Since at least the end of Nixon’s presidency, American environmentalism has been associated with the political left. Conservatives, suspicious of global warming claims and opposed to the left’s centralized political solutions for environmental problems, often have distanced themselves from environmentalism. The upshot is that many people presume the left’s superiority for good environmental policy. Still, the Kyoto Protocol’s recent collapse—a globalized, liberal solution to climate change that failed to stop a 58 percent increase in greenhouse gas emissions—casts doubt on whether the left’s efforts work.
Roger Scruton takes up this thread in his recent book How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism. Currently a visiting professor at Oxford University and the University of St. Andrews, and a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, Scruton argues that conservative thought is actually a better resource for environmentalism than liberalism.
How to Think Seriously About the Planet contrasts the conservative and liberal visions of life on matters ranging from practical reasoning to psychology to political philosophy. What Scruton calls the “conservative” vision recognizes that humans are and should be risk- takers, so long as the costs—and benefits—of risk-taking are borne by those who take the risks. The liberal vision, meanwhile, opposes risk-taking, perceiving it as a dangerous threat to a precarious planet always on the brink of disaster. For Scruton this difference of attitude shapes a difference of political approach to environmental issues.
In order to prevent people from externalizing the costs of their risks—from passing on those costs to people who did not incur them—conservatives support what Scruton calls “homeostatic systems.” Such systems are self-correcting, making use of negative feedback loops to react to change and to keep people accountable for the costs of their risks. Markets, traditions, customs, families, civil associations, and the common law are all examples of homeostatic systems.
Conservatism aims to preserve and maintain renewal of these systems, especially the “civil associations” that Scruton calls society’s “little platoons,” in the words of Edmund Burke. The little platoons—families, local clubs and institutions, churches and schools—keep us accountable to ourselves and our environment, teaching us how to “interact as free beings, each taking responsibility for his actions.” Daily life in these civil associations assimilates and connects us to a settled home, a place and a people we identify as peculiarly “ours.”
In the conservative vision, threats to one’s home, environmental or otherwise, are met by public spiritedness, by volunteering efforts united by what Scruton calls “oikophilia,” love of home. Politics then becomes modest, about compromise and enforcing the conditions that allow homeostatic systems to function properly. It also becomes localized, because it is only attachment to local civil associations that can solicit people’s loyalty and inspire them to accept the sacrifices that the common good requires. “Such associations,” he writes, “form the stuff of civil society, and conservatives emphasize them precisely because they are the guarantee that society will renew itself without being led and controlled by the state.”
The liberal vision supports a “salvationist” politics that shuts down risk-taking enterprises and seeks to insure people against the costs of risk-taking by collecting all power into a protective, centralized authority. While conservatives look to local or, at most, national institutions supported by oikophilia to counter threats and stabilize leadership, liberals rely on international regulation and borderless nongovernmental institutions (NGOs). They support organizations and movements structured around causes and campaigns, rather than civil associations that arise spontaneously out of a shared life.
Building on the distinction between the conservative and liberal visions of life, Scruton proposes that conservatism is a better response to today’s environmental crises than the liberal alternative. He argues that private property and free markets are necessary (but not sufficient) for environmental protection. Private property gives someone a sense of ownership, which supplies a motive for good stewardship, while markets establish homeostatic feedback loops that, when properly functioning, distribute costs to those who choose to incur them.
When governments become socialized or power becomes centralized, the feedback loops established by the market are disrupted, and government is able to damage the environment without having to pay the costs of doing so. Scruton cites myriad examples of the ecological havoc wreaked by communist and socialist regimes that exempted government-backed polluters from anti-pollution legislation.
Government regulation is often counterproductive because it protects and exempts its favorites, isolating them from the costs of their choices and creating moral hazard. It encourages rent-seeking and regulatory capture. Government also “disaggregates risks”: It deals with problems one at a time through discrete policies that in turn create new problems. It also aims to avoid future risks through the policy of “interception,” confiscating risks from those who will have to face the costs of failure, and leaving them unprepared to do so. Local stewardship, in contrast, can tackle problems collectively through “resilience”—a strategy of risk preparation that allows people to adjust to and meet threats when they come.
Centralized control is subject to the law of unintended consequences. Government regulation is uniquely able to warp market incentives in unexpected and often counterproductive ways. For Scruton, it also “lifts problems from their context and prevents them from being localized and solved by the kind of civic institutions that are the real source of stewardship.”
Scruton also defends environmental conservatism with arguments less often heard from American conservatives. Central to his case, for example, is his view that a local, voluntary, patriotic culture can motivate environmental care. Under local stewardship, people don’t defend the environment because they are on a global campaign to save the world. They defend it because they have thick ties to their home, and they want to keep their home safe and beautiful.
Liberal solutions like the Kyoto Protocol are ineffective precisely because they undermine these thick ties to a particular home. Global solutions and movement-based associations cannot attach a person to a place, as local solutions and civil associations can. Because it destroys our piety for our places, our oikophilia, liberalism undermines a key motive for people to make the sacrifices necessary for environmental care.
Scruton realizes that the immediate objection to this vision of environmentalism is that while it might resolve local or national environmental problems such as littering or chemical dumping, it can’t combat a global problem such as climate change. But he insists that a global solution isn’t possible—history shows this. He thinks we should replace the familiar slogan “think globally, act locally” with “think nationally, act locally.” Only nations full of public-spiritedness and thick, local ties, he argues, can lead the world to sustainability.
Scruton’s proposals and concerns will raise some conservative eyebrows. He argues, “It could not possibly be part of a rational response to global warming simply to say: let nothing change. On the contrary, a great many things must change if we are to live with the unprecedented prosperity, longevity, and reproductive success that make our species such a burden to the planet.” He therefore proposes a flat-rate carbon tax on all emissions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and mileage taxes on road use to prevent national business from externalizing the costs of transportation, in turn fostering localized economies.
In the course of the book, Scruton also expresses concerns about chain supermarkets (“we should not shop in the supermarket,” he explicitly says), suburban sprawl, airport and highway construction, popular techniques for raising and slaughtering meat, geographic mobility, free trade, and mechanized agriculture. He suggests that agriculture should be massively deregulated in order to promote more local and sustainable food markets, and that rich countries should pay compensation for the damage their emissions already have caused.
Scruton admits his brand of thinking is unique. Early on he informs readers that he will explicate a “European conservatism” similar in many ways to American conservatism, but different enough that “American conservatives have something important to learn” from it. He also admits much common ground between what we call left wing “civic environmentalism” and his brand of conservatism. But, on the whole, he underestimates the weight of the overlap here. In truth, anyone attempting to translate Scruton’s conservatism over to the American context will be struck by how utterly messy and complicated such a translation would be.
Perhaps not everything Scruton says is correct. Both American conservatives and American liberals will have valid counterarguments to some of the more unorthodox sections of How to Think Seriously About the Planet. He misses, for example, the role technology has played in encouraging sustainability (both electricity use and oil consumption are down in America, according to the latest figures). Still, Scruton’s book is a useful wakeup call for the American right. The book admirably shows how a sober appreciation of the dire environmental situation that confronts us today does not require us to embrace centralized or socialized solutions. The American conservative wary of Scruton need have no concerns on that score. But listening to Scruton will require American conservatives to rethink some of their other priorities. This kind of rethinking would be challenging—even if only a modified version of Scruton’s program adopted—but it could be just the kind of challenge that the American right needs.
Peter Blair is editor-in-chief of Fare Forward.