Green is not red, but blue: environmentalism and the mystery of right wing opposition

Conservatives are rightly suspicious of environmentalists.   By 1992,  with Reagan, Thatcher and the end of the Cold War, socialism and left wing thinking appeared to be dead.  Conservatism was triumphant and left of centre parties all around the world shifted heavily to the right to compensate, occupying positions that would have looked centrist or moderately right wing 10 years previously.  This left true socialists and left wingers out in the cold, looking for a reason to exist. Conveniently, the  emerging ozone hole crisis of the mid / late 1980s gave them an outlet for their energies: environmentalism.

To many socialists, environmentalism appeared to need solutions that socialists had developed previously: big problems requiring big governmental responses; paternalism, where government intervention was needed to stop business from engaging in activities that hurt citizens; and wealth redistribution where big ozone, and then CO2, emitting countries provided aid and credits to smaller countries.  Like Athena born fully armed from Zeus’ forehead, environmentalism was born armed with the all the tools necessary to thrive out of the intellectual forehead of socialism.

Up until the early 2000s, conservative thinking was so dominant and successful that it not only absorbed left wing political parties, such as Labour under Blair and the Democrats under Clinton, that the socialist attributes of environmentalism could be ignored.  The use of conservative “market based mechanisms” such as cap and trade for ozone management, emissions trading schemes for carbon dioxide reduction and renewable obligation certificates for clean energy production made the big government interventions and wealth redistribution of environmentalism palatable.

Over the last six years, however, conservatism has been on the defensive.  It no longer appears to be providing the solutions that we need and many of its policies have been actively destructive.  The interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven horrifically expensive in terms of money and resources; the credit bubble of the 2000s burst resulting in a great recession and hundred billion dollar bail outs of the great bastions of conservatism – financial institutions; waves of outsourcing in the early 2000s has resulted in the sudden rise of developing nations, such as nominally socialist China, that are proving better at free trade than the West.

In this increasingly negative atmosphere, environmentalism seems to be a luxury that we can no longer afford.  And worse, in the absence of a general feeling of conservative success, the socialist roots of environmentalism are more exposed.  This makes the sector an attractive diversionary target for conservatives seeking to shift public attention away from costly wars, financial bail outs and unemployment.

So where does this leave us for the future?

First, the socialist capture of environmentalism, red becoming green, was a historical accident.  There are many aspects of environmentalism that are are conservative.  Under a different historical set of circumstances blue conservatism could have become green.

Second, conservatives need to reclaim environmentalism, which the UK Conservative party initially tried to do prior to the most recent general election in May 2010 where they vowed to be the greenest government ever.  But failed to deliver.

Environmentalism has the following conservative traits:

  1. National security. Renewable energy is generated domestically and does not require us to be linked to external sources for oil and natural gas.  In the European Union an increasing amount of its natural gas supplies comes from Russia, which has proven itself to be unreliable and willing to shut off gas supplies for political reasons, and North Africa and the Middle East, regions that are increasingly unstable.  A country that is dominated by renewables would have very little reason to intervene militarily in other parts of the world.
  2. Energy price stability. Businesses like to fix as many parts of their expendiure as they can in long term agreements.  This reduces the volatility of their expenditures, allowing them to compete on product innovation rather than worry about external events over which they have no control.  Wind and solar power farms are very capital intensive – essentially you are paying for 20-25 years of power up front.  The advantage is that it is possible for a company to lock itself into a stable 20 year power purchase agreement as the sun and wind are free and are not subject to supply and demand price changes.
  3. Employment. Wind farms and solar parks may not require fuel, but they do require maintenance, once built.  They employ more people per MW of production than conventional coal, nuclear and gas power stations and typically do so in rural areas, providing steady employment for rural dwellers, who are typically conservatively inclined,  for decades.
  4. Business innovation.  We are at the start of a major shift in energy production. Coal gave way to oil, oil to gas.  Each time a shift occurs there is an opportunity for companies to be created and dominate the next phase of energy.  The West kick started this shift to renewables, but recent poor policy choices by Western governments is putting this lead under threat with a big shift towards wind and solar manufacturing jobs being created in China.   However, even if most solar panels and wind turbine are built in China, the equipment needs to be installed locally, providing scope for employment and innovation.
  5. Food and water . The downside of global warming will drive innovation in the use of specialist irrigation, water recovery and urban food production as farmland  is stressed by increased temperatures, droughts and floods.
  6. Pension,  insurance  and financial services innovation. The stable, long term, nature of renewable energy products provide great scope for financial service innovation. This is particularly important for providing stable cash flows for insurance and financial services companies.

Finally, conservatism should be about conserving the environment.  Climate change is going to change the environment in unpredictable ways.  Some places will benefit.  It is likely that most will not, with increased floods, droughts and attempts at mass migration causing political, economic and social chaos.

Conservatives need to seize the cloak of environmentalism away from socialists and show that green is not red, but blue.


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  • sam

    The sad fact is that environmentalism, like health care, taxes, and others all should be politically agnostic with the pros and cons discussed on their merits alone and not the political platform that a speaker stands on.

    Look at energy…traditional and renewable. A conservative normally supports increased oil exploration and nuclear because of the a) jobs created, b) energy security and c) it drives the economy.

    A socialist would normally support renewable energy because of the a) jobs created, b) energy security and c) it drives the economy.

    So in effect, we all agree…but we can’t divorce ourselves from our rhetoric to arrive at a sensible solution. And having aid that, we do actually need the extreme left and right to help the vast majority who sit in or close to the middle, listen to the debates and to arrive at a sensible solution

    But to get back to the title of your post and “…The Mystery of Right Wing Opposition”. The title alone assumes that the mystery is on one side of the political spectrum only when in fact the more apt title should be “…The Mystery of Opposition”.

    • tristanfischer

      But this is the problem – environmentalism should be neutral and science based. But it has become an topic similar to evolution vs creationism with the right in the US. Environmentalism’s socialist roots are causing conservatives to look at it with suspicion and they are not looking at the facts on their own merits. If they did, it would be a non issue and they should support it.

  • Conservatives are never libertarians. Conservatives are merely Socialist Party B. Hayek, (who strove but failed to find a constitution of liberty) correctly dedicated the book to ‘the socialists of all parties’.

    Libertarians share the radical notion that other people are not your property. The state gratuitously assumes consent to be forcibly governed and for an individual to be part of ‘society’ where no such consent may exist. Because the majority has decided to employ an agent as their enforcer puts no obligation on the individual to accede. As Joel Bowman says, ‘At the cold dark heart of statism is the evil idea that you do not own yourself. You are the property of others. As such, you are to be governed and taxed in whatever way your would-be owners deem to be in the interests of ‘society’. ‘Free men are not to be trusted with their own lives.

    I oppose environmentalism because behind it are too many people who want world (socialist) government and who cannot tell the difference between a chiff-chaff and a willow warbler. And they all tell gigantic fibs to support their extremely tenuous case! When are they going to give C. Booker a knighthood? The man’s in his eighties for goodness sake. S.

    • Simon,

      Since other people are not your property, the logical deduction at the core of true libertarianism is the concept that we are all completely responsible for all of the harm we do others, whether known or unknown, intentional or unintentional.

      That’s such an impossibly difficult standard to bear, that we all find ourselves asking the State to limit our liability, and so everything from the modern corporation to social welfare schemes have sprung up around the world. Hence Hayeck’s comment about Socialist Party A and Socialist Party B (liberals and conservatives).

      The unfortunate truth is until the day comes when you can achieve a lifestyle that is completely free of all externalities (a condition prohibited by the Laws of Thermodynamics but possibly available to the Citizens of Heaven)your Libertarian fantasies are just that. Unachievable except in part, and the missing parts give rise to the State.

  • Tristan, I have friends who call themselves conservatives who believe in protecting the environment, saving energy, and alternative energy sources. However, they believe that these must be personal choices only. They have a strong aversion to the idea of regulations or increasing the role of government. And their allegiance to corporate interests is almost absolute.

    As a radical and a progressive, I have almost the opposite view. I see the rise of corporate fascism around the world as the biggest threat to our individual freedoms and the greatest enemy to environmentalism and intelligent energy policy. Corporate lobbying has a lock on the U.S. Congress and is preventing progress. Adam Smith’s ideas only make sense if you can wait indefinitely (time is irrelevant) and that correction can actually be achieved. The environment is the one area where this is not true. We cannot wait, and the damage can be irreversible.

    I see the emerging green economy as our only opportunity for a robust, prosperous and sustainable economy where there is opportunity for all. So becoming rich and enjoying a better quality of life (with clean air and water) are totally compatible with this view. I will be happy if we ever see a shift in government regulations and a decline in corporate control in order to get there because those are the very obstacles holding us back. But I do not see the relevance of socialism at all.

    The problem with the conservative movement in the U.S. is that in the face of their repeated failures both environmental and economic, they have taken more and more extreme positions. At this point, anything that is pro environment is considered anti business. If they would stop worshiping big business and the wealthy elite, they could embrace environmentalism and we could certainly find common ground and move forward.
    Posted by Michael Holster, PE, LEED AP

    • tristanfischer

      I agree that the conservative movement in the US has taken a more extreme position on many items, to the extent that they are almost bizarre. They need to move back towards the centre, whilst retaining some of their right of centre views. Extreme positions on either side of the divide do not help anyone.

    • Michael,
      My experience with government does not agree with yours. Back in the 1970s, I developed a way to cost effectively recycle the heat rejected from power plants to heat buildings. This is important in New England and the Upper Midwest, where 50% of the source energy used by buildings is used for heating. As I proved later, this same technology can be used for large scale solar heating.

      During the Carter Administration, I tried repeatedly to get some funding to work on this technology. The electric utility industry at the time was highly regulated, and as a result, risk averse. I even asked Senator Kennedy’s staff to assist. All I got back from DOE was a letter from a mid level bureaucrat saying: “we prefer to operate by competitive procurement in accordance with established program plans”. Translation, we will take the initiative, and small business with new ideas need not apply. They added insult to injury by sponsoring a marketing trip to the US of Scandinavian district heating equipment manufacturers. No money for an innovative US small business, but marketing subsidies for my foreign competitors.

      Later on, I designed a large scale solar district heating project. Somebody else did the economics, so I am not sure how they worked out. In two tries, the project was not funded. Instead Massachusetts is pushing PV and wind, but ignoring renewable thermal.

      Does my situation go along with your view of the Progressive agenda? In my view, the agenda it goes along with is the one that says that the individual must be subordinated to the State.
      Posted by Robert Timmerman PE, CEM. LEED AP

  • First of all: it’s the sunspots, not auto emissions. That said, green is becoming blue: clean coal, new fracking technology for the tar sands, and better nuclear power/much safer with the new designs. Carbon taxes are being rejected. The public see that carbon trading is simply a tax scheme and income redistribution. I work with alternative energy developers who happen to also be conservatives. Today is here. Fuel cells.
    Posted by Jack Brookner

    • tristanfischer

      I just loved your comment Jack: it contained all of the red flags to tempt a environmentalist bull! The opinions expressed, whether tongue in cheek or not, do represent the view of a lot of people. Right of centre people buy into your story and left of centre buy into wind, solar and battery technologies. The interesting question is why do certain technologies fall down ideological divides?

      • RE: I just loved your comment Jack: it contained all of the red flags to tempt a environmentalist bull! The opinions expressed, whether…
        There are environmentalists on both sides of ideology, but the liberal environmentalists dislike oil and gas as pollutors, and want to substitute any alternative energies for oil and coal. Conservative environmentalists also like clean air and water, but their objective is energy independence, to end the importation of oil from at least the Eastern Hemisphere and then altogether. So we like alternative energy also, but we don’t want to stamp out oil and coal and nuclear altogether, in case we need them.

  • Mark Palmer • The belief that individuals/”corporations” have a responsibility to others and their environment is not socialist in a negative sense. It merely reflects the reality that everyones actions or inactions have consequences on the world around them. There is no freedom to simply do what you want without regard to society or the environment. The Milton Friedman notion that pollution or waste is an externality is an extreme ideology that conveniently alleviates people from taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Belief that individuals can exist without responsibility to others or their environment simply does not match the reality of our physical universe. Every action has consequences. Conservatives who believe God gave us the right to consume or dispose of earth’s resources without constraint are misunderstanding their subordinate role within nature. The rugged individual who does everything all on their own is a type of hero myth that doesn’t exist. We all owe family, friends and ancestors for where we are today as well as a hospitable environment. The term socialist environmental agenda falsely implies that environmental issues are simply personal choice. Ultimately this issue is about humanity first not partisanship.

    • Mark,
      There is difference between “everybody is responsible for the environment”, and “we need regulation to protect the environment”.

      I think it is proper to argue that a “conservative” should conserve the environment as well as conserve ones rights.

      The real problem is putting a price on the externalities, so that everybody has a level playing field. In the case of air pollutants which travel the globe, this is a global problem.

  • I think that injecting politics so heavily into these discussions is a waste of time and energy. Let me see if I can provide an example.

    It is a shame that the liberals have captured environmentalism from the conservatives. Never mind that the libertarians have turned their back. Fascists were always more efficient at doing things. Conservatives have trouble deciding exactly what it is they want to conserve. The darn liberals are into everything now, and they are in danger of being taken over by the socialists! The socialist agenda targets every part of economic life. Beware, or else they will take over your kids’ lemonade stands! Personally I am politicall neutral, but I see economic agendas everywhere! Even if the liberals and progressives claim they are not out to personally benefit, you will always find them sneaking in a stock or bond buy here and there. The conservatives are distancing themselves from the capitalists because of ‘laissez-faire’. Some of them are even moving into environmentalism because that way, they might actually get to ‘conserve’ something real and important! But be careful, because under capitalism, work=freedom … remember the eternal motto of Auschwitz!
    Posted by John Wilmerding

  • The whole Democan vs Republicrat teamsport-framework is tediously obsolete.
    Let those still enamored with it play around until their eventual disillusionment arrives.
    Let those who have outgrown it simply provide it no serious attention or energy.

    Then there is the question of the extent to which the political/governmental/war-machine puppet-show is completely contrived and manipulated at the whim of the Standard-Oil-Hydra.–rob-newman

    The environmentalism “debate” is being conducted by gnats rearranging the hairs on the back of a big black boar rampaging, eating, digging whatever/wherever/whenever it wants.
    Posted by kurt klingbeil

  • Great discussion. I think the original article is interesting in that a superficial detail — identifying the left with “red” and the right with “blue” — demonstrates how quickly the dialogue devolves from assessing the issues and presenting solutions to placing the players into categories that we can name as “good” or “bad” depending upon our perspective.

    Half a century ago, we were concerned with the “Red Threat”; today, those focused on a potential socialist threat appear anachronistic to those of us focused on making changes that will address our very real habitat threat — an effort that includes addressing the externalities noted above, whether through markets or a redress of the public good by government or, most likely, both.

    Ironically, most US citizens associate the conservative Republican party with red and the progressive Democratic party with blue, due to a transition that likely has little to do with anything other than the color of campaign yard signs. Further, our citizens are tend to vilify anything associated with the words “conservative” or “progressive,” although anyone of us should be proud to wear these monikers in the appropriate context.

    So, while we cannot extract our energy or environmental policies from politics, perhaps we can focus our attention on the issues and their solutions. If we bring ALL parties to the table — whether in the neighborhood diner or the halls of Congress — treat each party with respect, listen well to each other, learn and think, and craft solutions that acknowledge and address the concerns of each party (people in attendance, not political parties), we will find ourselves taking action and moving forward on critical problems. And, we’ll likely find that the solutions involve a collaboration of government and business, individuals and organizations, innovation and old truths.

    Who needs red or blue or green? Who cares if we are purple or orange? Let’s just be respectful and focused. Then, one conversation, one step at a time, we’ll get it done.
    Posted by Leslie Martel Baer

  • @thinkprogress With Ryan possibly in the mix, time to look at why some politicians back oil & gas, deny climate change:

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  • I want to protect the environment. The people we have in government do not. At least not enough to prevent graft and corruption. I think that the EPA should be privatized and raise their own funds to take companies to court who skirt the law. We have plenty of laws to protect the environment.
    Posted by Fred Kratt

  • Pingback: Roots: A historical understanding of climate change denial, creationism and slavery – 1629-1775 - History, Future. Now.()

  • Article. Environmentalism has many right wing virtues, so why does the right wing hate environmentalism? Read on.

  • Green is not red, but blue: environmentalism and the mystery of right wing opposition – History, Future. Now.:

  • @GregBarkerMP Then you really need to ready this before your speech to the Legatum Institute: Good luck!

  • Green is not red, but blue: environmentalism and the mystery of right wing opposition – Conservatives are… #HFN

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