacement for Christianity, where previous replacements such as Marxism failed. For many in the Green movement, the trees are a better subject than the proletariat and a better reason for seizing control of the global means of production; after all, the trees can’t talk back, or vote for the Tories.

While a slice of the Green movement appeals to the hyper-rational people who claim to “love science,” much of the energy in the movement exists because it provides an outlet and rationale for being reverent for creation, indulging in apocalyptic imaginings, and urging strenuous asceticism on oneself or on the community. The human heart longs for order, harmony, and rest, a longing that comes into collision with wealthy consumer societies. A heart that is sensitive to this longing will hear, in the green call to austerity of life, not a terrible but necessary cost but rather a positive and liberating agenda. Let’s not get too deep into the contradictory attitudes toward nature that must exist in a movement that decries pesticides for gardens but promotes chemical and hormonal sterilization of human beings. How can conservatives possibly capture a movement that posits grave and demanding duties to unborn generations, but then dissolves all duties toward unborn children the moment after they are conceived?

Conservatives will have to develop their own agenda for the natural environment apart from most of the Green movement. The aims of such a movement may overlap, but I suspect they will do so only accidentally. And I would suggest that conservatives begin their own agenda for the environment with humanity itself. We are against littering and pollution because they offend and endanger humans. We preserve greenbelts and conservation habitats because we enjoy being able to pass through and explore them. And we can detest single-use plastics because they make the world uglier, are wasteful, and are a burden on a human posterity that we welcome.

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