In the context of modern political thought, one of ecologism's signal and novel contributions is the idea that our natural condition affects and constrains our political condition. This is to say that - following on from the last remark in the previous section - our condition as human animals constrains us in ways similar to those experienced by all animals. There are differences, of course. Human animals are able to construct plans for life and strategies for realizing them in ways that most, if not all, other animals are incapable of doing. It is this capacity for autonomous thought and action on which liberal thought focuses, as we saw in the previous section, and this view of the human condition dominates contemporary politics.
Political ecologists do not reject this view entirely, but they do recommend that it be tempered by a hard-headed look at our natural circumstances. The lesson of the limits to growth thesis, as we saw in Chapter 3, is that human beings - like any other animal - have to consume natural resources, and that given that these resources are limited, human projects such as open-ended economic growth are impossible to sustain. In this regard, ecologism taps into a tradition that is closer to the conservative than the liberal sensibility. Thomas Malthus, for example, famous for his An Essay on the Principle of Population (1792), is widely regarded as contributing to the conservative tradition - largely due to his belief in 'the limits to social progress imposed by man's place in nature' (Wells, 1982, p. 2).
The intellectual history of the past two hundred years is littered with thinkers who have questioned the idea of progress as understood by modernity, but ecologism's reluctance to endorse modernity's notion of progress is not based on 'some view of the cyclic growth and degeneration of civilizations', nor on 'objections based on a philosophical and epistemological opposition to the notion of a "scientific" history' (as in rejections of the Marxist notion of progress), but on a 'particular vision of man's relationship to the physical and biological world: what could be called "the ecological viewpoint" ' (Wells, 1982, p. 3). This viewpoint is animated by the fundamentally conservative thought that 'the basic political question - "what should be done?" - depends on an account of what can be done' (ibid., p. 15). Conservatives generally oppose the Enlightenment view that humans can control their environment, and while political ecologists obviously have to believe that a modicum of control is possible, they will probably agree that human beings' determination to 'interfere' with nature is a part cause of our environmental problems. As Gray graphically puts it: 'Most people today think they belong to a species that can be master of its own destiny. This is faith, not science' (Gray, 2002, p. 3).
In ecologism, this account of what can be done turns on an understanding of human beings' place in nature. Moreover, the guiding idea of political ecology is that this is an ecological place rather than an evolutionary place, with all the implications that this entails. Most particularly, the ecological view talks of 'climax states' of relative stability, while the evolutionists' motif is that of 'progress'. Malthus' ecological view was superseded by that of Darwin and Wallace, whose ideas were grasped with alacrity by progressive thinkers such as Marx, who:
welcomed the new biological outlook and the support it gave to an evolutionary - and by implication, progressive - view of human society. The idea of general, and perhaps unlimited, progress so strongly attacked by Malthus had been restored as a dominant theme in social and political theory.
With the restoration of the ecological idea in politics, battle with the evolutionary view of political progress has once again been joined.
Luke Martell has summarized the connections between radical green and conservative thinking in the following way:
Some greens urge humans to be more humble and accommodating before nature, adapting to its laws and rhythms and putting less emphasis on exercising control over their environment and manipulating it to their own advantage. They are often sceptical and critical of Enlightenment ideas about the capacity of human rationality and the commitment to progress and innovation.
These are all recognizably conservative notions, and each one amounts to useful ammunition for those who would claim that ecologism and conservatism are fundamentally similar ideologies.
So similar, indeed, that a sustained attempt has been made by John Gray, sometime supporter of Thatcherite liberal conservatism but now an advocate of a more sceptical conservatism, to appropriate political ecology for the conservative cause (Gray, 1993b). Roger Scruton is another who argues that 'conservatism and environmentalism are natural bedfellows' (Scruton, 2006, p. 8), and he - like Gray - asks us not to equate conservatism with 'the ideology of free enterprise, and free enterprise as an assault on the earth's resources' (Scruton, 2006, p. 7). So, just as there are many liberalisms so there are many conservatisms, and some are more 'compatible' with environmental thought than others. Gray urges us to reject 'the self-image of the Greens as inheritors of the radical protest movements of earlier times, and as making common cause with contemporary radical movements, such as feminism and anti-colonialism' (ibid., p. 124). On the contrary, 'Far from having a natural home on the Left, concern for the integrity of the common environment, human as well as ecological, is most in harmony with the outlook of traditional conservatism of the British and European varieties' (ibid.; and see Scruton, 2006), and:
Many of the central conceptions of traditional conservatism have a natural congruence with Green concerns: the Burkean idea of the social contract, not as agreement among anonymous ephemeral individuals, but as a compact between the generations of the living, the dead and those yet unborn; Tory scepticism about progress, and awareness of its ironies and illusions; conservative resistance to untried novelty and large-scale social experiments; and, perhaps most especially, the traditional conservative tenet that individual flourishing can occur only in the context of forms of common life.
To these similarities, Gray adds the observation that 'both Greens and conservatives consider risk-aversion the path of prudence when new technologies, or new social practices, have consequences that are large and unpredictable, and, most especially, when they [sic] are unquantifiable but potentially catastrophic risks associated with intervention' (Gray, 1993b, p. 137). This is the Greens' 'precautionary principle' for decision-making in all but name - widely advocated in recent debates regarding the experimental planting of genetically modified crops, and supported by many political conservatives. Scruton sees a related link between environmental thinking and conservatism in the idea of the 'maintenance of the social ecology' (Scruton, 2006, p. 8). By this he means the duty of the current generation to pass on our social and ecological inheritance - of which we are the 'temporary trustees' (ibid.). He also believes that there is a link between the idea of local loyalties that is present in some conservative thinking, and the localism of much of the green agenda. 'There is no evidence that global political institutions have done anything to limit global entropy', he writes (ibid., p. 16). Thus he finds it surprising that greens have not followed their localism to its logical conclusion: i.e. the conservative view that we 'must retain what we can of the loyalties that attach us to our territory, and make of that territory a home' (ibid.). Conservatives are suspicious of cosmopolitan rootlessness, and suspicious of it when they see it in green globalists such as George Monbiot (2004). Scruton makes the point that rooted localism should appeal to greens on the grounds that it solves the 'motivation problem': that of finding a non-egotistic motive which may be elicited in ordinary members of society and relied upon to serve the long-term ecological goal (Scruton, 2006, p. 13).
The evidence for congruence between radical political ecology and conservatism, then, seems strong, but there are a number of areas where the relationship is severely strained, and others still where it cannot be said to exist at all. We can begin with Gray's 'traditional conservative tenet that individual flourishing can occur only in the context of forms of common life' (Gray, 1993b, p. 124), and that this is an idea shared by 'Green theory' (ibid., p. 136). But just what is this 'common life', and is it the same for political ecologists and for conservatives? From a conservative point of view, Gray says that people's 'deepest need is a home, a network of common practices and inherited traditions that confers on them the blessing of a settled identity' (ibid., p. 125). The common life of which he speaks is therefore defined in primarily historical and cultural terms as expressed through tradition. There are indeed radical greens for whom culture and history are very important. Some of the resistance to road-building programmes, for instance, is based on a belief in the cultural significance of features of the land which are destroyed by building contractors. My own view, though, is that valuing 'nature' in the currency of 'culture' in this way is precisely what distances conservative defences of nature from political-ecological ones. The political ecologist sees value in nature in itself, and if this value derives from history at all, it is natural history that counts, and not human history in the form of tradition and culture.
This is as much as to say that the 'common life' of which radical greens speak is an ontological and moral one that crosses species boundaries. It is important for Gray that common cultural, conservative forms:
cannot be created anew for each generation. We are not like the butterfly, whose generations are unknown to each other; we are a familial and historical species, for whom the past must have authority (that of memory) if we are to have identity.
But the moral and ontological common life of political ecologists can be created anew for each generation through the intellectual effort of grounding inter-species responsibility in a thoroughgoing naturalism that recognizes the implications of our being human animals.
Thus the ecocentrism of radical greenery sets it apart from conservatism just as it sets it apart from all other modern political ideologies. The only time Gray mentions anthropocentrism, the bête noire of the political ecologist, is in the following context: 'Green theory is an invaluable corrective of the Whiggish, anthropocentric, technological optimism by which all the modernist political religions are animated' (Gray, 1993b, p. 175). There is no evidence adduced, though, to suggest that traditional conservatism is anything other than as irredeemably anthropo-centric as other political ideologies. Where conservative defences of the non-human natural world exist, they are usually rooted in romanticism rather than in an appreciation of the independent moral standing of non-human beings that animates much radical green thought.
The second point at which we should interrogate Gray's agenda is on the apparently unassailable point regarding intergenerational relations. It is true that conservatism, unlike any other political ideology with the exception of contemporary liberalism, talks of 'a compact between the generations of the living, the dead and those yet unborn' (Gray, 1993b, p. 124), and that intergenerational responsibility is a crucial feature of the political-ecological agenda. Edmund Burke, the 'father of British conservatism' whom Gray paraphrases here, and whom Roger Scruton also recognizes as a potential source of inspiration for greens (Scruton, 2006, p. 10), puts it like this:
one of the first and most leading principles on which the commonwealth and the laws are consecrated, is lest the temporary possessors and life-renters in it, unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if they were the entire masters; that they should not think it amongst their rights to cut off the entail, or commit waste on the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society; hazarding to leave to those who come after them, a ruin instead of an habitation - and teaching these successors as little to respect their contrivances as they had themselves respected the institutions of their forefathers. By this unprincipled facility of changing the state as often, and as much, and in as many ways as there are floating fancies or fashions, the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than the flies of a summer.
What is striking about these remarks is that the generations in which Burke is most interested are past generations - those from whom we inherit what we have and to whom we owe some obligation of preservation. The green view of intergenerational obligation is rather different to this: most obviously, the generations that usually interest political ecologists are future generations. One thing the current generation can be sure of, they say, is that our actions will affect the conditions under which future people live their lives, and this generates a responsibility for us of which other political ideologies have no conception. Conservatism is interested in the conserving and preserving of the past; ecologism is interested in conserving and preserving for the future. Herein lies a signal difference between the conservative and ecological political imaginations. (Political ecologists might do well to bear in mind, though, Burke's aphoristic warning that 'People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their forefathers' (Burke, 1790/1982, p. 119).)
The third difference between conservatism and ecologism is rooted in disputes about the nature and relevance of 'imperfection'. It is a conservative commonplace that human beings are irredeemably flawed in their nature, and that political aspirations should reflect this. This is to say that political projects aimed at perfecting society will founder on the rock of unalterable human shortcomings and weaknesses. In this regard, political aspirations need to be drawn up within well-defined limits. As we have seen, the language of limits is the language of ecologism as well as of conservatism:
The earth is finite. Growth of anything physical, including the human population and its cars, buildings and smokestacks, cannot continue forever.. . . The limits to growth are limits to the ability of the planetary sources to provide those streams of materials and energy, and limits to the ability of the planetary sinks to absorb the pollution and waste.
Gray refers to sentiments of this sort as evidence of an anti-Utopian sensibility that is common to both conservatism and ecologism (Gray, 1993b, p. 127). Burkean conservatism and political ecology (as I have been describing it) seem to be as one in their opposition to the hubristic carelessness expressed in Utopian talk of 'indefinite malleability'. The anti-Utopian's principal target, says Krishan Kumar, is hubris (Kumar, 1987, p. 103), and so is the political ecologist's. If Utopians believe uncompromisingly that '[T]here are no fundamental barriers or obstacles to man's earthly perfection [and that] scarcity can be overcome' (Kumar, 1991, p. 29), then the gap between Utopians and political ecologists is as wide as it can be: scarcity is the most basic and unalterable feature of the human condition so far as political ecologists are concerned (for a full and entertaining analysis of the relationship between Utopianism and political ecology, see De Geus, 1999). So, Utopianism demands malleability, and political ecology's interpretation of the human condition denies its possibility. Does this apparent opposition to Utopianism imply a deep congruence between conservatism and ecologism?
I think not. The crucial and relevant distinction here is between malleability of the human condition and the malleability of human nature. It is perfectly possible to believe that the human condition is fixed, while human nature is not, and this is indeed what political ecologists believe. Political ecologists do not possess the 'pessimistic and determinist view of human nature' which is common to conservatives and anti-Utopians (Kumar, 1987, p. 100); nor do they believe in 'original sin'
(ibid.), if by this we mean unredeemable sin. Tim Hayward believes that 'one cannot reasonably assume that people are generally motivated to do other than what they take to be in their own interest' (Hayward, 1998, p. 7), and proceeds to build his own environmental political theory on the foundations of a reinterpretation of human self-interest that will include respect for '(at least some significant classes of) nonhuman beings' (ibid., p. 118). What makes this an environmental political theory rather than an ecological one is its basis in human self-interest, but political ecologists will also refuse the belief that self-interest itself is the only credible, or possible, human motivation. Thus while political ecologists believe that there are (more or less) fixed limits to production, consumption and waste, they have a Utopian sense of what is possible within those limits. Unlike conservatives, radical greens believe that human beings are capable of transformation; that they can, if they wish, abandon the acquisitive, instrumental and use-related relationship with the natural environment that dominates the modern imagination.
Acutely, John Gray observes that what he calls 'green conservatism' is an instance of an:
ancient paradox, with which the modern world abounds in examples, that conservatives cannot help becoming radicals, when current practice embodies the hubristic and careless projects of recent generations, or has been distorted by technological innovations whose consequences for human well-being have not been weighed.
In the current environmental climate conservatives may well find themselves opposed to much of the status quo, but radical conservatives are not the same as radical greens, and on at least the three counts discussed above the gap between the conservative and radical green agenda so far as the environment is concerned is wide and deep.
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