July 14, 2024

Back in the 1960s, no self-respecting hippy would be seen dead without a well-thumbed copy of the Lord of the Rings. Along with a copy of Sgt Pepper and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, it came to epitomise the counterculture.

Times change. Tolkien’s most prominent fan at present is Giorgia Meloni, the most rightwing prime minister Italy has had since the second world war. That has set alarm bells clanging.

Tolkien has not yet been cancelled, but LOTR has been accused – at various times – of being racist, nationalistic, ultra-conservative, even fascist. The fact that Meloni knows the book backwards has only added to the notion that Tolkien’s political views were a bit dodgy.

That’s a pity, because the central political message conveyed by the Lord of the Rings is the author’s hostility to rampant industrialisation and growth at all costs. Saruman, the wizard who turns to the bad, shows himself in his true colours when he chops down the trees of Fangorn forest in order to feed his furnaces. When Frodo returns to his village after his year-long quest, he is saddened to find how Hobbiton has been despoiled by a new mill, “a great brick building straddling the stream, which it fouled with steaming and stinking outflow”.

Tolkien, by his own admission, was no socialist. He was anti-state and once said his political opinions veered more and more to anarchy. The hippies had it right in the 1960s: if he were alive today, Tolkien would have been a green, and a deep green at that. He even anticipated the direct action of Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil by proposing the dynamiting of factories and power stations. LOTR is not a neo-fascist tome; it is part of a literary tradition that stretches back to the Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th century.

In his book Defending Middle-earth, Patrick Curry says Tolkien was a conservative, but not in the contemporary sense of the word, “which has been almost entirely taken over by neo-liberalism, but in the sense of striving to conserve what is worth saving”. That seems a fair judgment.

So what has this to do with economics? Nothing to the extent that economics is almost entirely absent from LOTR. The hobbits inhabit a pre-industrial land, tilling the fields and harvesting crops. The elves craft beautiful objects but otherwise don’t appear to do much. Only the dwarves in their mines appear to do much at all. To the extent that Tolkien had an economic model in mind, it is the Arts and Crafts movement, pioneered by William Morris. That’s fair enough. LOTR is a fantasy: it doesn’t have to explain where the wealth comes from.

All that said, the Lord of the Rings is a critique of hyper-industrialisation that has greater political resonance now than it did when Tolkien started work on it during the 1930s. In those Depression years, there was an emphasis on growth at all costs. That philosophy hadn’t changed by the time the book was published in the mid-1950s. There were two models available, capitalism and communism, and they vied with each other to maximise production. Nobody cared too much about how many trees were felled by the real-life Sarumans. The costs to the environment were never a consideration for decision-makers either of left or right. The cold war was not just an arms race: it was also a struggle between two growth models, which the west eventually won.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the tearing down of the iron curtain ushered in a period when an aggressive brand of globalised, free-market capitalism was triumphant. But victory was short-lived and, before long, environmentalism filled the ideological vacuum left by communism’s demise.

There are two ways of looking at the period since. The first is to view the post-1990 world as the story of capitalism unbound, with the lust for growth and wealth taking the world to the brink of ecological catastrophe. Despite the scientific evidence and all the warning signs from nature, greenhouse gas emissions have kept on rising and made it increasingly hard to prevent global temperatures from passing the point of no return.

Seen from this perspective, the human race will be destroyed by greed and stupidity. The orcs win.

There is, though, a more upbeat way of looking at things. The past 30 years have increasingly seen the environment hard-wired into policymaking. Net zero targets, the commitments to phase out of fossil fuels, investment in renewables, electric cars, official measures of economic wellbeing that look beyond growth: all of these are signs of progress. The only intellectual developments of any real note in economics since the end of the cold war have been green ones: de-growth and the circular economy, for example.

Capitalism is a highly malleable system, and it has responded to pressure from environmentalists. Whether it has changed deeply or quickly enough is moot, but the fact that there is an annual UN conference to monitor progress on meeting agreed decarbonisation matters. Countries have to account for their actions.

Free-market liberals argue that, left to its own devices, the profit motive would eventually find a way to cut greenhouse gases and save the planet. This seems improbable. Without political pressure, it would be business as usual.

In truth, both the pessimistic and optimistic scenarios have merit. Progress has been made, but it has not been fast enough.

There is a point in the Lord of the Rings where Galadriel says the quest to destroy the ring stands upon the edge of a knife, and that goes for the quest to save the planet as well. That, too, is on a knife-edge, as the nations represented at Cop28 in Dubai surely know.

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