I am writing this on the first day of Extinction Rebellion October rebellion, where young people (and some not so young people) are walking out of their schools and jobs to protest about the lack of government action on tackling the climate emergency. This should be a moment that transcends party politics, or the liberal/conservative cultural divide, where we all come together to demand the preservation of the natural environment.
Bizarrely, there are people on the right who have the exact opposite reaction. Whenever someone prominently voices the opinion that they would rather the surface of the Earth remains habitable, a certain breed of right-wing culture warrior takes this as an opportunity to score points for “their side”. Usually via the media of the Twitter own, the lowest form of political debate. I guess “their side” is the one that wants to keep burning fossil fuels until every last living organism dies out, which doesn’t seem like a great long term political project to me.
You can see this need own environmental activists strongest in the treatment of the founder of the School Strike for Climate movement Greta Thunberg. For example this moment of pointless hostility to someone who is trying to make the world a better place from Julia Hartley-Brewer. Hartley-Brewer presumably doesn’t mind if the sea level rises as she can keep spitting vitriol at liberals in the manner of someone who never got over the teenage phase when it was painfully uncool to care about things.
Thunberg is a sixteen-year-old-kid who wants to make the world a better place, but many on the right act as if she is the leader of sinister hippy cult, a latter day Charles Manson. I find Thunberg really inspiring. I wish I had had her desire to roll up my sleeves and get stuck into the problems of the world when I was her age. At 16 the thing I was most interested in was finding all the Insane Stunt Bonuses on GTA 3.
You could argue that she is young and native, that she doesn’t understand how the world works because she is only 16. I don’t think she is any of these things, but I can see how one could make that argument. It’s an argument that has been deployed against teenagers getting involved in politics for as long as teenagers have been getting involved in politics.
Many teenagers are naive and lack knowledge of the world; I was when I was 16 and you probably were too. However, what I don’t understand is the idea that she is dangerous. That she leading young people towards some kind of Khmer Rouge style rural agrarian socialist death cult, which if you look at the incensed reaction of some people on the right to a young person speaking their mind you would think that was what she was suggesting.
Liberals claimed it
So why is the right making the environment another aspect of the culture war? Why are you now a “libtard” if you don’t want most of the life on Earth to die out in the next century? What makes someone want to embrace Rolling Coal, wasting their money to ruin the environment faster as means of trolling liberals?
Is it because the environment has been “claimed” by the left and therefore they are against it? Just another aspect of the increasingly bizarre culture war, such as declaring that Olivia Coleman has a left-wing face, presumably because people on the left like her.
That might explain contempt for environmental activists, but not the level of vitriol directed at the very idea that we should do something about mass extinctions and rising global temperatures. The right’s culture war on environmentalism has led to the debasement of climate science.
Is it because it’s seen as anti-capitalism? The free market is destroying the natural environment and the free market must be followed so therefore environmentalism is communism? I can see how the right is on the side of big business like coal, oil and car companies and they’re right that tackling the climate emergency will require more regulations and more state involvement in both people’s personal lives and the activities of companies. Many on the right have a religious devotion to capitalism and see that any intervention in the free market as the work of satan, so is this why they’re so triggered by environmental activists?
I don’t think this full explains it. There are a lot of business opportunities for firms wanting to create green products. Markets adapt to changes. Slaves and child labour were once acceptable products. So were cigarette adverts or ads for fast food aimed at children. All these things have been discarded and free market capitalism continues.
I want to be clear that I disagree with the argument that capitalism can save us from the climate emergency. I have written the opposite of that. However, I can see how someone on the right could believe that it is. A lack of willingness to see the flaws in capitalism doesn’t explain their visceral hatred of climate activists.
Shock jocks and trolls
Some of this hated of environmentalism on the right comes from shock jocks whose role is to get as much attention as possible. They don’t necessarily represent everyone on the right. This is more of an American, Republican pathology and doesn’t reflect the views of many British conservatives who acknowledge that there is a problem with the environment, but don’t think it’s a priority to tackle it. This is a different type of idiocy, but it’s not part of the culture war.
Across the western world, as the climate worsens, there is an increasing scorn from the right aimed at people who don’t want the human race to go extinct. The shock jocks and trolls are a vocal minority, but wouldn’t have power if they didn’t get retweets. Also this does not explain the right’s desire to deny the evidence of rising global temperatures and decreasing polar ice caps. It doesn’t explain why the people who fetishise the data driven world of business, have so turned against facts and reason.
A patriotic view of history
I think that the reason the right hates environmentalism is that they see it as unpatriotic, which is ironic because it is the land they claim to love that is itself being destroyed by the climate emergency.
Let me be clear. Their objection is not that environmental activists don’t wave the flag enough (although that cultural disconnect is part of it), it is more of a fundamental disconnect about how the left and the right view the world or, more accurately, history. Environmental activism explicitly says that we have taken a wrong turn at some point in our history and this something that the right cannot stand. They cannot recast the history of their country as having a major flaw.
It’s down to the left to stop the climate emergency
The left is more open to the idea that at some point in history we took a wrong turn. The left opposes neoliberal capitalism and racism, neither of which are natural and were created by people. On the left, we can say that society made a bad decision in the past and created capitalist and racist institutions that led to suffering in the present. To us history is not glorious, it is littered with mistakes.
The left is also happy with the idea that we can correct the mistake by overthrow the current system and replace it with a better one. This is key to environmentalism. Modern Conservatism traces its origins to Edmund Burke who believed that all revolutions end in tyranny and this makes the right opposed a broad programs of change.
Environmentalism seems to be against how conservatives see themselves. They are threatened by it on a fundamental level. Thus they feel the need to pour hatred onto environmental activists. They have made the environment part of the culture war, which means they see caring about the future of the planet as a sign of weakness. If this is the case then it is the left that will have to save the environment from destruction. The right have renounced any obligation to conserve nature and would rather bury their head in the sand whilst tweeting snarky owns at people trying to make sure that our species has a future.