In an essay discussing the rise of “woke capitalism” after the news about the capitulation of Chic-fil-A in the Culture War I made the point that the alliance between “conservatism” or “the Right” and “capitalism” which dates back to the rise of socialism, the mutual foe of both, in the nineteenth century was an unnatural alliance, and that those who wish to preserve or recover elements of the heritage, history and tradition of Western Civilization that predate modern liberalism need to reconsider this alliance with a force that has been a far more effective engine for the uprooting of communities, destruction of traditions, and alienation of individuals than socialism ever has. In this essay, I wish to follow up on that by looking at another unnatural alliance, that which exists between “environmentalism” or “The Green Movement” and socialism.
An alliance between environmentalism and conservatism would be much more natural. I am speaking, of course, of the unadulterated, original versions of both environmentalism and conservatism, neither of which is very recognizable in the present day movements by those names.
Environmentalism began with the concern that something valuable, which had come down to us from past generations, was disappearing and in danger of being lost to future generations. That something included both natural resources valued for their utility, their usefulness to man and his enterprises, and the beauty of our physical surroundings, especially the countryside. Environmentalism grew out of the instinct to protect these things and preserve them for generations yet to come. Hence the earliest form of environmentalism was the conservation movement.
Conservatism, which obviously shares a common root with conservation, grew out of a similar concern that something valuable, which had come down to us from past generations, was disappearing and in danger of being lost to future generations. For Edmund Burke and the original conservatives, that something included both the institutions that the Tories of previous generations had fought for – the monarchy and the Apostolic Church – and the constitutional rights and liberties for which the Whigs had professed to have been fighting. (1) Conservatism was originally the instinct to protect and preserve these things for future generations, against those who wished to bulldoze them down in the name of building a fanciful earthly paradise, on the foundation of their rationalistic, abstract ideals.
Given the very similar instincts and starting points of these two movements it is rather astonishing that they did not develop a strong and enduring alliance. There have always been outspoken advocates of ecological conservation on the Right. The reactionary, Roman Catholic philologist, poet, and novelist J. R. R. Tolkien made it rather plain what he thought about industrial de-forestation in his famous fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Michael Wharton, who for decades as the writer of the “Peter Simple” column for the Daily Telegraph was the most right-wing columnist in the United Kingdom, said in The Missing Will, the first volume of his autobiography, “I had developed, partly because of my general loathing for ‘progress’ and technology – I can claim to have been what is now called, somewhat nauseatingly, a ‘friend of the earth’ thirty years before the Environment was invented – an extreme hatred of Communism which has never left me.” Nevertheless, the environmentalist movement has long tilted left, and conservatism in response has viewed it with suspicion. This is due, in part, to conservatism’s mistake in seeing capitalism as a friend rather than a foe, a mistake which has grown over time to the point that present day conservatism, or “neo-conservatism” has little interest in preserving anything other than capitalism. The other contributing factor is environmentalism’s mistake in seeing socialism as a friend rather than a foe. Both mistakes arose through the faulty reasoning “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Both mistakes were magnified by the erroneous assumption, which became almost universal in the twentieth century, that if one was not a capitalist one was therefore a socialist and vice versa.
To understand why socialism is not a friend of true environmentalism, it is important that we understand the nature of socialism. Socialism is not being compassionate and charitable to the poor. Socialism is not “standing up for the working man.” Socialism is not the application of the classical idea of restraint to human greed. (2) The many different socialisms that arose in the nineteenth century all sprang out of the same common idea: that the private ownership of property is responsible for most or all human suffering and must therefore be eradicated.
One of the oldest observations that pertain to conserving resources and the beauty of our surroundings is to be found in the third chapter of Book Two of Aristotle’s Politika. This is the section of that work in which Aristotle made the case for private ownership against complete communal ownership. As translated by Benjamin Jowett, he wrote:
That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable; or if the words are taken in the other sense, such a unity in no way conduces to harmony. And there is another objection to the proposal. For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few.
Universal experience confirms what Aristotle has written here. Take houses, as just one example. Houses that are owned by the people who live in them, whether they take care of them themselves or are rich enough to hire a staff to do it for them, are generally the ones that are kept in best repair and which are a pleasure to look at. Houses that are owned by the public, rented out at low cost, and maintained by employees of the state with no other personal interest in them, are the most likely to be run down, eyesores. Other arrangements that fall between these polar opposites also typically fall between them in terms of their level of upkeep.
Despite the fact that any one of us can confirm with his own eyes the truth of what Aristotle pointed out twenty-three and a half centuries ago, environmentalists continue to talk as if the exact opposite were the case and human societies took better care of their environment before there was private property and will do so again once socialism eliminates private property.
There is a widespread myth, that pre-civilized tribal societies, without a well-developed and defined sense of private property ownership, had more of a connection to land, nature, etc. and so took much greater care not to pollute the environment or to waste their resources. This myth, which like capitalism and socialism has its roots in the pets de cerveau of the so-called Enlightenment of the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries, and was popularized by Romantic poetry and Disney cartoons, is completely counterfactual. The societies in question hunted animals to extinction, set forests on fire to drive the wildlife out into the open where they could be more easily hunted, and were far more wasteful than property owning societies. Nevertheless, nowhere is this myth more prevalent than among environmentalists.
If it is a myth that pre-property societies were ultra-Green and eco-friendly it is laughable folly to suggest that post-property societies are so or will be so. When the Soviet Union collapsed, we learned that not only was the great experiment in Communism a failure economically – instead of elevating the living conditions of the workers it lowered them, leaving them in worse poverty and virtual slavery – but it was a disaster ecologically as well. Nowhere in the world were there dirtier cities, more depleted forests and other natural resources, more soil erosion, acid rain and polluted air and waters than in those countries unfortunate enough to have fallen behind the Iron Curtain. Nor, until relatively recently, have things been any better behind the Bamboo Curtain.
Has any of this caused environmentalists to renounce socialism?
No, in spite of it, environmentalism seems to be more in bed with socialism now than it was before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Think, for example, of environmentalism’s present obsession with warding off a climactic apocalypse. The entire anthropogenic climate change horror story is nonsense that is easily demonstrated to be such. Carbon dioxide is the natural product of human and animal respiration and the food of vegetable photosynthesis. It is hardly a pollutant. The global climate has never been static, but has gone through cycles of warmer and cooler periods throughout known history. A myriad of factors contribute to this, the majority of which, and the most important of which, are beyond human control. Furthermore, it is a rather obvious historical fact that human life and civilization, as well as all other life, animal and plant, have thrived much more in warmer periods than in cold periods. Climate change alarmism requires one to believe the opposite of all of this. While environmentalists claim that “the science” backs them up, by “the science” they mean the kind of phony consensus that can be produced by threatening the research grants, potential tenure, and the like of those who dissent. Science, in other words, in the same sense in which Lysenkoism was once considered “science” in the Soviet Union.
Environmentalists insist that the climate crisis demands immediate action on the part of the world’s governments. Their proposals, however, from the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 to the Paris Agreement of 2015 to the Green New Deal currently being touted, are all designed to create global socialism – central economic planning, wealth redistribution, etc. on a planetary scale. Since socialism was ecologically catastrophic for the Soviet Union and its satellites on a national scale, the most likely outcome of these accords is to create a genuine global ecological crisis in the name of averting a chimerical one.
If there is any genuine concern left in the Green movement for preserving natural resources and the beauty of the countryside they will abandon their unnatural alliance with a socialism that can ultimately work only against these ends. (3)
(1) In my, unreconstructed Tory, opinion the actions of the Whigs, and their predecessors the Roundheads, did more to damage these than to defend them.
(2) George Grant, a conservative who recognized that capitalism was not the friend of conservatism, absurdly tried to define socialism this way in Lament for a Nation, showing that even the best of thinkers can be guilty of huge errors. Grant’s mistake arose out of the erroneous assumption that one must be either a capitalism or a socialist.
(3) I am not saying that everything that is objectionable in environmentalism can be traced back to its strange alliance with socialism. Volumes could be written, and have been written for that matter, about the influence of neo-pagan, earth and nature worship, on the Green movement. Further, for about seventy years now environmentalist thinking about the limits of natural resources has been informed by neo-Malthusianism. Back in the nineteenth century, the Reverend T. Robert Malthus had warned that the human population was growing at a much higher rate than was food production and that if not corrected this would lead to poverty, war, etc. He advocated correction that was consistent with Christian ethics, such as chastity before marriage and postponing marriage until one could afford to raise a family on his means. The neo-Malthusianism, favoured since the 1950s by United Nations environmental agencies, the Club of Rome, secular ecological groups, and alarmists like Dr. Paul Ehrlich, reworked Malthus’ theory into a prophecy of imminent, global, ecological collapse, not unlike the climate change alarmists’ doomsday scenario, and proposed solutions that the Rev. Malthus would have found ethically repugnant – forced sterilization, mandatory artificial birth control, abortion, quotas on family size, etc. Thus, the whole objectionable “culture of death” aspect of environmentalism which can be attributed to this neo-Malthusianism, was present even in the writings of such dissident ecologists as the late Dr. Garrett James Hardin, who had been Professor of Human Ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and who was otherwise a refreshing voice of sanity in an increasingly mad environmentalist movement. He defied the environmentalist mainstream in such articles as “The Tragedy of the Commons”, Science, 1968, and his unfortunately subtitled “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor”, Psychology Today, 1974. In the former he made the Aristotelean case that private ownership is the right choice for the conservation of resources and that collective ownership combined with universal, egalitarian access is the recipe for ecological disaster. In the latter he opposed the mainstream, environmentalist, tendency to think on a global scale and urged countries to focus on their own, national ecosystems, arguing for the metaphor of hundreds of lifeboats adrift on the sea rather than the “Spaceship earth” metaphor preferred by most environmentalists, and applied this by arguing against mass immigration and foreign aid. This year, a fifteenth anniversary edition of Ronald Wright’s 2004 Massey Lectures series, A Short History of Progress, was published. The original edition came out a year after Dr. Hardin left us, and in these lectures Wright made all of the mistakes which Hardin had avoided, as well as all of the ones he had not, thus tainting what might otherwise have been a valuable look at the problems human civilization can cause for itself, through the shortsighted pursuit of technological progress. Perhaps a new edition of Dr. Hardin’s Living Within Limits, Stalking the Wild Taboo, or The Ostrich Factor would be more in order.
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