How to Think Seriously about the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, by Roger Scruton (Oxford, 457 pp., $29.95)
This review should begin with a confession: I badly underestimated Roger Scruton.
When I heard two years ago that Scruton was coming to the American Enterprise Institute to write a book about a conservative view of environmentalism, I was skeptical. Though I had long been a fan of his philosophical books, I didn’t think his body of work well suited to a tackling of environmentalism. My skepticism deepened when I discussed his project with him: In addition to describing an approach that sounded unpromising, he seemed unfamiliar with many of the major figures and prominent features of the environmental debate of the last 40 years. After a long conversation, I sent him from my office with a large stack of key books, recommending that he “might look at” a few of them.
He not only carefully read them all (and a great many others, too), but has assimilated virtually the entire landscape of environmental thought into an original synthesis so complete and challenging to the conventional wisdom that his new book deserves to be regarded as the most important environmental book of the last 20 years. If the environmental movement takes it seriously, it might find a way out of the dead end into which it has force-marched itself. And conservatives who embrace his rich arguments will find a way of contesting the Left for ownership of environmental issues that doesn’t depend on arid and utilitarian cost-benefit arguments or the ritual denunciations of the leftist view. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Scruton’s book is that it traverses most of the key issues without recourse to the standard clichés of either side. Even when he is taking on the worst of fever-swamp environmental leftism, his critique is all the more devastating for his calm and understated prose.
On the surface it may seem counterintuitive, if not audacious, to suggest that the environment should be a conservative issue, let alone that conservatives could do a better job of protecting the environment than liberals or the EPA. This common misperception is just one of the perverse consequences of what Scruton calls the “confiscation” of the issue by big government and the Left. “Conservatism,” Scruton reminds us, “means the maintenance of the social ecology,” which ought to be easily extended to physical ecology: “Conservatism and conservation are two aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources and ensuring their renewal. . . . It always surprises me that so few environmentalists seem to see this.”
While Scruton acknowledges that “there are environmental problems so great that only the state can successfully address them,” for the most part he is firm in rejecting politicized solutions to environmental problems. The problem with state solutions is that “every solution that seems perfect in theory seems to fall apart when put in the hands of government.” Scruton gives a nimble tour through many of the well-established conservative criticisms of bureaucratic regulation, and displays a deep grasp of the alternatives to statist regulation, such as common-law regimes, property rights, and markets.
But his main reason for deep skepticism of the statist “confiscation” of environmental problems is not the high cost or limited effectiveness of these approaches. Many regulatory regimes, such as the Clean Air Act, achieve substantial results. But they do so, Scruton points out, at a cost that cannot be measured in merely monetary terms. His central criticism is sweeping and challenging, a richer variation of the “moral hazard” argument: “By confiscating risk the modern regulatory state both diminishes human resilience and expels from our social experience the one factor that is needed if future generations are to be protected from our greed, and that is the sense of responsibility — the sense that I, here, now, am answerable to others, there, then. . . . Public spirit has been confiscated by government, national and local.” Against the politicized and centralizing tendencies of conventional environmentalism, Scruton proposes a different core principle, which he calls oikophilia — Greek for “love of place.”
Before explaining oikophilia in detail, Scruton takes an appropriate detour to confront the elephant in the room — global warming. It is one thing to set out a Burkean framework for harnessing the “little platoons” of civil society on behalf of local or national environmental tasks, but what about the potential global emergency that is the large-scale byproduct of the Industrial Revolution itself? Surely this can’t be solved through voluntary action.
While agnostic about the raging controversies of climate science, Scruton understands that the principal difficulty with the whole issue is that it was exalted above all other issues and “lifted . . . entirely clear of normal politics”; “the ordinary politics of compromise [was brought] to a sudden stop.” The main proposed solution — suppression of fossil fuels — evinces “a sense of dream-like unreality. Unreal targets, pursued in ignorance of the means to achieve them, and without any conception of how the attempt to do so will impinge on popular sentiment, on competing goals, and on the many other factors that wise government must consider, have dominated the remedies to climate change, both in the schemes of politicians and in the exhortations of activists.”
Scruton is not blind to the bad faith of the environmental Left, which sees global warming as a vehicle to extend broader control over human beings: “Great emergencies require top-down solutions. . . . For many people the curbing of human activity is the goal.” And “radical egalitarians are not satisfied with a policy that does not have a world-transforming character.” As such, therefore, environmentalists are ironically the chief obstacle to dealing with climate change, whatever its dimensions or causes: They will have to get over their innate hostility to the Industrial Revolution if answers to climate change (such as adaptation) are to work.
The heart of the book is the several chapters that build up a robust understanding of oikophilia. At first glance, Scruton’s one-word concept might seem a mere restatement of well-known land- or place-based ethics like those found in Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, and other legendary environmental writers. But he quickly eclipses these classic authors with a philosophical discourse astonishing in its sweep, showing a much deeper understanding of the defects of conventional environmental philosophy and offering a way of thinking about individual responsibility to natural things that transcends the sentimental and pantheistic nature worship typical of many environmental paeans.
In contrast to oikophilia, Scruton explains how left-leaning environmentalism is oikophobic and “morally empty” at its core. This part of his argument is difficult to summarize or characterize briefly; suffice it to say that his grand journey incorporates references to, among others, Burke, Dickens, Hans Jonas, James Joyce, Wagner, Homer, John Rawls, and, most intriguingly of all, Heidegger. Scruton does the best job I’ve ever seen of disentangling this problematic thinker from his “convoluted jargon” and derives one of the most original and trenchant observations I’ve ever seen about the radical character of European greens. He thoroughly outclasses those he rightly dismisses, such as the egregious Peter Singer, as being “armchair philosophers whose mastery of infinite moral space comes from being bounded in an academic nutshell.”
How to Think Seriously about the Planet is not without defects that will irk many conservative readers. Scruton defers to some conventional environmental views on urban sprawl, plastic bags, and locavorism, though even here he comes to these views honestly and without the familiar moralizing and hectoring of environmentalists. To the contrary, one of the most reassuring sentences in the book is: “When I read the ‘wholier than thou’ moralizing of the eco-crusaders I confess that the spirit of the hunter rises within me.” Amen. Even if some of Scruton’s stances on specific issues could benefit from some traditional policy-tradeoff wonkery, the massive strengths of the book more than mitigate these weak points.
Readers won’t find a specific list of policy changes, such as how to reform the Endangered Species Act, for example. But does anyone really need another trip through the balance sheet of plastic versus paper? (Scruton rightly notes that most such treatments are “dry, dull, and calculated to lower the rate of the reader’s pulse.” Truly environmentalism has displaced economics as the dismal science.) Scruton recognizes that the real problem of environmental thought lies far beyond that kind of dispute. The problem with environmental thought is its general disposition, and Scruton offers a comprehensively different way to conceive the whole subject.
I doubt that conventional environmentalists will take Scruton to heart. Today’s environmental establishment, comfortable and prosperous because of its intense but narrow membership base and the deep pockets of guilt-stricken Hollywood celebrities, is oblivious to the extent to which it has squandered the goodwill it enjoyed among middle-class Americans in the 1970s. But sincere nature-loving conservatives (which should be all conservatives, actually) should seriously study this book and then run circles around today’s intellectually comatose environmentalists.
– Mr. Hayward is the author of The Almanac of Environmental Trendsand Mere Environmentalism. He writes daily on PowerLineBlog.com.