Dominic Lawson: Should we believe politicians when they promise to save the earth? I don't think so

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This column deplores the all-too-common practice of dismissing the political opinions of the very rich , solely because of their great wealth. It therefore will play no part in the cruel mockery of Zac Goldsmith, son and heir of the late billionaire Sir James Goldsmith, David Cameron's "Green Advisor", and co-author of the Conservative Party's Quality of Life report.

Just because Zac Goldsmith has never had to worry about the cost of his food, it doesn't mean that his strictures against Britain's supermarkets should be automatically dismissed. Just because he has experienced the privilege of being flown in his late father's private jet, it doesn't mean we should not listen to his argument that the masses must pay more for their EasyJet flights.

In any case, the most significant genealogical point to make about Zac Goldsmith is not that he is his father's son, but that he is his uncle's nephew. The magazine Zac Goldsmith now edits, The Ecologist, was founded by his uncle Teddy – who clearly has been a very big influence on Zac's thinking.

Teddy Goldsmith was on the wilder fringes of the environmentalist movement. He believed that the whole world should become completely de-industrialised. He was not swayed by the arguments that it was only through industrialisation that extreme poverty, malnutrition and high infant mortality had been eradicated in the developed world – and that exactly the same process was having the same beneficial effects in what we used to call the Third World.

In fact Teddy Goldsmith, like many of his friends whom we would normally think of as being on the far Right, such as the late casino and private zoo owner John Aspinall, was not a great supporter of the human race in general. A friend of mine once heard Teddy Goldsmith insist that the optimum population for the planet was 50,000.

I am not saying that Zac Goldsmith shares these opinions – and the fact that he is a faithful frequenter of John Aspinall's casino is nothing to do with his political views. Yes, Zac Goldsmith used to support UKIP before he became a Conservative Parliamentary candidate –but it is no sin to want to withdraw from the EU. There are, however, alarming elements of atavism in Zac Goldsmith's analysis. In The Daily Telegraph yesterday he argued that something should be done about the fact that "the UK's self-sufficiency in food is actually decreasing". Here we see the profoundly reactionary nature of apparently hip environmentalists: they have simply failed to grasp why capitalism works. Over 230 years after the publication of The Wealth of Nations, many of them still don't want to understand that it is through specialising in what we do most efficiently that general prosperity is achieved.

Why should Britain be self-sufficient in food production, if its people can pay less for food of a similar quality from, say, East Africa? More to the point for the "compassionate" Conservative Party of David Cameron's rhetoric: why should the low-carbon, low-cost farmers of East Africa be shunned in order to preserve market share for farms such as Zac Goldsmith's 300 organic acres in Devon?

I would not make such criticisms of the official leader of the Quality of Life report. John Gummer – or Gum-Gum as he is affectionately nicknamed in and around Westminster – is a much more mainstream political figure, with almost half a century's service to the Conservative Party. He was responsible for that Party's "greening" long before David Cameron arrived on the scene: Gummer was behind such Tory measures – in those distant days when they made the laws in this country – as the Energy Conservation Act, the Landfill Tax and, most controversially of all, the Fuel Tax Escalator.

The Quality of Life report's introductory remark from David Cameron – "Modern, compassionate Conservatism means recognising that there's more to life than getting and spending money" – is presumably designed to insinuate that the bad old days of Thatcherite grab-the-money-and-run are over; but the actual text is full of compliments to Margaret Thatcher's avant-garde environmentalism.

Well, why shouldn't John Gummer be proud of the last Conservative government's achievements – even if Gordon Brown's enthusiasm for the Tories' fuel price escalator led the British worker to demonstrate just what he thought of carbon taxes in action?

John Gummer's personal history is in many ways much more interesting than the more socially glamorous background of his co-author. The son of a notable Church of England priest, and himself a long-time member of the General Synod, John Gummer fled the C of E for Rome when that body – to his horror – permitted the ordination of women to the priesthood. He is now a regular columnist for The Catholic Herald.

In this context I was rather surprised to see the Quality of Life report take the line that population growth had to be tackled in order "to adapt to the impacts of climate change" and that the Conservative Party should "champion family planning".

Presumably this was the voice of Teddy Goldsmith's nephew - and the succeeding anxious sentence must have been Gummer's: "This is categorically not a policy of coercion." That'll be a relief for bewildered Conservative Party activists. It's hard enough to get votes with a policy which threatens to ban free supermarket parking and whack up taxes on cheap holidays: a compulsory one-child policy would set the seal on electoral annihilation.

Although John Gummer narrowly chose politics ahead of priesthood, his manner of speaking has never lost its intense, evangelical tone. This would have been evident to listeners of the Today programme, on which he was interviewed yesterday. He became extremely excited when criticisms were made of some elements of his 548-page report, warning that if his proposals were not acted upon "we may well find that the Gulf Stream ceases to pump! Either we save this planet, or the next generation will never forgive us".

In reality, nothing that we might do in this country will "save the planet" – although I suppose Gum-Gum could legitimately argue that every little helps. As for the turning off of the Gulf Stream, that alleged possible consequence of anthropogenic global warming has been demonstrated by all the most recent oceanographical research to be mere scare-mongering; it made a very chilling Hollywood film – but that is where it belongs.

Gum-Gum makes one very good point in his report, when he criticises politicians who have staked their entire appeal on enhancing our material wealth. As he says: "It is not only demagogues who have promised the earth and delivered very little." It's no improvement, however, when our politicians – some of whom do deserve to be called demagogues – promise instead to save the earth.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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