Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously about the Planet

Christopher Belshaw considers some right-leaning directions on how to save the environment

January 19, 2012

Who are the players? On the one side, the right side, are conservatives, traditionalists, ordinary people, anglers, fox hunters, gamekeepers, the Women's Institute, the National Trust. On the other side, wrong and left, are stacked radicals, intellectuals, internationalists, activists, Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and other cause-driven non-governmental organisations. Each side cares about the environment, wants to save the planet, agrees with the other about several of its ills. Pitted against both, the real villains, are non-democratic states, multinationals, unregulated markets, Brussels bureaucrats, health and safety committees, enthusiasts for multiculturalism and human rights. Directly or indirectly they encourage greed, short-termism and treating the Earth as an exploitable resource. Now, the Scrutopian picture isn't quite this simple - the author of this confident and sprawling book has several qualifications on offer - but it's simple nevertheless. And only the right side has the right method, believing in a grass-roots approach to local issues. The wrong side wants always top-down solutions. These don't work.

We need more detail. The solution to our environmental problems depends on oikophilia. Both ecology and economics share the derivation, but now Roger Scruton, more ostentatiously Greek, puts this "love of home" at the centre of his environmental philosophy. Cultivate the habit of caring for and cherishing our own home - including the family, the community and the nation, along with its customs and traditions - and certainly we'll be well on the way to benefiting the environment. Leftists, however, are often home-haters. So no matter how well- intentioned, where the environment is concerned they get it wrong. The negative picture painted here, in particular, is fairly convincing - Scruton has plenty of interesting cases where the top-down approach does more harm than good. And certainly conservatism notches up some successes. But there are questions. Is it really the ordinary people, the locals, who are saving for us rural England, and so in turn the planet?

Or are we to thank middle-class intellectuals with time, money and often a place in town - Wordsworth, Ruskin, Prince Charles and Scruton himself? And is Scruton's picture appropriately sensitive to the facts? Or is it as theory- and ideology-driven as the leftist position he opposes? It's curious, for example, that he goes on about the autonomous National Trust but not at all about the government-led National Parks. And the suggestions that the faux arcadias of the landscape gardeners promote biodiversity, that hunters are the best conservationists, or that we might all live off local produce are none of them entirely supportable.

What is the environment? Scruton simply doesn't say. He says it's in crisis but doesn't explain. He says something about its problems - climate change, pollution, plastic, uglification, the loss of "noble" species. The assumption appears to be that we know well enough what the environment is and that we will agree, more or less, on where things are amiss. And so it looks now as if this book's main concern is with practicalities and means-ends reasoning - given that this needs doing, how can we best motivate people to do it? What is needed, however, is a deeper discussion of which ends are best pursued, of what is truly valuable, and of why a side-effect of some practice is not a benefit but a cost. There is space here, unfortunately, only to dabble in such considerations.

Some people confuse environmental philosophy with nature philosophy, but Scruton does not make this mistake. One of the book's high spots - and this harks back to his best work of some 30 years ago - is a more or less self-standing essay on the aesthetics of architecture. So the built environment is far from neglected, and indeed a prevailing idea here - wholly correct - is that our environment is constituted by our surroundings. But other things have surroundings, too. So, should we be focused just on human beings and human lives, or should we care also about the environments of, say, the tiger, or the whale, or the forest for the sake of those things directly in themselves? Scruton never really attempts to clear this up, but his view appears to be that human beings matter, and that other things matter just in so far as they matter to us. Critically, however, things can matter for other than crudely materialist or economic reasons - their aesthetic, emotional, historical and cultural baggage matters as well. And Scruton has interesting and important things to say about reverence, sanctity, piety and the ways in which such terms can be freed of orthodox and transcendental overtones, but gainfully employed nonetheless. All this constitutes a reputable position, and one with legs. But it is hardly uncontroversial, and it is opposed both by so-called "deep green" perspectives, which maintain that all living things, and more besides, are valuable just in themselves, and also by utilitarian and quasi-utilitarian views, with their less heady accounts of human well-being. Scruton's is in some ways the middle position, and so perhaps more secure, but it is still in need of articulation and defence.

We should consider, then, what might be seen as the spatial compass of environmental concern. We should think, too, about its spread through time. And there are different attitudes to those who don't now exist. Conservatives respect the dead; leftists, Scruton says, pour scorn on their endeavours and destroy what they have handed down. Both sides want to do right by future generations, but leftists worry in some abstract and ultimately incoherent fashion about all of those to come, while conservatives care, and deeply, about just some, their own descendants. Again there are questions. Very plausibly, we can't harm the dead. So why should we respect, rather than make best use of, their efforts? Why give weight to what they would have wanted? And even if it is agreed that we ought to leave things in a decent enough state, the composition and size of future generations is in our hands. Even if we don't buy into the extreme view that we should ensure our own extinction, there are serious questions about whether it would be a bad thing were such an extinction naturally to occur and, more important, about whether we ought drastically to cut future numbers. Of course if we do, then resources go further. Population issues such as these are often thought central in environmental philosophy. Scruton scarcely touches on them.

Is Scrutopia Utopia? He thinks not. But there are two questions here. Is his ideal world as good as he makes it out to be? Some will be sympathetic; many hardly at all. Is it achievable? I have doubts. Ordinary people are at bottom unchanged. They - we - focus on the here and now, cut corners, make the best of it. Given technological and biological constraints, such attitudes led in the past to a world that many of us admire: fewer people, more animals, coherent and human-scaled architecture. Remove or reduce these constraints, while holding on to the attitudes, and the results are less appealing. Scruton knows and acknowledges all this. So both his conservatism and his optimism - admittedly tempered, but still pronounced - are puzzling.

Finally, where is the philosophy? Scruton points out a number of times that some writer he is discussing is not a philosopher. There is an intended contrast here. But really there is surprisingly little philosophy, and little of the philosophical virtues of clarity, rigour and economy, in this book. There is much about politics, economics, psychology. There are cultural musings, historical excursions, case studies aplenty. It is, in sum, an interesting, worthwhile and usefully provocative account of how things stand now, and how they might be changed. But it's not particularly green, not in any sustained fashion philosophical, and not a manual about thinking seriously.

The Author

Philosopher and author Roger Scruton has been a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC since July 2009.

His first appointment in the US was a part-time post at Boston University in 1992. More than a decade later he moved with his family to rural Virginia, where they lived, again only part-time, for almost six years. He says he enjoyed being among people who are happy to see good things lavished on others with no connection with themselves. He was less enthused by "the desecration of the urban landscape by throughways".

Scruton came to philosophy as a teenager through reading Walter Kaufmann's work on existentialism and the poetry of T. S. Eliot and Rainer Maria Rilke. "These things astonished me, like a religious conversion," he recalls.

While his hobbies and intellectual interests largely coincide, he also cites hunting as a passion. The Conservative politician Enoch Powell sold Scruton his first hunting gear: however, the coat immediately fell to pieces and the boots disintegrated when Scruton's horse jumped through a hedge instead of over it.

Now living in Wiltshire, Scruton enjoys spending time with family and playing the piano "badly". "And I drink probably more than I should (although this too is a professional interest, since I have written quite a bit about wine)."

Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously about the Planet

By Roger Scruton

Atlantic, 464pp, £22.00

ISBN 9781848870765

Published 5 January 2012

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