Late last year we contacted Sir Roger Scruton and asked him to write a piece on environmentalism and conservatism. I knew Roger was ill but with characteristic good humour and grace he was continuing to work and said that he would be delighted to write for us. He filed before Christmas what must be one of the final, if not the final, articles written by the greatest conservative philosopher and writer of the last forty years.
Read it below.
The piece will appear in the pilot edition of an exciting new publication – The European Journal, a 196 page magazine on politics and culture – that the Reaction team have been putting together for an ambitious think tank in Brussels. If you want us to send you a copy, become a Reaction subscriber.
There have been numerous eloquent tributes published in recent days. Roger deserves all the praise and more.
The environment is a shared concern, and we should be glad that it has come to the top of the agenda now, while there is still something to be done. It has been presented as a divisive issue, about which we do not discuss, but we fight. Environmentalism has therefore acquired all the hall-marks of a left-wing cause: a class of victims (future generations), an enlightened vanguard who fights for them (the eco-warriors), powerful philistines who exploit them (the capitalists), and endless opportunities to express resentment against the successful, the wealthy and the West.
The cause recruits the intellectuals, with facts and theories carelessly bandied about, and activism is encouraged. Environmentalism is something you join, and for many young people it has the quasi-redemptive and identity-bestowing character of the twentieth-century revolutions. When led by a child it generates a collective hysteria comparable to that of the millenarian enthusiasms of mediaeval Europe.
However, the cause of the environment is not, in itself, a left-wing cause at all. It is not about ‘liberating’ or empowering the victim, but about safeguarding resources. It is not about ‘progress’ or ‘equality’ but about conservation and equilibrium. Its following may be young and dishevelled; but that is largely because people in suits have failed to realise where their real interests, and their real values, lie. Environmentalists may seem opposed to capitalism, but – if they understood matters correctly – they would be far more opposed to socialism, with its gargantuan, uncorrectable and state-controlled projects, than to the ethos of free enterprise.
Indeed, environmentalism is the quintessential conservative cause, the most vivid instance in the world as we know it, of that partnership between the dead, the living and the unborn that Burke defended as the conservative archetype. Its fundamental aim is not to bring about some radical reordering of society. Its attitude to private property is, or ought to be, positive – for it is only private ownership that confers responsibility for the environment as opposed to the unqualified right to exploit it, a right whose effect we saw in the ruined landscapes and poisoned waterways of the former Soviet empire, and which we see today in the polluted rivers, destroyed landscapes and airless cities of China. Its cause is local attachment not global control, and it stands against globalisation in all its forms, not least that advocated by environmentalists themselves, whose aim is to fit us to a world-wide agenda of prohibitions.
True civic responsibility arises from our sense of belonging. This sense of belonging, relates us not only to people but also to the places where we reside and the customs that bind us. It involves an intrinsic vector towards settlement. Through a shared love of our home and its customs we are called to account, not only to our present companions, but to past and future people too – to all for whom the place where we reside is not just yours and mine but ours.
This is why the true environmentalist is also a conservative. For the desire to protect the environment arises spontaneously in people, just as soon as they recognise their accountability to others for what they are and do, and just as soon as they identify some place as ‘ours’. If we are to have a cogent and democratic environmental policy it must appeal to the electorate’s feeling for their home, and that means that it must respect their sentiments of national identity. It must be part of a humane and inclusive patriotism, which will unite the generations in defence of their ecological inheritance.
But how should conservatives shape their environmental policies? What laws should they pass, and what resources should they protect? The temptation is to embrace some comprehensive plan, like the plan for national parks – to protect some part of the environment in perpetuity, and meanwhile to control by law the use of the remainder. However, such statist solutions go against the grain for conservatives – they pose a threat not just to individual liberty but also to the process (of which the free market is the paradigm instance) whereby consensual solutions emerge. State solutions are imposed from above; they are often without corrective devices, and cannot easily be reversed on the proof of failure. Their inflexibility goes hand in hand with their planned and goal-directed nature, and when they fail the efforts of the state are directed not to changing them but to changing people’s belief that they have failed.
The ruination of the Dutch and Danish coastal landscape by banks of wind farms is a case in point. They stand in looming white ranks on every horizon, waving white arms like disconsolate ghosts, blighting the landscape with their nightmare vision of judgement day. People put up with them because they have been told that they are the solution to depleted energy resources. Yet they produce only a small amount of power, will never be able to replace the coal or nuclear power stations (the latter located in France) that provide the bulk of the country’s electricity, and have all kinds of negative environmental effects, not least on the populations of migrating birds. However, states don’t easily admit to their mistakes; and the official propaganda continues to speak as though the wind farms were the lasting proof of environmental rectitude.
Another and more serious example is observable in America. The most important man-made environmental problem in that country is presented by the spread of the suburbs. Suburbanisation causes the increasing use of automobiles, and the dispersal of populations in ways that exponentially raise the consumption of energy and non-degradable packaging. Conservatives argue that this is a result of freedom and the market. People settle outside the towns because that is what they want. They are moving out in search of green fields, wooded gardens, tranquillity – in short, their own little patch of nature. But this is not so. They are not moving out in search of a natural environment, but in search of a suburban environment, and they are doing so because the suburban environment is massively subsidised by the state. The roads, the infrastructure and the schools – all are state investments, which entirely imbalance the natural economy of the town, and make it easier, safer and cheaper to live on the edge of it – an edge that is constantly moving further from the centre, so destroying the advantages offered to those who move to the suburbs just the year after they move.
The mechanism here is not a free market mechanism. Much of the expansion of the suburbs proceeds by the exercise of ‘eminent domain’ – that provision in American law which gives the official bodies powers of expropriation equal to, and sometimes exceeding, the powers exerted by the socialist governments of Europe. Roads are one obvious instance of this, and the mania for building them in order to maintain traffic flows at a level arbitrarily imposed by official bodies, is the most important cause of the reckless mobility of American society. The true market solution to the problem of traffic congestion – which is to get out of your car and walk – is not, in America, available, since there is no way that you could walk to your destination. Be it the shop, the church, the school or just your nearest friend, suburbanisation has put your goal beyond pedestrian reach.
But you cannot live in the centre of the cities any more, the suits complain: they’re not safe. Downtown is for bums and drop-outs; the schools are appalling, the crime-rate soaring and the place rife with drugs, alcohol and prostitution. Well yes, that’s exactly what happens, when the state subsidises the suburbs, imposes zoning laws that prevent proper mixed use in the towns, and engages in its own gargantuan housing projects which drive the middle classes out of the city centres. All this occurs in defiance of the market solution and, as Jane Jacobs pointed out in 1965, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, it deprives the city of its eyes and its ears, of its close communities and natural fellowship.
I mention this example not only because it illustrates how far environmental damage has advanced and how difficult it will be to rectify it, but also because it illustrates two rather more important points: first, the mistaken view that it is the market, and not the state, that has created the problem; and secondly the equally mistaken view that the environment can be discussed without raising questions of beauty. In my view the problems come precisely when we interrupt the normal ways in which people solve their problems by free interaction. In other words, the problems come from expropriating the paths of rational consensus – as they are expropriated by the state, whenever it uses its powers of eminent domain. And the solutions come when we allow our sense of beauty and place to take over, aiming at what looks right, what feels right, and what we can vindicate to the eyes and hearts of our neighbours.
American cities have decayed because vast tax-funded resources have been available for the building of roads and housing projects, for the purchase and demolition of otherwise habitable street-based neighbourhoods condemned as slums, for the horizontal spread of infrastructure, and for the imposition of crazy zoning laws which ensure that where you can buy things you cannot do things, and where you can do things you cannot live. And the solutions to these problems emerge when people, constrained by the natural limitations posed by the need to reach consensual solutions, and without the gargantuan schemes of officialdom, set about building a neighbourhood that looks right to those who live in it, and which is welcoming to those who buy and sell and work.
Of course climate change is a major issue that we must address if we can. But it is a global issue that lies to a great extent beyond the reach of small nations and the communities that are protected by them. Far more important, surely, is to ensure that we settle on this earth in ways that do not damage it, and that harmonise the human community with its natural context. This is something that our current attitudes to development, infrastructure and architectural style too often fail to achieve, with projects like HS2 and the so-called Oxford-Cambridge arc, surrendering whole swathes of countryside to infrastructure, without the proven need for it, and arbitrarily abolishing the right of local communities to create the places that they want.
This top-down approach, which is neutralising the sense of stewardship that is, and ought to be, the heart of our planning law, is often justified on environmental grounds. But the grounds that are given invariably overlook the real environmental successes that our country can claim: the green belt, the adaptable vernacular architecture of our towns and villages, the concentration of each settlement around a high street, a market, or a public park or square. Those much-loved local solutions have no standing as ‘superstructure’ and are swept away by the high-speed railways and crowded motorways. The result is a loss of the real motive on which all democratic policy in this area depends, which is the motive to cherish a particular place as one’s home, the somewhere to which one owes a duty of care, rather than the nowhere imposed by the state.
This points to a general problem with environmental politics, which is the clash between the top-down view of government and the bottom-up procedures of democratic choice. The changes that have put climate change at the top of the environmental agenda have also undermined the status of democracy: people complaining of planning blight and spoliation are dismissed out of hand as ‘nimby’s, and all projects can be swept aside for the sake of the ‘climate emergency’. The use of the word ‘emergency’ is revealing here. In emergencies we surrender our powers to the common cause, and put the state in charge of it. That is what we are being invited to do in all matters relating to the environment, so that our real resources in dealing with those matters – most notably our sense of beauty and our love of place – can be discounted.
This piece was originally published in The European Journal, a magazine produced by New Direction