Over the last forty years, conservatism has become synonymous with neo-liberal efficiency, and frequently overlooked is the strong commitment to environmentalism which conservatism can entail. In the most straightforward sense of the term, ‘conservatism’ equates preservation and conservation; the environment must be no exception.
The initial political obstacle environmentalism faces is that it’s framed as a left-wing issue. Conservative thinkers regularly note the symptoms of the left wing argument; citing capitalist oppressors, an exploited victim, and of course young supporters. Not only is the framing of environmentalism rooted in the left-wing, its solutions stem from socialist thought. Indeed, central to current efforts to tackle the matter globally is the role of the state, clear through initiatives from banning bottled war, to the great wind turbines towering over British countryside (despite producing little energy and destroying picturesque landscapes). Purely state-led solutions pose a threat to liberty, as well the market, and thus continually results in failure.
Consequently, there must be a determinedly conservative attempt to re-frame environmentalism, and shift explanations towards decentralisation and market-led solutions. Although there requires a certain degree of legislative framework governing environmental behaviour, this must co-exist with the role of incentives and individual responsibility, which will resolve such problems with greater long-term effect than centralised tools involving bureaucracy and regulation.
Nearly every environmental problem derives from a conflict between a marketed resource (for example, wood) and a non-marketed resource (for example, scenic beauty). In such a conflict, the non-marketed resource loses because managers have no incentive to protect such resources, and thus the non-marketed resource becomes the victim. If more resources were marketed, there would be greater incentive for their preservation.
Private ownership, too, will confer responsibility for the environment. Well-maintained property increases its worth, and private owners generally take care not to spoil their land. This protection functions even when owners only consider themselves, since at first signs of poor stewardship (e.g. indications of land erosion) the value of the property declines. However, where property rights are non-existent, ill-defined, or unenforceable, there will be no owner to insist on protection. Rather than abandoning private management in favour of direct governmental control, however, we should attempt to establish accountability (along with the freedom and incentive to innovate) by establishing or strengthening property rights.
The history behind the conservative commitment to preservation is of course readily available. Debates about the rights of the living and the rights of past and future generations are embroiled in the revolutionary philosophy of the eighteenth century. Edmund Burke, widely venerated as the father of conservatism emphasised the need to preserve and sustain our ways of life for future generations, making an obvious connection between the lifestyle of the past, present and future. Thomas Jefferson, while opposing Burke on numerous grounds, conceded the importance of living in such a way as to sustain our environment for the future. Such conservative philosophy remains useful for our perspective today, when supporting environmental movements generally entails joining a militant pressure group or signing a worthless petition.
However, contemporary debates surrounding conservation, for instance, are more controversial than at first glance. Unprecedented levels of immigration and an ever expanding population are primary factors in the shortage of housing we see at the moment and add yet another dimension to the environmental question. Britain will need to build three cities the size of Birmingham to end the national shortage, and cities require space. Such considerations pose an awkward conflict for Labour and Green Party members, who want to continue mass immigration, welcome all refugees, and simultaneously promote sustainable living, and preserve the green space of UK. Unfortunately, an expanding population by any means will see a greater strain and irreversible effects on national resources, and suddenly the environmental question becomes entangled in the political mess the UK faces, of the absence of mature debate on immigration.
While the issue remains prevalent across the globe, we must not be tempted to fall into state-led solutions since they appear the most obvious. Environmentalism is not an inherently left-wing issue and although it is currently framed as such, there must be continuous efforts to seek decentralized market led solutions.