The truth in environmentalism
Part VIII of our stroll through "How to be a Conservative"
Our modern word “steward” is an Old English mash-up, a combination of stig (house or hall) and weard (to guard or watch). A medieval steward looked after the estates and business of his feudal lord and represented him in his absence. So a steward is someone who takes care of the place we call home, for the good of others. This concept of stewardship is at the heart of Roger Scruton’s analysis of environmentalism. Conservatives believe that society is “a partnership between the living, the dead, and the unborn”; what we have now, we hold in trust for future generations, including our culture and institutions and the physical world we inhabit. It is therefore “astonishing,” says Scruton, that environmentalism is not at the heart of conservative politics.
Scruton was advocating for environmental protection before it was cool, at least on the right. His book Green Philosophy is an extended argument for principles which he condenses in How to be a Conservative. Regular readers will remember that we’re working our way through the latter book to see if we can rediscover and rehabilitate the term and the practice of conservatism. In chapter eight, Scruton draws together some of the earlier threads of his description of a conservative approach and argues that they offer the best way not just of thinking about environmental issues, but of actually making good environmental decisions.
He begins by noting a tension between political conservatism and environmentalism. He puts this down to three factors. First, he says, conservative thought “has been polluted by the ideology of big business” and the dominance of economics in political thinking. Second, “the agitated propaganda of the environmentalists” induces despair—if the world is going to hell in a handbasket, why bother trying to change things? Third, and related to this, when the solutions presented by the environmentalists are transnational and beyond the control or contribution of ordinary people, a sense of futility and irrelevance is added to that of despair. For all these reasons, he thinks conservatives (and others) have wrongly overlooked, dismissed, or been repulsed by “the environmental cause”.
The solution, Scruton says, is to find the right motive to get people to take the cause seriously—and he thinks conservatism can supply it. We all tend to externalise our costs, he says; that is, we’re naturally disposed to choose what we want and let others pick up the pieces. To prevent this, we need “motives strong enough to restrain our appetites.” We find this in our attachment to home and to our physical place in the world. In Scruton’s phrase, “we must put the oikos back into oikonomia.” The oikos is “the place that is not just mine and yours but ours”, while oikonomia is the forerunner of modern economics. Earlier in the book, he puts it like this:
the love of the oikos … means not only the home but the people contained in it, and the surrounding settlements that endow that home with lasting contours and an enduring smile.
Our love of the place that we have and that we share, and our responsibility for it, is what conservatives call attachment. It is, Scruton thinks, “the only serious resource that we have” to inspire environmental conservation. It is also why he thinks that successful environmental action needs to be local and national. He gives examples of what this looks like: “the action by Iceland to protect the breeding ground of the Atlantic cod”, “the legislation that freed Ireland from polythene bags”, successful court action by the Anglers Association to prevent river pollution. Perhaps, though, these examples illustrate the limits of his argument, because they are inevitably local and particular and therefore small in scale compared to environmental activism’s usual focus on international solutions like treaties and multilateral accords.
Scruton’s retort is that international solutions offer the illusion of progress but not the reality. He gives two reasons for this. First, abstract arguments and multilateral accords “identify no motive that will animate ordinary passive people, without whose cooperation no solution is viable.” Second, the states that sign up to treaties tend to honour them in the breach: “the disposition to obey treaties when they are not in the signatory’s interest is a rare feature of political systems.” Only states built on certain democratic norms will do this, he thinks, like the US, while others like China will not. His argument could be summed up as: it’s better to commit to something modest that works than something grand that doesn’t.
Lastly, Scruton’s concerned that environmentalists tend to focus on some issues to the exclusion of others. He gives the example of climate change and while he believes that “a great many things must change” in response to global warming, he worries that it is an intractable issue and that the chosen response—international climate change treaties—won’t have the desired effect. In other words, it won’t be solved while nations like China have no incentive to change their practices or until developing and developed nations have a realistic clean alternative to carbon-based energy. The dominant political focus on this one issue means we overlook other issues that we could actually change, like “the overfishing of breeding grounds, the destruction of biodiversity by pesticides and the mad use of packaging”, and we also distract ourselves from realistic and effective responses to the problem of climate change.
Closer to home, there’s an interesting parallel between Scruton’s conservative environmentalism and te ao Māori’s concept of kaitiakitanga. Both recognise that we are guardians of the natural world, responsible for it to our ancestors and our descendants. We can use it, but we must also conserve it. Scruton therefore argues for “the need to incorporate the aim of stewardship into conservative policies.” Or, to paraphrase: we need to ensure the vital relationship between conservation and conservatism.