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Scruton-izing the Meaning of GreenScruton-izing the Meaning of Green

Scruton-izing the Meaning of Green

Paul Allen says Roger Scruton's latest book should wake up progressives and conservatives alike.

8 minute read
Scruton-izing the Meaning of Green January 1, 2013  |  By Paul Allen
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Stephen Harper is not a conservative. Of all the criticism lobbed at the Prime Minister, that one might sound the least plausible of all. Or not, if we take Roger Scruton's re-interpretation of conservatism seriously. Scruton is a philosopher, a self-professed pessimist and oenophile who lives in the Cotswolds of southwest England. His latest book, Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet, combines conservative political instincts, mid-level policy analysis and a robust rhetoric in aid of a new kind of environmentalism. We would be right to call Scruton a green conservative.

How might such a book be received? Well, Canada was once a country that was naturally conservative, in contrast with our brash, swashbuckling neighbours to the south. And we naturally feel tied to our stunning landscape. So, many Canadians will be sympathetic toward Roger Scruton's genteel outlook. Scruton's thinking would suit many of those who live and work close to the land. But Scruton's eye is cast on a very big horizon, and many Canadians will not like what he has to say.

His diagnosis sounds familiar: the West is in big trouble. His remedy for political stasis is bracing. First comes a sober critique of the sort of progressivism that inhabits Canada's mainstream. And then Scruton lays it on the line: if environmentalists genuinely want to succeed, they had better take to heart a form of genuine conservatism (let's call it GC for short) of local concern, a love of home and hearth, a cherishing of family and community—what he calls oikophilia. But if environmentalists adopt radical sloganeering, alarmism, urbane chic and command policies yoked to top-heavy bureaucracies, the natural environment suffers.

The latter approach contains no call to virtue and is therefore void. So, the upshot of his diagnosis is that environmentalism and progressivism are fundamentally at odds. Now, this will not be popular. Conservatives might like the sound of this so far. But they should ready themselves for a tongue-lashing about what comprises genuine conservatism. Political so-called conservatives (SCCs) will find themselves sideswiped by Scruton's withering references to the consumer society, agribusiness conglomerates, and corporatism, and his judicious distinction between those goods that should be subject to market exchange and those things that can't be bought and sold.

Double helpings of political unorthodoxy here, so if that's your taste, Scruton's your man. His outlook will resonate for the smaller number of GCs who value agrarian localism, craft economies, small retailers and familial bonds, the enlightened self-interest pursued within the limits set by community- and tradition-bound associations. So-called conservatives are "so-called" because they are really economic and social liberals at heart. SCCs' appetite for mammon and growth is what really motivates their otherwise common-sense call for limited government. But, their liberalism defeats their conservatism. Deficits grow. Trade agreements become investment agreements before morphing into means by which our ability to protect our heritage narrows before our eyes. Governments that cleave to the "small government is better" in theory end up doling out subsidies, tax breaks and numerous goodies so that corporate behemoths will locate in this or that specific region, or to discourage them from decamping to Asia—or both.

Consider: just this past year, ministers of the Crown scurried to find favour with Chinese communist party sycophants in order to ease the sale of our natural resources to their State monopolies, which are then combusted skyward for the benefit of the Chinese economy. Who benefits? Oligarchs and secretive communist party cabals that strategically buy up majority shares in key internationally traded firms without so much as a peep from ordinary shareholders. Is this anything like what Adam Smith called the free market? And these Canadian cabinet ministers call themselves "conservative"? Why is this not a scandal?

Perhaps we are too accustomed to the assumptions that SCCs take for granted. SCCs pursue growth, progress and mammon and forget their core principles in the process. Property rights in this country are the most fragile in resource-rich "conservative" Alberta. Landowners there are vulnerable to central (provincial) government directives in legislation enacted over the past 10 years—including land confiscation authority now vested by the Crown for itself if energy extraction or carbon sequestration interests demand it—without adequate legal protection, the right to appeal or compensation for individual citizens.

GCs, on the other hand, cleave to tradition, but much of our urbanized, cosmopolitan culture has become a consumptive clamour presided over by liberals of less distinct shades (blue, red and orange, to be precise). Tradition and the land are increasingly deemed quaint, and therefore disposable, by a political consensus presided over by SCCs and their liberal twins.

As the Wall Street Journal noted in its review of Green Philosophy, Scruton sounds not all that different from the old left. What emerges from this book is a harsh judgment on both the left-of-centre environmentalists and the right's complicity in envi-ronmental despoliation. Scruton shares the eco-left's grave concerns over climate change, deforestation, the plunder of oceans and the poisoning of soil, bodies of fresh water and the atmosphere. The chief problem with the left, from Scruton's purview, is that they are equating rational self-interest with greed. The right's blind spots are judged less severely, and yet they are significant. For instance, SCC political parties cannot distinguish between the social capital payoffs of large and small businesses. The exponential rise of corporate lobby influence in Ottawa, Washington and other Western capitals is both a cause and an effect of this oversight.

Global climate change would seem to transcend the scale of human moral capacity as we know it, but Scruton disagrees. It is "a problem that engages with a fundamental moral idea to which conservatives attach great importance: the idea that those responsible for damage should also repair it."

Hence, a case is to be made for carbon taxes. We should be guardians of nature for the sake of future generations, the ones on behalf of whom conservative politicians derided tax-and-spend liberalism. Yet, on environmental stewardship, conservatives are AWOL. In regard to transnational treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol, he cautions against national groups being "replaced by a transnational substitute," since nations "act for the people upon whose attachments and motives they can call." Conservative environmentalism is thus nationalist.

Scruton claims that the left contradicts its own beliefs by welcoming the vast ambitions of big bureaucracies. The European Union, with its centrist penchant for regulation, is Exhibit A in this regard. Scruton gets a bit carried away in his focus on Europe—more attention to North American national park creation (by federal governments) and large-scale regulatory initiatives such as those that reduced the toxic infestation of the Great Lakes by large chemical firms—would have tempered his bellicosity. Yet we can concede that there is often an inverse relationship between successful environmental protection and the size of the political institutions that are charged with that protection. Scruton credits some anarchists and leftist environmentalists such as the great American naturalist Aldo Leopold with advocating a "civil" sense of ecological preservation with social justice. But others are not so civil. More and more, the left relies on superficial social media campaigns, savvy propaganda techniques, invisible enlightened bureaucrats and court judges to regulate the stewardship of nature.

Reading Scruton's book has the virtue of bringing to life a thread of continuity between otherwise unrelated headlines. In the summer of 2012, former federal Conservative Fisheries Ministers issued a public statement critical of the government's omnibus budget bill, which proposes multiple provisions for changing environmental protection in Canada. A few days later, a Quebec farm family established the first provincially registered land trust in order to legally ensure that the land on which they farm will continue to produce organic vegetables for market long after family members have died or dispersed. And former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, who held office under Reagan made waves by showing off his new electric car—the electricity sparked by solar panels on the roof of his California house—making the GC case for a carbon tax.

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The moral of the story, quite simply, is that it's high time for a green conservative movement. And Scruton would be its philosopher king.

But wait. There is one major blind spot in Scruton's proposal, and possibly to the cause of green conservatism more broadly. It has to do with religion. Despite Scruton's acknowledgement of Christianity's positive legacy for our civilization, religious faith is not referenced very deeply. This is strange, for within Scruton's various analyses, there is contained a valuable insight into the spiritual malaise of late industrial society. This malaise is plausibly the most serious reason why our urbanized societies adopt an instrumentalist approach to nature.

Yet, as anyone familiar with environmental studies syllabi must know, Christianity itself was cited as the source of environmental ruin by historian Lynn White back in a 1967 article in the journal Science. That essay, titled "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," castigated Christianity as "the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen," from which he concluded that Christianity is directly culpable for causing successive ecological crises within the West and beyond. White even cites our slide into ruin beginning in the Christendom of the Middle Ages and the reading of Genesis chapter one.

Responses to White have focused on extricating the biblical notion of stewardship and distinguishing it from the kind of dominance that is associated with industrial civilization. Now Scruton gets at the nub of things by turning toward the missing meaning in hearth and home in Western culture. But his diagnosis of the void in modern politics could have been so much more trenchant had he said more about the contents of the piety that he lauds in general.

As a conservative, Scruton wants Western culture to cherish sacred places, sacred time and the "priceless things of home." But such cherishing requires more than conservatism. It requires religious faith to motivate the gratitude that leads one to cherish the permanent things of life. Only that depth of motivation will lead us and persuade others to resist the desecration of nature. That is, we will have to imbibe the kind of perspective that might stand a chance of cowing the idolatry of mammon and State, now fused as an outright corporatism (or what the left refers to as late capitalism). White and others claim that the Christian theology of dominion and stewardship was to blame for our environmental collapse. This belief needs to be confronted like never before because its presumed truth is pervasive among the young. Scruton gets us only halfway there with his observations of events in the light of political theory.

He does not draw sufficiently deep conclusions about why religious motivation is the only adequate motivation to conserve. One of God's attributes, according to Christian theology, is the preservation of the goodness of creation through abundant providence. The human response to the conserving activity of God's Holy Spirit is a clear and present theme of the Christian motivation to conserve the land, the waters and the skies. So, inasmuch as Christians have become associated with the interests of the "so-called" conservatives, there is much work to do in promoting a genuine conservatism. This is about how one lives, and no one evades moral scrutiny for those wrongs that one cannot imagine due to political or cultural convenience. Scruton executes the political spadework to help the West recognize this problem. But, the theological and moral conversion that could sustain green conservative politics is nowhere on our horizon. Yet.


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