BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Getting back to nature
, June 23, 2012
How to Think Seriously About the Planet
by Roger Scruton
(London: Atlantic Books)
Hardcover: 464 pages
Reviewed by Brian J. Coman
These days, it is usual for us to associate the term “green philosophy” with “green” politics. Furthermore, we are accustomed to those strict demarcations whereby conservative ideas and policies are ipso facto condemned as “anti-environment”, whereas socialist/ progressive ideas offer the only real hope for the future of the planet.
What a welcome surprise, then, to find a well-presented case for a green philosophy which does not involve the usual sort of rhetoric we are accustomed to from the Greens or left-leaning social engineers. Such a book is Roger Scruton’s Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet.
It is scholarly, yet easily read and its author ranges effortlessly over the whole corpus of Western ideas. Scruton is a well-known English writer and philosopher with over 30 books, mainly on philosophy and aesthetics. He is a champion of conservative ideas although, as I argue later in this review, true conservatism these days is very much an endangered species.
The overall aim of the book is best summarised in Scruton’s own words: “My intention in this book has been to argue the case for 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.”
This is the central theme of the work but, in making his case, Scruton also provides a devastating critique of most current “green” ideology. He demonstrates, with examples, how most “top-down” solutions (i.e., those favoured by the Greens and their allies) are counter-productive.
There are two terms which Scruton returns to consistently throughout the book. One is “oikophilia” (a word he seems to have invented), the love and feeling for home; the other is “homeostasis”, a term he borrows from the sciences and which usually means a system which is self-correcting via feedback loops so as to maintain some stable state.
But Scruton applies this term to human organisations and, most especially, to markets. And it is this latter application that concerns me more than a little, for I sense in it, the unmistakeable influence of F.A. Hayek.
While Scruton admits that big business can sometimes lead to situations that are anything but homeostatic, he is generally of the view that markets are self-correcting and this includes their effects upon the natural environment. This view, it seems to me, fails to give due weight to the frailties of the human condition and I would offer, instead, Reinhold Niebuhr’s analysis of post-Enlightenment, secular optimism.
In 1941 Niebuhr wrote: “The middle-class world begins with a tremendous sense of the power of the human mind over nature. But, having destroyed the ultimate reference by which mediaeval man transcended nature spiritually, even while acknowledging his dependence practically, the bourgeois and technical world ends by seeking asylum in nature’s dependabilities and serenities. Modern capitalism really expresses both attitudes at the same time.” (R. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation. Vol. 1. Human Nature (London: Nisbet and Co., 1941). p.21).
Scruton’s book has a short but useful discussion on the global warming debate which avoids much of the radical polarisation of positions and plumps instead for a form of adaptation. Scruton argues that one negative feature of current doomsday scenarios is to engender “salvationist” programs of large-scale social engineering which have little hope of ever being realised and, even if they were, might well cause more and not fewer problems. They also engender a climate of what he calls “radical precaution” which stifles the very processes that would help to deliver us from our environmental problems. Here again, useful examples from the past are given.
In setting out his vision for the future of a conservative environmental ethic, Scruton places great emphasis on local actions and that sense of belonging which comes from the shared identification and love of place, beginning with the home, then to larger and larger associations — the district, the region, and so on.
This is undoubtedly the best of motivations, for it locates responsibility for environmental stewardship within each of us. But how do we attain such a motivation? Scruton suggests an approach which boils down to a form of enlightened self-interest. Here he appeals to what, for me, are rather vague terms, “natural piety” and “aesthetic taste”.
“Since the Enlightenment,” he says, “aesthetic taste and natural piety have stood vigil over our surroundings, and held back the hand that was raised to destroy them.” This is a strange claim. As well as depreciating the value of religious attitudes towards both man and nature in pre-Enlightenment Europe, it suggests that aesthetic taste and a love of nature and one’s fellow human beings are sufficient safeguards against human cupidity. The record of history, I suggest, would argue otherwise.
But the sort of aesthetic taste and love of nature that Scruton champions seems to be very much that of a spectator, not a player — a consumer of landscapes, not a producer of food. It conjures up visions of Wordsworth and his sister, strolling through the English countryside and praising its beauties. Indeed, I suspect that Scruton gets his term, “natural piety”, directly from Wordsworth.
Part of what Scruton advocates in this book will be familiar to readers of News Weekly for, without giving it any overt mention, he nonetheless promotes certain of those ideas promulgated by the Distributism movement in the early 20th century. This was based upon the principles of Catholic social teaching, especially those of Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), and Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno (1931).
Here and there in Scruton’s book are direct echoes of Belloc and Chesterton and, dare I say it, even “great Cobbett… the horseman of the Shires”. Other and older readers will also recall those ideas implicit in the now defunct National Catholic Rural Movement in Australia. There are also similarities between Scruton’s ideas of countryside action and those of the contemporary Landcare movement in Australia with the important rider that Landcare is a “top-down” initiative designed to mobilise local communities towards achieving state and national goals for environmental management.
Indeed, Scruton and his wife now operate a farm consultancy called Horsell’s Farm Enterprises, which encourages the restoration of “ancient field patterns” by restoring hedges and ponds, and planting trees. If for nothing else, this is significant in that it highlights a marked difference between the nature of the conservation movement in Europe and that in New World countries such as Australia and America. The concept of “pristine wilderness”, so important to environmental activism in these latter countries, has little hold in Europe where human alteration of the landscape goes back thousands of years. Orwell once wrote of “the ancient bone heap of Europe, where every grain of soil has passed through innumerable human bodies”.
The book has an extensive bibliography which will be of special interest to scholars and educators. However, I must say that I am often suspicious of books with huge bibliographies, for they tend to overwhelm the reader with sheer weight of example rather than weight of argument.
But Scruton carries off most of his arguments rather well. Where weaknesses occur, they are almost always associated with attempts to provide a more or less secular argument for values such as beauty and, strangely enough, piety.
And it is precisely here that we come to my major misgiving about Scruton’s general approach in terms of deriving his environmental ethic. The ultimate referent for any system of non-instrumental value must, in my view, have final appeal to a transcendent source. But this, for most modern conservatives, is hard medicine to swallow, since it involves the serious consideration of religious belief.
Although Scruton does make passing reference to religion in a chapter titled Beauty, Piety and Desecration, he is carefully non-committal and his idea of the sacred never seems to embody itself in some real system but floats, ethereally, so as to engender assent without actual commitment. This is a feature of most modern conservatism, one amongst many that has led the contemporary philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, to suggest that conservatism today is merely a stalking horse for liberalism.
As he says: “The contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question.” (MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, 1988).
Notwithstanding this and other shortcomings mentioned above, I thoroughly recommend Green Philosophy to anyone with an interest in environmental conservation and “green” issues in general. Unlike most other “green” philosophies, it is unashamedly anthropocentric.
Scruton’s account confers a real dignity on the human condition, even if it does not directly posit that dignity in our ability to transcend our animal natures via the religious mode of existence. It is an appeal to human reason and to those higher faculties which make us at once capable of both great good and great evil.
Brian J. Coman, PhD, a former agricultural scientist, is a widely published author and essayist. His book, A Loose Canon: Essays on History, Modernity and Tradition, is available from News Weekly books.