The Conservationism You Can Believe In

The words “conservative” and “conservation” are similar; surely their meanings overlap.  They do, says the English philosopher Roger Scruton, and conservatives need to think more seriously about conservation than they have hitherto.  To be a conservative is to value the cultural and political traditions we have inherited from the past, to hold them in trust, and to pass them along undiminished to our descendants.  To be a conservationist is to value our ecological heritage and to pass it along undiminished to our descendants.  By this telling, environmentalism ought not to have a leftish slant at all.

So why does it?  Scruton believes that the emotional energy of radical environmentalists today is comparable to that of communists in the twentieth century.  Believing that the old capitalist world was utterly corrupt, communists wanted to sweep away all its vestiges in the name of the new.  Similarly, radical environmentalists today see our technological domination of the natural world as so menacing that they want to transform it according to completely new principles.

Even moderate environmentalists, he argues, look to supra-national organizations like the European Union or the United Nations to bring about drastic changes.  Others work with single-issue non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on behalf of single-issue environmental reforms.  In doing so, says Scruton, they by-pass the two social groupings that are best able to accomplish change in way that assures social continuity—the local voluntary association and the nation.

Conservatives who agree that environmental problems are real and serious, including Scruton himself, see the large-scale approach as dangerous.  For him, the place to start is with “oikophilia,” love of the home.  Drawing on the insights of Edmund Burke, Scruton sees the “little platoon” of local society as the best place to act on our concern for the environment.  We love elements of the natural world that are familiar to us from personal experience.  These are the places in which our families live, and to which we are most likely to give, voluntarily, of our time and energy.  He is delighted by the “adopt-a-highway” programs he has seen on visits to the USA because they bring voluntary civic associations into immediate contact with threatened environments.

By contrast, he deplores big agencies like the EPA because they displace local associations with professional rule-bound bureaucracies.  They have an incentive structure unrelated to improving particular places, and they often write one-size-fits-all rules that can be perversely irrelevant or counter-productive out in the field.  He cites the example of the EPA’s inability to accept the Dutch offer of pollution-abatement ships during the Deepwater Horizon emergency of 2010 because these ships could not meet the EPA’s impossibly high standard of decontaminating seawater to a purity level of 99.95 percent.  Ships that could have helped remove vast quantities of crude oil from the spill zone—and had done so often in the North Sea–were excluded because of the very slightly contaminated water they would have disgorged back into the sea.

Centralized and bureaucratic responses, Scruton continues, make individuals and localities feel irrelevant and powerless, which in turn makes them progressively less eager to work voluntarily on behalf of the natural world.  Bureaucracies are by nature inflexible, unable to respond quickly to new insights and experiences, and their unintended effect is to rob citizens of their sense of involvement, and the local level of its resilience.  They also tend to be immune to challenge.  This was particularly true in the Communist countries before 1989, whose environmental record was atrocious, and against which citizens had no recourse.  Unfortunately, their record has often been little better in the West, where bureaus like the British Forestry Commission have run roughshod over centuries of local tradition in forest management.

Is the free market the solution?  Scruton warns that it does not have a ready answer to all environmental questions.  Some things we hold sacred beyond any question of their monetary value. Nevertheless, he is sympathetic to free-market environmentalism of the sort advocated by the American writers Terry Anderson and Donald Leal.  Its basic premise is that owners have the greatest incentive to care for land that is their actual property, and are quickest to safeguard it, in appropriate ways, from external threats.  He cites the success of private associations like the Anglers’ Conservation Association, which acquired lands along scenic British riverbanks and then successfully sued industrial polluters to stop them degrading water quality and killing the fish.

One role the government must play, however, is to uphold the rule of law.  Without an equitable legal framework, the market can be rapacious and destructive. Scruton knows that corporations want to maximize profits and take as little responsibility as possible for the malignant environmental effects of their work.  He offers high praise to the tradition of tort law in England, which has consistently taken the view that those whose enterprises cause environmental harm must take responsibility for remedying it.  By contrast, he argues, American tort law has lost touch with this noble tradition.  Too often, predatory American lawyers promote class-action lawsuits, targeting any organization that is able to pay and then making it pay, whether or not it is responsible for the harm.

What about the claim, often heard today in environmental debates, that we have moral obligations to the future?  Scruton agrees that we should take seriously our role as caretakers of a civilization and an ecology that others will inherit.  This sense of obligation, and the self-restraint that ought to accompany it, are important elements of conservatism and equally of conservation.  At the same time, we know much about the past and nothing about the future, so our concern for the future ought to draw heavily on the fund of actual experience we have from the past.  Otherwise we will drift away into wishful thinking and utopian projections with little concern for people whose actual lives have yet to begin, and whose mentality we can scarcely imagine.

Scruton writes shrewdly on the “precautionary principle,” often invoked in environmental debates.   Laudable on its face, the precautionary principle counsels us to do nothing rather than to take steps that might be environmentally harmful, just as the Hippocratic Oath enjoins doctors: “First, do no harm.”  But he shows how pernicious it can be in practice.  When a Danish researcher suggested that phthalates in certain plastic water bottles might be carcinogenic, the European Union invoked the precautionary principle to ban their use.  Other research did not uphold the finding but the hint of a suspicion remained.  In a situation like this, says Scruton, “what the Principle really says, when examined in the context of its use, is this; ‘if you think there may be a risk, then there is a risk; and if there is a risk, forbid it” (198).  Here again, bureaucratic agencies making blanket decisions deny citizens the opportunity to exercise their judgment and decide for themselves what risks they are, and are not, willing to confront when the evidence is weak or ambiguous.

One of the most influential statements of an environmental dilemma is Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons.”   First outlined in a short article in 1968, it shows that many individuals, each of them acting rationally on his own account, will use up a scarce resource, degrading the environment.  A classic example is the overfishing of the oceans by too many trawlers from competing nations.  Hardin, when he wrote the article, also had in mind the “commons” of reproduction, and he deplored the idea that individuals should be free to choose how many children they wanted.  Collectively, he feared, they would create far too many and would overwhelm the earth’s capacity to support them.  Even though Hardin was wrong about that, failing to notice the great slowing down of population growth in the advanced industrial nations, his general point still seemed persuasive.

Scruton responds to Hardin by asking the historical question: how often have “commons” actually been destroyed in this way?  His answer is reassuring; very few.  He gives examples from Scandinavia to Switzerland of local communities, fishermen and pastoralists, recognizing the scarcity of a vital common resource and imposing on themselves rules to preserve it. They can do so because they are familiar with the place in all its particulars, feeling not merely the economic wisdom of restraint and cooperation, but a sense of piety toward the land and its bounty.  They are oikophiliacs.  Scruton sees that a multicultural society with a highly mobile population will find this approach much more difficult because the many diverse parts of such a population lack a common history in the same landscape.  To him, of course, multiculturalism is a negative concept.

What about the question of global warming?  How serious is it, and how remediable?  Scruton’s approach is sensible and level headed.  He affirms that human activity is currently contributing to warming, but adds that it is only one of many sources of greenhouse gases.  We should take seriously the need to diminish greenhouse gases where possible but not if the price of doing so imperils other worthwhile projects.  In his view, which I share, we should take heart from the history of adaptations that humanity has made to an immense variety of climatic situations and atmospheric changes.   He cites the way in which nineteenth century Britain responded to the unprecedented challenges of industrialization, and anticipates that our far more resilient society today will also show the ability to adapt.

After a wide-ranging survey of the field, including excursions back to philosophical first principles, Scruton offers a few proposals of his own.  He comes down strongly in favor of reviving localism, enabling Britain’s farmers to sell the food they grow in local markets and phasing out the hidden subsidies that give all the advantages to giant supermarket chains.  He favors a flat tax on carbon consumption, emphasizing that consumers, not producers, are ultimately responsible for the greenhouse gases now threatening us.  And he ends by reminding readers that conservatism and conservation stand and fall together:  “The greatest danger to the environment, it seems to me, comes from the growing tendency of governments to confiscate the powers and freedoms of autonomous associations, and to centralize all powers in their own hands” (400).  Of course governments, especially those of the wealthy democratic nations, must play a role in response to the greatest environmental threats, but mostly by promoting oikophila rather than weakening it further.

This is a book of extraordinary richness, which repays slow reading and re-reading.  Scruton has a marvelous intellectual breadth and he ranges widely over dozens of topics with equal authority, from the most abstract to the most particular.  He convinced me at one point that there is a relationship between the aesthetics of table settings and the right ordering of the natural world.  Families whose everyday objects have been “polished by domestic affection” (263) bespeak a sense of habitual rootedness.  In a meditation on the nature of beauty, he raises the possibility that the job of art should be not to stand out but to fit in, that it should be an exercise as much of self-denial as of self-expression.   What a beautiful and persuasive idea that is; one we rarely hear in an age of outsized artistic egos.  It makes perfect sense in the context of his remarks on the stylistic unity of Europe’s finest cities.

Conservatives regard civilization as fragile, jeopardized by human thoughtlessness.  Now it is time to take more seriously the idea that our folly can harm the natural world too.  Let us recognize the profound good sense of this idea, and then consult Roger Scruton for guidance on how to be a conservative conservationist.