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:


Russ deForest said...

It seems practically axiomatic that environmentalism is born out of a 'love of home'. The track record on local environmental efforts however is pretty dismal, at least in the US. (I'm speaking of efforts aimed at preventing damaging development- remediation is a different matter. It's easy to be an environmentalist after the trees are all cut down and the mine has to shut down for lack of coal.)

While I should read Scruton's book, on the surface I'm skeptical of the argument. Solutions (a) - (c) above require coordinated international effort and it's hard to imagine such efforts being welcome at the local level - at least any place where it would matter. I would find more reason for optimism here if the development of the Marcellus shale unfolding right now were accompanied by far-sighted vision and a healthy dose of precaution.

John Roe said...

I think your skepticism is probably justified, Russ, especially around (c)... though note that RS does not think that even geoengineering wd require coordinated international effort - he envisages the US possibly going it alone (!) But I think that the most important aspect of the book is its focus on what might motivate people to take these kinds of actions - I felt i didn't bring that out enough here, so I tried to address it more in a follow-up post.