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Unlikely Rise of Green Conservatives

This political paradox offers hope for the world

by Jay Walljasper

Published in Ode Magazine


Modern politics is notorious for the way it creates strange new meanings for familiar words. “National security,” for instance, now means attacking distant countries. “Choice,” in American electoral debates, is a secret code for abortion, and “family” signifies fierce opposition to gay rights. “Us,” in the minds of some European political candidates, refers exclusively to white people.

But the word that has undergone the most dramatic transformation at the hands of politicians is “conservative.” It once clearly described a political philosophy devoted to preserving tradition. But powerful leaders around the world now use the term to justify a complete reordering of society according to the wishes of global corporations and radical free-market economists. The merit of these policies is open to discussion, but it seems obvious that this kind of political agenda is anything but conservative.

“It’s no accident that ‘conservative’ and ‘conservation’ are almost the same word,” notes American environmentalist philosopher Bill McKibben. “But what we call conservative today has been captured by something else—the idea that we need economic growth at all costs. That can be ruinous to our environment and our communities.”

That’s the great irony of politics today: The very idea of conservation — conserving the environment, natural resources, energy, a sense of community or anything else—is considered unnecessary, or even a dangerous obstacle to economic progress, by most so-called Conservatives. U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney summed up the prevailing right-wing view when he said, “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis... for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.”

This is what makes the recent turn of events in British politics so fascinating. The Conservative Party, which earned the undying wrath of environmentalists when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, is now trumpeting green issues in an effort to unseat the ruling Labour Party. The new Conservative leader, David Cameron, who assumed power last fall, quotes Gandhi in urging people “to become the change we want to see in the world.” He can be seen riding his bike all over London and plans to add solar panels and a wind turbine to his home in the fashionable Notting Hill neighbourhood. He’s gone so far as to question the dominance of corporate power in the UK, declaring in a recent newspaper ad, “We should not just stand up for big business but to big business.”

While this might sound like some sort of political gimmick, there are signs that Cameron is sincere about pioneering a new brand of “green” conservativism—which could become as globally influential as Thatcher’s free-market policies were in the 1980s. If the environment ceases to become a divisive issue among parties of the left, right and centre around the world, we will see a new flowering of green initiatives.

In a bold stroke, Cameron enlisted Bob Geldof, rock star and prominent anti-poverty advocate, as an advisor on global affairs, and Zac Goldsmith, editor of the The Ecologist magazine, as an environmental advisor.

The Ecologist has been uncompromising in its opposition to corporate globalization, agribusiness, free trade, genetically modified food and big supermarkets—hardly the resume of an up-and-coming player in the Conservative Party. Yet Goldsmith is helping direct a team of party leaders over the next 18 months in creating a new green vision for Conservatives. He’s even been approved by party officials to run for parliament. “If you would have predicted this four or five years ago,” Goldsmith admits. “I would have been really surprised.”

“There are big changes going on about the environment in this country right now,” he explains. “Politics is just now catching up. Fifteen years ago Prince Charles was laughed at when he talked about organic food. Now you have half the people in this country buying organic food for their children. Businesses like [the huge retailer] Marks %amp% Spencer are really raising the bar on the issues we’re covering in The Ecologist. Very detailed market research is telling them this is what customers want.”

Goldsmith plans to press four themes in drafting the new conservative platform on green issues: energy efficiency; local food; less dependence on foreign oil; and the precautionary principle, which states that a new technology or product cannot be introduced until it’s been proven safe. He believes these are pragmatic goals, which fit right in with Conservative Party values. “They don’t require us to live like monks. They don’t require huge increases in taxes.”

Peter Ainsworth, the Conservative’s new shadow environment minister, vows to address the issue of climate change with policies that conserve energy and promote alternative power sources like solar, wind and wave power. (He hedges on nuclear.) “I do not believe that saving the planet is incompatible with economic progress,” he states. “There are huge commercial opportunities for British companies in these new green industries. We are in danger of missing out on the opportunities.”

John Vidal, who has monitored green politics for many years as environmental editor of Britain’s centre-left Guardian newspaper, notes that, “When you’re not in power, it’s easy to be green. But the Conservatives do have a very, very good environmental team. What happens when they come up against the party’s business interests? We’ll have to wait and see.”

Vidal is quick to add that they’ve already accomplished a lot. “It’s wonderful the effect they’re having on the Labour government. They’re forcing the government to put more into renewable energy and many other things.”

Like Goldsmith, he sees a new wave of green consciousness sweeping Britain, and feels “that business has grabbed this wave more than government. Businesses are really coming up with new initiatives. It’s quite amazing.” That helps explain the unusual phenomenon of a conservative party trying to outflank left and centre parties on environmental issues.

Germany is another place where conservative leaders are rethinking their views on ecological issues. Newly elected chancellor Angela Merkel from the conservative Christian Democrat party has not overturned some of the significant environmental policies enacted by the previous Social Democrat/Green Party coalition although she campaigned against the measures. “The Christian Democrats had attacked head-on government supports for renewable energy and attacked head-on the eco-tax [which imposed a levy on some sources of pollution],” notes Wolfgang Sachs, a leading German environmental thinker and researcher. “But now there’s a consensus that you need to support the environment and renewable energy. The Christian Democrats understand that.”

Sachs points out that as a conservative party, Christian Democrats historically were dedicated to preserving family, community and the natural landscape in the face of technological and economic change. (Indeed, Bavaria, the heartland of German conservatism, claims to have established the world’s first government ministry of environmental protection.) But today, Sachs believes, “the Green Party is the contemporary expression of that kind of conservative politics.”

He notes that recent elections in the German state of Baden-Württemberg nearly produced an unprecedented governing alliance between Christian Democrats and Greens. But efforts to forge a coalition of old- and new-style “conservatives” failed in the end, because of pressure from loyal activists in both camps who distrusted the other party. “It’s a bit of a pity,” Sachs remarks. “I think it could have been a trial run for society.”

This green wave among conservative politicians has yet to cross the Atlantic. Canada’s newly elected Conservative Party prime minister Stephen Harper campaigned against the country’s continued participation in the Kyoto agreement on global climate change, and U.S. president George W. Bush has opposed nearly every environmental initiative that has come his way. But U.S. Senator John McCain—who many see as the Republican frontrunner for the 2008 election—is making global warming into a campaign issue although he hasn’t embraced most other green issues. Many evangelical Christians—probably the most loyal Republican voters in recent elections—are also questioning the party’s inaction on climate change. Eighty-six leading evangelical leaders, including presidents of 39 Christian colleges and best-selling author Rick Warren (The Purpose-Driven Life) signed a statement endorsing government action to establish limits on greenhouse-gas emissions.

There are further stirrings that some rank-and-file conservative voters may be thinking twice about the Republicans’ stubborn indifference to environmental issues. Rod Dreher, a former editor at the right-wing magazine National Review and now an editorial writer at the Dallas Morning News, says, “Environmental concerns are a family value here in north Texas. The Republican leadership is all on board with the agenda of cleaning up the air. They can see how much pollution is costing us. One of them told me about how he went to his granddaughter’s soccer game, and half the kids had to run to the sidelines to use their asthma inhalers.”

Dreher chronicles the unlikely rise of a grassroots green conservative movement in his book Crunchy Cons (Crown Forum, 2006). “Crunchy cons,” according to Dreher, are self-avowed conservatives who have some concerns in common with lefties, such as a suspicion of consumerism, large corporations and TV, as well as an affinity for organic food, animal rights, nature, historic preservation, small-is-beautiful thinking and a clean environment. These people tend to be deeply religious—opposed to abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage—and firm in their belief that neither Republicans nor Democrats speak for them.

“It’s not easy being a green conservative,” he writes, “but if we conservatives want to be true to our principles, we have to move in that direction.”

In their own way, the emergence of evangelical environmentalists and crunchy cons in America could be as significant as the greening of conservative parties in Europe. Political changes in the U.S. tend to arise first in social movements (think of the civil rights, environmental or anti-abortion movements) and only later get picked up by political parties. The right wingers in Birkenstocks and soccer granddads that Dreher writes about could lead to the greening of the Republican Party, a large-scale defection to the Democrats or perhaps a whole new political configuration. In any case, a growing force of activists spanning the political spectrum (and the world) who are working to clean up the environment means new hope for Mother Earth.