Sunday Times, 18 December 2011
In global politics, the greens are dead. Nobody with any sense now seriously believes in an effective international response to climate change, especially after the chaos of the Durban summit last weekend. Meanwhile, in national politics the whole subject has been consigned to the graveyard of absolute ideological confrontation. Global warming sceptics — almost always on the right — dismiss the whole thing as a socialist plot to undermine capitalism; warming believers — usually on the left — demand that governments impose impossible costs and regulations on electorates already made restive by the financial crisis. Neither side talks sense, neither has any answers.
Yet global warming is happening and, even if humans are not the cause, it is still our problem. There are also many other ways in which we are damaging the environment — destroying biodiversity, choking the planet with plastic, plundering wildernesses — but with ever fewer people listening to the greens, how are these things to be tackled?
Enter an unlikely figure: Roger Scruton, lawyer, musician, scholar, philosopher and, for almost 40 years, the scourge of the academic left and hammer of the socialists. Intellectually he is not a rightwinger, he is the right wing, devoutly followed by believers in a dangerously beleaguered English conservative tradition. In spite of which here he is with a book — his 42nd — called Green Philosophy: How To Think Seriously About the Planet, a new kind of environmental manifesto.
Does this mean real right-wing greens can come out of the closet? The short answer is yes, because real conservatives were always green; it’s the left that screwed things up.
“Over the last 200 years,” says Scruton, “people have had enormous success in protecting their environment against government. If people are losing that habit it’s because of socialist ways of thinking which give them the idea that it’s not our responsibility, it’s theirs [the government’s] up there. Losing confidence in government is the most important thing we need now, but also wishing to take charge ourselves.”
Scruton lives, as greenly as he can, with his wife and two children on a farm in Wiltshire, but today we are sitting in a curious little hotel in Bloomsbury, central London. The room is gloomy not, as I first think, because Scruton is saving energy but because he has not realised there is a light switch.His speech is rapid and clear, although often tentative. Hammer of the left he may be, but he is always honest about what he doesn’t know. He has changed his mind in the past and his conclusions in this book are offered as discussion points rather than prescriptions. He suggests, for example, a flat-rate carbon tax.
“That was my tentative suggestion. All my modest proposals are tentative because they all involve tremendous issues which need to be negotiated and compromised over but I can’t see any other way of internalising the costs of our own behaviour.”
This is his first big point — the polluter pays. Others have said this but only Scruton has fully underpinned the idea with learning and logic. He believes in capitalism — he calls it the “free economy” — but it is an idea that needs constant vigilance to prevent capitalists transferring their costs and risks to others. “A free economy can be abused and it can only be justified on the assumption that costs are returned to the person that produces them.”
The banks very successfully ceased to become capitalists by externalising their risks — and, Scruton says, so do supermarkets and the aircraft and motor industries through a patchwork of hidden subsidies that mean the taxpayer takes up their costs. In the case of the environment, carbon emitters should pay for every gram; only then will they take their pollutions seriously. But wouldn’t a carbon tax require an international treaty of precisely the kind he says will not work?
It is up to the free, rich countries, therefore, to put money into research to find some way of, ideally, delivering clean energy from local sources.
“Not necessarily. If you take the example of plastic trash — China exports millions of tons of plastic to America in the form of toys. If America put a carbon tax on it, that would vastly increase the cost of those toys and that would make the Chinese make the toys out of wood, something biodegradable.”
Scruton has a special interest in plastic, having tried to get a campaign off the ground to get its use banned. It lasts for ever, killing wildlife and choking ecosystems. But the bureaucrats, not least those in Brussels, are against him. They, for example, impose health and safety rules that mean everything is wrapped in plastic packaging.
“I can’t see we can make much progress if the European Union exists in its present form,” he says. “Food safety regulations fill the world with plastics; that’s just an automatic machine the bureaucrats turn the handle of. In fact, in a properly ordered country, a politician could just say no, food must be sold as it always was in the past.”
His second big point is that neither capitalists nor big coal-burning polluters such as China have any real interest in developing clean energy. It is up to the free, rich countries, therefore, to put money into research to find some way of, ideally, delivering clean energy from local sources.
“It has got to be government financed, it is one of the areas where we do have a use for government intervention. Of course, we don’t know what the technology will be, that’s an old problem identified by Karl Popper [the philosopher of science]: you can’t predict a discovery because if you do, you have already made it.”
Meanwhile, he believes in nuclear as a stopgap and loathes wind turbines: “Nuclear power is, in my view, the best temporary solution to the emissions problem, since it has no carbon emissions. It is temporary, since the supply of uranium is temporary. Moreover, it is embedded in hazards that it would be wise to avoid in the long term.
“Wind turbines are of purely symbolic significance, since they cannot produce power at the crucial times, will always depend on other and more immediate sources and are there largely in order to destroy the landscape and to show to the middle classes that the future lies, as Lenin said, in ‘electrification and the soviets’. They are a blow struck against the love of home by people who hate it.”
Here lies Scruton’s true theme. It’s the same as it has always been, but now he has invented a name for it — oikophilia. The ancient Greek word oikos means, roughly, household or home and it is love of home that, for Scruton, inspires both his conservatism and his environmentalism. Love of home, he says, is close to a sense of the sacred which is, or should be, honoured by both the religious and the non-religious and observed by respecting and caring for the environment around the home. In the modern world this love of nature is constantly being crushed or abandoned by excessive faith in the state or in any big, top-down scheme. Milton Keynes is one of Scruton’s examples. Once a vision of a bright new future, now it is an environmental catastrophe, eating up land on a vast scale and making everybody drive everywhere. “That they should take a plan conceived in California by an American loony and plonk it in the middle of England where there is no space . . .” he says in disbelief.
Scruton’s primary faith lies with the “little platoons”, the activists and volunteers who, in a free society, emerge either to curtail the plans of the top-downers or just to clean up the place themselves. Only if people own the problem of the environment, rather than having it taken out of their hands by big government, will there be general popular assent to the sacrifices that may be necessary.
“There is in human nature and in the legacy of human society a motivation that would enable us to confront these huge questions, but it is a motivation that is being out of mind for ideological reasons — antipatriotism, antinationalism, all that, which I think is one of the major forces behind the Euro machine.”
On the outer fringes of the right it is perfectly possible this will make Scruton an outcast. Reflex rejection of global warming in particular and greenery in general has long been a precondition of membership in some right-wing circles. He shrugs: “There are two different responses. One is to say that this global panic about warming is all being manipulated for political purposes, which is slightly true. Then there is the view that caring about the environment is not necessary because this is something that will look after itself, which is not true.”
He acknowledges there are doubts but, in general, he accepts the scientific consensus that warming is certainly happening and humans are probably responsible. But, in fact, his core theme does not even require global warming to justify his deep green position. You only have to look at the vast circling mat of plastic junk spread across the Pacific, or the endless suburban sprawl of Chicago, or Milton Keynes, to know that contemporary society is the enemy of nature and such rapacious littering cannot have a good outcome for the planet.
Everything Scruton says involves a very careful and often intellectually demanding balancing act. Our attitudes to nature, for example, should neither be the ruthless exploitation of rigged capitalism nor the passive acceptance of the wilderness as a separate realm which is advocated by some greens. Rather, we should accept our role as stewards of nature because it is in human nature to look after home.
It all depends on whether we can get out from under the burden of the top-down impositions of unanswerable bureaucrats. Scruton repeatedly points out that in this area it is the left that are the worst offenders. In Russia and eastern Europe the communists left behind a moonscape of eco-destruction and even, he says, “the most mild-mannered parliamentary socialism of the post-war period” came up with grand schemes to steal power from the little platoons and lay the landscape to waste. He now fears that phase may have gone too far.
“My principal worry is what we saw in the communist bloc: the mass emigration of the educated class, the class that would have spontaneously tried to bring things back to the sophisticated patriotism that I think is necessary.”
But in a real emergency will the little platoons reappear? “That, I think, is what one must hope — that every now and then an emergency resuscitates those impulses. But if it’s a slow emergency we now face, a slow decline towards total entropy, then there isn’t any hope.”