Made a quick whip through Kieron O’Hara’s Conservatism, a chance encounter at the London Library that left me intrigued by its “green” chapter.
It is very explicitly a book about “small c” conservatism – excluding and rejecting all traces of neoliberal economic theory, so a long way from a lot of what we encounter in practical politics.
There’s a couple of things O’Hara identifies as key to this conservatism – one is that knowledge and data, particularly that on which governments make decisions, are limited and uncertain. “Massive government spending based on little or no idea of whether it would do any good: a scandal? [referring to recent stiumulus spending] Possibly, but goverments rarely understand the effects of their actions.This is a dramatic example, but a common type of deficit in knowledge.” (p. 24)
The second is what he calls the change principle “because the current state of society is typically undervalued, and because the effects of innovations cannot be known fully in advance, then social change (a) must always risk destroying beneficial institutions and norms and, (b) cannot be guaranteed to achieve the aims for which it was implemented. It therefore follows that societies should be risk-averse with respect to social change and the burden of proof placed on the innovator, not his or her opponents. It also follows that change, when it does come, should ideally be (a) experimental (b) reversible where possible and (c) rigorously evaluated before the next incremental step.” (p. 88)
Do how does this play out in the environment? Proving that conservatives can have a sense of humour, O’Hara first offers this: “Temperamentally, environmentalists and conservatives are miles apart; while the Tory sups champagne at White’s the green annoys nothing so much as creating a new type of compost. They move in different circles and have different enemies (often each other). Yet I shall argue… that, both philosophicaly and programtically, conservatism is the best-placed ideology for defending our environment.” (p. 273)
Happily, O’Hara is at least as certain about climate change as his philosophy allows him to be. “The conservative must take notice of the broad and increasing scientific consensus that human effects on climate are becoming evident” (p. 275) And he’s scathing about the lack of change: “The greater prominence of climate change in political discussion has not been accompanied by the required shift in economic and political priorities.” (p. 275)
“Global warming presents a risk, and the conservative is risk-averse. The risk is massive in extent, affecting billions of people, possible bery drastically. On the other hand, there is also evident risk in restructuring entire economies and ways of life to address wamring. Drastic measures could waste a lot of resources … a sensible mid-way is to canvass the possibility of incremental and reversible actions to mitigate each type of risk, hedging between the two and supporting further investigation until the evidence starts to come in.” (p. 276)
He identifies the key point of different between conservatism and ecologismn as being their view of human nature (with which I’d concur). “Green philosophies are big on self-determinism, localism, direct democracy and quasi-anarchistic social and political structures… is not afraid to seeks radical change in human nature, the effects of which (even if it were possible) would be potentially dangerous and certainly unpredictable.” (p. 280) Except of course, I’d respond “human nature” is no fixed and unchanging thing, but a product of environment, of reaction to stimuli, of cultural environment.
O’Hara is rightly scathing about geoengineering (as promoted as a final if necessary solution by climate sceptic Nigel Lawson) describing it as “anaethema”. But equally about relying on markets to produce environmentally good outcomes. “Economics narrowly definied in neo-liberal terms cannot be the sole basis for decision0making. Pricing structures determine what is an extermality and what is endogenous and the decisions as to what affects prising beyond basic producer costs is political, not economic. In particular, a green conservative is prepared to forgo income for other goods, which might include not only a reduced risk of climate change, but also beautiful countryside, peace and quiet, clean air, unpolluted coastal waters, agnicient old buildings and chirches, rich and diverse fauna and flora, hunting traditions or whatever.” (p. 287)
Interestingly, O’Hara claims intergenerational justice as a conservative concern (he’s concerned about the dead as well as the future – which actually I think greens are also, although he claims we’re not), dating back at least to Edmund Burke. “Burke transforms our view of politics from a narrow one seen from the perspective of the current generation which is always at risk of being overwhelmed by the fleeting requirements of the present moment. An extended group only makes political sense if it is understood through time.” (p. 297) So he’s very opposed to global action, and for national action, one of the key points on which I’d disagree – and argue for he’s rather ignoring his history, since he’s focusing very much on the nation state as a site of action, yet that’s a very historically and geographically specific structure – there’s nothing essential about it.
So it is clear that this is a sort of conservative with whom we need to work, to liaise – even to drink champagne with at White’s, if that sacrifice is really necessary…