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Why the left offers more to green philosophy

Roger Scruton is someone you want to like. Anyone who writes on the philosophy of wine, on the nature of beauty, and on why conservatives should care more about the environment (as he does in this book) seems an affable...



Roger Scruton is someone you want to like. Anyone who writes on the philosophy of wine, on the nature of beauty, and on why conservatives should care more about the environment (as he does in this book) seems an affable sort. His cover photo shows the kind of tweedy, dishevelled, yet rakish figure you’d hope a writer of popular philosophy would cut.

But it’s probably not going to work between us. If you’re coming at this from the centre-left, he doesn’t seem to understand the view from over here. For starters, throughout this book he makes little attempt to distinguish between social democracy and communist regimes such as Soviet Russia and Mao-era China. He wants us to believe that the left, when in government, has continually introduced policies that have proved irreversibly destructive of their countries’ environments.

Even the most cursory reflection on this argument shows its hollowness. Consider Sweden, led until recently by the most successful social democratic party in a region of electorally successful social democrats. The landscape of Sweden and its neighbouring countries has nothing in common with the barren industrial wastelands of post-Soviet Eastern Europe. There’s a big difference between the environmental records of democratic regimes and dictatorships, not least because the former take into account the value that citizens place in the protection of their environment.

For Scruton, this value cannot be underestimated. The book is a stunning exploration and exposition of the concept of ‘oikophilia’, a ‘love of home’ that the author contends should be the primary motivation for a conservative environmental policy. Citizens will respond not to abstract international treaties but to appeals to protect their home environments. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change global climate change negotiations process therefore rests on a false premise – that there is any sense of international justice to which countries will sign up. All are motivated by self-interest; the mission of Western governments should be to ensure that monies spent on meeting international carbon targets are instead invested in research into viable sources of renewable energy.

His critique, however, fails on three counts. Firstly, that the left has little conception of ‘oikophilia’; secondly, that international negotiations and understandings of international justice, duties and responsibilities are a waste of time; and lastly, that the left offers little to the localist approach for confronting the sustainability challenge.

The first charge is relatively simple to rebut. Without explicitly saying so, Scruton quotes throughout the work authors who have provided examples of a ‘left patriotism’, not least George Orwell – and shows the broad popularity of such positions, not least for Scruton’s own father. Scruton also references authorities such as John Ruskin, William Morris, and the Webbs, all of whom have made valuable contributions to English understandings of the importance of environment, countryside and locality, and all of whom are associated, in one way or another, with the left.

The second is a little trickier. International negotiations such as the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development summit, that concluded in Rio last month, are starting to founder on the rocks of mutual distrust and suspicion between developing and developed countries. There is no guarantee that treaties will be respected by undemocratic countries such as China, or ratified at home by democratic states like the US. But there are three reasons for hope.

One, the recent UNFCCC conference in Durban did away with distinctions between developing and developed countries, rendering discussions of historical blame for carbon emissions less important. Two, billions of pounds were pledged in the wings of the Rio conference by Northern countries and – significantly – companies, to help developing economies with sustainability. These are precisely the sort of bilateral arrangements that Scruton would presumably applaud. And three, countries such as China are forging ahead with investing in the technologies that will underpin the ‘second Industrial Revolution’, recognising the strategic economic importance of doing so. Leaving aside the value of negotiations, the process has developed a life of its own.

Scruton’s further claim – that governments are motivated by self interest in climate change discussions – stands up well to scrutiny. Developing countries’ fears at Rio about putatively self-seeking reasons for Northern countries’ advocacy of the ‘green economy’ did much to render the conference outcome document more toothless than it might have been. And yet, as Scruton acknowledges in a long discussion on values, self interest is not the sole motivating factor for individual citizens to act more sustainably. Recent Fabian research, as well as findings from WWF and others, has shown that ideas about ‘fairness’ are strong underliers of sustainable behaviour.

The ‘polluter pays‘ principle therefore has as much traction on the left as it does for the right. Scruton is a strong advocate of national market-based instruments and carbon taxes, designed to reintroduce a traditionally conservative level of ‘homeostasis’ to the way we interact with the environment in reaction to powerful destabilising influences such as polluting industries. The difference between the two positions is found in the left’s internationalist claim to feel as strongly about poor people abroad as those at home. Scruton feels this is disingenuous and further proof of a postmodern, rootless left-wing ‘oikophobia’ – a hatred of home.

But precisely because the left can embrace both the local and the global, it offers more than the right can to a hoped-for solution to the sustainability crisis. This is the third drawback of the book’s thesis. Though Scruton is by no means a pessimist, he closes on a rather pessimistic note, concluding that the inability of countries to find common cause with each other leaves us with little choice but to put our own house in order and thereby provide an example for the world. Conversely, the left understands that questions of resource scarcity at home are tangibly linked to notions of social justice abroad. There cannot be a workable solution to one without an equitable answer to the other. Excessive consumption in the North too often leads to shortages in the South.

The same goes for the links between local, national and global policies to confront the sustainability challenge. This is not a zero-sum game. The actions of civil society and governments at every level may support and sustain each other. The first Earth Summit in 1992 specifically recognised these links through Local Agenda 21. My own research has shown that local community-based sustainability action works best with the organisational and material support of local government, and that using local-level institutions to disburse national or global sustainability funding both ensures money is spent correctly and strengthens communities’ social capital.

Because the left is comfortable with, and indeed welcoming of such links, it has more to offer the green challenge than the right. That all major parties in the UK are signed up to the decentralisation of power shows that localism at base is apolitical. But as we look to communities to face up to the pressures of sustainability, we introduce vital and contested political questions about the importance of resource distribution and social justice. Green Philosophy presents a very well-written, diligently researched and compelling case for why the right has the answers. The left needs urgently to show just why Scruton is wrong.

Roger Scruton, Green philosophy: How to think seriously about the planet, Atlantic Books, 2012, £22 (hardback), 457 pp.

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