Too often the debate about climate change, global warming or ecological concerns in general has descended into acrimony and opposing factions. Thus those on the Left, who insist that drastic, global measures must be enacted to save the planet, are attacked by those who query the scientific basis for such attitudes and who point out that “ecology” has become a fashionable new religious crusade to replace the conventional orthodoxies. For someone caught in between these two extremes, it is hard to know whom to believe or what to think.
Here at last is a book that sheds some real light on what is at stake and how to be effective in what we decide to do. Roger Scruton is a philosopher and his book is a beautiful demonstration of philosophical training in how to think clearly. To those who might be tempted to think of philosophy as an abstract discipline with little bearing on “real life”, his book is a refutation; indeed, Scruton demonstrates with eloquence as well as elegance that it is only by clarity of thought that we can come to sensible and realistic conclusions. Not to listen to reasoned argument is to be at the mercy of demagogues and their apocalyptic warnings – and the issue of climate change has attracted its fair share of these.
Scruton is a conservative (with a small “c”). Since the last war there has been a general drift to the Left on the part of the intelligentsia, so that it has become harder to argue for conservative values without being condemned as “Right-wing” and therefore blinkered, old-fashioned and possibly racist. In the UK, where, for instance, the great national institution of the BBC has been hijacked by Left-leaning secularists, the voice of conservatism hardly gets a hearing. Modern generations, influenced by the enormous power of the media, are hardly aware that for centuries conservatism was an entirely respectable intellectual position. Here Scruton provides a courageous and intelligent argument for it.
As with his other books, he takes his inspiration from the eighteenth century political writer, Edmund Burke. (Incidentally, it was Burke who wrote that oft-quoted axiom, “Evil flourishes when good men do nothing”). For Burke, as for Scruton, society is an association of the dead, our forefathers, to whom we should show respect and piety; the living, the “little platoons” of organic local communities in which people flourish best; and the unborn, our descendants, to whom we have obligations as they will inherit the planet as we leave it to them. He comments that “conservatism means nothing as a political idea if it does not support and amplify the reach of these three ideas, since they form the primary motives on which enduring societies are built.”
Scruton’s definition of conservatism implies “oikophilia”, a word he has coined and used before, which he defines as meaning “love of home”, the hearth or the household. He argues strongly that environments are best maintained where this “oikophilia” is strong, as in the Scandinavian countries and in the English-speaking world. They are most neglected and degraded where this “oikophilia” has been deliberately destroyed, as under totalitarian systems such as Communism. As the author points out, twentieth century systems of revolutionary socialism have caused vast pollution to the environment – precisely because they have trampled over or “re-settled” the small local societies that know and love their locality best.
In his preface he sets out his position, transparently at odds with what one might call the “Al Gore” stance of hectoring the global community with a nightmare scenario of imminent natural disaster. “I defend local initiatives against global schemes, civil associations against political activism and small-scale institutions of friendship against large-scale and purpose-driven campaigns.” Scruton think it a paradox that environmental issues are now dominated by Left-wing voices, when in the past it has been conservatives who have protected the landscape from the folly of anonymous planners. This, he argues, is what “responsible stewardship” means; responsibility for and attachment to a particular territory and the corresponding desire to protect that territory from erosion and waste; to conserve and preserve it.
Critics might argue here that such an outlook takes no account of national (or international) need, such as the demand for housing because of population migration and immigration, and that it can lead to a purely selfish “nimbyism” – a “not in my back yard” refusal ever to countenance change that might interfere with one’s individual lifestyle. There will always be a necessary tension between governmental policies looking at society as a whole and local communities and organisations who want to resist what they see as insensitive and impersonal diktats from above.
Scruton would argue here that it is precisely the achievements of small-scale but determined lobbyists and conservatives that have preserved the beauty of the landscape for the benefit of all. He cites the “Green belt” movement in the UK, the Swiss planning laws and the creation of the national parks in the US, as examples of what those who have an organic understanding of their landscape can do in the face of faceless bureaucracy. He reminds us that the evidence of history demonstrates that “human beings are creatures of limited and local affections…and territorial loyalty [who] honour their dead …and make provision for their descendants.”
The author also reminds us that it is governmental “panics” that bring about “emergency measures” that usually cause havoc and misplaced, wasteful activity. He cites the late Paul Ehrlich’s influential book, The Population Bomb as an example of such a “panic”: that the earth will soon be grossly over-crowded; millions will then starve to death; so we-must-do-something-immediate-and-drastic to avert this doomsday. In the event, Ehrlich’s predictions proved to be those of a false prophet – but they haven’t stopped his disciples, such as Bill and Melinda Gates, the billionaire philanthropists, from recycling his dangerous ideas in a new form.
Scruton makes an eloquent plea to both those on the Left and the Right, the “engineers” and the “individualists”, to combine forces against the real evil, “the habit of treating the earth as a thing to be used but not revered.” His concluding chapters, on “Beauty, Piety and Desecration” and his explanation as to why the English countryside has been preserved as a thing of lasting loveliness over the last 200 years, despite the Industrial Revolution, the wartime bombing and the theories of socialist planners, is worth reading to see how the “little platoons” who set up, for example, the National Trust or English Heritage, managed to protect a lasting resource for the benefit of everyone, tourists and inhabitants of these islands alike.
This book should be read by anyone who appreciates clear and reasoned argument, written in limpid prose that eschews jargon and sloppy, emotive language, and who wants to be properly informed about the ecological debate. The bibliography is extensive and thus a useful resource in itself.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.