Conservatism and environmentalism

This leafy wilderness is getting crowded. Andrew Sullivan’s fully in, it seems.

Of course, to some extent, the environment involves a public good that only the state can regulate… It’s foolish to deny this. What traditional conservatives can uniquely bring, however, is a way of improving environmental policy to embrace more market-friendly structures, and a better appreciation of how the private sector is most likely to come up with new energy sources. There’s a fruitful right-left synthesis here if we can all grow up and find it.

Sullivan’s inspired by this thoughtful essay by the arch-conservative Briton Roger Scruton in The American Conservative, warning about the dangers of leaving the whole field of environmental policy to the nannyish Left. Scruton:

A revival of trusteeship is the only hope for the future, and this attitude is natural to human beings. They enter the world through no choice of their own, to be greeted, as a rule, by the love of parents and the security of home. The trustee is the one who recognizes that his home, and all that it means, are inherited things, things to be safeguarded and passed on. This attitude exercises itself at the local level in the voluntary associations and small institutions of civil society.

This is a lovely passage and I admire and respect the sentiment, though I find it a little too mystical for my sensibility. Nor am I necessarily concerned about large-scale solutions, as long as they’re simple and rules-based. A carbon tax, whatever the implementation problems, is an example of a large-scale policy that requires the clout of a national government to implement properly.

Indeed, emphasizing local responses could be ineffective in dealing with a global problem. I see challenges like climate change as essentially economic, in that polluting the air, for instance, means taking something that doesn’t belong to you — somebody else’s clean air — and using it up.

When you’re making rules governing economic behaviour, the broader the application, the better. They should be few, but strong and applied equally to everybody. Free international trade, buttressed by firm and clear securities laws of wide application, are good examples of broad rules that lay the groundwork for individuals to pursue their own prosperity. If rules on emitting carbon need to be laid atop them, so be it.

In that sense, I do share Scruton’s sense of the central challenge:

The real cause of the environmental problems we face is not so much large private enterprises or the pursuit of profit or even capitalism as such. It is the habit we all have of externalizing our costs. Consider air travel. If somebody offers you cheap flights, you will take them rather than the more expensive flights offered by a company that puts some of its profits into rectifying the environmental damage caused by airplanes. This is human nature: we try to ignore the damage done by our unnecessary journeys by air if someone else bears the cost of them.

But after addressing that central challenge, rather than taking local authorities, and civic institutions and civil society groups to be the next-most important actors, I think it’s up to individuals to adjust. And once they do, however they do it, so be it.

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