Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet, by Roger Scruton, Atlantic, RRP£22, 464 pages
Not so long ago, environmentalism was assumed to be a leftwing cause: anti-capitalist, pro-social justice and on the side of the underdog. It is only recently that the idea that green goes better with blue than red has gained credence and in the philosopher Roger Scruton environmental conservatism has found its most eloquent, intelligent and passionate advocate. He is scathing about those on the left who “regard ‘conservatism’ as a dirty word, with no semantic connection to the ‘conservation’ they favour”. He argues that the link between the two is much more than etymological. “Conservatism and conservation are two aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources and ensuring their renewal.”
Scruton’s case for a green conservatism is compelling. Phrases such as “frugality is founded on the principle that all riches have limits”; “it is easier to destroy than it is to restore”; and society “is a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are to be born” could easily be inserted into speeches by ecologists. In fact, they all come from the pen of conservatism’s intellectual hero, Edmund Burke.
But Scruton is not only arguing that green conservatism is possible. His claim is that environmentalism needs to be conservative if it is to be coherent and effective. His case rests on both philosophy and psychology, concerned not only with establishing which principles are just but by what will actually move people to work to protect the environment. Chief among these motives is “oikophilia”, love of home. Scruton argues that the only examples of success in reversing ecological destruction have come from “national or local schemes to protect territory recognised as ‘ours’”.
Attempts to save the planet through international treaties and centrally determined government decrees are not only unjustified in Scruton’s eyes, they just don’t work. Look at the failures of the Kyoto protocol and the loss of agricultural land for inefficient, subsidised biofuels, and Scruton seems to have a point.
Nevertheless, Scruton’s emphasis on “us” will make those of a more liberal persuasion flinch. When Scruton unapologetically makes the “distinction between people who are mine and people who are not mine”, you can almost hear self-described citizens of the world choke on their fair trade coffee. Scruton dismisses this knee-jerk reaction as oikophobia, an adolescent hatred for one’s own home that many on the left never grow out of. He accepts that oikophobes see themselves as doughty “defenders of enlightened universalism against local chauvinism” but insists that the project of basing politics and justice on principles uprooted from any local history or tradition is doomed. “I bow to the evidence of history, which tells me that human beings are creatures of limited and local affections.”
Nevertheless, Scruton does not seem to genuflect in reluctant submission, but in ardent worship. His yearning for belonging and tradition seems almost pathological at times, a case less of oikophilia than of oikomania. He may dismiss certain leftwing universalism as juvenile but his own “desire to live as an enduring consciousness among things that endure” could equally be rejected as an immature reluctance to accept that things do not endure and that all things shall pass.
It is ironic that in advocating a conservatism that is all about fitting in, Scruton appears to relish standing out as deeply unfashionable. He says that to claim the environmental movement is infused with “nostalgia” or “technophobia” is a true description, not a criticism. Most counter-cultural of all, he argues that the sense of a place being “ours” derives from “some inherited entitlement”, which means setting limits to immigration and ensuring that those newcomers who are allowed in are assimilated into the host culture.
His oikomania also leads him to be too optimistic about the ability of local solutions to solve global problems. For instance, he praises the volunteer spirit of Americans, claiming that this is what enables them to “take charge of their environmental problems”. But the US is one of the most environmentally destructive nations on the planet, with one of the highest per capita emissions of CO2 in the world. Rather than being a shining example of how localism can save the planet, it could equally be cited as evidence that parochialism and patriotism can lead people to be dangerously indifferent to the environmental impact of their lifestyles on places many miles away. Similarly, he mentions the Amazon rainforest as somewhere in need of oikophilia; in fact, it has never been absent and its presence didn’t stop savage deforestation.
It’s telling, then, that when Scruton does come to make some concrete, modest proposals for what we should actually do, oikophilia turns out to be unnecessary. His main proposal is “a flat rate carbon tax” to avoid the externalisation of costs that enables polluters to get away with not paying for the damage they cause. This very sensible position has been backed by leader columns in this newspaper and The Economist for years but it doesn’t depend on love of home, nation and tradition. Even the suggestion that we “follow the Danish example and decentralise the production of energy” can be fully supported on grounds of efficiency rather than any fundamental commitment to localisation as a value in itself.
If Scruton makes a mistake it is, ironically, that he is not conservative enough. As he has written before, conservatism is not a philosophy but a disposition, and one of the things it is disposed to do is be mistrustful of comprehensive world views that attempt to provide all the answers. Conservatism has to apply that insight to itself and accept that the environment is a large, messy problem that requires a large mess of solutions, big and small, conservative and radical. Scruton is right to make the links between conservatism and conservation and to stress the role attachment to place can play in environmental protection. But this battle is too big, international and unprecedented for Burke’s “little platoons” to fight it alone.
Julian Baggini is author of ‘The Ego Trick’ (Granta)