Some messages are just too big to take in. They bounce off the surface of our collective consciousness like a flat stone being skimmed across a pond.
Nature is dying. Human existence is under threat like never before. Our air is polluted. Our rivers run dry. Our oceans have become dustbins of disposable plastic. From coral reefs to the earth’s forests, from bees to elephants, the planet faces existential threat. A million species are now threatened with extinction.
In ages past, natural catastrophes were designated acts of God – in other words, not a human responsibility. In the Anthropocene era, however, we humans are in the dock and our economic activity is being judged.
Our obsession with growth, with GDP as the measure of human success, has given more of us more wealth along with extraordinary technological toys. It is, apparently, one of the great success stories of the modern era. But it has come at too high a cost. Public intellectuals such as Steven Pinker may flatter the present generation with talk of our enormous progress – but the latest UN Report on the state of the planet shows that progress is being purchased at the price of our future existence.
Anyone who believes in infinite growth on a finite planet, according to David Attenborough, “is either a madman or an economist”. Or a philosopher. Pinker is simply a thinking man’s Bernie Madoff, selling us a flashy Ponzi scheme that points the way to disaster.
“Things can only get better” sang Labour activists in 1997, on the way to Tony Blair’s first election victory, as even the Left parroted the virtues of economic growth. These days it is almost impossible to find a mainstream politician who doesn’t believe in the virtues of having more, the very engine of our coming environmental catastrophe.
There was a time when we thought a few lifestyle tweaks were the answer – a bit of re-cycling here, cutting down on meat and long-haul flights there. But we’re well beyond that now, far past what George Monbiot calls “micro-consumerist bollocks”. He goes on: “Instead of pissing around on the margins of the problem … We have to go straight to the heart of capitalism and overthrow it.”
For Monbiot, the destruction of capitalism is not some Left-wing fantasy of universal equality, it is not about class warfare or Marxist politics, it is about survival plain and simple. Either we kill it or it kills us.
In this new world, two things will be necessary: we will have to learn to have less, learn to be poorer. And we will have to learn to be smaller. Scale down, don’t scale up. “Small is beautiful” as the people-centred economist E F Schumacher put it back in the 70’s.
The trouble is, not even the Green Party seems to believe in small any more. With Brexit, it too has caught the bigger is better bug. One honourable exception, though, would be Green Party member of the House of Lords, Jenny Jones. Writing in the Guardian in 2016, she observed:
“The most profound weakness of the EU, from the Green point of view, is that it is a super-sized, top-down dogmatic project of endless industrial development and growth. It fosters the pointless carting of goods enormous distances, and it smashes local resilience and self-reliance.”
Yes, yes, and yes again. And there is a small but worthy Green Leaves movement (great name, btw) that agrees with her.
But, unfortunately, the wider Green movement has come to be hijacked by this whole corporatist top-down approach, prioritising free movement – including the free movement of film stars to take international flights to protest climate change – and free markets, insisting that the only way to tackle the big issue of climate change is through the very globalised structures that create it.
The Greens, too, been suckered by the idea that being progressive is the path to climate restoration. Yet, in truth, those who believe in progress have little to offer the environment. Because it was under the gas-guzzling banner of progress that the current scourge on our planet was justified.
Indeed, it is probably conservatives who now offer the greatest hope for the future. By definition, they seek to conserve the best of what is threatened. You get a strong sense of this connection between conservatism and conservation in the writings of the novelist, poet and farmer, Wendell Berry, a man so anti-progressive he won’t even use a tractor:
“We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us”
Most conservatives have yet to recognise is that capitalism is not their friend. I noted in my Confessions interview with Roger Scruton that Capitalism is the greatest change agent the world has ever seen. And he acknowledged that this has become the great question for natural conservatives to wrestle with.
The problem, in the USA especially, is that conservatism has come to mean conserving free-market capitalism. But increasingly, this view is being challenged. In Peter Kolozi’s 2017 book, for example, Conservatives against Capitalism: From the Industrial Revolution to Globalization, an older tradition of conservatism is appealed to. One that pre-dated the neo-liberal revolution. And, earlier this year, the deeply conservative Fox anchor and Trump supporter Tucker Carlson opened up the subject by providing a compelling critique of the cult of the free market, in a way that no ‘progressive’ Democrat would ever dare.
The Green Party, though, has been mugged by progressivism, which has left its environmental credentials surprisingly poor. When I was younger, the Green Party’s European position was all about contesting the terrible Common Agricultural Policy. Now that the butter mountains have gone, too many Greens assume that the issue has been resolved. But it hasn’t. Monbiot calls the CAP “among the most powerful drivers of environmental destruction in the northern hemisphere.”
And here he makes common cause with the unlikely figure of Michael Gove:
“Each year, around £3.2 billion comes to U.K. farmers under the CAP. Of this, a full £2.6 billion is not paid according to how farmers manage their land but according to the size of their holdings. This perverse arrangement means public money flows to those who are already wealthy.”
All of which is just a little more evidence that our political goalposts are rapidly shifting. Left and Right are changing their meaning. My own diagnosis of this change follows the brilliant analysis of this by Nancy Fraser, that Bill Clinton and then Tony Blair made their peace with free-market capitalism at just about the same time as some on the Right were beginning to wonder whether capitalism was really their ally.
The shock of this re-alignment has yet to fully work itself out. But for those of us who have long been suspicious of unrestrained free markets and their effect on human flourishing, the thought has started to dawn that the old-fashioned Right – with its emphasis on family, religious belief and small-scale wellbeing – might be a better place from which to challenge the evils of capitalism, than from within the assumptions of the progressive Left. And nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to the environment.