‘It is not only dark satanic things and people which now bar the road to the New Jerusalem, but also…hygienic, respectable, virtuous things and people, lacking only in grace and gaiety’- Tony Crosland
This edition of Look Left is supposed to be about big ideas. Rather than proposing one, I am suggesting that we look more critically at an idea which has been gaining ground on the political left for the last forty years. Most people who describe themselves as ‘Green’ are simply identifying with a moderate environmentalism which aims to conserve the natural environment and to bring carbon emissions to sustainable levels. This is all very well, as far as it goes, but we must be careful.
In the first place, hardcore environmentalism is a political dead end. The impressive results of Green parties, in Germany for instance, should not deceive us. The majority of voters won over to Green parties are either protest voters who don’t fancy the far right, or Nimbies. The kind of anti-growth policies advocated by hardcore Greens, if adopted by Labour, would lead inexorably to electoral oblivion; the 1950s and the 1980s taught us what happens if the Tories are seen as the party of affluence. Ultimately people have contradictory wishes, they want to see the environment protected and they want to consume more. Clearly we have to strike a balance, but if we move too far away from a vision of rising living standards the electorate will punish us, and rightly so. We need to paint a hopeful and optimistic picture of social and economic progress; a little ‘grace and gaiety’ as well as clean-living virtue.
Green parties and organizations, partly because of the unreconstructed radicalism of their leaderships and partly because of their willingness to play on people’s fears, tend to lead governments to outrageous and often regressive decisions. The German government’s decision to abandon nuclear power, under electoral pressure from the Green party, is utterly self-defeating from an environmental perspective; it ensures nothing except that Germany will fall short of international emissions standards. One of the great unsung heroes of the twentieth century was Norman Borlaug (a name which may sound familiar to viewers of The West Wing). He developed a mutant, high-yielding strain of wheat which was adopted in South Asia and other famine-ridden regions and is credited with saving more than a billion people worldwide from death by starvation. Genetic modification could yield many such life-saving and life-enhancing innovations but the absurd cult of the ‘precautionary principle’ means that GMOs are banned despite there being no evidence that they are harmful. In a world governed according to Green dogma Borlaug’s wheat would have been suppressed, and environmentalists’ concerns would have been spared at the cost of a sixth of the world’s population.
Greens will tell you that the world has changed. Continuous economic expansion used to be acceptable, but now we know its effects surely it cannot continue. Tell that to China or any of the other developing countries. We must accept the inevitable: the climate will warm up, the human population will explode and natural resources will become scarce. In a world like that we need a government which vigorously defends Britain’s interests, which fights to secure sensible and truly international regulation on the environment, workers’ rights and other issues, and which is ready to intervene abroad to protect those caught up in what promises to be a century even more unstable than the last. We can do none of these things if we voluntarily cripple our economy through over-regulation.