How to Think Seriously About the Planet:
The Case for an Environmental Conservatism
By Roger Scruton
Oxford University Press, 464 pages

In How to Think Seriously About the Planet, the British philosopher Roger Scruton makes the case for “environmental conservatism.” According to Scruton, true conservatives must be environmentalists, and environmentalists should be conservatives. He also argues that conservative methods can better achieve environmentalist goals than the statist strategies usually embraced by today’s green movements.

Scruton describes himself as a conservative, but if so, he is of a sort all but unknown in the United States. He says that the notorious 1972 Limits to Growth thesis issued by the Club of Rome, which warned of immediate societal collapse in the 1970s caused by unchecked economic growth, was “self-evidently true.” He endorses U.S. Club of Rome member Herman Daly’s concept of a “steady state economy”—that is, one without economic growth—as the proper means of staying within the planet’s limits. He denounces modern agriculture and the worldwide food trade, which together have transformed the age-old specter of famine due to local crop failure into a relic of the past. He is also against the supermarkets that make the world’s variety available to everyone. Instead, we should return to the old days when people depended on the products of the local yeomanry, who used the methods of organic agriculture. To make all this more feasible, people should give up eating non-free-range meat and stop keeping carnivorous pets, such as dogs and cats.

And while he wants to eliminate worldwide food transport and the electric grid (making localities dependent on locally produced power), such palliatives alone clearly will not suffice to stop global warming. Scruton’s primary solution is to impose carbon taxes. “It is the consumers who are ultimately responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, and who have hitherto escaped having to pay the cost of their habits, so by taxing consumption we create the best incentive to reduce production,” he writes. “Since consumption is greatest in the rich countries of the West, where taxes are relatively transparent and people are disposed to pay them, this would have an immediate effect.” This would provide people with “an incentive to economize” energy usage.

Scruton supports research on carbon-free power but dismisses nuclear energy out of hand not because of any technical concerns but because of its unpopularity. For him, solar energy is key, but he says that it won’t become a reality without massive state-sponsored research. Such critical development work, Scruton writes, “will most assuredly not be funded by private companies.” Indeed, private research is anathema to Scruton, because its practitioners generally choose to patent their results, “a move that threatens the collegiate nature of scientific inquiry.”

Although he expresses skepticism of the United Nations and similar international institutions, Scruton nevertheless demands that the advanced-sector nations pay reparations to the Third World for their role in causing climate change. “Global warming is a problem that engages with a fundamental moral idea to which conservatives attach great importance—the idea that those responsible to damage should also repair it,” Scruton says. If global warming is caused by carbon emissions, then those nations that emit the highest per capita quantities of carbon have the greatest responsibility to repair the damage, by limiting their emissions in future and paying compensation for damage already done.”

But shouldn’t conservative regard for responsibility also make one responsible to facts? As a matter of scientific fact, warming lengthens the growing season and increases rainfall, while increased CO2 concentrations accelerate plant growth. Yet for Scruton, no demonstration that global warming is on net harmful is required, and the innumerable benefits offered to the underdeveloped sector by Western invention, industry, science, and medicine are readily ignored.

So is much else. As to the horrific effects of the prescriptions of the environmental movement, Scruton is a denier. He makes no note of damage to the global economy and extreme hardships—including starvation—imposed on the world’s poor resulting from the past four decades of environmentalist actions preventing the development of fossil fuels and nuclear power. Nor does he address the potential for similar outcomes raised by his own prescription for eliminating modern agriculture and global trade in foodstuffs. Scruton repeatedly acclaims the early environmental guru Rachel Carson for leading the effort to ban the pesticide DDT. Yet he relegates the tens of millions of deaths from malaria and other insect-borne diseases as a result of the 1972 DDT ban to the book’s appendix, where he muses that perhaps “morality has to be entirely rethought, so as to reconcile, if we can, personal duty and ecological piety.”

Scruton does what he can to make his environmentalism more palatable to conservatives. The book presents the movement as an outgrowth of literature celebrating the aesthetic appreciation of natural beauty. However, environmentalism, along with its twin sisters eugenics and population control, is actually a variant of antihuman Malthusian ideology and has been deeply interconnected with it in terms of both ideas and leading personalities for well over a century.

In the United States, environmentalism was born as a political movement under the aegis of the Progressives, who were also the champions of eugenics. Thus, in California’s Redwood forest one can today find a plaque honoring the three leaders of the Save the Redwoods League: eugenicists Madison Grant, Henry Fairfield Osborn, and John C. Merriam. Grant was the author of the racist classic, The Passing of the Great Race, a book that had a major role in creating anti-Semitic, anti-Slav, and anti-Italian immigration laws for the United States (and which became a runaway bestseller in Nazi Germany). Osborn was the vice president of the American Eugenics Society and president of the American Museum of Natural History. In his keynote speech to the Third International Congress on Eugenics, held at the Museum in 1932, Osborn stated that overpopulation was causing resource destruction and unemployment, and that efforts to prevent the starvation of the unemployed were “only another instance of human civilization going against the order of nature and encouraging the survival of the unfittest.”

While it is not surprising that an environmentalist should seek to obscure such connections, in Scruton’s case it is odd, because at the core of his argument for a convergence between conservatism and environmentalism are the concepts of the Heimat and Heimatgefühl—he repeatedly invokes them by name, and in German. These terms may be loosely translated as “homeland” and “love of homeland,” but more accurately as “ancestral land” and “love of ancestral land.” Surely Scruton is not ignorant of these concepts’ preeminence in the philosophy of German National Socialism.

For it is only love of the Heimat, says Scruton, that will make us want to protect its environment, and thus this sentiment—allegedly both conservative and environmentalist—forms the basis for the alliance between these two schools of thought. “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 self-identifying tribes, families, and religions,” he writes. Elsewhere Scruton continues, “It is up to us to make headway in cleaning the earth.” This is something we should do if we have oikophilia—or “love of home,” a term he devised. “If oikophilia remains, that is what we shall do, through the civic initiatives that are the natural resource of all people who are settled and who love the place where they are.”

Scruton contrasts oikophilia from oikophobia, or hatred of home. Conservatives and environmentalists are both oikophiles, he maintains, and so they should unite in opposition to the oikophobes, whose camp includes the international capitalists, technophiles, consumerists, Leninists (who seek to electrify the countryside), migrants, and all those skeptical of their own nation’s dominant beliefs or customs. This too has a disturbing ring to it, recalling as it does a very similar target list drawn up by the previous champions of the Heimat. At the very least, it is an odd analysis that identifies the Chamber of Commerce crowd and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs as being fundamentally allied with the Reds.

In line with his celebration of the Heimat, Scruton links his concept of xenophobic environmental protection to a primitivist and mystical tribal bond with the land:

The hunter-gatherer, surveying the land in which he habitually searches for food, knows that there is a right and a wrong way to treat it, that the right way is a ‘communion’ with the tribe, that other tribes are to be excluded, and that there is a consecrated method to the hunt—a method that ensures the renewal of the quarry from season to season. When the outsider intrudes into the landscape, and wipes away the quarry with weapons that show no respect, the tribesman views him with a sense of outrage and pollution.

The conceptual difficulty the book poses has to do with its use of the term conservative, at least in a contemporary American context. Scruton, an Englishman, writes, “Conservatism, as I understand it, means maintenance of the social ecology.” Thus for him, “It is as obvious to a conservative that our reckless pursuit of individual gratification jeopardizes the social order as that it jeopardizes the planet.” [Italics added.]

How can we parse this sentence? Precisely whose “reckless pursuit of individual gratification jeopardizes the social order” as well as the planet? Clearly not the privileged few, who have always enjoyed gratification without limit while being too few in number to materially affect the environment. No, those Scruton would condemn for pursuing “gratification” are not the world’s aristocrats, but its upward-striving citizenry. A clearer statement of the link between reactionary sentiments and environmentalism would be difficult to find.

In the United States, conservatism means not protecting privilege, but those principles enshrined by our Revolution, the first being that governments exist not to protect “the social ecology” but the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness of their citizens. There may indeed be a Heimat for conservatives who subscribe to Scruton’s views somewhere, but let’s hope it will remain somewhere else.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link