The ecological challenge for Conservatism
A Review of ‘Conservatism’ by Roger Scruton, in Dobson, A. and Eckersley, R. (2006), Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge (pp.7-19), Cambridge: CUP.
This book is a collection of essays looking at the challenge of the environmental movement from a variety of political perspectives; and investigating how that challenge impinges on a range of political concepts. As such, this chapter by Roger Scruton is the opening gambit presented by the editors; possibly designed to dispel any complacency the modern-day environmental student might have that he or she already knows what the book is going to say. Similarly, Scruton, almost immediately unsettles the reader by claiming that the “appropriation of the environmental movement by the left is… a relatively new phenomenon”. This may come as a bit of a surprise to the typical student of environmental politics today, in Europe at least, who has probably grown-up with very little in the way of green issues being discussed by mainstream politicians and, when they have been discussed at all, with radical anti-nuclear weapons, anti-roads, or anti-airport protestors being those that generally get seen and heard the most.
Moving swiftly on, lest you have time to challenge this assertion too much, Scruton then states why he feels so many fail to recognise the environmental credentials of conservatism in the UK today. Scruton says this is because “…environmentalists have been habituated to see conservatism as the ideology of free enterprise…” (p.7); and thus spends much of the chapter trying to distinguish conservatism from capitalism (which is founded upon liberal free-market economics).
Leaving aside for the time being the question as to whether this central argument is effectively made, it does not take long for his motivation to become clear; hostility towards the centrally-planned – and deeply environmentally destructive – Marxist economies of the former USSR and Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe. However, if one is going to seek to distinguish conservatism from capitalism, would it not also be reasonable to distinguish socialism from Marxism? This is something that Scruton singularly fails to do because – with reference to the aforementioned countries – he posits them as evidence for “the ecological catastrophe of socialist economies” (p.8).
This hostility to Marxsm explains why he chose to counter William Morris’ News from nowhere dream of utopia (circa 1890), in News from somewhere: on settling (Scruton 2004). Scruton is, first and foremost, a philosopher; and is certainly not a defender of modernity. Several years ago, therefore, he moved from suburbia to the Wiltshire countryside in search of a slower pace of life; and it is this experience he describes in News from somewhere. However, in reviewing the book for The Independent newspaper, Adam Nicolson commented that he felt it was:
“…one of the most unsettling and unsettled books I have ever read on rural England. Its surface is continually agitated, its tone somehow radically dispossessed… News from Somewhere is not even a dialogue between the settled and unsettled. It is a struggle between them and describes not a solution but a predicament: once you have left the silence of Eden, there is no going back” (The Independent newspaper, 04/05/2004).
Clearly then, in Nicolson’s opinion at least, Scruton did not find peace in his solitude. In effect he appears to be saying that, “you can take the man out of modernity but you cannot take modernity out of the man”. However, even if we cannot un-invent the wheel, or return to a pre-industrial supposed golden age, Scruton is certainly not beyond claiming that the highly inequitable distribution of wealth that characterised those times was in fact a legitimate means of safeguarding our common heritage: Citing it as “Burke’s model of inheritance”, Scruton asserts that the aristocratic monopoly on land ownership “…removed assets from the market, protected them from pillage… and… withheld land and natural resources from exploitation…” (p.13-14).
To agree that such a means to an end is legitimate, is surely to stretch Goodin’s “Green Theory of Agency” to breaking point? Scruton goes on to point out the breakdown of this monopoly by the Settled Land Acts, led to a “…vast increase in the wealth of Britain, the first steps towards social equality, and a century of environmental destruction” (p.14). One might assume that the second item mentioned is seen as a good thing. However, this is not at all certain because Scruton doubts that sustainability and social justice can be combined (Scruton p.15).
Whilst Scruton is clearly no libertarian ideologue, believing that it is “as obvious to a conservative that our reckless pursuit of individual gratification jeopardises the social order as that it jeopardises the planet” (p.9), he also states very plainly that he is in favour of the status quo (however inequitable) because he believes that conservatism seeks the “maintenance of the social ecology” (p.8). I find this quite troubling because, whereas I have some sympathy with the view that human beings are inherently selfish, (hence Scruton characterises all our environmental problems as “the triumph of desire over restraint” (p.11)), I am not so willing to be an apologist for social injustice. I feel certain that Scruton will lose the sympathy of many originally-ambivalent readers at this point.
Another surprising target for Scruton’s anger is non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Greenpeace, whom he says are “threats to social equilibrium” because they paint all environmental challenges as zero-sum games (or conflicts) between themselves and the corporate or political enemy (p.18). On the contrary, Scruton points out that nothing should be made that simple; and that we are all to blame. However, is this not another unfair characterisation? If nothing is that simple, then surely NGOs cannot be all bad?
Finally, Scruton appeals to what he feels is our innate defensiveness towards protecting our “home”, which he believes is best conflated with our “national identity”. Here, I have more sympathy with Scruton’s critique of supra-national initiatives such as any attempt to build a monolithic European Union, or the politics of globalisation. However, I would want to balance this against a need to avoid isolationist and or protectionist policies at national level. In the final analysis, global problems need global solutions, mutually agreed upon, and collectively pursued.