book cover imageHow to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism
by Roger Scruton.
Oxford University Press, 2012.
Hardcover, 464 pages, $30.

The political left has long dominated the modern environmental movement. British philosopher Roger Scruton writes this book to challenge that hegemony and also to provide a conservative alternative to the liberal environmental paradigm

He begins with a chapter—“Local Warming”—in which he introduces the concept of homeostasis—keeping stability amidst change—which he sees as the hallmark of conservatism. The homeostasis he speaks of refers to the stability of human societies amidst economic and ecological change and the stability between human societies and the physical environment.

Scruton goes on to lambaste institutions that fail to create homeostasis. The state is the worst, followed by big business. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which claim to be the vanguard of environmental protection, are also problematic. He singles out large global NGOs who are committed to “causes” and thus advocate dramatic change, often with unintended consequences of social and ecological instability.

The European Union, with its top-down regulations, is a notable example of an institution that actually exacerbates environmental problems. Relying on the “precautionary principle,” the EU tries to avoid risk in all public policy by taking precautionary measures before any risk becomes manifest. As a result, nobody takes any risk, as all risk is absorbed by the ever-expanding state. Homeostasis is impossible under this type of state micromanagement.

Scruton uses the example of global warming to show how international organizations, NGOs, multinational corporations, and governments who all pursue “top down” initiatives fail to address the problem completely. Such global initiatives provide few incentives for localpeople to take action. He argues that individuals, communities, and local organizations must be enlisted to help. The local is not the only answer, but it is a critical unused component of environmental protection.

Scruton argues that users, not the state, need to absorb risk, as markets are better risk-allocators than governments. The market, with the backing of property rights and contract laws, is also better more transparent than government and better at allocating resources. Only markets, he says, can create the technologies and products that reduce resource use and so make homeostasis possible.

But markets cannot properly allocate risks when dominated by big business. Scruton cites grocery chains and agribusinesses as examples of systems where risks are distorted by size and government entanglement. They receive direct government subsidies (in the case of agribusiness) or indirect ones (in both cases) by being able to take advantage of economies of scale facilitated by government infrastructural investment. They benefit from state investment but do not incur the cost and risk, which is instead borne by the taxpayer. Big business can also better afford to comply with strict state regulations that drive smaller operators out of business. Homeostasis is undermined.

In Scruton’s understanding, the market must be balanced by voluntary organizations—Burke’s “little platoons.” Local organizations can best understand local environmental problems and are also best at creating homeostasis. More importantly, they are best at absorbing risk. Yet not all local organizations are the same. Scruton prefers a model of trusteeship to organizations based on the social contract. The former implies responsibility—to protect something so it can be passed to the next generation. The members of such an organization absorb risk. The latter focuses on maximizing some individual benefits at the cost of others. It passes on risks.

Moreover, the social contract is based on rational calculation, but people are motivated by more than utility. They are also moral agents, and it is the moral obligation to and love of home—what Scruton calls oikophilia—that can be used most effectively to protect the environment. Love leads to piety and gratitude, the attitudes that must replace dominion and exploitation with respect to the environment. Beauty is another aspect of the home, as it ties people to the sacred. If nature is seen as something beautiful, an aspect of the sacred, its protection is more likely.

This is why Scruton says that the ultimate local organizations are family and home. They are the foundations of social and political life and should be the foundation of environmental policy. He notes that much of Western experience—captured in fables, myths and novels—is about the home and the desire to protect or return to it. And it is the lessons learned at home that are most useful to environmental protection.

It is ironic, Scruton writes, that the home, the universal foundation of human life and culture, has not been enlisted for environmental protection. And this is a major reason why environmental movements have not been more successful; recent environmentalism remains too abstract and, indeed, in some ways hostile to the love of one’s home. Such neglect can be expected because modern environmentalism is a radical movement. Like all radical movements it is elitist and based on abstractions. Its proponents are not interested in conservation, but social change. Many of these movements are not only neglectful of the home, but positively scornful because they believe the mundane world of family and home is part of the problem. Scruton terms this attitude oikophobia.

Oikophobia is patently both misguided and mistaken, and Scruton spends an entire chapter, “Begetting Somewhere,” giving examples of how truly effective local groups—who love their home and natural niche—have been to environmental protection in Great Britain. Groups like the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Countryside Restoration Trust now have memberships in the millions. And ironically, many fought against the state and its corporate allies to protect the environment.

Urban planning is also a critical environmental issue because of its direct impact on family and home. The author is a strong advocate of planned communities, but believes in “bottom up” rather than “top down” approaches. He advocates planning that can protect land and create human habitats worth living in. He cites the many examples of bad planning—all byproducts of big government, big businesses, and an elitist architectural community in collusion to create utilitarian human habitats that can never invoke piety, gratitude, or love from their inhabitants. No homeostasis there.

Environmental organizations are faulted in this context for lacking interest in protecting the human habitat. Wildlife and wilderness protection is their overarching concern. The author certainly affirms protecting the latter, but sees this as another example of misplaced priorities. He argues instead that environmental protection must begin at the communal level. If enough well-planned towns and cities exist, each with a citizenry devoted to protection of its natural niche, there will be more open lands and wilderness areas free from human pressure.

The book ends with a chapter of “Modest Proposals.” The author returns to global warming and affirms, first, that it is occurring. But, ever the conservative, he remains skeptical of alarmist predictions, which require—according to environmental groups—ever more dramatic solutions. He nonetheless asks conservatives to take action.

He sees the current “cap-and-trade” system, in which firms trade government-granted emission rights, as inadequate. It is another top-down approach, easily manipulated, that fails to achieve its targets. Penalizing polluting and energy-intensive industries is not enough. Consumers must also pay. User taxes would create incentives to reduce consumption and internalize risk, thereby lowering people’s energy use. Few people today understand how their lifestyle contributes to global warming (e.g. per capita greenhouse gases emitted by Americans is twenty tons per year).

Scruton also discusses the problems of an aging population, mass immigration, and social mobility, all of which carry costs and undermine homeostasis. He argues that people must be encouraged to work longer to help reduce the size of government expense and bureaucracy. They should also be encouraged to retire in their communities rather than distant retirement communities, which do not foster social or ecological stability. Similarly, mass immigration and social mobility undermine communal cohesion, creating few incentives to organize or conserve.

Scruton’s biggest concern is food production and the proper scale of the food “industry.” Industrial agriculture creates the worst environmental problems. It is energy intensive and receives enormous government subsidies. As a result it pollutes, drives small farmers out of business, and desecrates the environment. The most intimate connection between people and the land—farming—is undermined and with it vanish entire human communities and their natural niches.

One local institution Scruton fails to mention is the church. Religion and religious organizations are critical components of a healthy community—although in Europe that is less the case than other parts of the world. Nonetheless, even an agnostic like Scruton should at least recognize the important role religion can play in environmental protection. Religion remains the most solid defender of oikophilia and is one of the most effective bulwarks against big government and big business.

Unfortunately, as Wendell Berry and other conservative agrarian writers have lamented, religious organizations have shied away from the environmental question. And some are positively hostile to environmentalism, believing it to be another heretical secular or radical idea. But in taking these positions, they have unwittingly helped the left to establish and maintain a near-absolute hegemony over this vitally important moral problem.

Another problem the author fails to recognize is that oikophilia does not exist in every community. This is particularly true of the fragmentary, mobile communities found in inner cities as well as wealthier suburbs and exurbs. Even rooted communities in much of the world have difficulty organizing due to poverty, lawless governments, and chronic conflict. Here the incentive for short-term environmental exploitation still outweighs long term environmental planning.

And problems exist even when oikophilia is present. Getting correct information about environmental problems remains one of the biggest obstacles to organization and action. Who informs citizens of these problems and their local consequences? And who can be trusted to provide the correct information? Is it the state, NGOs, IOs, the media, academia, or church? This is especially true of environmental problems that do not have a direct or immediate impact on local life like climate change or species extinction.

Despite these shortcomings, the book is a welcome addition to the environmental literature. It presents an alternative to the liberal paradigm and makes clear that the very institutions supported by liberals—namely the state and NGOs—are often more of a problem than a solution. Scruton is convincing in his argument that the local must be enlisted to better protect the environment.

Most importantly, the reader is called to action. It becomes clear that if local solutions are the best environmental solutions, people will begin to realize that they and their little platoons do matter. And if enough are organized and mobilized, real results are possible. As Burke is reputed to have once said, nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.  

Tobias J. Lanz, Ph.D. teaches in the Political Science Department at the University of South Carolina.