The writings of Lewis and Tolkien embody conservative environmentalism
The Conservative party were once the country party. They could be again. It might even net them some votes
Protecting nature should be a conservative issue. And yet it seems to have passed the party by.
When Extinction Rebellion protestors locked London down last year, I went for a nosy. It turns out some stereotypes are true – brightly-coloured hair, questionable eating habits and dubious employment status. The social contract is dead, they said. Change the system not the climate, they demanded. It’s not hard to see why they call themselves a rebellion…
They are more political than environmental. The climate is just another vehicle with which to fight the system.
Without a positive conservative definition of environmentalism, the party will never make any ground
But conservatives aren’t really fighting back. The party can’t seem to reconcile the business side of the party with their rural roots. Inevitably they end up being defined by what they oppose. For example, Chris Packham’s legal challenge that revoked three licences permitting farmers to shoot pest birds and thereby protect their crops. Michael Gove’s move last year that overturned the decision was good but seemed incidental, like a bone thrown to an old dog to keep him quiet.
Without a positive conservative definition of environmentalism, the party will never make any ground on the subject.
Fortunately, in his book, Confessions of a Heretic, Roger Scruton outlined a rather good one:
[Environmentalism] is not about ‘liberating’ or empowering the victim, but about safeguarding resources… about conservation and equilibrium.
The writings of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien absolutely embody this.
Though fantasy fiction would not exist as it does today without either of them – Tolkien is the father of the genre and Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia have sold over 100 million copies in 46 languages – their vivid descriptions of the dangers of industry and the death of the green and pleasant land they both loved are, for me, their finest achievements.
Their different styles of writing focus their work in very different ways. C. S. Lewis’s humorous and vivid descriptions of the animals, trees and fruit of Narnia focus on the individuality of nature. The amusing characterisation of his talking animals – like the sly pragmatic cats and the wildly excitable dogs – mark the inherent differences between species. That they can talk to one another is a reminder of the constant dialogue in nature – the push and pull that maintains a balance in and the oneness of any ecosystem.
Those like Uncle Andrew, the eponymous magician in the first Chronicle, that want to monetise nature – bending it to their will – at the expense of the balance are consistently portrayed as the enemies of Narnia. The simplest example of this is in The Last Battle when the wicked ape Shift’s insatiable desire for nuts leaves the squirrels with a shortage before the approaching winter – a life-threatening problem, though Lewis doesn’t tell his young audience this.
Tolkien’s prefers to personify nature in the weather and the terrain: “Clouds rolled up to spill their laden rain on the bare heads of the Downs” (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 127).
Lewis and Tolkien’s differing approaches show the weakness of nature
His epic – and occasionally dull – style gives a sense of the age of nature. The Ent Treebeard – the corporate embodiment of the forest where he lives, whose character is supposedly based on Lewis – is said to be the oldest living thing on Middle Earth. Fangorn is similarly ancient and yet is so easily destroyed, when Saruman’s “mind of wheels and metal” need the wood to fuel the fires of Isengard’s furnaces. Literal ages to grow, only for huge swathes of it cut down in weeks. Not unlike what HS2 will do to the hundreds of acres of ancient woodland that will soon be lost beneath its rails – if and when, it is ever finished.
Lewis and Tolkien’s differing approaches show the weakness of nature, the ease with which it can be destroyed or disrupted and the implicit impossibility of replacing it.
Both saw action in the trenches of the Somme. It’s easier to see in Tolkien’s work – the barren wasteland of Mordor is reminiscent of the scarred emptiness of no-man’s land. Lewis doesn’t tackle it directly, though his letters suggest that he preferred to hide from it in his invented Eden. Their writings speak to a need to defend nature from the industrial drive that made the war possible.
The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia don’t have happy endings: Treebeard is left doubting the future of his kind, the Shire is tarnished by the industrial yoke and the trees and Narnia – after a brief stint of deforestation – dies. In short, the innocence of the pre-industrial Shire and Narnia are lost and the latter is abandoned. Not a cheerful message.
In the here and now, we face similar prospects not war – though 2020 is still relatively young – but huge infrastructure projects, rising urbanisation and an increasing failure to understand nature, often from those who claim to protect it.
The Conservative party were once the country party. They could be again. It might even net them some votes.
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