7 things that Greens and Conservatives have in common

I’m currently doing research on the overlaps between Green thought and conservatism, and how such overlaps are evident in the 2011 election policies of the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand. Below is an excerpt from my dissertation. I’m chiefly concerned with ‘traditional’ paternalist conservatism here (not the more market-friendly ‘New Right’ conservatism), but for the sake of brevity I use the term ‘conservatism’. Also, I’m mostly concerned with environmentalist green thought (rather than more the radical ecologist thought), but for brevity I use the term ‘green thought’.

blue and green seem far apart, but they can fit together well

blue and green seem far apart, but they can fit together well

The words ‘conservative’ and ‘conservationist’ share a common etymological root- ‘conservare’, which means to “keep watch or maintain”. The two schools of thought share a fundamental desire to conserve that plays out in different arenas. While this impulse is largely restricted to environmental issues in green thought, and social and political arenas in conservatism, a surprising amount of agreement exists. Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton has even gone as far as saying the two are “aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources”.[2] Political theorist Bruce Pilbeam detailed these overlaps in his article Natural Allies? Mapping the Relationship between Conservatism and Environmentalism. These include; respect for natural limits, scepticism of the supremacy of industrialisation, scepticism of unfettered capitalism, the belief that nature holds a moral value that can trump material values, preference for community over individualism, the belief that authority and regulation are necessary, and concern for (and obligation to) future generations.[3] This post addresses each of these briefly.

Firstly, Pilbeam argues the most obvious overlap is a shared fundamental desire to conserve and respect natural limits. In green thought this manifests as the ‘precautionary principle’, which effectively argues it is better to err on the side of caution in questions of environmental degradation.[4] In conservatism, this manifests as an appreciation of natural limits and the belief that the results of going beyond such limits are not fully knowable.[5]

Secondly, Pilbeam argues both schools of thought share a marked scepticism of industrialisation and unfettered technological progress. In the case of green thought, Pilbeam draws on the work of Jonathon Porritt, who has argued that “the super-ideology of industrialism”, and not capitalism itself, is the core danger facing the environment.[6] This suspicion is shared by many conservatives, who are often sceptical of the “alienating and dehumanizing effects of industrialization.”[7]

Thirdly, Pilbeam argues both schools of thought are, to an extent, sceptical about relatively unfettered capitalism. In green thought this is articulated in ideas of resource finitude and conceptions of a ‘zero-growth’ economy. Indeed, capitalist growth is often taken to be the core mechanism of ecological harm.[8] Similarly, conservatism holds concerns regarding the moral and social harm caused by the unsettling and change required by a dynamic market system. Conservatives often favour a paternalist role for the state in order to mitigate harm and guarantee certain moral goods.[9]

Fourthly, Pilbeam argues both schools of thought share a belief that nature holds moral value that can trump material values. Green thought and conservatism both disagree with the morality of liberal consumer capitalism, and sections of both schools ascribe a spiritual value to the environment.[10] In the former case, this stems from monist and new age beliefs, while in the latter it stems from a custodial role decreed by God.[11] However, the two schools of thought differ in the scale of their concern, For conservatism, concern is largely local, and often for specific sites, whereas green thought is concerned with both local and global scales.[12]

Fifthly, Pilbeam argues both schools of thought share a preference for community over individualism. Similar to the overlaps above, this is in part a reaction against liberal individualism.[13] Elements of both schools hold community to be an undervalued political unit, and advocate returning it to prominence.

Sixthly, Pilbeam argues both schools of thought share the belief that authority and regulation are necessary.[14] Similarly, both schools are sceptical of the neoliberal view of the small state model of self-regulating entrepreneurs, and argue state intervention is required to bring about growth and the ‘good’ life.[15] As such, both conservatism and green thought favour state involvement in the economy in areas concerning moral goods and employment. However, the two schools disagree on the pace and scope of change, with conservatives wary of radical, abrupt change.

Seventhly, Pilbeam argues both schools of thought share concern for (and obligation to) future generations. Both schools of thought take a “multi-generational” perspective, with green thought concerned with the long-term health of the planet. Similarly, the conservative worldview is often described in Burkean terms as “a partnership … between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”.[16] This similarity is particularly striking considering the two schools’ views on issues relating to the family are generally considered to be different. Green thought is often associated with socially progressive politics, while conservatism distrusts changes to family structure. Despite these fundamental difference, the two schools agree that society has an obligation to future generations.

Other overlaps exist, but those stated are sufficiently illustrative. Perhaps the spirit of these overlaps is best summarised by Scruton, who claims both groups are chiefly concerned with “defend[ing] a shared but threatened legacy from predation by its current trustees.”[17]


[2] Roger Scruton, “Conservatism,” in Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge, ed. Andrew Dobson and Robyn Eckersley (Cambridge: Cambridge Universty Press, 2006), 8.
[3] Bruce Pilbeam, “Natural Allies? Mapping the Relationship Between Conservatism and Environmentalism,” Political Review 51(2003): 493-500.
[4] Ibid., 493.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 494.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 496.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Scruton, “Conservatism.”
[13] Pilbeam, “Natural Allies? Mapping the Relationship Between Conservatism and Environmentalism,” 499.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid., 500.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Scruton, “Conservatism,” 13.

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