Green all the way through

Greens risk being seen as ‘watermelons’ — green on the outside but red on the inside — says David McKnight. By attaching themselves to the struggle for trade union rights and radical egalitarianism they are playing into the hands of critics who see them as just another branch of the anti-capitalist left.

McKnight joins a number of recent thinkers including Anthony Giddens and John Gray who argue that the most persuasive arguments for environmentalism are conservative ones. "At its heart" says McKnight "the shared ground between conservatism and green ideas is in scepticism towards ever-increasing progress."

Philosophical conservatism and green political philosophy are both deeply sceptical about the link between reason and progress. According to conservatives, the rationalist conceit is that reason and science enable human beings to understand how the world works, while technology allows them to control it — the idea that science and technology allow us to imagine and create the future we want. Sceptics argue that change is inherently risky and human societies need to place their faith in institutions, traditions and ecosystems whose workings they don’t understand — systems which have proven their value through experience.

Conservative anti-rationalists usually support some form of the precautionary principle. A green version declares that:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.

As economist John Quiggin has realised, the precautionary principle can’t be quarantined to environmental policy. Quiggin argues that the principle applies equally to government decision making about war and to social policy. As I’ve argued in an earlier post:

Environmentalism has changed the way leftists think about government led social change. Like the natural environment, the social environment is complex and poorly understood. With their oversimplified models, reformers accept serious risk because they don’t see it. Lack of understanding makes them overconfident.

What many on the left haven’t realised is that Friedrich Hayek’s objections to state planning take the same form. According to Hayek, it is impossible for policy makers to replace markets with planning because planners can’t get hold of the information they need in order to do their job properly. Like an ecosystem, market institutions have evolved slowly over time. Just as we need to live with nature, we need to live with markets. Given the world’s current population, there is no alternative.

Yale University’s James C Scott argues that a combination of overconfidence in simplified models combined with the coercive state has led both social and ecological disasters. In his book Seeing like a State, Scott suggests four very conservative rules of thumb for policy makers:

  1. Take small steps: Given that we can’t know the consequences of interventions, it’s best to "take a small step, stand back, observe, and then plan the next small move."
  2. Favour reversibility: "Prefer interventions that can easily be undone if they turn out to be mistakes."
  3. Plan on surprises: "Choose plans that allow the largest accommodation to the unforeseen."
  4. Plan on human inventiveness: "Always plan under the assumption that those who become involved in the project later will have or will develop the experience and insight to improve on the design."

Like Scott’s followers, many thinkers on the left have lost their faith in socialist planning and Keynesian demand management. At the same time they have become less confident about the idea of moral and cultural progress. The cosmopolitan left is less keen on using enlightenment rationalism to slash and burn traditional cultures. After all, a culture is easier to destroy than it is to rebuild.

Applying environmental principles to social institutions raises the possibility that forcing Western cultural forms on other people’s societies might be like introducing rabbits and cane toads to the Australian environment. In the colonies, converting Indigenous populations to Christianity and teaching them a new Western way of life hasn’t never been as successful as it should have been. Perhaps efforts to radically reform our own society might be equally risky.

While these ideas have leftists thinking about the merits of conservative philosophy, it hasn’t created a new political alliance. Most practicing Anglo-sphere conservatives don’t look at the world in this way. They see only the advantages of their own culture and institutions — everything else they’re likely to condemn as immoralism and relativism. And in many cases, the parts of their culture they are eager to conserve are exactly the parts greens are most sceptical about. After all, what could be more authentically Western than enlightenment liberalism? As Andrew Norton at Catallaxy puts it "can you really see Opus Dei co-operating with lesbian tree-huggers?"

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[…] Hayward argues that "conservatives have overreacted to … radical-sounding tendencies in conventional environmentalism" and that they need to take environmental problems seriously. "Policy progress works best in the country when the two parties, and left and right, compete over an issue" he says. So maybe David Cameron is on the right track after all. More from me at Club Troppo, along with links to Andrew Norton, John Quiggin and The View from Benambra. […]

Nicholas Gruen
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago


There was a period during which some traditional conservatives took on ‘economic rationalism’. John Carroll and Robert Manne were involved in the publication of ‘Shutdown’. Manne has now pretty much disowned that lamentable project of his, though his own contributions were pretty OK, as they did not – like Carroll’s propose particular policies like higher tariffs. (I’m speaking from memory here and may have to be corrected).

Manne’s gripe was the arrogance of economists in the way they pursued the debate – a charge that I think he demonstrated well in the pieces of his that I read at the time.

I still think environmentalism figures in the political psyche as a kind of ‘negative’. It’s a shadow of progress and that’s its psychological and ideological role. Thus we see ‘the economy and the environment’ as opposites. There’s something quite powerful going on psychologically, but I don’t think it stands up too well to scrutiny. it’s pretty unhelpful.