Roger Scruton and Environmental Conservatism
I mentioned in an earlier post that I had recently read Roger Scruton’s How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism. It’s an excellent book that I highly recommend — not so much because of its particular policy prescriptions, of which it has not many, but because it really is about thinking. To some readers it will feel that Scruton often wanders far from the most heated environmental debates of our day, but this is intentional on his part. He wants to step back from judgments on particular issues in order to train his readers in usefully conservative thought.
No largescale project will succeed if it is not rooted in our small-scale practical reasoning. For it is we in the end who have to act, who have to accept and co-operate with the decisions made in our name, and who have to make whatever sacrifices will be required for the sake of future generations. It seems to me that current environmental movements, many of which demand far-reaching and even unimaginable government projects, as well as fundamental changes in our way of life, have failed to learn this lesson. Their schemes, like their cries of alarm, frighten the ordinary citizen without recruiting him, and he stands in the midst of a thousand warnings hoping to get through to the end of his life without going insane from the noise.
The more distant and abstract the place from which environmental initiatives come, Scruton argues, the less purchase they have on the human beings who are acting in ways that affect our planet.
I argue that environmental problems must be addressed by all of us in our everyday circumstances, and should not be confiscated by the state. Their solution is possible only if people are motivated to confront them, and the task of government is to create the conditions in which the right kind of motive can emerge and solidify. I describe this motive (or rather, family of motives) as oikophilia, the love and feeling for home, and I set out the conditions in which oikophilia arises and the task of the state in making room for it. I defend local initiatives against global schemes, civil association against political activism, and small-scale institutions of friendship against large-scale and purpose-driven campaigns.
If we love a place, we will be motivated to “adjust our demands” on the environment, “so as to bear the costs of them ourselves” rather than pass those costs to our descendants, and will seek to “put pressure on businesses to do likewise.” We will only do this “if we have motives to do so – motives strong enough to restrain our appetites.” And those motives will stem from local attachments. If we don’t love the places we actually live, we will not bother to preserve them for our children.
This is all great, but I have a couple of questions for Scruton (these I might unpack in later posts as well).
1) Scruton realizes that much of the damage to our environment is done by very large national and multinational corporations, but thinks that oikophilia can be extended to one’s country, which enables one to advocate for environmental regulation at the national level on oikophilic grounds. But I wonder if this is true? If thinking of “the good of humanity” or “the good of the planet” is too general and abstract, as he agrees, how much less general and abstract is the concept of “the national good” — especially in a country as large and diverse as the United States?
2) We might love the places in which we live, and want to pass them along undamaged to our children, but it seems to me that human beings are not very good at discerning the consequences of those actions when those consequences are not immediate. Thus the spectacle of the passionate environmental activist who decries the use of fossil fuels while flying tens of thousands of miles a year. How can people be taught to realize that today’s actions have consequences decades from now?