Why we need moral and financial arguments for sustainable development

This post is by Alastair Harper, a senior policy adviser at Green Alliance. It reviews a report on values and sustainable development by ResPublica and was first published in the Charity Times.

Do we want our politicians to care about our children or make us rich? Are our political parties from Venus or Mars? In ResPublica’s Different politics, same planet it seems that is the choice we face.

The three essays in ResPublica’s report make the case that sustainable development mustn’t be debated in the abstract but through cultural values.

Intrinsic values
Tom Crompton and Martin Kirk (of WWF and Oxfam respectively) set out the premise, arguing that the key to engaging people with sustainable development lies in valuing its intrinsic worth: what it means to our family and friends, and our appreciation of the world, rather than the extrinsic: how it helps us to obtain wealth and power. If we think of the environment for what it is then we will fundamentally value it, if we think of it for what it can do for us then it will be just another option on the table. Crompton and Kirk cite the example of the NHS, loved not for its extrinsic value, providing medical provision that matches well against an open market, but for its intrinsic principles, representing a society willing to care and provide for its own.

Lessons from the abolition of slavery
People are more compelled by moral belief than reasoned judgement and campaigns on sustainable development need to recognise this. But that does not necessarily mean not employing the practical as well. The American abolition movement was backed by both intrinsic arguments (the moral case against slavery) as well as extrinsic ones (the financial argument for free labour). The economic case against slavery now seems a sideline issue against the moral scandal of it but, without the extrinsic case, abolition seemed an impossible nicety.

As David Boyle of nef shows, Labour achieved most on the environment when the extrinsic and the intrinsic came together. Not devised by the environmental eccentrics that were, as Boyle quotes, “Orwell’s Welwyn Garden City yoga practitioners”` or the hardnosed industrialists who wrote the 1983 Labour manifesto without a single reference to the environment. But instead, succeeding at leading change with the 2006 Stern report, or the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act where the moral and the practical came together “to protect the planet while the business of industrialisation went on uninterrupted”.

Is Conservatism selfish?
Guy Shrubsole sees the Conservatives as having a problem with “Bigger-than-self problems like climate change and global poverty” which “by their nature require a sense of collective responsibility.” He thinks Conservative charity “begins and ends at home” and larger goals usually only come into play when they have an extrinsic role. As he says, when he quotes Andrew Mitchell, even overseas aid is reviewed to ensure that it gives “value for taxpayers’ money.”

But, if this were true, we may as well all give up and go home; and this account does not give credit to many senior Conservatives who have championed environmental causes over the past few decades. Nor is it fair to imply that Conservatives have an inherently extrinsic appreciation of the world. If they did then we might convert George Osborne to green growth by having him adopt a puppy. Instead, Conservative politicians have done as Labour and the Liberal Democrats have done. They have taken their intrinsic values and attempted to apply them using extrinsic methods. Shouldn’t we ensure overseas aid does the most that it can do? Shouldn’t we apply our moral beliefs in the most effective way?

Green tape
Philip Blond’s foreword complains that environmental problems are being tackled through what he terms ‘managerialism’: “regulation, taxation and increased state welfare.” He warns that this disengages the public. To accept this would be to get nothing done.

We don’t win public support by explaining the intricacies of electricity market reform. True conviction on issues such as the environment and development must come from passionate, intrinsic values. But those values are only resolved when aligned with the extrinsic. Because the extrinsic is a means not an end, we want power to do things, we want money to buy things. In the end, the practical must work with the moral because, with the best will in the world, we can’t hug an energy market into being less broken.

One comment

  • I don’t think any of the authors in the ResPublica report are advocating getting Osborne to hug a puppy. What they are doing is trying to pull out lessons from the dense literature on how personal values relate to people’s propensity for pro-environmental behaviour and engagement with ‘bigger-than-self’ issues like climate change, but you make it sound as if they’re just saying ‘love each other more maaaaan’

    Its really tricky trying to translate the evidence base on values and pro-env attitudes/behaviour into specific contexts like this but I think its an important step nonetheless. Otherwise, the lessons from this work get bounced around progressive circles (where everyone is much more inclined to agree with it in the first place) and no-one from the conservative side gets to hear it.

    My understanding of the report is that there IS a form (or forms) of conservatism that are rooted in the intrinsic value of nature/humanity etc, but that these ideas aren’t getting much of a look in and they need to be nurtured and developed…

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