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Does 'Conservative Environmentalism' really unite?

By Stephen McGrail - posted Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The 'Left' and 'Right' are currently at war regarding the environment and, arguably, no issue is more deeply polarised as the environment. As a consequence, Scruton's Green Philosophy is a timely book. Roger Scruton is a conservative philosopher, who champions traditional English conservatism (e.g. of Edmund Burke), and his latest book "argues that conservatism is far better suited to tackle environmental problems than either liberalism or socialism" (quote from the book jacket). He is a Fellow at Oxford University and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

Green Philosophy aims to challenge the views of environmentalists and liberals alike. However, it is more likely to irritate both left and right, than it is to help unite them. Furthermore, the book has a strong 'us vs. them' dimension, which Jonathan Rée, co-editor of The Concise Encyclopaedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers, pointed out in his review in the Guardian. The first half is primarily a critique of the green philosophy and policy prescriptions; the second half develops an alternative philosophy and set of provisional proposals. In general, Scruton advocates a greater role for "ordinary people" (a term he uses repeatedly), retreating from the global back to the local, and shifting power from the state to 'civil associations' (as distinct from NGOs) and, where this is insufficient, adopting technical fixes. An example is climate change, which "only the discovery of clean energy can solve" (p.61). On this issue, he ends up coming full circle to advocate new state interventions – more on this later.

A major theme developed in Green Philosophy is what Scruton terms the "confiscating" of the environmental agenda by the Left. Linked with this, he is highly critical of use of the 'precautionary principle' and environmental ethics as it is currently formulated; warns against the adoption of top-down solutions being advocated by the Left such as international treaties; and further argues that public bodies are "unreliable trustees of our collective assets" (p.94) and State solutions will usually be compromised by those "who see the advantage of adopting them in appearance, while escaping them in fact" (p.102) The success of the Montreal Protocol is the exception not the rule. The green push to adopt 'top-down solutions' – imposed by either national or transnational governments – reflects "the old socialist view that things must be changed from the top downwards" (p.102). He is also critical of those he terms doomsday "salvationists", whose demands remove "all belief in small-scale remedies and negotiated remedies" (p.86), and takes aim at moralising "eco-crusaders".


On the other hand, he also challenges some parts of the 'right'. Scruton highlights market failures and issues often not considered by those he terms "dogmatists of the market" (p.149). For example, Scruton highlights the imposing of the costs of our behaviour on others (what economists term 'externalities') and the ways transaction costs can interfere with both those seeking remedies for these costs and market solutions. He frames current key environmental problem as being caused by "agents [who] can escape the costs of their transactions" (p.182), which raises questions about how to best address and avoid such 'externalities'. Also highlighted are problems faced when seeking to derive collective rational solutions, which is a challenge that is examined in social choice theory. Central to this are problems often faced when seeking to derive such solutions from the reasoning of rational individuals and failures of "collective rationality" (p.139). Regarding this issue, he discusses identified problems such as 'free riders' and the 'prisoner's dilemma' paradox, and also highlights the 'tragedy of the commons' which was first described by Garrett Hardin. For example, he writes:

Many of the earth's resources are either unowned or owned in common by some particular community – the fish in a lake, the grazing on common land, the air we breathe, and so on. If we all have access to such commons, and if they are easily depleted by our use of them, then the situation can easily arise in which it is in the interest of each person to take as much as he can before others deprive him of the chance. Hence common land will be overgrazed to the point of sterility, and the lake will be fished to death. We see this happening today, with the very real tragedy of our oceans. (pp.140-1)

The focus on common-resource management challenges is important. Most environmental issues "have aspects of the commons in them", as noted in The Drama of the Commons, a report published by the US National Academies Press. This is clear in the conflicts over the management of the Murray-Darling Basin, and now over marine ecosystems. Scruton further asserts that:

Markets and quasi-markets.... are far less good at disposing of waste. For waste is a cost that everyone tries to pass on. Our most important environmental problems have arisen because the sinks on which people have relied – the ocean, the atmosphere, the rivers and the soil – are filling up beyond their capacity to absorb and recycle our waste". (p.151)

A central, complex issue in relation to addressing such problems is the role of the State. In addition to stating that some public goods must be provided by the state (e.g. law) Scruton argues other necessary roles can only be played by States. The final chapter, 'Modest Proposals', emphasises this. Of these proposals he writes: "this does not mean laissez-faire, but rather the informed division of labour. There are environmental problems so great that only the state can successfully address them, and it is one aspect of conservative policy to identify those problems and to leave civil society to look after the rest" (p.377). A core proposal is introducing a flat-rate carbon tax "imposed on products regardless of their origin" (p.387), with which to fund greater clean energy research. Here two major arguments are made: 1) that the costs of addressing climate change should be 'internalised' by "those who contribute most to producing it", which Scruton contends is, ultimately, consumers whom "the cost is passed onto" (i.e. rather than targeting the producers of energy with a tax); 2) that the market alone will not generate sufficient expenditure on clean energy research and development. It is heartening to see a conservative thinker willing to consider both the potential and limits of markets.

Perhaps folk on the Right won't be too enraged by this analysis. I was surprised to hear AEI scholar Steven Hayward recently acknowledge, at an AEI event held to discuss Green Philosophy, that the 'free market environmentalism' has important limits at, including that common-pool resource problems often "defy simple resolution through division of property rights". There are other signals, however, that many people on the Right increasingly reject greater action to address environmental problems. For example, the New York Times reports that activists with links to the Tea Party movement fear conspiracies to deny property rights and increasingly challenge any green or climate initiative.


Whist the above discussion is important context and content, the core of the book is really a critique of mainstream green philosophy and advocacy of an alternative. To Scruton, the central question should be what will motivate "ordinary people" in their "everyday circumstances" to confront environmental problems. What motivates sacrifices "for the sake of future generations" (p.2)? What motive is "strong enough to restrain our appetites" and will prompt us "to adjust our demands" (p.17) on the natural environment? He points to the need to animate feelings that we owe something to the both the unborn and the dead. The concept of "oikophilia" is developed, meaning "the love and feeling for home" (p.3), and points to a related motive of "public spirit" from "patriotism, from love of country, from a sense of belonging and of a shared and inherited home" (p.171) which, he contends, is largely dependent on local sources of "moral sentiment" (see p.319). Thus, in addition to 'externalities', the environmental problem is also framed as a consequence of people not seeing their own surroundings as 'home' and the decline of social conservatism. "The solution to the real environmental problem will always allude us" if the motives outlined in the Green Philosophy continue to be "cast away" (p.171).

In the examination of such motives the book concentrates far more on conservatism, and many readers will – like me – question some of its contentions. Scruton aims to examine and explicate conditions in which these motives will "emerge and solidify". Scruton's favoured model of conservatism is consistent with what he concludes. That is, "respect for the dead, the little platoon [i.e. local 'civil associations' and initiatives that solve problems faced by 'us' through compromise and negotiation, which draws on the anti-revolutionary writings of Burke], and tradition" (p.221). Using English conservation movements as a central case study, he concludes that "environmental protection comes from the oikophilia of people and not from those who use money, influence and political power to impose large-scale projects from on high" (p.349). Ordinary peoples' understanding of their surroundings as home are found to be damaged by poor use of legislation and fragmentation caused by bureaucrats (e.g. due to new farming and urban planning regulations) – indeed, the unintended consequences of state interventions in one of his favourite topics. Scruton is particularly critical of "the terminal decline of the local food economy" (p.355). "Greens", he concludes, "should be conservatives" (p.375).

Or, as asserted earlier, conservatism and environmentalism should be viewed as "natural bedfellows" (p.9). Scruton argues that "conservatism and conservation are two aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources [e.g. social and natural capital] and ensuring their renewal" and passing them on to future generations. It is "as obvious to a conservative that our reckless pursuit of individual gratification jeopardizes the social order as that it jeopardizes the planet" (p.13). "Global warming", he writes, "is a problem that engages with a fundamental moral idea which conservatives attach great importance: the idea that those responsible for damage should also repair it" (p.70).

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This is a review of Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously about the Planet by Roger Scruton (Atlantic Books, 2012)

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About the Author

Stephen McGrail is an independent consultant, lecturer at Swinburne University in the Faculty of Business and Enterprise, and Associate of strategic advisory firm Futureye.

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