ISBN 978 1 84887 202 8. “Green Philosophy – How To Think Seriously About The Planet” by Roger Scruton was published by Atlantic books in 2012 (this paperback edition in 2013). Seriously; “Seriously”? The bombastic nature of the book’s subtitle is not a good clue to its contents. Contrast this to the last book we reviewed “The Burning Question” and the difference could not be clearer – the Berners-Lee/Clark book was a really deadly serious statement about our predicament. Scruton’s contribution is, and will always be, of a lesser nature. It is a work of philosophy in which we are told that we should learn more from 18th century poetry than the science of the IPCC. So what is Scruton’s contribution?
This book is a “valuable contribution” but that contribution is to “environmental politics”. Scruton is a man convinced that the world is split into the “right” and the “left”. He calls these out natural “identities” as if they are like fingerprints rather than something to do with culture. This is ALSO a philosophy; not a matter of universal truth. Not only is Scruton want to split the world into two poles he then picks sides to declare that the cause of environmentalism is best served by the political-right.
At this point we can introduce a quote by Jeremy Rifkin from his book “The Third Industrial Revolution“:
“Ideology is disappearing. Young people aren’t much interested in debating the fine points of capitalism or socialist ideology or the nuances of geopolitical theory. [..]We have come to discover what we suspect is a new political mindset emerging among a younger generation of political leaders socialised on Internet communications. Their politics are less about right versus left and more about centralised and authoritarian versus distributed and collaborative.”
Such a suggestion is not a philosophy you will find in “Green Philosophy”. Hence we start by saying that the entire premise of this book is arguably flawed, but let us park that to one side and look at this a little more deeply. For in this work you will find ideas that you may be in violent agreement within, ideas that are dense and impenetrable, and ideas that will have you throwing this book at the wall in disgust. It is not an easy read from the former High Wycombe school boy (who has since fled to Wiltshire).
Roger was schooled at the Royal Grammar School just over a mile from where I sit writing this. His father, Jack, was a local Primary School teacher who founded the High Wycombe Rye Protection Society to fight Bucks County Council’s plan for a relief road across the north west of The Rye. The Rye is a ribbon of green open space that stretches east-west along the southern side of the A40 highway from High Wycombe Town Centre for about a mile. Jack Scruton lived opposite the Rye in Bedford Terrace. He took the case for the preservation of The Rye to a Joint Parliamentary Committee of Lords and Commons and won his case. From that success the (now) “High Wycombe Society” (HWS) was born. Transition Town High Wycombe (that I co-founded in 2008) has a long and happy relationship with the fellow-travellers in the HWS. Three times a year we set up stall at the Pann Mill open events run by the HWS. Pann Mill is a working water mill on The Rye.
The High Wycombe Society is the type a “civic association” that Mr Scruton jnr holds in high esteem as the ONLY sort of organisation that can really (“seriously”) address environmental destruction. Transition Town High Wycombe is also a civic association and over the years I have argued that it cannot be a political project. We are not some bunch of climate change activists nor are we some “NGO”. We are a community voluntary association that should be fitting into our society in the way that the Women’s Institute and the National Trust do. Roger Scruton agrees and gives vague praise in mentioning Transition Towns on page 400 of his “Modest Proposals” chapter alongside his enthusiasm for permaculture and the Soil Association.
For these reasons you would think that we have much to admire in this “Green Philosophy”. It is more complicated than that. Since Scruton divides the world into “left” and “right” and then takes sides we have to face facts that this is a work of political ideology. Unlike the Berners-Lee/Clark book this is not a work that relies upon science, statistics or mathematical proof. Indeed Scruton is at times want to rubbish the entire enlightenment project as “utilitarianism”. For Scruton is a modern romantic whose ideology has won him a seat as “resident scholar” at the right-wing think-tank American Enterprise Institute. Whereas us Transitioners will talk about “relocalisation” Scruton chooses to invent a new word “oikophilia” which he describes as “the love and feeling for home”:
“I defend local initiatives against global schemes, civil association against political activism, and small-scale institutions of friendship against large-scale and purpose-driven campaigns.”
…and earlier he mentions that these campaigns:
“…frighten the ordinary citizen without recruiting him.. he stands in the midst of a thousand warnings hoping to get through to the end of his life without going insane from the noise.”
Now THAT describes perfectly how WE feel. That quote was from page 2 of “Green Philosophy” so we did have high hopes for what Roger was about to launch here. But for “oikophilia” there quickly develops other words to explain what Roger is finding so praiseworthy: NIMBYism, short-termism, xenophobism, climate-change scepticism, anti-Human Rights, anti-European, anti-wind power and so on and so on. This is conservatism with all its nasty backward-looking, anti-science, ignorance. Sure this work is “beautifully written” (The Independent) but it is written in an ivory tower where men study the great works of classic romanticism alongside such newspapers as The Daily Mail and The Telegraph.
I consider myself a conservative who founded a civic association because I too was trying to get to the end of my life without going insane from the noise of environmentalists. In Transition I saw an admirable philosophy that was based upon evidence not ideology. Scruton is a man who has reached many of the same conclusions but has taken a very different route in reaching them. Does it matter? Well, yes, in my opinion. The relocalisation project that Transitioners work upon is open and accepting of all peoples and all cultures, colours and creeds. The right people are the people local to you. In Scruton’s “Green Philosophy” the right people are “our people” (the “we”) and this is a very dangerous creed indeed. Hence Scruton finds no problem in crying foul at multiculturalism. There are many in UKIP and the English Defence League who may well pick up this book and feel that it speaks for them. And this will make many good people shudder. It made me shudder.
Those who wish to fast-forward past all the nasty bits may well be recommended to read only the first and last chapters. In chapter eleven we see the “Modest Proposals” with which we honestly found little to disagree with. What we need is:
…human resilience, autonomous associations, market solutions […] a regime of pricing and feedback loops that return environmental costs to those who create them.”
We also see that Scruton has enjoyed the environmentalism of Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith and has sympathies with the limits to growth and steady state economics. He says that some Nuclear power will be inevitable without expressing great enthusiasm for it.
But this is a book riddled with contradictions. Scruton clearly struggles to reconcile his post-war conservatism with the vision of the modern British Conservative Party with its ever-so-Tea-Party-right-leaning tendencies. At times Scruton will praise the WTO as being the only global organisation that has the power to pass global climate change policy. Later he criticises the WTO policies for destroying local food economies. He dismisses James Lovelock’s theory (“Gaia” – the Earth being a self-correcting ecosystem) as being unscientific yet praises free markets as being “self-correcting” homeostatic systems. This without irony. He attacks the wind turbines in his beloved English landscape:
“The turbines intrude on the horizon like and army of visiting insects, their sails agitating the skyline, their raw structures negating the contours of the land.”
Yet in an earlier section he wrote at length about the intrusion of Victorian railways across the Lake District:
“The railway was built at last [..] its viaducts and stations are widely admired for their beauty and for the way in which they slot into the landscape. […] Today we look on the railway as an environmentally friendly form of transport, and one that leaves habitats and farmlands largely undisturbed. Its presence in the landscape, now that we are used to it, does not violate, but on the contrary intensifies, our attachment.”
Again, without irony. This is subjective. But before all go off half-cocked (as Roger Scruton does) we must always recall this is not the objectivity of “The Burning Question”. This is not evidence-based. It is political ideology with all its unscientific and odious baggage. In THIS “Green Philosophy” it is OK to contradict yourself and be inconsistent because objectivity is not a requirement. You may not like it but you can respect it as the structure around which Scruton’s narrative is built. It doesn’t need to make any sense. It just IS.
However, in our view, it remains a mistake to launch such a project as “Green Philosophy” based upon the author’s stereotypical views of the Green movement. Everything to the ‘left’ of HIS world-view is “socialism” which equates as communism and since communism is obviously the world’s worst environmental offender then, QED; the political right is good for the environment and the left=bad. It is such an illogical train of thought. Its only adherence to reality is its recognition that green organisations appeal to people with left-leaning world-views. However there is a muddle between cause and effect. A more liberal or leftist world-view is one that is more outward looking and respectful of the “other”. Greens may simply notice what is wrong with the world more. Hence they will be more thoughtful about how their actions impact the “other” and wish to offer some rectification (and, yes, “justice”). If you can see how the “other” suffers then you are motivated into action to correct the imbalance. Hence leftist-thought and environmentalism can be flip sides of the same coin.
To have a right-thinking world view implies less concern for the “other”. To the rightist it is not the “other” that matters. They see the world is if it is “I” who is suffering. Since they are themselves the centre of the universe everything else is an externality. Scruton writes about this and uses the terms “they” and “we” but spins it on its head. He addresses only what ‘we’ feel responsible for. Hence “we” is good, the “they” is bad. Dangerous territory indeed.
Of course the sort of “Green Philosophy” I propose (above) may have no more merit than Scruton’s – but this isn’t my point. His point is that leftist’s are drawn to environmentalism because they wish to control the world through top-down edicts and centralised planning. Our point is that this is a laughable thesis on the basis that it is a perceived solution to a problem. It doesn’t change the nature of the problem. Reaching for a political solution through Government intervention is as much an aspect of post-war conservative thinking as it is of modern liberal thought.
Ever since the Thatcherite revolution of the 1980s this has almost vanished from the political landscape in the UK and North America. That it remains in continental Europe is a reminder than (in the words of George Bernard-Shaw) the rules of this tribe are not the laws of nature. You need a healthy respect for political diversity to not reduce policy to one final solution; a one-size-fits-all. Scruton should read the books of Prof Steve Keen (“Debunking Economics“) or Ha-Joon Chang (“Bad Samaritans” & “23 things they don’t tell you about Capitalism“). Maybe 30 years ago I thought the same way as Roger Scruton. But those days are over – you need a broader reading list if you are to really develop a “Green Philosophy”.
What is RIGHT about THIS “Green Philosophy” is that it is OK for conservatives to be green. Being green doesn’t imply that you are a socialist. They are lots of good conservative-friendly solutions to green problems. These should be all in the mix. If there is a “right” and a “left” as this author suggests then they should both have a stake in solving environmental problems. The difficulty today is the policy vacuum from the right. They seem largely devoid of new ideas and leave a vacuum for the left to fill. It is territory they need to retake. For a brief moment a few years ago it looked like the right of British politics had finally grasped the nettle but they relinquished it again to embrace only Tea Party reactionary ideology. We seriously wish Roger Scruton well in his attempt to recruit the political right (as he sees it) to “seriously” care about the sustainability of industrial society. We really do need everyone of every political shade and philosophy to see that what unites us is our future security. This is not something that belongs to any particular ideology. Saying that only the political-right have the keys to unlock global environmental problems is like saying that only people with brown eyes make good lovers or that Italians are good at Ping-Pong.
For where this “Green Philosophy” really struggles is with Climate Change. Scruton tries so hard in his second chapter to dismiss global warming as the invention of “alarmists”. He plays an awful lot of lip-service to satisfy his friends at the American Enterprise Institute that he is a proper paid-up Tea Party skeptic. However, even he can’t sustain such a pretence for long and he returns to the problem of fixing the climate change at several points in the book. Clearly this is the fly in his philosophical ointment. It troubles the young Scruton because his oikophilia offers no obvious solution to global problems. Jack Scruton may have saved one little corner of a park in High Wycombe but his actions could never save the planet. All the Transition Towns, National Trusts and Womens Institutes in the world all rolled up will not be enough. There will need to be some BIG global action. All the small actions give the big actions their strength and justification.
To this BIG problem Scruton really has no satisfactory answer. In fact it leads to nothing more than an awful lot of navel-gazing and humming & ahh-ing. He proposes the decentralisation of the power grid – an idea copied right out of the Jeremy Rifkin-3rd-industrial-revolution hand-book – and then suggests a carbon tax to pay for research into clean energy. He goes as far as to say that wind turbines are useless because in Denmark they “ONLY” get 20% of their energy from the wind. However he sees “clean energy” as they key. It seems the solutions we already have are not the right ones for Scruton’s ideology? Scruton holds out hope that some big rich OECD nations will dig deep into their pockets and fund the research required to make clean energy happen. Or, failing that, geo-engineering. Some hope.
So, despite the global implications of climate change Scruton’s “Green Philosophy” pretty much falls back on Transition idea of local food economics. In fact Scruton dedicates large sections of his “Modest Proposals” to the overthrow of Supermarket monopolies that he blames on Euro-crat Health & Safety dictats. And without any irony he suggests that out-of-town Supermarkets face the same planning regime as the High Street. This despite spending half the book lambasting centralised Governmental “social reordering” and the “regulation & control” for its destruction of his perceived post-war British rural idyll.
For Scruton it was the bureaucrats of central Governments that destroyed our beloved countryside but his diatribe says nothing of population. To read this book you would have assumed that our population remained static in the post-war period. He only mentions population briefly at the back in order to triumph anti-immigration policy. Maybe the reason we have so much more regulation now is because we have to cope with the complexities of modern life and bloated population density. The policies he so despises seem to be the coping mechanisms we introduced to stop us all killing each other. Scruton rails against the “unintended consequences” of Government regulation but says nothing about how some of these top-down policies have forced through innovation into the market. A truly well functioning free market seems to take the massive intervention of the state. If Government didn’t create the environment for free markets we would still live in a feudal landscape where life would be Hobbesian; brutish and short.
This is a long, long book and space precludes me from writing more about this “Green Philosophy”. This book seems nicely summed up by the way that Scruton describes his passion for scrubbing the environment clean of plastic waste. For him the odd unsightly plastic bag is far more important than global warming:
“…it requires an initiative from two or three strong willed, law-abiding states, and would lead in a relatively short time to a situation in which the amount of plastic in the environment is constantly declining. […] If the task is not undertaken the earth will one day cease to be a viable human habitat, whatever its temperature.”
Yup, you heard it here first. Climate Change is an insignificant problem in comparison to disposable plastic bottles and free supermarket plastic bags. Of course you can see how such ideology appeals to a writer who seems trapped in 1950s Wiltshire. He should read more about the science and compare the scale of different global issues. Maybe he should seriously take some time to see how the environmental movement has moved on since 1970. Maybe he should consider how the economy that today leads the world in the de-carbonisation of the power grid is actually Communist China. Scruton lives inside a fantasy where environmental NGOs are ineffective because they are utilitarian and only consider the science. Seriously? Would we need them to be any different?!
It seems to me that the greens of today are undergoing the last death-throes of the old-green school that could only worship the intrinsic value of nature. That romantic approach to rural-idyll-as-playground has been tried and failed. The new greens are hard-nosed businessmen and women with laptop computers who know the value of everything and the price of nothing. Take just one example from our own book reviews: Tony Juniper’s “What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?” in which an old-skool environmentalist from the 1970s “seriously” values nature – not because it is some adjunct of the leisure industry – but because without it we will all be dead.
So what value is there in a “Green Philosophy” that demonises Gypsies and calls for immigration controls? When Scruton sets his manifesto out for all the good things he is FOR then he speaks much truth. However it is all undermined by what he is AGAINST. His negative policies will quickly undermine the positive ones. We will be Edmund Burke’s “little platoon” of happy volunteers picking up litter along idyllic country lanes as we wave tearful goodbyes to our sons and daughters as they are packed up to go abroad and die on some foreign field:
“Oikophilia is the source of many of our most generous and self-sacrificing gestures. It helps soldiers in battle to give their lives for the benefit of their homeland…”
Not in my name.
If you want localism to work then we must embrace the “other”. To reject it will destroy the human capital we are trying to preserve. This is the true “unintended consequence” of THIS particular “Green Philosophy”.