The relationship between Greens and Conservatives in England is notoriously fractious. Many conservatives see Greens as sub-Marxist semibeatniks, and many Greens see conservatives as military-industrial Morlocks. Yet etymology alone suggests that conservatism and conservationism should shade into each other, just as blue blends into green and back again in the color spectrum. And even if it did not, people of all persuasions are compelled to share this globe, and all of us will profit or lose according to how we discharge our responsibilities.
In the author’s wryly bylined “Scrutopia,” right and left would unite against the profligacy and pollution that threaten everyone’s environments. Conservatives would recognize that while the jury may still be out on anthropocentric global warming, climate change requires mitigation, beautiful places and irreplaceable species are being unnecessarily destroyed, and international free trade is not an unalloyed blessing. Leftists would recognize that environmental protection should supersede egalitarianism, that top-down international initiatives tend to miscarry, and that we need to think and act nationally as well as locally and globally. Whatever their other differences, right and left could and should cooperate now on attainable and patently beneficial objectives—opposing consumerism, preserving cultures, protecting animals, minimizing waste, and searching for viable alternative energy.
Sadly, we don’t sojourn in Scrutopia, and real-world discourse is dominated by what James Delingpole terms “watermelons”—green-skinned, red-agenda’d gentry who wish to impose global governance, macrotaxation, and micromanagement, served with a vinegarish side of p.c. cliché. Against them are a small number of “cornucopians,” who see “the market” as sole arbiter of everything, scoff at genuine environmental problems and appear to see nature’s impoverishment as a necessary corollary of growing consumer choice.
Scruton has touched on these problems before, in Animal Rights and Wrongs (1996), On Hunting (1998), Town and Country (a co-edited collection of essays, 1999), England: An Elegy (2001), and yet others, but this is his first book-length treatment of Green thinking. He brings many new perspectives to bear on Green thought, introducing insights from aesthetics, Anglicanism, architecture, literature, metaphysics, nationalism, and risk theory. Names like Novalis, Ruskin, Eliot, Leon Krier, and Henri Bergson are too rarely heard in this context. The author desires
an approach to environmental problems in which local affections are made central to policy, and in which homeostasis and resilience, rather than social reordering and central control, are the primary outcomes.
The contemporary Green message is sadly self-limiting, because it is uncompromising in tone and surrounded by extraneous ideological matter that puts off far more potential supporters than it attracts. Greens often fail to acknowledge that most people do not think in abstract internationalist terms but are instead emotionally connected to a particular culture and locality. If we really want to channel a communitarian spirit to ecological ends, Scruton argues, we need first to channel localist sentiment—which he christens “oikophilia.”
Oikophilia is an ugly word—although of course it stems from the same Hellenic root as ecology—and so is its equally uneuphonious alleged opposite, oikophobia. But one can see why Scruton wishes to fashion a new vocabulary. The difficulty is that the obvious synonyms for oikophilia—patriotism and nationalism—are laden with unhappy significance. He is hoping that a new term may allow at least some Greens to view his argument with greater objectivity.
The early ecological movement began in the late 18th century with the cult of the picturesque landscape and was taken up in the ensuing century by German Romantics, becoming part of a heady Heimatlichkeit, a bundle of mystical, traditionalist, and agrarian impulses that fed into an emerging Grossdeutschland supranationalism. Protection of the soil became in some way also protection of the soul—the national soul, Blut plus Boden—and endeavors were made to protect landscapes, folk customs, and threatened species, even to the extent of trying to breed back the auroch, the extinct ancient kine of central Europe. (Descendants of these “Heck Cattle,” named after the brothers who conducted this resonant experiment, can be seen in Munich’s excellent Tiergarten.) Fascist sympathizers around Europe were pioneering ecologists—men like Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, and Jorian Jenks, who became a founding member of the Soil Association—while, in Germany, the National Socialists (part sincerely, part cynically) linked themselves to this soothing mythos. The inevitable result was that for some time after 1945 ecology was vaguely associated with nationalism, reaction, and (at one remove) racialism.
Even as communists were wreaking eco-havoc on huge swathes of the Soviet Union and China, in the West the advent of consumerism enraptured people seeking escape from the pinched and unhappy past. They embraced experiments in chemistry, physics, industry, agriculture, architecture, the arts, and living that consciously rejected all old orders, with their real or alleged bad food, class consciousness, frugalism, inequality, injustice, narrow-mindedness, prurience, racism, and sexism. All through the 1960’s, eco-awareness was largely confined to a small number of middle-class romantics, for whom it generally amounted to little more than reading The Lord of the Rings. Ecologists were seen as earthbound earnests—ultra-Aquarians in the age of Apollo.
But as the 1970’s came in with a splash of rayon and a soundtrack of glam rock, the eco-tide began to flow the other way. There appeared a slew of bestselling books on subjects like climate change, overpopulation, habitat loss, and pesticides—some mistaken, including those predicting a new Ice Age, but others deservedly influential. At the same time, the ecological movement turned decisively leftward. Thoughtful Marxists, many with organizational experience, had seen which way socialism was going, and were accordingly looking for a new place from which to bombard “the West.” Ecological causes became bundled with anticapitalism, anti-imperialism, antiracism, and antisexism. Understandably repelled, some conservatives became uncritical defenders of international big business and took a perverse pleasure in ridiculing even legitimate concerns—for example, those about overfishing, pesticide use, or oil drilling in wildernesses. On ecological matters, both left and right became progressives.
Nevertheless, Western countries were much more serious about environmental protection than their socialist counterparts. They were freer from the incompetent incubus of government, they were more open to ecological arguments, they were susceptible to public opinion, and they had developed cleaner technologies. Scruton identifies two other reasons that are usually overlooked—first, the role of civic associations and, second, the restraining influence exerted by aesthetic traditionalism.
Behind the noisy internationalist NGOs, there lies a less-focused but arguably more effective kind of ecological action, carried out by voluntary groups like the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, the National Trust, the Countryside Restoration Trust, and hunting and fishing bodies. “Stewardship is second-nature to the sportsman,” Scruton enthuses. While it is true that anglers have saved many rivers, and hunters habitats, the author may be getting slightly carried away on this point—after all, gamekeepers are not exactly renowned for their concern about the viability of predator populations.
Scruton’s definition of ecological action (as distinct from activism) also encompasses the Ramblers’ Federations, the Youth Hostel Association, the Women’s Institute, the Town and Country Planning Association, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, Leon Krier’s New Urbanists, and a myriad of other groups defending cherished landscapes or landmarks. Such groups are, Scruton says, Burkean “little platoons,” social stewards motivated by place-specific altruism, perpetuating Burke’s famous intergenerational compact.
These millions of mature or inchoate conservatives borrow from a common cultural iconography and share centuries-old ideals of national identity and beauty that have almost become second nature. Thus, the fondness for nostalgia and all things “heritage,” traditional agriculture, damp medieval churches, thatched cottages, Georgian terraces, Victorian villas, Edwardian semis; and thus the detestation of tower blocks and the wind turbines appearing on so many otherwise lovely horizons “like an army of visiting insects, their sails agitating the skyline, their raw structures negating the contours of the land.”
Beauty is not entirely subjective; it is derived from local cultural traditions. Greens generally evince a condescending indifference to aesthetic considerations—presumably believing such things to be morally dubious “classist” constructs. Yet, as the author observes, “Love of beauty has been a far stronger motive than any utilitarian or scientific interest, in preserving land and landscape.”
Scruton is surely correct to adjudge that Greens should be trying to co-opt rather than circumvent this sentiment. Landscapes are not just recreational spaces plus resources, but a repository for long memories and national aspirations. To shrug and say that beauty is simply “a matter of taste” effectively means abdicating from one’s social identity. If these intertwined notions of patriotism and beauty are ruled passé, then where precisely can environmental ethics come from? What else can motivate people whose sympathies notoriously “dwindle as distance increases”? It is unrealistic to expect people in, say, Scruton’s home county of Wiltshire to be as intrinsically interested in the Sumatran rainforest as they are in Savernake Forest where they walk their dogs, and which besides is haunted by English “Greenwood” archetypes.
For the author, local is generally better than national, and national than international. A great deal of inadvertent harm is caused by top-down schemes administered by remote and unaccountable bureaucrats, like the damage caused to small farms and wildlife by subsidies that encourage chemical-dependent prairie farming. He is angered by regulations that make it almost impossible for small local producers to compete with agribusiness and the supermarkets, by compelling them to pasteurize their products, use highly expensive (and nonbiodegradable) packaging, and send their animals long distances to die in allegedly more hygienic conditions. (Scruton incidentally reminds us that an organic, local produce–based food economy could actually mean cheaper food, because of savings on subsidies, chemicals, and transport.)
The Scrutopian state’s role would be limited to pricing pollution and waste, administering a flat-rate carbon tax, funding research into alternative energy, and international negotiations. Scruton has shrewdly low expectations of treaties, citing the inefficacy of greenhouse-gas-limitation efforts, when the pious intentions of a few are continually undermined by the indifference of the principal polluters. But he does not rule out the tedious transnational round altogether, where something other than rhetoric may be the result. He cites Montreal as an example of where it can work and notes that the growing problem of plastic pollution could also be mitigated with relative ease.
It seems ungracious to unpick such an original and salutary book, but Scruton is in error when he misstates the very nature of nationhood by writing, “nations are defined not by kinship or religion but by a homeland.” As he is obviously aware of the meaning of natio—indeed, he has written a book called The Need for Nations—this is presumably a diplomatic introduction to mollify easily affrighted Greens. Perhaps he hopes such a postmodern definition of nationhood might offset his denunciation of multiculturalism, his acknowledgement that mass immigration means alienation, and his belief that we must “identify kin and country as personal assets.” Yet one suspects many Greens will continue to find his argument faintly unnerving—as Green MP Caroline Lucas put it in her review of this book in the Independent, “curiously old-fashioned, unashamedly tribal.” Despite Scruton’s gallant efforts, it seems likely that the Green message will continue in its present bloodless vein for some time yet—better than nothing, but nowhere near as effective as it could be and must soon become.
[Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet • by Roger Scruton • London: Atlantic Books • 457 pp., £22]