Politics or philosophy?

Politics or philosophy?

Philip Conford

17 December 2012

Roger Scruton's new book 'Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet', argues that environmentalism is at heart a conservative impulse, and that its solutions should be situated in approaches normally associated with the Right: the power of community action, a roll back of state activity, and a trust in the power of the free market. In this essay Philip Conford undertakes an extended review of the work, and explores the intellectual quandaries that an analysis of the organic and environmental movements provides. Can modern environmental politics really lay claim to being a “conservative revolution”, and are Scruton's prescriptions likely to find traction with those on either the Right or Left of our current political spectrum?

Roger Scruton’s book might more accurately bear the title Green Politics, since it aims to demonstrate that “Greens should be conservatives” and to reject (with certain reservations) the idea that the state should play a central role in matters of environmental policy. The book’s subtitle implies that anyone not sharing this perspective cannot be a serious thinker: an example of the philosophical tactic known as ‘persuasive definition’. Scruton takes the reader at times into the realms of ethics and aesthetics, but his lucid and accessible discourse is not generally academic. ‘Philosophy’ here is a matter of examining the presuppositions (erroneous, in Scruton’s view) on which environmental policies are based, and suggesting his preferred alternatives. These turn out to be staples of conservative thought: the importance of continuity, of tradition, and of social and moral capital; the value of what the 18th-century thinker Edmund Burke termed “little platoons” of ordinary people; the mystical benefits of free markets; and, above all, the motivating power of a sense of belonging to a ‘homeland': of commitment to a place and nation. Scruton uses the Greek term oikophilia – love of home – to describe this feeling, which is the key concept in his argument.

For the purposes of this review, I take it that the organic movement is part of the wider environmental, or Green, movement, and I shall relate Roger Scruton’s arguments specifically to the organic movement. First, though, some context is required, since the movement’s political dimension is historically very complex. During the 70 years or more of its existence, the organic movement has attracted supporters from every shade of political opinion, including the radical Right, left-wing socialists, anarchists, High Tories, liberals, UKIP members, and of course Greens. One contemporary luminary has assured me that the organic movement is “revolutionary” (though that is not the impression one gained from accounts of the 2008 Feast of Albion). I do not know how many current activists would be happy to identify themselves as conservatives, but Scruton is justified in claiming that the image of environmentalism as being unequivocally ‘on the left’ is misleading. The radical Right element was influential in the early days, and the Mosleyite Jorian Jenks, editor of the Soil Association journal for seventeen years, was certain that the organic philosophy of husbandry was essentially conservative. The Soil Association’s early membership included a substantial proportion of people from the landowning classes or of a military background.

The generation of activists who came to the fore in the 1970s and ‘80s tended to view themselves as radicals who saw off the aristocrats to make the organic movement more left-leaning. But the story is an impossibly tangled one. The influence of the Prince of Wales, whose philosophy (as outlined in his book Harmony) is deeply traditionalist, suggests that some might see the organic movement as the vehicle of a paradoxical ‘conservative revolution’; while the movement’s alliance in recent years with consumerism and celebrities scarcely indicates left-wing radicalism. Where the more far-sighted initiatives such as Transition Towns, Community-Supported Agriculture and low-impact development are concerned, Scruton regards these as precisely the sort of autonomous networks which conservatives should encourage. His experience of Eastern Europe in the 1980s made him an implacable opponent of centralized state power. Just as the citizens of the Iron Curtain countries were able to bring down their communist regimes, so concerted action from below can, he believes, provide effective resistance to the environmentally destructive powers at work in western democracies. “If the people can combine,” he assures us, “they can win.“

On the face of it, Roger Scruton is an unlikely champion of Green interests. As editor of the conservative Salisbury Review he opposed various causes which Greens inclined to support: among them the anti-nuclear movement and feminism. Although he rejected Thatcherism, he has been associated with free-market think-tanks in Britain and the USA; indeed, work on Green Philosophy was made possible by his post of resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). On the AEI’s website is posted a quotation from energy scientist Kenneth P Green, lamenting that “we are beset on all sides by propaganda promoting [the view] that humans are endangering the earth’s natural order“: lamenting, in fact, the expression of a belief central to the organic movement’s philosophy. As I argued in The Origins of the Organic Movement, the thinkers who provided a philosophical basis for the movement in its formative years accepted the existence of a God-given natural order whose laws could not be transgressed with impunity. H J Massingham’s 1945 collection of “Essays in the Return to Husbandry”, written by various organic pioneers, was entitled The Natural Order. Might it be wise, then, to adopt a certain scepticism about Scruton’s perspective, when he is to be found in such a stable as the AEI? He tells us that the Institute provided him with “open-minded opposition”, and readers will find this reassuring to the extent that they see right-wing American think-tanks as bastions of open-mindedness. But we should give Scruton the benefit of the doubt: for instance, he differs from many conservatives in taking seriously the threat of man-made global warming.

He seems to be trying to perform a balancing act. On the one hand, he accepts that there are significant environmental threats which need to be addressed, and, rather grudgingly, that some result from irresponsible and unregulated commercial practices. On page 178 he even grants, albeit in passing, some validity to the left’s critique of big business. On the other hand, he denies that the “intrusion” of the state is the way to deal with environmental problems. (The word intrusion is of course loaded; intervention would be a more neutral term.) It appears that, while Scruton finds himself among the free-marketeers on account of his experience of Iron Curtain dictatorships, he hopes to convince his associates that environmental issues are important and amenable to conservative solutions. Equally, he wants to convince environmentalists that they can achieve their aims only by renouncing their supposed faith in top-down solutions, government (or international) action and movements led by elites.

We are dealing here with two different forms of conservatism. One is the libertarianism of those who want the smallest possible role for government in matters of business and of social welfare (represented at its ideological extreme by a figure such as Ayn Rand, whose outlook Scruton rejects). This kind of conservatism opposes the idea of regulation, of limits, or of a natural order, and is therefore distinct from the conservatism which Scruton advocates, which he describes as “the maintenance of social ecology”. A conservative philosophy of this kind aims to husband resources: not only environmental, but a society’s social, moral and cultural capital. It opposes consumerism, bureaucracy and the rootlessness of multinational companies, but puts its faith in an idealised market system which, as Scruton describes it, ensures the maintenance of a moral order (and is therefore somewhat different from the market economy which exists in contemporary Britain). A sense of nationhood is essential, and government will concentrate on creating incentives for citizens to solve their own problems. They will do this through a network of community organizations, established from below (From the Ground Up, to use the title of a book by Jorian Jenks), which create social traditions and thrive on affection and loyalty. Economic, utilitarian reasons for looking after the environment are inadequate, Scruton believes. Environmental problems are moral problems, and only a sense of personal involvement will provide people with a sufficiently strong motive to care for the natural world.

This is the constructive aspect of Scruton’s case. He also devotes much space to an assault on the various features of environmentalism which he both dislikes and considers ineffectual. He claims that it wrongly identifies conservatism with a destructive free-enterprise ideology which places the short-term profit motive above care for the environment. It is based on an envy-ridden egalitarianism yet is simultaneously prone to arrogance and top-down, elitist policies. It thrives on alarmist causes. It favours abstract, internationalist policies and is therefore rootless and indifferent to local conditions. The socialist states of Eastern Europe inflicted serious ecological damage on their countryside, Scruton points out, and he is sceptical about the efficacy of international treaties and declarations: true public spirit is domestic.

Scruton therefore roots his Green philosophy in love of a particular place; a stronger feeling than can ever be aroused by concepts of Nature or Gaia. This approach has some pedigree in the organic movement. Massingham saw the process of home-breaking as central to the destructive culture which he and his colleagues in the Kinship in Husbandry opposed; while E F Schumacher, a major influence on a later generation, divided humanity into “forward stampeders” and “homecomers”. Scruton argues that a love of home does not imply nostalgia; on the contrary, it encourages a concern to create moral and environmental capital for the future, as it is based not on exploitation, but on love.

Nor does Scruton embrace the dangerous misanthropy which lurks in ‘deep green’ ideology. ‘Home’ implies a place adapted to human needs, where nature’s gifts are put to pleasing use through craftsmanship. Oikophilia is also based on respect for the sacred: an idea which is entirely at odds with our aggressively secular culture but which is to be found throughout the organic movement’s history. To these sympathies can be added Scruton’s admiration for the work of grassroots organizations, his suspicion of modernist planning, his concern for the aesthetics of our surroundings, and his emphasis on the need for resilient systems of food production. There is much here with which members of the organic movement can identify. Nonetheless, certain features of Scruton’s book should arouse unease among its ‘organic’ readers.

Chief among these might be the author’s idealization of the market economy and his relative leniency towards the activities of big business. It is more than twenty years since the collapse of Communism, but Scruton’s experiences in Eastern Europe seem to have blinded him to the scale of the environmental damage being inflicted by unrestrained capitalism. His occasional acknowledgements of the malign effects of unregulated free enterprise – and banking – are made very much in passing, compared with his insistent condemnation of the state’s activities.

Scruton seems unable to attack business as strongly as it deserves because he is a disciple of the free-market ideologists Hayek and von Mises, apparently believing that “good manners” are the principle which underlies market transactions. Although he argues that economics should be subject to moral considerations, his critics on the Left, or among the Greens, would point out that under a free-market system social, moral and environmental capital are always likely to be eroded by the primacy of the profit motive. Scruton urges Left and Right to combine against consumerism, but consumerism is at the heart of our present economic system. The existence of left-wing oikophiles such as George Orwell, Colin Ward and Paul Kingsnorth – and Scruton’s father, who sounds an admirable man – poses something of a dilemma for him, and one that he sidesteps.

Scruton’s belief in the power of the ‘little platoons’ also seems over-optimistic, ignoring as it does the ruthless financial and propagandist influence of the corporations which benefit from lack of regulation. He refers to the Soil Association as an outstanding example of a civil body fighting the joint power of government and agribusiness; but, sadly, 25 years or so after the Association’s “20% by 2000” campaign, barely 4% of UK agricultural land is organically farmed, while organic food remains a niche market. Scruton is scathing about “top-down edicts”, but the post-war Labour government’s Town and Country Planning Act had a widespread impact, while the British people’s health was of a higher standard under wartime socialist legislation than it has been since dietary regulation was removed. Furthermore, many environmental problems are now of an international scale, and will not wait while ‘little platoons’ of concerned citizens from different countries organize themselves to take on the trans-national banks and corporations. Scruton accepts that state involvement is necessary in certain areas – to co-ordinate research, for instance, and to “amplify” oikophilia – while still claiming that centralized government is the greatest of all threats to the planet. Yet it seems impossible that his various aims, as outlined on p376, could be achieved without far-reaching government action.

Scruton’s book contains other apparent contradictions. He devotes a chapter to criticism of the Precautionary Principle, for its supposed rejection of all risk, one of his arguments being that adoption of the Principle results in unintended consequences. In that case, why does he not support the Principle, since its adoption, in his view, brings risk in its train? I am also rather intrigued by his objection to movements and to government action on the grounds that they are “elitist”, when in contrast he offers readers the prospect of working alongside such ordinary folk as Zac Goldsmith to achieve Burkean ends, and discusses what can be done by “you and me to put the earth back in its orbit”. That is you, dear reader, on your country estate, and Dr Scruton on his, pulling under the same yoke. It seems curious that Scruton, who detests the egalitarian mindset, should condemn environmental movements for their elitism.

Despite the several points of convergence between Scruton’s outlook and the organic movement’s ideas, the movement would do well to be wary of his underlying argument and motives. Although he identifies various flaws in the free-marketeers’ philosophy, his reluctance to involve the state in environmental policy-making leaves the way still open for powerful commercial concerns to behave as they please in a very unequal contest. There is a good deal to value in his thought, but at present it is hard to see his balancing act as satisfying either the organic movement or his colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute.

Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet, Roger Scrution Atlantic Books, 2012. Hardback, 457pp. £22.00.

This article was first published in Mother Earth, the Soil Association's journal of organic thought and policy. We hope you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share this with your contacts. If you wish to support the production of Mother Earth in future, and receive the latest issue direct to your door, then please subscribe to Mother Earth, for just £12 a year.

Mother Earth journal cover


Subscribe today

For just £12 you can receive the latest issue, packed with topical organic issues and philosophy, direct to your door.