Thursday, July 5, 2012

More about Scruton and human motivation

Wordle: UT2 A few days ago I posted a brief and incomplete review of Roger Scruton's new book How to Think Seriously about the Planet.  To follow up on that, I'd like to think more about what I see as the book's central concern, which is the question of human motivation. "We should recognize", writes Dr. Scruton, "that environmental protection is a lost cause if we cannot find the incentives that would lead people in general, and not merely their self-appointed representatives, to advance it." (page 19)

Let me quote at greater length the passage which precedes this, which gives a flavor of Scruton's writing style as well as making the link that he perceives between environmentalism and conservatism more explicit:

There is a tendency among environmentalists to single out the big players in the market as the principal culprits: to pin environmental crime on those – like oil companies, motor manufacturers, logging corporations, agribusinesses, supermarkets – that make their profits by exporting their costs to others (including others who are not yet born). But this is to mistake the effect for the cause. In a free economy such ways of making money emerge by an invisible hand from choices made by all of us... Of course it is true that the big players externalize their costs whenever they can. But so do we. Whenever we travel by air, visit the supermarket, or consume fossil fuels, we are exporting our costs to others, and to future generations. A free economy is driven by individual demand. And in a free economy individuals, just as much as big businesses, strive to pass on their costs to others, while keeping the benefits... The solution is to adjust our demands, so as to bear the costs of them ourselves, and to find the way to put pressure on businesses to do likewise. And we can correct ourselves in this way only if we have motives to do so – motives strong enough to restrain our appetites.

This tells us nothing, however, about what we must do to make our dealings friendlier to the environment. To defend slow food, slow transport and low energy consumption in a society addicted to fast food, tourism, luxury and waste is to risk the anger of those who need to be converted. Not only are there no votes to be won by seeking to close airports, to narrow roads or to impose a local food economy by fiat, but there is the serious risk of making matters worse, by representing environmental protection as the cause of nostalgic cranks. All environmental activists are familiar with this reaction. Yet I am surprised they do not see that it is a version of the very same reaction directed towards social conservatives, when they defend the beleaguered moral order that was – until a few decades ago – passed from generation to generation as a matter of course. Environmentalists and conservatives are both in search of the motives that will defend a shared but threatened legacy from predation by its current trustees.
In order to share this analysis, it is not necessary also to share Dr. Scruton's individualism or his identification of the desired motivating force (oikophilia, a word he coins for the "love of home" in a local or national sense). Plenty of "progressive" writers would agree that without a change in motivation, a transformation of consciousness, no merely technical solutions to our ecological crisis have a chance of success.  (For example, see the book Developing Ecological Consciousness by my Penn State colleague Christopher Uhl.)  And this is where I see a connection with the work of GreenFaith.

As people of faith, we deal, I believe, in high-voltage stuff.  For what am I deeply grateful? What do I desire without condition? Who or what is to be worshiped? What choices have I made that are inadequate in the light of the love of God? What is the shape of our future?  Our responses to these faith questions shape who we are at a fundamental level.  I've long admired Harvey Cox's book on Pentecostalism, Fire from Heaven. At one point Cox, the Victor Thomas Professor of Religion at Harvard University, is recalling a moment when he told a small group of fellow scholars that there had been times when he had wanted to receive the pentecostal "gift of tongues".  Let him take up the story:

For me, saying this to my lunch companions was a small moment of truth... It produced the kind of insight that sometimes comes when you finally say something that has been lingering at the back of your mind.  The fact is that I will probably never "speak in tongues". I am too self-conscious, too inhibited, maybe too old.  And as I write these words I am not even sure that I would really want to.  But my recognizing publicly, if only to a small circle, that there have been times when I have wanted to, still seems very important to me... This insight taught me something about the enormous power that is generated by desiring something very much.  And it occurred to me that pentecostals must be understood as people who have become what they are because they wanted something badly enough to allow themselves to be changed in a fundamental way, and they were willing to embrace the elemental terror that sort of change requires.  However vaguely or incoherently, they yearned for something they saw in other people, and decided to claim it for themselves; then, having done so, they became glad bearers of its message. (Fire from Heaven, p182).
Is there a power at work in my faith community that makes people willing to desire a sustainable future enough to "embrace the elemental terror" that fundamental change requires?

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