How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case For An Environmental Conservatism by Roger Scruton, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012, 457 pp., US$ 29
What colour is conservatism?
The answer to that question, historically and traditionally, has been blue. To be even more precise, it has been royal blue. To be conservative is to be on the side of tradition, custom, religion, old and established ways of doing things, the ancient constitution of church and state. Historically, this has meant that conservatives have defended royalty against modern forces that seek to do away with it. For this reason, the official colour of the Conservative Party is the colour long associated with royalty and aristocracy, blue.
Here in Canada, however, there are those who believe that the traditional conservatism of Britain and Canada shares common ground with the political left in their mutual suspicion of classical liberalism. Those who identify as conservatives, but who wish to emphasize this perceived common ground with the left, borrow the colour of the radical left and are known as “Red Tories”. (1) They could not have picked a left-wing symbol that is further removed from what conservatism stands for. The red of the left stands for the blood spilled in violent revolution.
With the publication this June of How to Think Seriously About the Planet, by philosopher and true blue Tory Roger Scruton, a new colour is contending for a place on the conservative banner: environmental green.
We have become accustomed, in recent decades, to think of concern for the environment as being the intellectual property of the left. The left encourages this, claiming the environmentalist movement as its own, and denouncing the right as supporting the despoilers of the environment. Conversely, conservatives have often been willing to concede the environment to the left. We find it difficult to take seriously the concerns of environmentalists when they so often seem to be hysterical alarmists who resemble Chicken Little running around warning everybody that the sky is falling.
In How to Think Seriously About the Planet, Roger Scruton makes the case that concern for the environment would be more at home on the right than on the left and outlines a conservative approach that he convincingly argues would handle the matter of the preservation of our physical environment better than the leftist approach currently favoured by the environmentalist movement.
He begins by addressing the matter of the left’s perceived monopoly on the environment, and saying that “that image is highly misleading”, a contention he backs up by providing a brief outline of the history of the environmentalist movement in Britain and the United States, showing how conservatives were involved from the beginning alongside those of other persuasions. If this is the case, why do conservatives and environmentalists so often seem to be at odd with one another?
Environmentalists distrust conservatives, Scruton says, because they “have been habituated to see conservatism as the ideology of free enterprise, and free enterprise as an assault on the earth’s resources, with no motive beyond short-term gain.” (p. 7) This seems to be a very accurate diagnosis, one which shows that the environmentalists have erred both in the way they see conservatism and the way they see the free market. This error is not entirely their fault, however, because many “conservatives” have contributed to this understanding of conservatism and the market. It is, however, an error because conservatism is not first and foremost about the free market.
If conservatism is not “the ideology of free enterprise”, what is it?
Conservatism, as I understand it, means the maintenance of the social ecology. It is true that individual freedom is a part of that ecology, since without it social organisms cannot adapt. But freedom is not the only goal of politics. Conservatism and conservation are two aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources and ensuring their renewal. These resources include the social capital embodied in laws, customs, and institutions; they also include the material capital contained in the environment, and the economic capital contained in a free but law-governed economy. (p. 9)
This is an excellent short definition of conservatism (2) that shows exactly why conservatism and environmentalism should go together. Conservatism is about preserving and passing on a heritage we have received from past generations to future generations. That heritage includes the sort of things conservatives have traditionally valued, which Scruton in the above quotation describes as social capital, but it is also includes the sort of things environmentalists cherish, our physical surroundings, places and the beauty and life contained therein.
If conservatism is about preserving what we have received from past generations – social institutions, associations, and customs, our physical environment, economic and political freedom, etc. – and passing it on to future generations, it follows that conservatives will understand the purpose of politics in these terms. Scruton says that the purpose of politics, as conservatives understand it, is “to maintain a vigilant resistance to the entropic forces that threaten our social and ecological equilibrium” and that it “concerns the maintenance and repair of homeostatic systems – systems that correct themselves in response to destabilizing change” (pp. 9, 11). Left wing groups and movements, on the other hand, tend to see the purpose of politics as “mobilizing society towards a goal “ (p. 34).
This left wing tendency can clearly be seen in the environmentalist movement today. The response of many environmentalist organizations, to potential threats to the environment, is to sound the alarm and try and rally society behind the cause of saving the environment from those threats. This means that environmentalist causes tend to be conceived of on the largest scale possible causing environmentalists to look to government action on the highest level possible as the solution. Scruton believes that a conservative approach, that treats the environment as homeostatic system to be watched over and adjusted from time to time to maintain the equilibrium would be more appropriate and that the left wing approach is a significant cause of the ineffectiveness of this kind of environmentalism. (3)
The objection can be made that today we are dealing with environmental problems on a scale so large that they require large scale government action. Currently, the issue that is most likely to be pointed to as an example of such a problem is climate change. In his second chapter, Scruton addresses this objection. After pointing out that it serves the interests of those who believe in extensive government action and control for problems to be treated like world threatening catastrophes, and that previous alarms such as Paul Ehlrich’s predictions about global overpopulation and – ironically – the global cooling warming of the 1970’s preceded the current concern with global warming, Scruton addresses the hot topic of anthropogenic global warming. He presents the claims of those arguing for a worst case scenario and those of the skeptics, treating both sides with respect. The greenhouse effect was established as a scientific phenomenon as far back as the 1860’s, he says, and global warming and cooling are both “fairly routine occurrences”, with human activity such as the release of greenhouse gasses being one of many factors that contribute to both. If the worst case scenario is true, however, if the survival of our species is under an immediate threat by the emission of greenhouse gasses, the action that it will be necessary for us to take will require collective cooperation, which he argues is best rooted in a sense of community. “It is precisely to the definition and maintenance of this ‘we’” he writes “ that conservative politics of the kind I shall defend is directed.” (p. 68)
Perhaps the most important theme of this book is the question of what motivates people to act in ways which preserve the environment. There are various motivations to act in ways which harm the environment, but these tend to be variations of the basic human desire to pass the costs of our actions onto others while claiming the benefits for ourselves. Environmentalists recognize this motivation, especially when they see it in the actions of large corporations, but, as Scruton points out, the capacity for governments to export their costs onto others and into the future is much larger. So what then would motivate us to bear the costs of our actions ourselves and to act in ways which will preserve our environment and the natural capital and beauty contained within it for future generations?
Scuton’s answer, in one word, is oikophilia. This word, which seems to be of Scruton’s own coinage, and which is derived from the same Greek word as the more familiar English words economy and ecology, means the love of home. That means more than just the love of the building you live in. The oikos, Scruton writes, “means not only the home but the people contained in it, and the surrounding settlements that endow that home with lasting contours and an enduring smile” and it is a place “that is not just mine and yours, but ours” (p. 227). In explaining how oikophilia is a motivation to preserve the environment, Scruton points to the classic expression of conservative thought in the antirevolutionary writings of Edmund Burke. Burke saw society as being an association in which past, present, and future generations are united, and concern for future generations is a duty owed to past generations. He taught that people belong to “little platoons” – small social associations such as families, churches and clubs and it is in the intimacy of these associations that public affection is born and spreads outward. Scruton draws out the environmental implications of these ideas – out of love for our ancestors and descendents, in our little platoon in society, we are to dutifully maintain the home/oikos we have inherited from past generations and to pass it on to future generations.
An obvious implication of all of this is that the work of maintaining and protecting the environment ought to be done on the local level. Throughout this book Scruton is a consistent advocate of local groups and communities acting to preserve their local environment as being preferable to attempts to protect the environment on a global scale. Government has a role to play in preserving the environment, but it can also contribute to the problem of environmental irresponsibility when it confiscates the problems and responsibilities of smaller groups, generating moral hazard.
The idea that environmental responsibility is rooted in oikophilia has implications for how we conceive of the environment itself. A home is not something that we find for ourselves in nature untouched by man. Scruton is critical of the idea in American environmentalism, of thinking of the environment as wilderness, something to be valued for not being influenced and shaped by man. Nor is a home something that we value only for its utility, its usefulness to us. We build, shape and decorate our homes, which we value for their beauty as well as their utility, and try to make as aesthetically pleasing to ourselves as possible. If our environment, our surroundings, is to be cared for as a home, this means that we will be as concerned about how it looks as we are in conserving the natural resources contained within it. In his eighth chapter Scruton shows how concern for beauty, connected with a sense of the sacred, has traditionally inspired people to care for their surroundings. He indicts modernism in architecture for creating buildings to stand out rather than to fit in to an aesthetic whole and indicts functionalism for designing buildings that become obsolete when their original purpose disappears.
How To Think Seriously About the Planet will probably meet with objections from two quarters – the kind of “conservative” who seems to believe in nothing but the free market and the kind of environmentalist who is wed to activism, government control, and international agreements – both of whom agree about little else, but would come together to dismiss Scruton’s classical conservative notions of tradition, loyalty, and the home as antiquated mysticism. For those of us who still share these ideas, however, this book makes an excellent argument for the care and upkeep of our physical surroundings as part of the heritage we hold in trust for those who will follow us.
(1) In the United States, states that tend to vote Republican are called “red states” and states that tend to vote Democrat are called “blue states”. This is unrelated to the Red Tory phenomenon in Canada.
(2) For his much more in depth explanation of conservatism, see Roger Scruton’s earlier The Meaning of Conservatism (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1980).
(3) Another such homeostatic system, according to Scruton, is the market economy under the rule of law. While free enterprise and national loyalty are frequently condemned by conventional left-wing environmentalists, whatever problems exist within a national market are exacerbated by attempts to replace the market with socialism, or to create a market that transcends national boundaries. Scruton explains why this is. In each case accountability is removed increasing irresponsibility. In a socialist economy laws fail to hold enterprises accountable because they are owned by the same entity that makes the law. In an international free market, multinational corporations are not accountable to any one set of laws. This same unaccountability, Scruton also notes, exists among environmentalist NGOs, which, unlike traditional civil associations, “often exist purely for the sake of their goals” (p. 28) and neither respond to nor desire feedback from their supporters and are accountable only to themselves.
A Protestant Christian, patriotic Canadian, and a reactionary High Tory with a libertarian streak, at the same time a monarchist, indeed a royal absolutist, and a minarchist.
You can e-mail me at gerrytneal(at)hotmail(dot)ca