How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism
Roger Scruton, Oxford University Press, 2012. 457 pp. $29.95.
Reviewed by Patrick Keeney
The prolific English conservative philosopher Roger Scruton has remarkably wide-ranging interests. Unlike many professional philosophers, Scruton has pursued an extensive range of topics, addressing such diverse areas as aesthetics, intellectual history, moral philosophy, theory of mind, political theory, architecture and music. Whatever the topic, Scruton has earned a reputation as an erudite and eloquent writer whose ideas are accessible to the general reader. His new book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, is no exception.
Scruton has penned an impassioned manifesto in which he presents the case for a conservative answer to the planet’s looming environmental crises. He begins from the premise that there is a real and pressing environmental emergency, one which has arisen because modern society has become habituated to “treating the earth as a thing to be used but not revered.” The result is that the planet is now faced with environmental challenges which demand urgent action: “It is beginning to be obvious to all decent people that we must repossess ourselves of the risks that are ours: that it is up to us to make headway in cleaning up the planet.”
The author concedes that despite the obvious etymological and conceptual link between “conservation” and “conservatism”, the environmental movement has arisen largely (although not exclusively) from the political left. Nevertheless, “conservatism and environmentalism are natural bedfellows,” and if ever there was an issue which demanded cooperation across the political spectrum, surely it is the environment: “Environmentalists and conservatives are both in search of the motives that will defend a shared but threatened legacy from predation by its current trustees.”
Scruton has little confidence in the suggested remedies of the left. This is because most of the proposed solutions involve massive intervention by either governmental or trans-national agencies. He acknowledges that there are “environmental problems so great that only the state can successfully address them.” In his view, such large-scale, centralized interventions are unlikely to bring about the sort of “environmental rectitude” which is essential to any lasting solution. This is predominantly because of the “accountability deficit” inherent in bureaucracies, one which is a “natural consequence of their way of working.” He notes: “history tells us that large-scale projects in the hands of bureaucrats soon cease to be accountable, and the regulations imposed by the state have side effects that often worsen what they aim to cure.”
Scruton also takes aim at the intemperate rhetoric which often accompanies environmental activism. He cites as one example the “deep ecology” movement of Arne Ness, in which debates about the environment are couched in quasi-religious, mystical tones. The result is that environmentalism is transformed into a “fitting substitute for the old religions, one that can be believed sincerely by the fully modern mind.” Belief disguised as disinterested science is, of course, nothing new; yet anyone who challenges environmental orthodoxy is frequently treated as a heretic to be shunned, rather than as an honest and rational agent whose doubts require a response. As the author notes, there are compelling reasons to think that “political exhortation, global summiting, and alarmist campaigning” is counter-productive. Much of the panicky bombast surrounding environmental issues “emanate a sense of dream-like unreality. Unreal targets, pursued in ignorance of the means to achieve them.” This constant positing of patently unrealistic “solutions” has the unfortunate effect of turning many citizens into environmental skeptics.
But the most regrettable aspect of the top-down approach to environmental problems is that it creates the impression that “the only way to protect the environment is by putting pressure on the government [through] … legislative targets.” Such an approach ignores ordinary people and ordinary economic activity. The state monopolizes the solution, undermines the autonomy of the local civil society, and makes the environmental movement the concern of a select, appointed elite. But perhaps most worrisome of all, a centralized approach fails to provide ordinary citizens with a motive for responsible environmental stewardship.
In contrast to top-down, solutions, Scruton believes that, “We solve environmental problems not by appointing someone to take charge of them, but by creating the incentives that will lead people to solve them for themselves.” In other words, what is most required for developing successful environmental policies is developing in citizens a state of mind in which all are possessed of a sense of stewardship. Rather than relying on governments, NGO’S, or various self-appointed representatives, environmental solutions must, in the final analysis, stem from “small-scale, practical reasoning”, arising from “the routines of everyday life” rooted in a sense of place. In Scruton’s view, “no large-scale project will succeed if it is not rooted in our small-scale, practical reasoning.”
To capture this sensibility, Scruton puts forward the neologism “oikophilia,” a term which derives from the Greek word for home, “oikos.” Oikophilia is literally, “love of home,” a virtue which is intended to foster the notion of loyalty to and accountability for a particular place. Persons possessed of oikophilia acknowledge that even though environmental problems (such as climate change) are transnational in their scope and origin, “the response begins at home, in responsible stewardship”. And while some environmental problems require the power of the state if they are to be addressed, “they must be addressed in such a way that oikophilia is amplified and not extinguished by the attempt to solve them.”
Ultimately, the conservative path to environmental salvation depends upon the notion of personal responsibility rooted in a shared love for our home. For Scruton, oikophilia entails people taking responsibility for managing the environment in a spirit of ownership and stewardship.
Scruton’s ideal is a “call to responsibility, and a rebuke to calculation. It tells us to love, and not to use; to respect, and not to exploit. … to look on our home as we would a person, not as a means, but as an end in itself.” This ideal is in keeping with the long tradition of intellectual conservatism from Hume, Smith and Burke; its motives arise from a love of the local and the particular, and its power resides in the cultivation of those small associations and autonomous institutions which lie beyond the reach of the state. As Scruton advocates: “By acting always to enhance oikophilia and not to confiscate its sphere of legitimate action, the state will prepare the people for the sacrifices that are now unavoidable, if the earth is to be a home to us, and not a place of exile.”