There was an article in the Sunday Times this morning by Eric Kaufmann which partly articulated something which has been troubling me for a while. It starts:
If Greta Thunberg wants to beat climate change by 2030, she needs to convince conservatives and the middle-aged, not young, metropolitan liberals. This is possible only if environmentalism sheds its exclusive association with the liberal left...
…For conservatives, ecologists must underscore the threat climate change poses to local and national ways of life.
This is demonstrably true across western democracies. Failure to engage swathes of – important – people is disastrous for the environmental cause, particularly in these days of polarised, tribal politics.
Most Republicans don’t even believe climate change is man made, whereas 66% of Democrats worry about it a “great deal”. It’s as if it has become a political belief rather than a scientific fact – part of a left leaning political ideology. There are even some on the Right here who still think climate change is a hoax. It’s a conspiracy to stop people having a good time, or to advance some kind of obscure economic or political agenda.
Why has this happened?
Firstly, as the article points out, it’s the environmentalists’ fault. They don’t know how to connect with Conservative voters and opinion formers, who mock them. Their earnestness and apparent unworldliness make them easy targets. Greta Thunberg goes to America by boat and it looks gimmicky and eccentric. She goes to America by plane and she is attacked for her hypocrisy. She can’t win. There is – of course – often a good dose of hypocrisy for the Press to focus on when the rich and famous get involved.
This is all ironic, because there are core shared ideas between conservation and conservatism. The name is a clue. Buying local, preserving local landscapes and local distinctiveness… Climate change and biodiversity loss are now having local impacts here. But, instead, environmental commentators on the Left and Right alienate people not of the same political tribe.
Secondly, the environmentalists’ message is essentially misanthropic and anti-capitalist. To save the planet we have to be fewer and/or consume less, and more responsibly. We have to stop doing things. Stop flying, stop driving, stop using plastic, stop shooting birds, stop buying palm oil products…
Lastly, most of the proposed or actual responses to issues like climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution etc. include increased government oversight and/or intervention. And cost. Of this the Right is, understandably, suspicious – governments don’t have sparkling track records on this stuff.
What do I make of this? There’s much work to do. In the short term, I do hope the government will stay true to its conservative beliefs and treads carefully while negotiating post-Brexit trade deals. We must not sacrifice environmental ideals for short term economic / political gain.
Longer term, we must break down its exclusive link with the liberal left and understand how to link conservation and conservatism as well. Politicians may stumble into this because of the way the young vote. Environmentalists must find a way to work with people with power, whoever they are. Because they’re powerful/wealthy/landed doesn’t mean they’re automatically uncaring and aren’t receptive to ideas (some are, of course, and they need working on too!). They will not respond, however, if they are delivered in a political wrapper.
Responses to the crises we face should be pragmatic, ranging from the international and nationally led to the local and individual. We must reinforce local structures to enable this, and educate individuals to drive it.