Environmentalism is dead. Long live the environment

Tom Sadler 7 February 2008

I confess to say that I’m more than a little perplexed by all the different things people say we should do to protect the environment. Are wind turbines really giant bird blenders? Is nuclear power the answer to our energy problems? Will a tax on plastic bags reduce pollution? Every political party has a different set of policies, but each claims to be the sole saviour of the environment. They can’t all be, can they? Even David Cameron’s Conservatives have come round to the idea. As a voter who thinks that global climate catastrophe is a bad thing, I’m somewhat confused as to whom I should give my support. I also have to raise this question: if we all now agree that climate change is a problem, why are there still climate change campaigners?

Environmentalism is defined (by Wikipedia of course) as ‘the preservation, restoration or improvement of the natural environment’, but there is no such tight definition of what exactly this ‘natural environment’ is. It seems to me that everybody is at liberty to choose their own definition, and which aspects of it they would like to preserve, restore or improve. People’s choices show which parts of their current existence are the most important to them. In turn, these priorities must be intimately bound up with the rest of their politics: with what they think of as virtuous behaviour, what they perceive the role of the state to be and how they believe society should be organised.

One cannot just be an environmentalist these days, one has to be something else as well.

For example, one could be a capitalist environmentalist and might wish to preserve every aspect of our energy hungry, consumerist society whilst keeping atmospheric carbon dioxide levels low enough to stave off dramatic climate change. A party with such a view would back nuclear power and liberalise planning laws so that wind turbines could be built quickly but would not ration flying or other energy intensive activities.

A rural social conservative environmentalist on the other hand, would wish to preserve the look and feel of what they think is the best of Britain. This fits in very well with those who have always wished to restore the country to an idealised rural past. As such a past had a small carbon footprint, climate change gives us a new and compelling reason to turn the clock back. The rural idyll is alive and well in modern politics. At a practical level such a person would be very opposed to the building of new towns, however eco-friendly, and particularly to on-shore wind. If what you want to preserve is a country view, what’s the point if you have to cover it with ‘giant bird blenders’ as Cameron called them when he was still on the backbenches.

Similarly, a socialist environmentalist would say that the only answer to the climate challenge necessitates a more equal society. They would distrust the ‘corporate’ aspects of nuclear power and proclaim micro-generation to be the best way forward, which coincidentally would empower communities over both individuals and the state.

A libertarian environmentalist would give every individual a limited and tradable ‘right to pollute’. Every product or service would have a carbon ‘price’ attached to it which people would ‘buy’ out of their account. Poor people could sell theirs to rich people who want to turn the heating up in their big houses or take lots of long flights. Of course the necessary government intervention for such a system to operate might be too much for some libertarians.

So every party can in fact claim to have the only way to a low-carbon future. They’re just talking about different futures. There can be no doubt that climate change will cause our society to change, but beware those who use environmental concern to promote the societal change they want anyway, for their own ideological reasons.

And what of the environmental lobby group? Underneath the increasingly thin claim to be just interested in ‘the environment’ all of them have either an implicit or explicit political ideology. I don’t mean to say that they are lying to you on purpose. In most cases they haven’t sat down and planned a hidden agenda, but that isn’t to say that one does not exist within the culture of the organisation.

I hope that by looking at any party or group’s policies in this way you can work out what they really want. The next question of course, is what exactly do you want? What is it that you want to preserve? The choice is yours.

Tom Sadler