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Toward a Green Conservatism?
A leading European conservative intellectual details why the right must not cede environmentalist concerns to the left.
Written by Francesco Giubilei.
Articulating the vision of green conservatism is a priority that the Italian cultural, political, and economic world can no longer postpone. The consequence of failing to create a green conservative agenda is the unchallenged dominance of the liberal world on environmental issues, with pernicious consequences for businesses and the preservation of tradition.
In the United States and Great Britain, conservatives have written eloquently about the conservatism of conservationism. Teddy Roosevelt was among the first American presidents to engage with environmental issues, describing the wonders of nature as “the most glorious heritage.” Roger Scruton wrote of oikophilia, or the love of home; other authors such as Richard Weaver have argued in favor of a green conservatism: “Man has a duty of reverence towards nature' because it is 'the heritage of a Creator'.” The link between the natural environment and God also emerges in the poetry of T.S. Eliot, who emphasized the connection between environment and religion whereby “a wrong attitude towards nature also implies a wrong attitude towards God.”
In fact, a Biblical precedent for the conservation of nature goes as far back as Genesis, where men have dominion over all creatures and are therefore also responsible for the care of the world. Abdication of this duty resulted in God's wrath. What is happening in the U.S. and U.K. is not only a cultural movement but also a political one. Recently founded organizations, such as the American Conservation Coalition and the British Conservation Alliance, have involved thousands of young people in proposing an alternative environmentalism to that of the Left by taking up the legacy of Roger Scruton and Russell Kirk.
Great Britain, in particular, has an important cultural tradition of conservative environmentalism. Conservatives could do plenty worse than rediscover the cultural heritage of the two main English writers of the 20th century: Tolkien and Lewis.
Similar thoughts are shared across the Channel, where Éric Zemmour, from the columns of 'Le Figaro', has emphasized the difference between an “essentially conservative ecology interested in handing down tradition” and one based on “epicurean and globalist individualism of the 1968's, at the antipodes of true ecological thought.”
In Italy, an incipient conservative environmental movement is growing. In the daily newspaper 'Domani', Ferdinando Cotugno has attempted to trace an overview of the relationship between conservatism and the environment by referring to the ideas of Roger Scruton and Wandell Berry, “the agrarian writer who preserves and prays.” Berry is a true farmer-writer, living with his wife in Kentucky, where he cultivates a plot of land drawing on the teachings of the Christian Gospel. What emerges from his writings is “a relationship with the land, with local traditions, the simplicity of ancient customs, and a sharp critique of a technological society and unbridled marketplace.”
One of the themes of green conservatism is the importance of identity and tradition, understood as the preservation of local foods, customs, and dialects. Protecting and preserving these must be consilient with a pro-growth economy by combining economic development and environmental protection. This requires a gradual energy transition that prevents significant loss of jobs. Gradual and judicious change is, in fact, one of the key ideas for the conservative approach to environmental issues. The centrality that the environment has assumed over the economic, social, and media agenda in recent years calls for a political effort to design ecology-focused projects and initiatives. Ecological conversion may represent an opportunity, but, at the same time, a danger if it is managed with an ideological approach and anti-business mentality.
The real challenge of the future will be to synthesize environmental consciousness with economic growth and not to promote a mentality where the two are antithetical, since declining growth is unsustainable. Conservatism needs to be vigilant to prevent the Left from taking over a topic that should be close to the hearts of all citizens regardless of their political standing. This topic cannot be ceded to those who advocate for a procrustean globalist approach (of which Greta Thunberg is the emblem), which ignores local customs and traditions. This is also a wise political strategy, for young people are sensitive to environmental issues, and abdicating the elaboration of programs that focus on these matters would mean that the Centre-Right would fail to secure the vote of the new environmentally conscious citizens. This is suggested by voting patterns in Europe, where in Germany the Greens have gained 20% of votes in the European elections, in Austria they are in government, and in France they won the runoff in important cities.
But the most important reason the environmental battle cannot be given over to the Left is a cultural one: environmentalism belongs to the history of the conservative world. Therefore it is enough to draw on our tradition to build a greener future.
In recent years, in conjunction with a growing concern for the environment, citizens have become increasingly aware of problems associated with pollution, land consumption, and unbridled overbuilding. This is unequivocally positive, but has been exploited by progressives. Thus emerges a one-way environmentalism that adopts a righteous and dogmatic vision of the world and society that cannot be questioned.
But there is an alternative strand of environmentalism that is ignored by the elites. This is why it is necessary to articulate a green conservatism, which shatters the stereotype that conservatives are insensitive to the environment and mad to drill, to chop, and to drive gas-guzzling vehicles, while flipping the bird to the hippies.
Conservatives must revere the nature that surrounds us. And this reverence must lead to a sense of duty and the explication of conservation principles. Environmentalism is too important to leave to the steamrolling one-size-fits-all philosophy of global-minded elites. It must be about protecting the local, the unique, the singular. But it also must be conscious of the need for a growth-centered economy. Environmental policies that stultify business make energy more expensive, which ultimately hurts the poor more than anybody else. The protection of beauty might require sacrifice, but that sacrifice should not fall inordinately on those who cannot afford it. Beauty and markets can live in harmony.
Francesco Giubilei is the president of the leading Italian conservative foundation Fondazione Tatarella and of the cultural movement Nazione Futura, a writer for the news. paper Il Giornale and a contract professor at the University G. Fortunato of Benevento. Giubilei was recently included in Forbes‘s list of 100 most influential youths in Italy under 30. He is the author of The History of European Conservative Thought. Since 2022, he is a special advisor for the Italian Minister of Culture Gennaro Sangiuliano.