Written 17 June 2021
Having read and reviewed his Fools, Frauds and Firebrands just a short time ago I wasn’t expecting to read something else by Roger Scruton for some time. But sticking to resolutions is something I’ve never been terribly good at, so here I am reviewing another book of his. I think it came up on my kindle at a particularly appealing price, so maybe that is what tipped me into downloading it.
Anyway, I found it a much more interesting and engaging book in every sense. It is easier to read, touching on a narrower and more practical subject and is very relevant to the debates we are having and will continue to have on “how to think seriously about the planet”, as the book’s strapline has it.
The basic propositions of the book are firstly that the care and conservation of the planet should be absolutely central to any genuinely conservative outlook, and secondly to take issue with much of the structures we in the developed world have put in place to tackle the issues, making a case for a different approach.
Scruton makes the case powerfully that any conservative worth their salt must have a concern for the environment at the front and centre of their thinking. It seems so obvious that it shouldn’t need stating but it is important to realise that for Scruton a conservative is very much not the same thing as a member of a political party that describes itself as conservative. For Scruton, an old Labour trade union leader would have a far more legitimate claim to be called a conservative than a modern day financier neoliberal (or indeed any member of the current cabinet).
A central theme of the book is the concept of oikophilia (love of home), which is a term that, while perhaps not coined by Scruton himself, has certainly been used by him extensively. This is a very powerful idea, and he calls on this oikophilia to be a primary motivating force for conservatives, indeed everyone, which will lead naturally to an authentic concern for the environment. Care and love for our own home is the best basis for care and concern for those of others. A second theme that is not dealt with at length but which I think is of equal importance to Scruton is that of beauty: we can’t really care for the planet unless we consciously hold on to the idea of safeguarding beauty (and fighting the encroachment of ugliness). In setting out what oikophilia is, he makes the case for localism and decentralisation as its logical consequences. Decisions about people’s homes can only be made by the people whose home it is and by bodies who are accountable in a reasonable time scale to the people whose lives they affect. This feedback loop is what durable systems exhibit and are central to successful government and also a properly functioning free market. Of course, in Scruton’s view the world in which we live is characterised by overly centralised decision making, lack of any accountability to local communities and no effective feedback to communicate that things aren’t working or are not wanted. Those with the power to alter our environment concentrate their efforts in winning over central politicians and bureaucrats rather than the communities affected by their actions.
Our existing approach to dealing with environmental issues is then reviewed in the light of the approach preferred by Scruton and unsurprisingly is found wanting. The frameworks we use to try and manage environmental outcomes are legalistic, target driven and so open to being gamed, and are driven by international agreements with parties that are fundamentally untrustworthy. International NGOs, western politicians, bureaucrats, dictators and multinational business executives all rub shoulders in developing these top down structures but they can never avoid significant unintended second order consequences. Scruton on treaties identifies a crucial point: treaties with untrustworthy regimes are worthless. The most obvious example is CCP China, where I think Scruton believes that its leadership is fundamentally incapable of signing a treaty: its mindset is so far away from that of a trustworthy party that its signing a treaty is a completely meaningless act.
Scruton comes back on a number of occasions to our big supermarket model to illustrate his points. A model crafted by national politicians, lobbyists and businessmen that is impersonal, devastates local businesses and externalises huge costs (transport, congestion, waste from wrapping etc) and was never asked for. As well as being environmentally costly, this model is a great example of all that is ugly in modern life.
I find Scruton’s arguments persuasive in many regards. It has always seemed to me that the route to meaningful change runs through individuals and communities having the power to change things themselves. I am extremely sceptical in particular of national and especially international bodies and decision making that move power away from the local, not just because too often they are impervious to democratic restraint but also because they are likely to be captured by groupthink and faddism. I also have great reservations about the increasing role of treaties in organising international affairs. As Scruton said in the context of Brexit, treaties tend to be immutable for most practical purposes and in a very short time turn into things written by men long since dead for a world that no longer exists. Another case of feedback loops going missing.
Having said that, while my heart is with Scruton in wishing the international technocrats away, for all practical purposes this is unlikely so the question is of how to manage the world we’re presented with. I don’t know the answer to this, because no matter how desirable it may be, we are not going to bring Western politicians and political culture around to the benefits of decentralisation and localism any time soon. As for the CCP, well…
But there must be some hope, and perhaps it lies in us all changing the way we live (as far as it lies in our power) and also demanding better of our own politicians. In terms of structures I think the whole system of international governance needs to be brought under something that resembles democratic control if it is to actually deliver rather than rankle. Obviously the counter to this is Trump and the US stepping out of the Kyoto protocol and being under no obligation whatsoever, but our masters’ penchant for irreversible commitments without running them past their electorate is a more fundamental problem. Perhaps big international agreements should have limits, whether in terms of duration, reconfirmation by new governments, mandatory review or other means. Without them they will bump against ordinary people and become inoperative or fall into disrepute.
Here it is worth perhaps just touching on Paul Kingsnorth, a writer and thinker who I rate highly: a self described recovering environmentalist and (recent) convert to (Orthodox) Christinanity he has spent a long time at the front end of environmental campaigning and would I think now identify the way forward as primarily running through a spiritual renewal rather than international organisations and technocracy. I’ll be looking to follow his work closely while also doing what I can to live a better life in my corner of the world. It’s not easy, and I do think this is an area in which we as a society have to be much more forgiving and accepting of others’ opinions, views, and lack of knowledge than we are at the moment.
I could go on for a lot further but as this is a review I’ll round off with a strong recommend. Most will read it and while not buying the whole narrative will I think find it a worthy contribution to what is an important debate.