Saturday, June 30, 2012

Book Review: Roger Scruton's Case for Environmental Conservatism

Roger Scruton's name might not be familiar.  He's a British conservative philosopher who sees himself standing in the old Tory tradition that goes back to Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. This tradition gives priority to the "little platoons", social structure and hierarchy, and local institutions - and therefore stands against what Scruton would see as the utopian and top-down projects of the political Left, based on abstract general theories of human nature; but, equally, against the utopian "marketism" of the neo-conservative Right under Margaret Thatcher and her American admirers. Scruton's articulation of these themes in The Meaning of Conservatism (1982), he said, cost him his academic career.

In "How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism", Scruton brings these commitments to bear on the familiar idea that conservatism and conservation, economics and ecology, should be more than etymological bedfellows.  He accepts that environmental destruction constitutes the most urgent political problem of our age, and he is straightforward about the challenge presented by climate change in particular: "Even if the alarmists are overstating their case, therefore, these possibilities are so dire that we are duty-bound to consider how they might be averted. The global warming that is occurring may not be all man-made, but it is still our problem." 

Scruton's primary intention is not to debate these and other environmental concerns (he is particularly exercised by plastic pollution), but to ask: what motives might encourage ordinary people to take the difficult actions that are needed to respond to them, and how might society foster such motives? Here, in his view, is where left-leaning environmentalism goes wrong.  By reaching instinctively for a "big government", regulatory solution, "the Left" ensures that environmentalism reaches the ordinary person in the form of inflexible regulations promulgated by distant bureaucrats.  Worse, since government institutions are often major polluters, the temptation for the government to deal itself convenient exemptions becomes irresistible.  Here, the terrible environmental record of Eastern Europe under Communism is held up as an example.

Localism is (part of) the answer, according to Scruton.  The motive that will energize environmental action is not some global concern for "the whole world" but oikophilia, a term he coins for the "love of home" (oikos in Greek) - home being "my village" or "my community" or (at its broadest extent) "my nation". (He gives a passing mention to the Transition Towns movement, which seems exactly the kind of thing that he is getting at, but most of the examples are from an earlier generation of English conservation organizations - the National Trust, the Womens' Institutes, etc.)  To this left-leaning reader at least, Scruton scores a bullseye here.  There can be no "concern for the environment" which does not work itself out in my local community, just as there can be no "love for the world" if there is hatred at home: "the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen." (I John 4:20)

But will "localism" be enough to address a question like climate change, where any "locality", even one as large as a nation-state, can externalize its costs by exporting greenhouse gases across its borders? Scruton circles round this vital question several times in the course of the book.  Treaties and other transnational agreements won't cut it for him: there is no mechanism to render them enforceable or verifiable. So he comes up with three suggestions: (a) a national carbon tax on the total "carbon content" of goods sold, including imported goods; (b) national R and D programs to look for reliable new sources of clean energy; (c) some "coalition of the willing" led by the US to embark on giant geoengineering projects to save the planet.  These are a very mixed bag - and all are open to obvious objections - but for Scruton they all share the common advantage that they can be seen as "local" and thus motivated by oikophilia (though with regard to (a), his confidence that the government's taxing power is supported by oikophilia, and thus not seriously questioned, seemed to be misplaced - at least in the US). 

There is much that is good in this book, and it is helpful to me to see the kind of environmentalism that I have been most aware of through Scruton's acerbic lens.  

Other reviews:

Friday, June 22, 2012

EasyWorship and the Environment

2009 General Assembly Opening WorshipHow does the "shape" of a person's or community's spirituality influence their perception of the natural world, of environmental issues and challenges? I've been ruminating about this for a while and I wanted to start with EasyWorship.

EasyWorship, for those who have not heard of it, is a commercial presentation software package designed specifically for churches - and typically used for projecting images, song lyrics, Biblical texts, and so on, for congregations (like my own) that don't use printed worship materials any more.  Any tech volunteer who has been using PowerPoint when the guy with the guitar decides on the fly that "we'll just skip back to verse 2 from verse 5 and then go on through the bridge to the ending repeats" will appreciate the features of EasyWorship.

Nevertheless, the name really grates.  Easy Worship?  Is it supposed to be easy? How about Challenging Worship or  Difficult Worship or even Embarrassing, Uncomfortable and Sometimes Just Plain Weird Worship?

I looked through EasyWorship's FAQ page to see if they had a response to this criticism, but I didn't find one.  However, let me guess how it might go.  "You are not really being fair", says the company spokesperson.  "Your actual worship is in your heart, between you and God.  We're not trying to make that easy, nor could we.  What we want to do is to make it easier for those who are called to set the stage for that experience of yours."

This reply makes sense from a certain perspective, and that perspective is part of what I am calling the "shape" of my Evangelical spirituality.  This "shape" bifurcates spirituality into an "inner" personal arena where the real business happens, surrounded by an "outer" world of neutral technology which carries no intrinsic message, but which can affect (for good or ill) people's ability to accomplish their God-given inner tasks.

So, for instance, when we quite unselfconsciously adopt a narrowly Zwinglian perspective on Communion ("this bread represents my body", etc), I don't think this is the voice of 19th-century anti-Catholicism speaking; it's just that our "spiritual shape" makes it seem natural and inevitable that the outer and inner must be related in this way (the symbols of bread and wine set the stage for the real inner action by reminding us of the upper room).

Now this "shape" is something I've seen in another context.  Older expositions of the creation story often framed Genesis 1 in terms of the Creator's "setting the stage" for humanity, so that the whole of the created order becomes the "outer" world and the real action takes place only when human beings appear on the scene.

More recent writers (e.g. Bauckham) have pointed out, rightly I think, that the older perspective denies created nature its own integrity and role whereby "the morning stars sing for joy" and "the trees of the fields clap their hands".  Instead, we seek an ecological understanding - humanity is part of the worshiping community of creation, "crowned with glory and honor", yes, supremely valuable and responsible, but also a member of that community, made of dirt.

Does the "shape" I've described above make it hard for us to grasp that? And are there other parts of our Evangelical "shape" that lead to unique positive insights that we have to share?

Image by Flickr user "Christian Church(Disciples of Christ)"; ,licensed under Creative Commons; click for full licensing information.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

TED update

This is an update on the TED5000 installation that I did three months ago (see this post).

I have to report first that I had a little trouble getting the installation to work reliably. The TED system contains two units: a "measuring-transmitting unit" which measures the power you are consuming (using current transformers) and the supply line voltage, and an interface which receives the signals from the MTU and puts them onto a local ethernet network. From thence, your computer can pick them up and display them on a web interface.In the picture here, the MTU is the lower "black box" on the right side, the interface is the upper one.

In principle these two units can be some distance apart - not everyone is lucky enough to have a switch on their in-home internet sitting right next to the distribution board , as you can see we do. The units communicate by piggybacking a digital signal on the power lines, and this process is prone to interference.  After some discussion with TED tech support they suggested that this was the cause of the problems I was experiencing, and they sent me an in-line filter which I installed on the circuit feeding the TED devices.  After that, everything works great.  I can see usage information from any networked computer and I have also an app (TEDometer) on my phone which gives an instant readout via the home wireless network.

So, what's this done for us? Well, since installing TED in March our daily electricity use is down something like 40%.  I find myself very aware of the electrical consumption of various devices around the house and this has probably made me even more obsessive about switching things off (or not switching them on in the first place).  I should mention that we do not heat water or dry clothes by electricity, so the obvious seasonal causes for such a big change aren't there... but of course there must still be some seasonal component, which we'll only know when we have more data.

Significant changes that seem to have contributed to this load reduction are:
  • Replacing a number of light bulbs - especially PAR 38 floodlights - with LED units. LED bulbs are expensive but this is cost effective for units that are operated for extended periods of time.
  • The house has a recirculating hot water system with a pump.  Putting this pump on a time switch (a pretty simple investment) seems to save something like 1kwhr per day, not to mention the heat that is not wasted from the hot water system.
  • Installed extra attic insulation (upgraded to R50) and ventilation, including a solar powered roof fan... helps keep the house significantly cooler.
  • And the big one... replaced the refrigerator.  This was not purely an energy efficiency decision - the old one gave up the ghost - but once we knew we were replacing, we went for an Energy Star Tier 3 model (most efficient) and the savings were instantly visible. (It looks as though the old fridge was using more power than its rating, presumably as it struggled to extract the required cooling out of a dying compressor.)
It makes a great difference when one can not just make these changes but also instantly see their effects.  Thumbs up for TED!

Friday, June 15, 2012

"Myth of perpetual growth is killing us" - Wall Street Journal

Yes, you read that right.  A MarketWatch-WSJ op-ed caricatures traditional economics as obsessed with short-term thinking and buying into an impossible growth myth.  Read it here.

Actually the tone of the article is shrill and alarmist; I (and you too, probably) can think of writers who would have made the same point in a more measured way.  It's not impossible to imagine that the WSJ published this version of these ideas simply to confirm some of its readers' presuppositions.  But the fact that  they published it at all... is pretty striking.

Image from WIkimedia; see link for copyright information and fair use rationale.