Ode Magazine  [Printer-friendly version]
June 16, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: In England, environmental advisor Zac
Goldsmith plans to press four themes in drafting the new conservative
platform on green issues: energy efficiency; local food; less
dependence on foreign oil; and the precautionary principle. He
believes these are pragmatic goals, which fit right in with
Conservative Party values.]

By Jay Walljasper and Ode Magazine

Modern politics is notorious for the way it creates strange new
meanings for familiar words. "National security," for instance, now
means attacking distant countries. "Choice," in American electoral
debates, is a secret code for abortion, and "family" signifies fierce
opposition to gay rights. "Us," in the minds of some European
political candidates, refers exclusively to white people.

But the word that has undergone the most dramatic transformation at
the hands of politicians is "conservative." It once clearly described
a political philosophy devoted to preserving tradition. But powerful
leaders around the world now use the term to justify a complete
reordering of society according to the wishes of global corporations
and radical free-market economists. The merit of these policies is
open to discussion, but it seems obvious that this kind of political
agenda is anything but conservative.

"It's no accident that 'conservative' and 'conservation' are almost
the same word," notes American environmentalist philosopher Bill
McKibben. "But what we call conservative today has been captured by
something else -- the idea that we need economic growth at all costs.
That can be ruinous to our environment and our communities." That's
the great irony of politics today: The very idea of conservation --
conserving the environment, natural resources, energy, a sense of
community or anything else -- is considered unnecessary, or even a
dangerous obstacle to economic progress, by most so-called

Conservatives. U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney summed up the
prevailing right-wing view when he said, "Conservation may be a sign
of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis... for a sound,
comprehensive energy policy."

This is what makes the recent turn of events in British politics so
fascinating. The Conservative Party, which earned the undying wrath of
environmentalists when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, is now
trumpeting green issues in an effort to unseat the ruling Labour
Party. The new Conservative leader, David Cameron, who assumed power
last fall, quotes Gandhi in urging people "to become the change we
want to see in the world." He can be seen riding his bike all over
London and plans to add solar panels and a wind turbine to his home in
the fashionable Notting Hill neighbourhood. He's gone so far as to
question the dominance of corporate power in the UK, declaring in a
recent newspaper ad, "We should not just stand up for big business but
to big business."

While this might sound like some sort of political gimmick, there are
signs that Cameron is sincere about pioneering a new brand of "green"
conservativism -- which could become as globally influential as
Thatcher's free-market policies were in the 1980s. If the environment
ceases to become a divisive issue among parties of the left, right and
centre around the world, we will see a new flowering of green

In a bold stroke, Cameron enlisted Bob Geldof, rock star and prominent
anti-poverty advocate, as an advisor on global affairs, and Zac
Goldsmith, editor of the The Ecologist magazine, as an environmental

The Ecologist has been uncompromising in its opposition to corporate
globalization, agribusiness, free trade, genetically modified food and
big supermarkets -- hardly the resume of an up-and-coming player in
the Conservative Party. Yet Goldsmith is helping direct a team of
party leaders over the next 18 months in creating a new green vision
for Conservatives. He's even been approved by party officials to run
for parliament. "If you would have predicted this four or five years
ago," Goldsmith admits. "I would have been really surprised."

"There are big changes going on about the environment in this country
right now," he explains. "Politics is just now catching up. Fifteen
years ago Prince Charles was laughed at when he talked about organic
food. Now you have half the people in this country buying organic food
for their children. Businesses like [the huge retailer] Marks &
Spencer are really raising the bar on the issues we're covering in The
Ecologist. Very detailed market research is telling them this is what
customers want."

Goldsmith plans to press four themes in drafting the new conservative
platform on green issues: energy efficiency; local food; less
dependence on foreign oil; and the precautionary principle, which
states that a new technology or product cannot be introduced until
it's been proven safe. He believes these are pragmatic goals, which
fit right in with Conservative Party values. "They don't require us to
live like monks. They don't require huge increases in taxes." Peter
Ainsworth, the Conservative's new shadow environment minister, vows to
address the issue of climate change with policies that conserve energy
and promote alternative power sources like solar, wind and wave power.
(He hedges on nuclear.) "I do not believe that saving the planet is
incompatible with economic progress," he states. "There are huge
commercial opportunities for British companies in these new green
industries. We are in danger of missing out on the opportunities."

John Vidal, who has monitored green politics for many years as
environmental editor of Britain's centre-left Guardian newspaper,
notes that, "When you're not in power, it's easy to be green. But the
Conservatives do have a very, very good environmental team. What
happens when they come up against the party's business interests?
We'll have to wait and see."

Vidal is quick to add that they've already accomplished a lot. "It's
wonderful the effect they're having on the Labour government. They're
forcing the government to put more into renewable energy and many
other things."

Like Goldsmith, he sees a new wave of green consciousness sweeping
Britain, and feels "that business has grabbed this wave more than
government. Businesses are really coming up with new initiatives. It's
quite amazing." That helps explain the unusual phenomenon of a
conservative party trying to outflank left and centre parties on
environmental issues.

Germany is another place where conservative leaders are rethinking
their views on ecological issues. Newly elected chancellor Angela
Merkel from the conservative Christian Democrat party has not
overturned some of the significant environmental policies enacted by
the previous Social Democrat/Green Party coalition although she
campaigned against the measures. "The Christian Democrats had attacked
head-on government supports for renewable energy and attacked head-on
the eco-tax [which imposed a levy on some sources of pollution],"
notes Wolfgang Sachs, a leading German environmental thinker and
researcher. "But now there's a consensus that you need to support the
environment and renewable energy. The Christian Democrats understand

Sachs points out that as a conservative party, Christian Democrats
historically were dedicated to preserving family, community and the
natural landscape in the face of technological and economic change.
(Indeed, Bavaria, the heartland of German conservatism, claims to have
established the world's first government ministry of environmental
protection.) But today, Sachs believes, "the Green Party is the
contemporary expression of that kind of conservative politics." He
notes that recent elections in the German state of Baden- Wurttemberg
nearly produced an unprecedented governing alliance between Christian
Democrats and Greens. But efforts to forge a coalition of old- and
new-style "conservatives" failed in the end, because of pressure from
loyal activists in both camps who distrusted the other party. "It's a
bit of a pity," Sachs remarks. "I think it could have been a trial run
for society."

This green wave among conservative politicians has yet to cross the
Atlantic. Canada's newly elected Conservative Party prime minister
Stephen Harper campaigned against the country's continued
participation in the Kyoto agreement on global climate change, and
U.S. president George W. Bush has opposed nearly every environmental
initiative that has come his way. But U.S. Senator John McCain -- who
many see as the Republican frontrunner for the 2008 election -- is
making global warming into a campaign issue although he hasn't
embraced most other green issues. Many evangelical Christians --
probably the most loyal Republican voters in recent elections -- are
also questioning the party's inaction on climate change. Eighty-six
leading evangelical leaders, including presidents of 39 Christian
colleges and best- selling author Rick Warren (The Purpose-Driven
Life) signed a statement endorsing government action to establish
limits on greenhouse-gas emissions.

There are further stirrings that some rank-and-file conservative
voters may be thinking twice about the Republicans' stubborn
indifference to environmental issues. Rod Dreher, a former editor at
the right-wing magazine National Review and now an editorial writer at
the Dallas Morning News, says, "Environmental concerns are a family
value here in north Texas. The Republican leadership is all on board
with the agenda of cleaning up the air. They can see how much
pollution is costing us. One of them told me about how he went to his
granddaughter's soccer game, and half the kids had to run to the
sidelines to use their asthma inhalers."

Dreher chronicles the unlikely rise of a grassroots green conservative
movement in his book Crunchy Cons (Crown Forum, 2006). "Crunchy cons,"
according to Dreher, are self-avowed conservatives who have some
concerns in common with lefties, such as a suspicion of consumerism,
large corporations and TV, as well as an affinity for organic food,
animal rights, nature, historic preservation, small-is-beautiful
thinking and a clean environment. These people tend to be deeply
religious -- opposed to abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage
-- and firm in their belief that neither Republicans nor Democrats
speak for them.

"It's not easy being a green conservative," he writes, "but if we
conservatives want to be true to our principles, we have to move in
that direction."

In their own way, the emergence of evangelical environmentalists and
crunchy cons in America could be as significant as the greening of
conservative parties in Europe. Political changes in the U.S. tend to
arise first in social movements (think of the civil rights,
environmental or anti-abortion movements) and only later get picked up
by political parties. The right wingers in Birkenstocks and soccer
granddads that Dreher writes about could lead to the greening of the
Republican Party, a large-scale defection to the Democrats or perhaps
a whole new political configuration. In any case, a growing force of
activists spanning the political spectrum (and the world) who are
working to clean up the environment means new hope for Mother Earth.

Copyright 2005 Planetsave Network