Over the past few weeks, a single topic has dominated the German media and has meanwhile made its way into the international media: The removal of climate activists from the village of Lützerath, which they occupy to stop the mining of lignite there.
Activists had already demonstrated in 2020 against the resettlement of the village for the Garzweiler open pit mine and subsequently occupied the village. Beginning on January 11, more than 1,000 police officers went on the offensive and began driving the activists out of the village, resulting in large-scale unrest that lasted for nearly a full week. The locality has not been cleared to this day, in part because activists have tunneled themselves into the ground and barricaded themselves in tree houses. After police officers were pelted with stones and even Molotov cocktails, the reaction of politicians on the right-wing spectrum has been concentrated on these acts. Of course, this is not surprising, but none of these politicians have really been critical of the issue of relocation and demolition of villages, their community and history itself. It seems that only left-wing people ever stand up for environmental protection and, in this case, for saving the village as well as, indirectly, its history (even though this is probably not a motivation for them). But the fact is that environmental protection should also be something important for conservatives, and it is the relationship between the two things that I intend to examine here.
Parts of the small village, first mentioned in the annals of history in the 12th century, belonged to the Cistercian Abbey of Duissern for many centuries. After more than 900 years, the village, like many villages before it, must now make way for the Garzweiler open pit mine and its owner RWE AG. As a result, the Duisserner Hof, for example, which is on the list of monuments of the city of Erkelenz because of its historical and cultural significance, has to be demolished.
A similar fate befell the village of Immerath in 2018, when the neo-Romanesque St. Lambertus Church was demolished. As art historian Annette Jansen-Winkeln noted before the demolition, it was quite dramatic that the church was partially destroyed during World War II and the community then had to invest heavily in rebuilding it, only to have it demolished for the expansion of the open-pit lignite mine. The congregation had invested in large ornamental windows during the reconstruction period, which she was able to save from demolition. The diocese of Aachen had sold the church to RWE AG “with the proviso that the [windows] be treated in the same way as the wall.”
The St. Lambertus Church was a symbol of identity from the very beginning, according to the art historian. In 1886, the village’s approximately one thousand inhabitants decided to build this new church. “For such a small community to produce such great things – there must have been a lot of social competence.”
This situation should cause an unpleasant emotion in every conservative. What is being destroyed in these cases is the active life of a village, its community, and its history, all things that should be central to the conservative view of society. Not only that, but it is being done for a purpose that is detrimental to the environment, that is, contrary to a cause that conservatives should champion: Environmentalism.
Roger Scruton captured this sentiment perfectly when he famously wrote,
‘We must make the environment, the countryside, and the settled communities of our nation into priorities of government. Conservatism is a philosophy of inheritance and stewardship; it does not squander resources but conserves and enhances them. Environmental politics therefore needs to be rescued from the phony expertise of the scare-mongers and from the top-down manipulation of the activists. Properly understood, environmental protection is not a left-wing but a conservative cause.’
Now, as Scruton correctly points out, environmentalism is seen as a core issue of the left political spectrum. Climate change organizations like Greenpeace and social movements like Fridays for Future have uniformly adopted a progressive stance on sociocultural issues, making it almost impossible to support them as a conservative. The reason that the issue of environmentalism has found particular appeal on the left is because of the way they frame the fundamental nature of the problem. The movement, according to Scruton, has
‘acquired all the hall-marks of a left-wing cause: a class of victims (future generations), an enlightened vanguard who fights for them (the eco-warriors), powerful philistines who exploit them (the capitalists), and endless opportunities to express resentment against the successful, the wealthy and the West.’
Meanwhile, for a long time, little to no real engagement with the issue was made in conservative circles, thus surrendering an issue to political rivals that is now key to due electoral decision-making. In the 2021 German federal election, the environment and climate played the second-largest role for voters in their election decision.The Christian Democratic Union of Germany’s (CDU) internal election report shows that almost one million voters switched from them to the Green Party. For the Greens, 82% of voters named the environment and climate as the most important issue for their election decision. It stands to reason that for many of those who switched their votes, the lack of climate policy competence on the part of the CDU was at the forefront of their minds.
Far from being a foreshadowing of the years to come, this situation offers an ideal opportunity for conservative politicians and movements to reflect on the principles of conservatism. Environmentalism should be an issue that conservative politicians ought to make an important part of their election platforms if they want to win. It is not the case that this is to be done for opportunistic reasons. In fact, for Roger Scruton, environmentalism represents “the quintessential conservative cause”.
Fundamental to this view is the conservative attitude toward society best captured by Edmund Burke, who speaks of society as a social contract, but ‘not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.’ The preservation (and amelioration) of nature and the Countryside is considered a duty for those who are aware that they have received everything from previous generations and must conserve it for future generations. As the great American poet and farmer Wendell Berry puts it: “The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.’
This awareness gives rise to a natural preference for the local over the distant. Which manifests itself best in Roger Scruton’s notion of oikophilia: ‘[T]he love of the oikos, which means not only the home but the people contained in it, and the surrounding settlements that endow that home with lasting contours and an enduring smile.’ American legal scholar Robert P. George aptly summarized this position when he stated “that one naturally and rightly has a special love for, and duties toward, members of one’s family, tradition of faith, local community and region, and fellow citizens.”
This love for the familial and social environment, traditions and nature is naturally linked to a sense of identity. We recognize the need for a “We” that cherishes traditions and evokes a sense of home, a place that is “Ours”. This notion of oikophilia is thereby something that is animated only because we are located in such a place. There exists a deep connection with environmentalism, since this notion has a great impact on the way we treat the environment. It is simply a fact that man tries to protect what belongs to him more than what is not his own. Now, with the environment, man receives a communal inheritance from which responsibility for the inheritance arises.
Accordingly, it is also a profoundly intergenerational view, consistent with the Burkean social contract, for thus one is not master of the land but a tenant who is but one person in a long line of tenants who are all equally entitled to receive that inheritance. One might object that this means that you may not change anything about the environment or use its natural resources, but therein I would say with Theodore Roosevelt, ‘I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.’
With all that said, it does seem that a brief consideration of policy implications is needed. From the view of conservative environmentalism that has been presented, there are attitudes that conservatives should have toward economic and technological policies and practices.
It seems that conservatives in this case must be completely opposed to an unregulated free market, not conservative in the first place, and regulations regarding the extraction of natural resources should be supported. In this, again, it may be said with Roosevelt, “I believe that the natural resources must be used for the benefit of all our people, and not monopolized for the benefit of the few, and here again is another case in which I am accused of taking a revolutionary attitude.” (1910 speech on “New Nationalism) What seems obvious to me is that a rethinking of ecological issues should also include a rethinking of economic issues.
Conservatives should also stand up for domestic producers, discouraging them from taking production overseas, and oppose the globalization of industries, if possible. Restricting the import of certain products might also be worth considering, instead supporting local farmers and passing laws that encourage people to buy locally, which saves a lot of shipment mileage, automatically helping the environment and strengthening the local economy.
It also seems as if many conservative movements ought to change their language on the subject of environmental protection. Often excessive opposition within conservative circles creates the feeling that you can’t be conservative if you are pro-environment or you feel that you have to deny climate change to be conservative, which is wrong. It is necessary to emphasize more often that environmental protection is not only about climate change, but also about the degradation of natural resources and the preservation of the beauty of our home.
However, the most important thing remains something that politics cannot do and must come from the citizens themselves: Taking personal responsibility, which comes from rational self-interest that encourages the people to look after the environment themselves. The key for this is for people to realize that we are inheritors of this world and like a good farmer we have to cultivate this land and pass it on better to our inheritors.