The political landscape

Photo: Derek Turner

Green Albion – Restoring Our Green and Pleasant Land

Various authors, Conservative Environment Network, 2022, 101 pages, free download

DEREK TURNER welcomes a practical contribution to often overheated eco-arguments

Environmental protection is conventionally seen as a ‘leftwing’ concern, because its most voluble advocates are often equally vociferous on what are dismissively called ‘woke’ preoccupations, from asylum-seekers to transsexuals, or EU membership to Scottish independence. Yet there has always been a conservative kind of environmentalism – famously represented by the late Duke of Edinburgh, and his son – although at times in postwar history it has faded from view, sidelined by administrations prioritizing the economy over the environment.

If modern Greens often gravitate in leftwing directions, it is at least partly because from the 1950s on, mainstream conservatism developed a brusque, complacent and unimaginative streak, which held that business, ‘freedom’ and ‘growth’ mattered more than the natural world. Influential opinion-formers and politicians chortled at ‘tree-huggers’, and sometimes even said environmental damage was just Darwinism in action. An effect of this almost Randian reductionism was essentially to abandon a hugely important area of concern (and large swathes of university-educated and younger voters) to the ideological left – which whatever its other shortcomings could see that the environment was not only precious, but priceless.

This was ironic, because during the twentieth century socialist countries had a shameful ecological record. Soviet and Maoist economic, industrial and social practices laid waste their respective ecosystems, whilst in America supposedly retrograde conservatives took some difficult long term decisions, often against the wishes of big business backers. Theodore Roosevelt established the United Forest Service, five national parks, and fifty-one bird reserves. Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed both the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, while Ronald Reagan designated more than ten million acres as wilderness. Whatever their other limitations may have been, these could at least see that conservation and conservatism are adjacent conceptually as well as alphabetically.

The natural world, with its blind instinct, harshness, hierarchy, and territoriality is not an obviously congenial area of interest for ‘progressives’ or ‘radicals’, who are usually more concerned with abstract moral values, and believers in human plasticity. Nature is neither egalitarian nor kindly, and examples from what was tellingly called the ‘Animal Kingdom’ lead logically towards a Hobbesian interpretation of the world. Early environmentalists and organic agriculture advocates were more often ‘right’ than ‘left’, seeing animals and landscapes as contributors to, and symbols of, national characters. Into the 2000s, there was a strand of English conservatism which supported hunting as rooted in national history and human nature, epitomised by writers like Robin Page, R W F Poole and Roger Scruton, and the huge, if ultimately unsuccessful, campaigning of the Countryside Alliance. The fact that in most modern Western countries environmental politics have become a kind of leftist reserve says much about the ‘culture war’ fighting capabilities of the West’s conservative parties.

In Britain, there are precedents for the Johnson government’s notable interest in environmental issues from energy policy via gene-edited crops (to reduce fertiliser and pesticide use) to rewilding. David Cameron’s Green stances earned him considerable scorn within his own party and from some in the Conservative press, but like Johnson he was borrowing from old ruralist Tory tradition, and more recent small-c conservative thinkers like Edward Goldsmith, who founded The Ecologist, and was instrumental in the founding of the Green Party. There were political precursors too. Macmillan’s, Eden’s and Major’s governments passed noise abatement and clean air legislation, while Churchill’s created several new National Parks (following the Labour government’s creation of the first, in 1951).

Although Thatcherite neo-liberal policies entailed a hefty environmental price tag – encouragement of conspicuous consumption, the opening up of ecosystems to rapacious corporations, road building, relaxation of planning laws – sometimes they also meant improved environmental protection, as the new private company executives became suddenly accountable to public opinion. Mrs Thatcher took a perhaps surprising interest in global warming, acid rain and pollution. Her aversion to the British coal industry was based at least partly on her knowledge of coal’s environmental impact. In 2012, former Friends of the Earth leader Jonathan Porritt noted marvellingly, ‘Thatcher…did more than anyone in the last sixty years to put green issues on the national agenda.’

In 1989, she told the UN General Assembly, ‘The environmental challenge that confronts the whole world demands an equivalent response from the whole world. Every country will be affected and no one can opt out… No single generation has a freehold on the earth.’

These were resonant words from a politician not even the most callow Objectivist could accuse of fuzzy sentimentality, or anti-business sentiment, or ‘big government’ instincts. There were contradictions in her outlook, but something in her sensed that governments have an historic and moral responsibility to protect the landscapes and wildlife which help define the character of the nation they govern. She saw that the Green movement, for all its faults, was addressing real problems. She could also see that the Greens would benefit greatly by the involvement of more down-to-earth ‘Blues’ to represent the legitimate interests of agriculture, industry and landowners, and balance frigid universalism with local attachments, and the ideal with the achievable.

Thatcher’s words are emblazoned along the masthead of the Conservative Environment Network’s (CEN) website, because of their insightfulness, but also because her name is likely to disarm anthropogenic climate-change sceptics, who are drawn almost exclusively from the political Right, from libertarian conservatives to populists in the Farage, Trump and Bolsanaro mould.

Environmental problems can seem intractable, the literature is frequently tedious, and ‘activists’ often smugly jejune. Considerable credit ought therefore to be extended to the politicians who have taken the trouble to contribute to this compendium, which nods at national nostalgia (Blake, Wordsworth, Larkin et al) but also offers practical suggestions on a range of interrelated issues. It is about time that Britain’s long-suffering landscapes were afforded less exploitative kinds of treatment – ‘undevelopment opportunities’, to allow it (and us) to recover.

There are contributions by eleven MPs and one peer on wetlands, peatlands, woodlands, maritime habitats, rivers, and some of the possibilities for UK agriculture in the post-Common Agricultural Policy landscape. The essays are topped by a Foreword by the Minister for Farming, Victoria Prentis, and tailed by an Afterword by Ben Goldsmith, Chair of the CEN, representing the public-spirited family which has done so much in recent years to force responsible environmentalism onto a sometimes reluctant party (Ben’s brother, Zac, is Minister of State for the Pacific and International Environment). It offers an ambitious and thoughtful vision for a renewed environment – even if we suspect much of it may never be realised, amid Brexit, Covid and global insecurity, on top of the usual political vicissitudes.

The Minister hails ‘the biggest changes to farming and land management in 50 years,’ using environmental land management schemes (ELMs) to make agriculture more efficient and improve food security, while increasing biodiversity and protecting existing habitats. Stroud MP Siobhan Baillie speaks of incorporating ‘natural capital’ into Treasury thinking, to restore 100,000 hectares of wetlands as carbon sinks, floodwater repositories, and refuges for rare species – and even as a means of improving mental health. Robert Largan calls for the rewetting of lowland peat where possible, new kinds of crops that can be grown on wetter soils, the banning of peat-based fertilisers, and the prohibition of disposable barbecues, often the cause of devastating moorland fires.

Michael Fabricant wants millions more trees to be planted, plus natural regeneration, and better protection from imported diseases by home-growing saplings – with special provisions for threatened temperate rainforest, and an updating of the Forestry Commission’s century-old charter. Hastings and Rye MP Sally-Ann Hart seeks to encourage coastal (especially saltmarsh) and undersea carbon sequestration, ban bottom trawling in Marine Protected Areas, and action on maritime pollution to increase underwater vegetation and boost fish stocks.

Andrew Selous gives a ‘Christian stewardship’ perspective, setting out ideas to improve management of statutory nature reserves as well as Church and National Trust properties, and improving biodiversity through a new land designation of ‘wildbelt’. He also calls for less intensive farming methods to improve soil and reduce flooding, with reduced grazing and tilling pressures, and using fewer chemicals. Craig Williams, whose Montgomeryshire constituency is threaded by the Severn, envisages an holistic riparian management strategy to cover tributaries and whole watersheds, with better waste management, bankside tree planting and channel restoration to reduce pollution, boost wildlife and reduce flooding.

Anthony Mangnall and Jerome Mayhew draw urgent attention to the financial pressures faced by farmers, but discern possible benefits from Brexit. While welcoming organic methods, they acknowledge these are not applicable to all farmland, and generally mean more expensive food. Rewilding, engaging and useful though it is, is not easily compatible with large scale food production, and needs to be tempered with a ‘land sharing’ approach (which Ben Goldsmith terms ‘wilder farming’). Ideally, their contributions would have been balanced by one making the case for rewilding, but they make valuable suggestions, such as less use of high-carbon chemical fertilisers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and chemical runoff into waterways, and market mechanisms to ensure attempts to contain carbon at home do not lead inadvertently to increased emissions abroad.

Jonathan Djanogly calls arrestingly for expediting cellular meat production – meat grown in laboratories from muscle tissue harvested from living animals. Cellular meat of course entails no animal deaths, far less land use and pollution, and far fewer hormones or other chemicals. This would not replace conventional livestock farming, but could open up huge new markets, especially in Asia, where burgeoning middle classes are demanding ever more meat that at the moment is not always available, or only at great environmental cost.

Baroness Jenkin is concerned with minimising UK food waste – the UK wastes more food than anywhere else in Europe – through better supermarket practices, redistribution of still–edible food to the neediest, more food waste collections by councils (that can then be used to make energy), and – a Thatcherian touch – thriftier household management to simultaneously benefit the planet, and save families money. The government’s ambitious (and hugely controversial) energy policy is scanted in this volume, but Pauline Latham demands an end to the burning of biomass, now known to be not renewable as once thought, in order to lessen air pollution and land use, as well as the carbon released by the removal and burning of trees. Ruth Edwards takes up the bosky theme, with a call for global as well as domestic action on deforestation, building on existing government commitments to bar imports of products like palm oil and soya produced on recently deforested land.

This book overflows with ingenious ideas which, if realised even in part, would go a considerable way towards meeting the objectives of the likes of Extinction Rebellion, without endangering the economy. But there are curious omissions. While it was only to be expected that the huge and complex area of energy policy would need to be treated separately, it is strange to have little or nothing about such matters as plastic pollution, factory farming of animals, the wasteful profligacy of the electronics and fashion industries, eco-building technology, planning laws, or the proper management of parks and verges for wild flowers. One would also have liked some detail on the thinking behind the crop gene-editing legislation presently going through Parliament, and about post-CAP farm finances, especially of smaller farms.

And what about overpopulation? The United Kingdom is already one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, and the Office for National Statistics predicts that the present population, of around 68 million, will increase to some 77 million by 2050, largely attributable to immigration. Whatever mitigations may be in place, or whatever fixes may be found, the truth is that more people equals less nature. The government is taking little or no interest in this subject, partly because busy with other matters, but also, one suspects, out of unwillingness. Yet if they do not start to soon, lovers of the British countryside, whether romantic rewilders, pragmatic farmers, well-meaning MPs or weekend walkers, may all ultimately find that their efforts, ideas and inmost emotions are rendered redundant by sheer pressure of people. ‘Greenness’ and ‘pleasance’, and sense of place, can only be located within quietude and space.

It is to be hoped that this admirable caucus will increase our sense of obligation to them by taking up these subjects in subsequent publications.

The booklet can be downloaded from