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Green Philosophy by Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton’s critiques of our actions are under scrutiny by Paul Keeling.

Conservatives often avoid environmental issues. I suspect the following type of argument is often behind their denial of environmental problems such as anthropogenic climate change:

(1) Preventing anthropogenic climate change requires collective, large-scale action.

(2) Collective, large-scale action is a left-wing, socialist agenda.

(3) Therefore anthropogenic climate change doesn’t exist.

British philosopher Professor Roger Scruton, an intelligent and articulate proponent of conservatism, of course, utterly rejects this absurd reasoning, and (thankfully) does believe that climate change is a serious problem that demands action. However, in his book Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet (2011) he largely buys into the second premise of the above argument, asserting that because environmental problems like climate change are often global in scale, and left-wingers tend to prescribe collective, large-scale solutions to human problems, therefore environmentalism has been unduly infected by left-wing thinking. He argues that, on the contrary, collective, large-scale action is not required by environmentalism, and actually undermines it. Scruton obviously cares passionately about the environment, but rather than exhort conservatives to become more green, his strategy is to convince greens that they have been hugging the wrong trees for too long, and that they should be – or indeed, really are – conservatives.

Scruton thinks it is a mistake to pursue environmental solutions through state regulation and large environmentally-active NGOs with international campaigns. He also criticizes the Precautionary Principle (‘If you don’t know it’s not dangerous, don’t do it’), and castigates environmental regulatory bodies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the ways in which they disaggregate risk and (according to Scruton) produce the opposite results to those intended. He blames EU environmental regulations for the collapse of fisheries, and shows how ‘health and safety laws’ favour large, environmentally-unfriendly food producers over local, environmentally-friendly ones. He considers the “vast schemes” of international environmental organizations such as Greenpeace to be as unaccountable as the schemes of multinational corporations, and laments the hyperbolizing of environmental problems by environmental activists as hurting their cause. “Political exhortation, global summiting and alarmist campaigning,” he writes with respect to climate change, “have not changed people’s incentives, and emissions have continued as before.”

Green Carrots

Scruton’s ‘conservative’ approach to environmental problems is to move from ‘control’ to ‘incentive’. He argues that like ecosystems, markets are homeostatic (self-maintaining) systems, and that markets self-regulate through feedback loops, unless the loops are severed by state regulation and subsidies. Environmental problems arise when agents can escape (or what economists call ‘externalize’) the environmental costs of their transactions. Big business does this; but, says Scruton, so do all of us. What we need, then, is a “regime of pricing and feedback loops that return environmental costs to those who create them” – including a carbon tax, road tolls, and the revival of local food economies over state-subsidized global supermarkets. “We must find motives that cause people to internalize their costs,” Scruton argues, “and the institutions through which those motives can be exercised to the common good.” This, he says, “is the goal of conservative politics.”

But what will motivate ordinary people to protect the environment to the extent of pushing for the needed pricing policies? Scruton thinks the environmental movement has not adequately confronted this question. His answer is what he calls oikophilia (cf ‘ecophilia’) – literally ‘love of home’. Human values of empathy and reciprocity evolved locally in small societies. As a result, abstractions such as ‘saving the planet for future generations’ do not have much biological hold on us. So when state initiatives or international agendas “confiscate” the “moral space” in which oikophilia naturally thrives, environmental apathy naturally follows: “The radical environmental movement,” he writes, “defining itself through global agendas, internationalist campaigns and world-wide mobilization, uproots what it claims to serve, the search for roots.” But people are naturally inclined, Scruton believes, to care about the places where they actually live. So we can save the world by not trying to save the world, but instead protecting and stewarding our own territory. Thus for Scruton, ‘NIMBYism’ [Not In My Back Yard-ism] can be a good thing. And rather than seek massive social transformation, we should take an approach to environmental problems in which “local affections are made central to policy and in which homeostasis and resilience rather than social reordering and central control are the primary outcomes.” Therefore one aim of good conservative policy is to identify which environmental problems the state should tackle (e.g. carbon pricing) and which problems should be left to people to look after themselves (e.g. food safety).

Right-Wing Environmentalism

Scruton considers civic initiatives such as Britain’s National Trust and the Women’s Institute to be successful historic models of environmental action that grew out of, and further promote, oikophilia; he also cites the recent emergence of small-scale, local environmental movements that “operate outside the control and even awareness of the state” such as farmer’s markets, the slow food movement, transition towns, Community Supported Agriculture, 100 Mile Diets and local conservation societies, as examples of the volunteerism and care that proliferate “when the state does not take charge.” Scruton also identifies threats to oikophilia, from the right as well as the left: for example, he rejects the reduction of human moral agency to the economic preferences of Homo economicus, and shuns laissez faire economics. In fact, he believes that “left and right should be united in the fight against consumerism.” However, he often conflates the internationalist flavour of the environmental movement with communism, and rather tends to characterize left-wing politics as a slippery slope leading inevitably to the collectivist schemes of Stalin and Mao, while giving relatively little heed to the addictive nature of consumerism and capitalism’s role in fuelling the addiction. A divorce between capitalism and consumerism seems doubtful, given (as Scruton himself seems aware) that capitalist ideology equates consumption with human well-being. But Scruton apparently notices no tension between the inherent acquisitiveness of the profit motive and his otherwise eloquent call for reviving the ancient notion of piety – what he calls “the natural gratitude for what is given.” Scruton also seems to underestimate the degree of collusion that exists between the state and, for example, the fossil fuel industry that now significantly controls state policies. His bottom-up, grass roots approach to environmental problems is theoretically appealing; but to work, surely it requires loosening the strangle-hold on the state of corporations who are deeply invested in wrecking the planet. This means restoring the state as an instrument of, for and by the people, not weakening the state further and ceding it to corporate control, as conservatives often advocate. The U.S., which Scruton clearly admires as a “competent, law-abiding state,” is verging undeniably on oligarchy, and this needs addressing. In fact, Scruton’s reasonable-sounding brand of conservatism has been virtually nonexistent in North America for at least thirty-five years, if not for a century, having been replaced by an obsession with the three Gs – Guns, Gays, and God – and rationalizations for oligarchy and corporate control. Sara Palin’s sense of oikophilia – shared by many across rural America – is “drill, baby, drill” before the Second Coming; and there has been major environmental obfuscation and obstructionism by so-called ‘conservatives’ there for decades. It’s no wonder that Greens turn to the Left.

At 413 pages, Green Philosophy is a bit of a slog, and at times repetitive, but Scruton is meticulous and thorough, and his thesis that the environmental movement could benefit from the conservative handbook (properly understood, that is) is insightful and provocative. I recommend it to leftists, rightists, and tree-huggers alike.

© Paul M. Keeling 2013

Paul M. Keeling has an MSc in Philosophy from the University of Edinburgh and is now an environmental writer living in Vancouver.

Green Philosophy: How To Think Seriously About The Planet, by Roger Scruton, Atlantic Books, 2011, ISBN: 978-1848870765.

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