Green Philosophy

‘Green Philosophy: How to think seriously about the planet’ by Roger Scruton; Atlantic Books, 2012. 464pp

Reviewed by Austin Williams | 2 February 2012

Last year, Green MP, Caroline Lucas launched the “Home Front” initiative, which used the language of the Second World War to hark back to the joys of a war economy. In this rose-tinted world-view of global conflict, “31,000 tonnes of kitchen waste were being saved every week (and) the nation’s health improved as diets changed and people become more active.” The point of the exercise was to show that austerity can lead to resourceful, environmentally-friendly communities.

In the current recession where many consumers are being priced out of what greens call “over-consumption”, where car-drivers are thinking twice about filling up, where industrial collapse mean lower emissions, where fewer people can afford to fly, etc, you would have thought that greens would have been cock-a-hoop with the environmental benefits of the current economic malaise. In fact, environmentalism is in the doldrums.

Greens celebrate the Big Society potential that austerity brings, but they cannot fathom why the much-vaunted British spirit of war-time cameraderie has failed to materialise. This book acknowledges that there is surely no greater adversity confronting us than the possible ecological destruction of the planet, and this presents society with a huge opportunity to generate community-spiritedness, which, in turn, may lead to the ability to tackle those very environmental problems. Scruton (who buys into the environmental mantras of less growth and more constraints) has written over 400 pages examining why it isn’t working.

Some can only suggest that the public’s flagrant rejection of restraint – their willful desire for consumer products and non-renewable energy is testament to the fact that the green message isn’t getting across effectively. However, this seems like a weak excuse given that environmentalism has become something of an orthodoxy. Maybe, argues Professor Roger Scruton in this highly readable book, it’s not only the messenger to blame, but also the message.

Scruton, author of the brilliant “Beauty”, is one of the few philosopher intellectuals in the world today. Here he argues for personal responsibility in the fight to save the environment, suggesting that liberal and statist interventions undermine our capacity to act. He deals with a number of issues, but begins by condeming green catastrophism; the tendency to overstate risks. Predominantly, building communities on the basis of adversity is never as meaningful as creating real communities of ambition and in any case “the risk-free life is not a life in which we are or can be fulfilled”. On this, as on many issues such as the vilification of climate change “deniers”, he raises important issues about liberty, reason and justice. “Science does not end our disagreements,” he says, “even when they appear to be disagreements about the facts”.

He criticizes many environmentalists for setting, what he believes are impossibly high goals. Rather than “saving the planet”, Scruton prefers to advocate getting involved in more “modest proposals”. By appealing to small scale initiatives he believes we can relate more naturally to our local environment than to global concerns. He describes this parochial motive as “the love and feeling for home” (oikophilia) and it is this defense of the “shared love of a shared place” (Heimat) that forms his big unifying idea.

Scruton’s principal mechanism to achieve this “spiritual resource” is to reclaim environmentalism as a conservative agenda as distinct from a socialist enterprise. For him, Alarmists and Globalists who demand top-down intervention, exemplify old-style state socialism. And, he adds, in case we didn’t get it, “the centrally planned economy was an environmental disaster”.

While his nuanced criticisms about the growth of bureaucratisation and risk aversion, and the collapse of subjectivity are accurate, he seem blissfully unaware of his own alarmism – of a Reds-under-the beds kind – to mobilise his arguments. His pro-modernist, universalist, Marxist straw man, for example, is invented as a means of rallying his conservative troops in defense of decent environmentalists everywhere. Declaring an interest as someone who subscribes to the progressive, modernist tradition, I cannot see many of us in evidence; and certainly not within the environmentalist lobby.

Environmentalists may be outraged to be compared to Scruton’s hunting, fishing and badger-culling proto-nationalism, but the reasoning is just. For him, conservativism reflects the “politics of delay, the purpose of which is to maintain in being, for as long as possible, the life and health of a social organism.” A shorthand for sustainable development surely; but also, in Scruton’s hands, defending the “social organism” also means defending the “social order.”

Scruton is not interested in politics – where polarised arguments may lead to societal rifts – he is more interested in a harmonious, consensual, moral order that can limp ever onwards. While many eco-socialists may baulk at the explicit reactionary logic of their beliefs, ermine-clad radicals like Lord Melchett, Jonathon Porritt, Sir Crispin Tickell, Zac Goldsmith, Prince Charles et al, can be wheeled out as Exhibit A, m’lud.

“The real evil against which both sides should be united”, says Scruton, “is the habit of treating the earth as a thing to be used but not revered.” For the unelected protectors of the environment, reverence is key to being “maintained in being for as long as possible”.

However, Scruton’s exhortations for a renewed “love of country” and his defence of “tradition” comes across as a somewhat self-conscious. Unlike 19th century toffs, he is unsure of his ability to carry it off and reverts to the language of cultural studies, well-being, biological determinism, happiness and identity politics. Indeed, his advocacy of consensus is in danger of wallowing in intellectual relativism. For those who admire Scruton as the tweed-wearing scourge of postmodernism, this must surely represent a collapse rather than renewal of conservatism.

It should be hardly surprising that Scruton uses moral exhortation as opposed to political engagement. As someone once said: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it”. In truth, Scruton doesn’t really want to change it.

First published in Architectural Review, February 2012

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