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No place on the ARC for environmentalism

Stewardship of nature is a proper and appealing conservative cause

In every sphere — economic, political and religious — conservatives fall over themselves to cede the environment as an issue to their ideological opponents. So, I was glad the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (ARC) conference chose to talk about the environment, even if the contributions left me feeling a bit like my seven year old daughter at her last Harvest Festival.

The Harvest Festival organisers had scheduled an obscure but pretty hymn called “Apples and Pears, Wheat and Grapes”. We all sang along with atonal enthusiasm, following the words on the overhead projector, until the third verse appeared on screen and I nearly burst out laughing:

Deep beneath the ocean floor,
Fuel and power have lain in store.
Brought to us through dangerous toil,
Thank you God for gas and oil.

Not very Laudato Si. Our daughter, little eco warrior that she is, was furious. “Don’t they know climate change is hurting the planet?” she later fumed.

Well, quite. Back at the ARC Conference, Jonathan Pageau gave a fabulous talk in which he highlighted the unusual preponderance of faith amongst the delegates and attendees, whilst the lineup of environmental speakers were uniform in their dissent from the scientific consensus on climate change. A rousing chorus of “thank you God for gas and oil” might have gone down as well as the showtunes, horn flourishes and Christian rap.

I confess I did not attend the ARC Conference, but I have devoured all of the environmental output. Most of it starts off tracking the explanation I offered my daughter, excusing the offending hymn on the basis that fossil fuels are responsible for a vast improvement in quality of life. Whilst I believe those improvements are unevenly distributed and came at enormous environmental cost (and I reckon that particular verse of “Apples and Pears, Wheat and Grapes” should be quietly shuffled out the hymnal), fossil fuels were very welcome at ARC.

Which is just a bit disappointing. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) considers it “extremely likely” that over half the increase in global temperatures experienced from 1951–2010 were caused by humans. They say further emissions will result in further warming. We in the UK have just lived through the hottest June and the wettest October in recorded history. According to the Global Carbon Project, global emissions of carbon dioxide reached a new record high in 2022. These statements represent an overwhelming scientific consensus, agreed by between 90 per cent and 97 per cent of scientists depending on the study you read. Climate change is real, manmade and a threat. Biodiversity is in precipitous decline. Nature is in disarray, and creation groans under our deficient supervision.

A consensus can be wrong, but in the face of such a vast body of evidence, a homogenous panel of speakers telling us that actually everything is fine comes across as glib — an impression not helped by speakers dismissing the need to eat less meat on the basis that fillet mignon is tasty and we can always do more factory farming. The conference heard that global free markets, abhorring restriction, will fix any environmental problems that turn out to be real.

The only dissenting voice was that of my Blue Labour mentor, Lord Glasman, who lamented, “Nature isn’t a commodity valued by the price system.” Why could this tradition not have been given greater voice? The Critic’s own Sebastian Milbank has written about the great convergence of economic populist radicalism that occurred at the conference, a convergence delivered by speakers drawn from the conservative socialist, democratic capitalist and libertarian traditions. That’s sophisticated. That’s new and interesting.

Would it have been so difficult to pull off the same trick for the environment? The speakers formed a mini consensus of their own, minimising the threat of climate change in the context of other concerns they felt were more pressing. All advanced the appealing proposition that energy equals abundance and we need more of it. Those who touched on nature suggested that talk of mass extinction was fallacious, despite the Earth Institute at Columbia University finding that species are being wiped out at a rate 100 to 1,000 times higher than should naturally occur. Every presentation backed the power of economic liberalism to lift the world out of poverty, with the inevitability of technological progress to iron out the wrinkles along the way.

Fine. Maybe. I’ll take this philanthropic futurism over the malthusian doom-mongers any day, and this was the dichotomy on display. The futurists bestrode the stage, the doom-mongers kept turning up as pictures on slides like miniature green Emmanuel Goldsteins. Environmentalism was presented as mental illness, vegetarianism as disordered eating.

There is nothing to be gained from denouncing green causes as psychosis

The arguments were questionable, but the politics make no sense at all. ARC is attempting to synergise trends drawn from across communitarian and post liberal thought — trends that have most often honoured nature as sacred — and there is nothing to be gained from hitching the movement to an aesthetic that denounces green causes as psychosis. As we navigate our affluent lives of unprecedented plenty, many of us feel the desolation of the planet in our bones. It’s why Britain loves David Attenborough, and why we’ll be turned off by any conference that feels a bit like chanting “drill, drill, drill” at a Sarah Palin rally.

It all feels like a contrarian reaction to guilt-stricken activists smashing up masterpieces and glueing themselves to the M25. Surely this dichotomy is false. I am all for optimism; I am all for the focus on alleviating poverty around the world and promoting abundance at home. Let’s next apply that optimism to the reality that we are destroying the planet and come up with some solutions. Let’s consider what Sohrab Ahmari is up to in the US, resurrecting the vigorous government ideals of Teddy Roosevelt and Eisenhower. The green revolution, with its renewables and recyclables and its shifts in land use, is the economic opportunity of the 21st century. It needs surgically removing from the malthusians and colonising by a coalition of the optimistic, to forge a future that rejuvenates nature, cleans the air, generates jobs and safeguards our future. Send someone to ARC who isn’t afraid to say the words “Green New Deal”.

Maybe I’m wrong. The post liberal movement doesn’t need to look far to find its own degrowthers, its own Jeremiahs. Interesting convergences can only occur when different lines of thought are advanced; nothing converges if all the lines are already travelling in the same direction. Could the conference not have heard from both utopians and doomers? Jonathan Pageau was there; could he not have brought Paul Kingsnorth with him? Someone to rage against the faith in humanity’s ability to bend the earth to his will. Someone to react with fury to the idea that the answer to sustainable food is increased intensification of animal agriculture.

ARC is the latest iteration of an idea trying to be born. Like a dissident Tory backbencher, it turns up at NatCon and the like — then quietly retires, realising its time has not yet come. The idea is the spirit of the Blue Labourism and Red Toryism that has been awaiting its moment for a decade or more, broadening its church, now embodied in new adherents and emboldened with new political aspiration.

The idea has real application to environmentalism. Stewardship, preservation of the good and the beautiful, responsibility to future generations, all should make a welcoming home for the conservationist — as should Pageau’s observation that the idea is attractive to people of faith. Indeed, for many, the idea progresses from their faith. It lends itself to the re-enchantment of nature, taking the environment back from the objectivists and returning it to the romantics.

The fact that the mainstream conservationists are currently more comfortable in the camp of the progressives should not be a reason to shut the door in their faces. Welcome the techno futurists. Welcome the Green New Dealers. Welcome those who see the end as nigh. That’s the conference I want to see, and let the convergence begin.

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