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Harry Phibbs: Scruton offers a truly Conservative policy for the environment

GreenphilrHarry Phibbs reviews Roger Scruton's Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously about the Planet (Atlantic Books. £22).

The decision of David Cameron after he became Conservative leader to "bang on" about the environment was welcomed by some - those who felt it showed the Conservatives were becoming more modern and decent, less selfish and narrow - in other words detoxified. It was also welcomed by those Conservatives who felt that whether we like it or not this is an area where state intervention is necessary if the planet is to be rescued. But others felt that Cameron had made a mistake given that the issue is low down on voter concerns.   Their view is that the supposed need for drastic action is based on scare mongering.

In this book the eminent Tory thinker Roger Scruton offers a different path. He says that Conservatives should talk about the environment, that there are serious concerns to be addressed. But the mistake of David Cameron is assuming that Conservatives should cravenly sign up to the Left's policies - more tax and spending, more regulation and so on. By either copying Leftist environmentalism, or not talking about it at all, Conservatives have surrendered their natural territory - that of conservation.

Conservatives have generally allowed to remain unchallenged, the claim that capitalism and the nation state are to blame for environmental problems. But Scruton, for one, is not prepared to concede either of these points.

When it comes to capitalism Scruton argues that the system of private ownership, constrained by the rule of law, offers better environmental stewardship than the collectivist alternative. Nor does he just make this case in theoretical terms.

He says:

"During the communist years it was a criminal offence in Poland to discharge effluent from factories and sewers into the rivers; but the factories and the sewers were controlled by the state, which was in turn controlled by the Communist Party. 

"Hence nobody was ever penalized under the anti-pollution laws, since it was legally impossible to bring the Communist Party to judgement, and politically dangerous to try. The rivers in consequence were entirely dead, and river water could not be used even to irrigate the land. With the subsequent growth of private property in the factories and an independent judiciary, the rivers have begun to change, and some are again acquiring fish.

"Likewise there were laws and regulations in place in the Soviet Union that, if applied, might have prevented the Chernobyl accident. But those uniquely entitled to invoke and apply them were also those with the motive to evade them, and as a result one of the greatest environmental disasters to occur in recent years became all but inevitable. From the poisoning of the Czech forests by acid rain, to the destruction of the Black Sea sturgeon, and from the eroded and depleted soil of the collective farms to the soulless concrete ‘monotowns’ built around blighted industries, the evidence is incontrovertible that the centrally planned economy is an environmental disaster."

When it comes to the nation state and the familiar left wing charge that threats to the environment show it is an outdated, ineffective concept, as ecology crosses boundaries, the response from Scruton is robust. Rather than xenophobia the concern is its opposite - oikophobia - the repudiation of home and inheritance.

To take the obvious example of global warming Scruton is open minded about the probabilities. He certainly doesn't disregard the evidence of the sceptics but he adds: "What do we do if the worst-case scenarios are true?" He feels the "activists’ answer" to "get together at international conferences and forge a treaty" is misconceived: 

Of course, if we are threatened, we must do something. But who are we? There is only one answer: we are those who are capable of collective action, who have the resources, the will and the mutual concern to act as one. In other words, we are communities with the capacity for corporate action, who can take collective responsibility for what we do. In the context of international politics this means that we are the nation – the law-governed body of people whose destinies are linked by a shared political process. 

The only answer to global warming is action by individual nation states – those rich enough to conduct research and to act on the scale required, responsible enough to answer to the need to do so, and with a public opinion shaped by open discussion.

This gives the context, the broad approach. It doesn't mean that Scruton opposes nations cooperating. Nor does it mean he feels allowing market forces to operate untrammelled is the answer. He doesn't like supermarkets and (unfairly in my view) lines them up as eco villains. Multinationals have a "carelessness towards ‘other places’ that underlies environmental catastrophes like BP’s oil-rig spill in the Gulf of Mexico, or the ‘slash and burn’ cropping by multinational agribusinesses in the Amazon rainforest." While  commercial research into reducing energy consumption can be spurred by the profit motive:"In the case of clean energy the benefits are conferred not on present consumers but on their descendants. So the market will not generate the incentive to carry out the very expensive research that is required."

Scruton thinks immigration erodes the solidarity to protect the environment: "It is surely evident that ordinary people are less liable to accept sacrifices for the sake of their environment when the attachment to locality is being replaced by competition between self-identifying tribes, families and religions." Not sure about this. Are immigrants really less concerned about the natural environment of the country they have chosen than of those who were born into it?

Not that any effort to characterise Scruton as a narrow minded chauvinist sits naturally with the section of the book on the food supply - where farm subsidies and regulation harm the environment and should be replaced by free trade. Ending these distortions would, he contends, make local production more viable:

It is, of course, true that, thanks to global trade, popular tastes have changed; tandoori chicken is now the favourite dish of the British, and hamburgers are gaining ground even in France. But cosmopolitan tastes are compatible with a local food economy. For nearly two centuries the British have made chutney, a relish brought from India, with local apples and pears, while the North African cuisine enjoyed in Marseilles is supplied with couscous and peppers grown locally and merguez made from local lamb.

To achieve a revival for small producers he proposes..

"...the steady elimination of those zero-tolerance regulations that only the big producers can comply with. It should be permissible to sell food at the farm gate or in the local market without packaging, just as it is sold all over Africa. It should be permissible to sell products like unpasteurized milk and cheese, properly labelled, but nevertheless with the risk passed to the purchaser. It should be permissible to slaughter animals on the farm, provided humane methods are used. Get rid of the raft of regulations that impede those healthy practices and the small farmer and the farmers’ market will be able to compete with the large producer and the supermarket."

As a professor of aesthetics, Scruton has an antipathy to supposed environmental advances that constitute an attack on beauty. With wind farms "turbines intrude on the horizon like an army of visiting insects, their sails agitating the skyline, their raw structures negating the contours of the land. Wherever these eerie visitors settle, people are unsettled, and the motive of stewardship receives a damaging blow."

That great (socialist inspired) push for ugliness, modernist architecture has produced a terrible environmental cost. Not just with the "throwaway buildings" that only last 30 years. But also the way the buildings operate while they are standing. Compare, for instance, a building with windows that you can open, to the modernist building where they "cannot be opened in hot weather, and they forbid the circulation of air from outside the building. The building is, therefore, dependent on a year-round consumption of energy, in the winter to heat it, in the summer to cool it, and the stale air that circulates inside captures and perpetuates the diseases of the inmates – producing the well-known ‘sick building syndrome’."

A vast amount is covered in this book. You can read why (on balance) Scruton feels that more nuclear power, solar panels and "clean coal" should be pursued. The Dutch have shown a good example of localism for us to follow and to "decentralize the production of energy." This would herald "a pylon-less landscape", more energy from local sources and would make economic sense as "the maintenance of the national grid is costly, and one third of all electricity flows away as leakage from the power lines."

The European Union is a source of ecological catastrophe most obviously with the Common Fisheries Policy but also with its "180,000 pages of regulations and directives" which are often supposed to help. The EU’s response to the problem of carbon emissions following "the ineffectual Kyoto agreement" was a scheme which "diverts resources away from the only thing that could possibly produce a long-term solution, which is research into alternative sources of energy."

A Conservative environment policy "would establish the conditions under which people manage their own environment in a spirit of stewardship" with politicians only coming in where there was no alternative. The "products" of the policy would include "human resilience, autonomous associations, market solutions, effective tort law, aesthetic side-constraints emerging from open discussions among the citizens, biodiversity, natural beauty, local autonomy, serious research, and a regime of pricing and feedback loops that return environmental costs to those who create them. The aim is to establish the conditions under which people manage their own environment in a spirit of stewardship, and in such a way as to facilitate the political actions that may be necessary to accomplish what the ‘little platoons’ cannot embark on."

If war is too important to be left to the generals then safeguarding the sustainability of our planet is too important to be left to the hippies. Conservatives should talk about the environment. Especially right wing Conservatives who believes in such causes as withdrawal of our membership of the European Union. Scuton's book shifts the terms of the debate.


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