Today there is a common misconception that conservatism is incompatible with environmental stewardship. Environmentalists on the Left have successfully popularised a narrative in which conservatism is a vehicle for corporate bosses to exploit the Earth’s resources for their own selfish ends instead of the betterment of humankind. The truth is that environmental problems have been caused by the absence of conservative principles, rather than their supposed failure. Environmental stewardship is one of the strongest examples of how fundamental conservative principles, namely the defence of property rights and the common law, have improved our lives.
The right to own and freely transfer property is at the heart of how conservatives view the efficient allocation of resources. Property owners are better suited than central planners to administer their resources, evaluate potential risk and profit, and have a real stake in the long-term value of their property. Property rights are not a defence of privilege, but the best way of empowering entrepreneurs, businesses, and civil associations. By drawing upon their specific, local knowledge, property owners can resolve the environmental problems we grapple with today.
When natural resources have no ownership, anyone can use them and exploit them for short-term gain as they have no incentive to ensure their long-term value. This has led to serious environmental problems such as overfishing and deforestation. The ecologist Garrett Hardin identified this problem as the “tragedy of the commons” in his seminal 1968 essay. Hardin argued that state regulation or public ownership of shared resources fails to guarantee sustainability. These shared resources can be saved from exploitation by introducing well defined and enforceable property rights.
Property rights based approaches have found success around the world. One particularly helpful example is the fishing industry. When fishing waters become shared resources, there is often a “race to catch” which results in the depletion of fish stock. The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy put an end to British territorial fishing rights and established a Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for each member state, and the result has been a severe decline with 30% of European fish stocks at risk of collapsing. By contrast, in the United States, catch share programmes have been established in numerous localities where fishing crews can buy and sell “catch shares” which grant permission for a specific total allowed catch. The result has been a self-regulating institutional framework which integrates fishermen.
In fact, conservationist movements in Britain have built some of their greatest achievements on the back of property rights. An important success story has been the National Trust which was formed in 1895 to protect the coastlines and countryside of Britain. The National Trust owns 250,000 hectares of countryside and its Neptune Coastline Campaign has bought 574 miles of coastline in the past fifty years. This work continues today as the National Trust purchased the Great Orme coastline in 2015. Britain’s broader conservationist movement has also thrived. For example, the Wildlife Trust is responsible for 2,300 nature reserves in Britain, and relies on local communities for support. In Scotland, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds manages 80 nature reserves covering 72,000 hectares. These achievements illustrate how conservationists have benefitted from property rights and have become sound environmental stewards without any need for the state to step in.
That is not to say all property owners are good environmental stewards. Pollution inflicted by businesses and the state is a serious challenge for modern policy makers. In recent decades, governments have created administrative agencies to regulate the private sector in order to reduce pollution. This approach has enjoyed some valuable successes, such as the Clean Air Act 1956 in the wake of the “Great Smog of London”, but it is an imperfect approach to tackling pollution. Across the Western world, governments continue to be major polluters with their nationalised or subsidised infrastructure and industries. For example, from 2010 to 2013 in the United States, publicly owned water facilities had 14% more health violations under the Safe Drinking Water Act than privately owned facilities. The state has been trying and failing to directly eliminate the causes of pollution when it should be finding ways to resolve conflicts when they arise.
Conservationists can rely upon the common law as a mechanism for resolving these conflicts. English tort law is a particularly beneficial example of how property rights and the common law can protect the environment. After the landmark Rylands v Fletcher 1868 case, strict liability was introduced into tort law for incidents when activities within one party’s property causes damage to another party’s property. This effectively meant that pollution is an invasion of property, so an injured party can prosecute a polluter and pursue damages or an injunction. As the economist Ronald Coase has persuasively argued, the threat of damages in tort law can deter and punish polluters, which in turn provides a clear incentive for investment in non-polluting technologies. This innovation in tort law provided conservationists with a property rights based approach which is more responsive to local circumstances than centralised regulation, and adequately protects the environment from polluters.
The common law has been a critical element of environmental stewardship in other ways. One of the major examples of how common law has been used to fight polluters is the riparian owners’ struggle with upstream pollution after the Chasemore v Richards 1859 case established riparian rights in civil law. When various parties are involved in class actions, it can be a very costly and complex affair. In order to remedy this, the Anglers Conservation Association was formed in 1948 to provide financial backing for nuisance suits and get injunctions against polluters. One of their key victories was the Pride of Derby 1953 case when the ACA prosecuted the Corporation of Derby, the British Electricity Authority, and British Celanese Ltd for polluting the River Derwent.
It is only when entrepreneurs, businesses, and civil associations have the freedom to use their property, provided they harm no one else, that they can become true environmental stewards. They enjoy the specific, local knowledge required to conserve the long-term value of their resources. State intervention does have a place in environmental policy, but conservatives ought to defend property rights and the common law as the best means of promoting a robust culture of environmental stewardship.