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Green Conservatism

Roger Scruton makes the Burkean case for environmental conservation.

There is no shortage of those who would tell us what to think about the environment.  Some extremists want human beings to will themselves into self-extinction. Others seem to advocate a carelessly laissez-faire approach to our air, water, and climate. In How to Think Seriously About the Planet, Roger Scruton’s goal is neither to advocate for a particular position nor to tip-toe through fields of broken partisan glass to find a bit of muddled middle-ground. He rather steps back from the firing line of our environmental wars, proposing ways to think about these issues that are grounded both in sound philosophy and in an intensely practical view of human nature.

Scruton’s approach is explicitly Burkean, and indeed Edmund Burke’s presence is a force to be reckoned with at every turn of his argument. It is in Burke’s recognition that society is a contract between the living, the dead, and the unborn that Scruton searches for answers to his key question: what can motivate humans not to pass on the costs of despoiling behavior to future generations? He notes that the Burkean construct really isn’t a contract at all, but “a relation of trusteeship, in which the living have charge of assets inherited from the dead which they in turn must pass on to those unborn.”

Scruton notes that powerful forces have disrupted older notions of trusteeship. One is socialism, in which those who own or control the sources of pollution are ostensibly in charge of regulating themselves. Soviet-era environmental disasters are well known, but Scruton doesn’t stop there. He also details examples of rampant deforestation in socialist post-war Great Britain, of the rapid depletion of Danish and British fisheries after both came under the “protection” of the European Union, and of the pernicious effects of government-promoted industrialized agriculture.

Another destructive force is the multinational corporation, an entity that has no viscerally native interest in the health of any nation’s land and water. Scruton writes:

It is one of the weaknesses in the conservative position, as this has expressed itself in America, that its reasonable enthusiasm for free enterprise is seldom tempered by any recognition that free enterprise among citizens of a single nation state is very different from free enterprise conducted by a multinational company, in places to which the company and its shareholders have no civic tie. 

Scruton is still unequivocal that socialist policies lead inexorably to disaster on scales that dwarf anything free markets produce. “While markets cannot solve all of our environmental problems and are indeed the cause of some of them,” he writes, “the alternatives are almost always worse.” He emphasizes that while free enterprise is necessary for protecting the environment, “we also need the rule of law that contains it….” Scruton is decidedly not talking about government regulation–his book provides copious examples of well-intentioned laws that end up causing far more harm than good and, in the process, impose enormous financial costs with few benefits to show for it. As an example, he relates that at the time of the BP oil spill, the Dutch offered the use of specialized ships which siphon oil-contaminated water out of the ocean, clean it, and return nearly clean water to the ocean. The EPA’s zero-tolerance regulations, however, prohibit the discharge of anything but perfectly pure water into the ocean, so the offer was turned down, and the oil was left floating on the ocean surface.

By “rule of law” he instead means old-fashioned Anglo-American common law, especially a tort system by which those who cause damage are forced to pick up the costs when they are incurred and cannot pass those costs on to others–now or future. While the word “tort” tends to be a dirty word in the modern conservative lexicon, Scruton points out that the American legal system’s problems stem primarily from the recent tradition of awarding heavy punitive damages, which make the costs of innovation unpredictable and potentially astronomical.

Scruton fixes his historical eye most closely on the British conservation movement and the American environmentalist movement, but he includes serious philosophical considerations of German thinkers like Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. He correctly notes that the well has been more than a bit poisoned when it comes to German philosophy, but he seems determined to reclaim its insights. In the German concept of Heimatgefühl, or “love of home,” Scruton focuses in on what can motivate people to care about Burke’s tri-partite society of the dead, the living, and the unborn.

Perhaps to make the concept more palatable, Scruton chooses to use the equivalent Greek term of oikophilia. While both old-fashioned conservatives and an increasing contingent of left-leaning environmentalists tend to concentrate on local action and ways of living, he reminds the reader that there is a forgotten entity both small enough to love as a home and large enough to take effective action–a nation. Scruton finds no real hope for sound environmental thinking and action that isn’t rooted in the love that countrymen instinctively have for their nation’s land, air, and waters.

Transnational entities such as NGO’s and the United Nations are much beloved by the left, but they are fatally flawed, in Scruton’s view. He contrasts NGOs, (which exist for the sake of goals), with traditional civil associations (which exist for the sake of their members.) The latter have, from the time of the Industrial Revolution, used the tools of English common law to restore English rivers to health, to preserve English forests, to rejuvenate its wildlife habitat, and to slow the destructive pace of industrialized agriculture.

Is there common ground between left and right? Scruton believes so; although he notes that current political classifications make it difficult for each to recognize similarities in the other. In particular, he wonders why environmentalists–who are often portrayed as “nostalgic cranks” by their political opponents–don’t see reflections of their own concerns in the impulses of social conservatives:

(Social conservatives) 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.

Purely moralistic approaches are inadequate, though, because environmental protection requires incentives that will lead nearly everyone to act. There is only one thing that is capable of motivating a broader populace, and that is territory. Nations are “communities with a political shape” and can translate a sense of belonging to a place–their place–into mutually agreed-upon decisions that are followed willingly.

Indeed, Scruton maintains that the only real successes in stemming the tide of ecological destruction have come through local and national initiatives. “Nobody,” he writes, “seems to have identified a motive more likely to serve the environmentalist cause than (a) shared love for our home.” Beginning with the earliest days of English conservationism, which cut across boundaries of class and political persuasion, nothing has shown itself to be more powerful in the service of protecting the beauty and health of ones home than for it actually to be one’s home–a place we know belongs to us and not to others.

No serious book about the planet being written today would be complete without a close consideration of the question of global warming and man-induced climate change. In a chapter entitled “Global Alarming,” Scruton notes that the human instinct to respond to emergencies is to “obey orders, follow leaders, and to protect our backs.” Because of this well-known human tendency, “people who pursue a politics of top-down control … find emergencies extremely useful.”

While noting the dangers to liberty that declaring a “state of emergency” regarding global warming poses, Scruton acknowledges that the arguments of global warming alarmists are valid at least to this extent: if the catastrophic nature of their predictions are accurate, any solutions to this particular problem are probably beyond the ability of Burkean “little platoons” to address. He is equally adamant that currently fashionable globalist ideas about controlling carbon emissions and promoting carbon sequestration are doomed to failure because those who most need to adhere to them, such as the elites of large nations like China and India, have no motivation to do so.

If answers are to be found, they will not come from blighting steel forests of expensive and inefficient windmills or from arcane games of swapping carbon credits. “Only the discovery of affordable clean energy can solve the problem,” Scruton correctly asserts, “and until that discovery is made all treaties will be useless.” He also points out (perhaps with a sardonic touch) that global warming alarmism hinges on the questionable assumption that we are facing a catastrophe to which human beings cannot adapt, trenchantly noting that this would “mark a serious departure for our species, which has survived by adapting…”

In a couple of revealing paragraphs, Scruton talks about a vital source of his own concern for the environment and of his optimism for the future–a father with both left-leaning politics and a deep love for his country–England. Here, on the most intensely personal level possible, we see inspiration for Scruton’s belief that a shared love of home can transcend partisanship and politics.

The first environmentalists I knew were men like my own father, a rancher who spent a lifetime to restoring to health (and healthy profitability) thousands of acres of land that had been ravaged by the northern high-plains Dust Bowl that shaped his childhood.  While he had likely never heard of Edmund Burke, he led many a “little platoon” in his day, and I suspect that were he still here, Scruton’s thought would have rung true for him, as it does for me. This worthy book reminds conservatives that near the top of any list of things worth conserving should be found one simple word: home.

Bradley Anderson writes from Montana and blogs at Montana Headlines.