Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet, By Roger Scruton
Friday 13 January 2012
With the Tory leadership distancing itself from the environmental agenda it had courted so keenly before the last election, and the Coalition government dangerously divided over green policies, philosopher Roger Scruton's thoughtful study on environmentalism in the conservative tradition arrives at a timely moment. Acknowledging that the environment is the most urgent political problem of our age - an intellectual step that already takes him beyond most Conservatives - the author, who is both a conservative and a conservationist, seeks to reclaim it from the clutches of the left.
It is, he says, the fault of left-leaning environmentalists like myself, who believe that "international capitalism, consumerism and the over-exploitation of natural resources" are primarily to blame for environmental problems, that better solutions to those problems have not been found. Given the severe economic and environmental crises we currently face, the line he quotes from the Green Party's 1989 manifesto, rallying against the "false gods of markets, greed and consumption and growth", actually strikes me as pretty close to the mark. But I suppose that makes me one of those who have yet to learn "how to think seriously about the planet".
Focusing on the local and national levels, Scruton champions the "conservative" values of personal responsibility and local sovereignty, while lamenting the "decline in volunteers" to care of our natural heritage. He is scathing about state solutions to environmental challenges and the "grand schemes" promoted by "unaccountable" NGOs, instead preferring Edmund Burke's "little platoons" as a way of creating a sense of stewardship over our habitat, and encouraging greater shared knowledge and respect.
Overflowing with references to history, philosophy, art, cultural theory, literature and law, Green Philosophy is beautifully written and ambitious in its scope. But it is also curiously old-fashioned, unashamedly tribal and deeply contradictory. Scruton himself admits that his approach is "more philosophical than practical" - and many of his lines of inquiry simply take the reader around in circles.
In Scruton's little village or Big Society utopia, where individuals are seemingly untroubled by the pressing priorities of earning a living, putting food on the table and heating their homes, the real enemies are the state, pressure groups and leftie activists who, by confiscating individuals' sense of personal responsibility, interfere with their natural attachment to place. The nostalgic notion of oikophilia - "the love and feeling for home" - is, Scruton says, the sentiment which underpins the kind of environmental stewardship we need. It's a desirable sentiment. It is what we saw expressed in the aftermath of the riots, for example, where people came together with brooms and sponges to wash away the wreckage caused by the violence.
But this oikos assumes a strong loyalty to one locality, which in this age of globalisation feels outdated. And when faced with global problems which traverse borders, cultures and societies, this small-world approach doesn't quite cut it.
If people are "creatures of limited and local affections", how do we instigate environmental action in a world where people are more dislocated than ever before - and where, for many, the real-life impacts of problems like climate change seem far away? This is the killer question, but sadly, you won't find the answer here.
At the heart of this logical weakness is Scruton's ambiguity on climate change. In the chapter on "Global alarming", the philosopher acknowledges that his old-school conservatism looks feeble in the face of this urgent global problem. At first, he seems to accept that climate change is indeed a reality that requires significant co-ordinated action. Yet he goes on to hedge his bets by undermining the scientific consensus, and pointing to the "alarmism" of the climate debate as a "recurring feature of human societies" - something politically useful for those wishing to exert control.
In the words of his Anglo-Saxon poet, Scruton hopes that, like other "false alarms", "this too shall pass". If this feels like a fudge, it is because he realises that the only measures which can tackle climate change lie outside of what is acceptable to a conservative ideologically opposed to state intervention and multilateral action.
Having failed to resolve this ambiguity, the philosopher goes on to rage against the negative consequences of state-imposed bureaucracies, "bad regulation" and of the dominance of NGOs. While he does chide conservatives for failing to address the obvious fact that environmental "stewardship" does not come easily to multinational companies that have "no civic tie to the countries they operate in", he continues to champion the free market as the lesser evil - and lets big business off the hook.
This exposes the contradiction at the heart of conservative approach to the environment: the desire to promote free enterprise and a smaller state imposing minimal regulation, while also seeking to conserve natural heritage. Recent policy disasters such as the proposed reform of the planning system and the selling-off of the forests have shown the Tory-led Government grappling with this conflict.
In this context, it's even more difficult to accept Scruton's claim that "conservatism and environmentalism are natural bedfellows" . The truth is that Scruton can't decide how much state action is too much. He agrees that the resources of government are needed to address problems like climate change, oil spills, plastic pollution, and the loss of bio-diversity. He also believes in the "fundamental moral idea" that those responsible for damage should repair it, and supports such progressive measures as carbon taxes and emissions-limiting legislation.
I couldn't agree more, but how he reconciles this kind of large-scale intervention with his beloved small-state conservatism is anyone's guess. Of course, it is true that governments and institutions get things wrong. Scruton is right to hold to account those ministers who make promises on clean energy and pollution, and then in the next breath pledge "vast schemes to expand airports, build roads, and subsidize the motor industry". But this is not a strong argument against government intervention per se. This is about the quality of the "state" rather than the thing itself.
The same can be said for global institutions, some of which have achieved significant progress despite the disappointments of laborious processes such as the climate negotiations. Equally, it's right to admit that NGOs and the green movement have had their shortcomings. But to claim that NGOs "neither consult the people nor show much interest in noticing them" is to ignore completely the recent growth of civil society organisations such as UK Uncut and 38 Degrees, whose interaction with members is precisely where their strength lies.
This is an immensely readable book and a valuable contribution to the debate over environmental politics. But the argument that local, national and global environmental challenges can be met by ordinary people acting alone, volunteering in their localities out of a love for hearth and home - while the free market largely corrects itself - is pure fantasy. If we are really to rise to the challenge of climate change and facilitate the much-needed transition to the sustainable economies of the future, we are going to need more than "little platoons" to get us there.
Caroline Lucas is Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion