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Paul Vallely: Conservatives, the green party?

06 October 2017

Paul Vallely reports on an exchange of views at the conference in Manchester


IN HIS book The Soul Of The World (Princeton University Press, 2014), Sir Roger Scruton wrote that “environmental consciousness” had “a religious memory at the heart of it”. I was hoping that the philosopher would develop that notion in a fringe meeting, “Conservatism and the Environment”, at this week’s Conservative Party Conference.

Many Conservatives assume that there is a philosophical incompatibility between a free-market approach to economics and care for the environment, the editor of The Spectator, Fraser Nelson, suggested, to kick the meeting off. Sir Roger proposed the opposite: care for the environment was a fundamental part of a Conservative view of the world. Love of one’s country included a love for the land. The idea that there was a conflict between short-term consumerist interests and long-term environmental concerns was misguided, he said.

The MP and junior Minister Jesse Norman agreed on both pragmatic and idealistic grounds. Conservatives, he said, had a good practical record here: Edward Heath had first set up the Department of the Environment; Margaret Thatcher had responded to the threat to the ozone layer by taking action on CFCs; as long ago as 1987, Andrew Sullivan had called for better stewardship of the country’s natural resources in a seminal document called Greening the Tories; and the current Government was taking action on air quality.

Society, the eminent 18th-century conservative thinker Edmund Burke said, was a partnership between the living, the dead, and those as yet unborn. Evil results followed when you hand over the environment to a single generation. Conservatism involved the balancing of priorities between generations.

The event was sponsored by Coca-Cola, whose PR man suggested that many green initiatives were good for the bottom line. Cutting the amount of plastic in its bottles reduced energy and transport costs. The firm was now talking about putting a cash deposit on plastic bottles to encourage their return.

So far so good. But there are clearly areas that are not win-win, and where government action, of the kind that many Conservatives instinctively dislike, is needed. All manufacturers use different components for their bottles. All local authorities have different systems of recycling. Government regulation for standardisation may be needed.

There were three ways of changing behaviour, Mr Norman suggested: by economics, by law, and by cultural pressures. What about moral arguments, one questioner asked from the floor: money was not the only bottom line. Down the road from the Conference, the Tory council in Trafford recycles only plastics from which it can make a profit. Other recyclable plastics are excluded from its bins. Yet recycling should not just be about profit-making, but also about environmental duty.

Absent from all the discussion was any notion of the religious memory at the heart of environmental consciousness. Pope Francis, of course, had that at the core of his 2015 eco-encyclical Laudato Si’ (News, 26 June 2015). Conservative environmentalists might well accept his analysis of the worrying despoliation of the planet by our careless consumerism — although many would be uncomfortable with the papal conclusion that this is deeply rooted in the callous and exploitative character of much contemporary capitalism. Perhaps that is why, when the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, spoke later that day, the main conference hall was half empty.



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