Roger Scruton

The green and the blue

To succeed, conservation must once again become conservative

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For as long as I can remember, the word ‘conservative’ has been used in intellectual circles as a term of abuse, while to call someone ‘right-wing’ has been the next thing to social ostracism. This habit has persisted throughout 50 years in which the Conservative party has had the largest overall share of the vote. But the habit is not new. It took root two centuries ago, when the French Revolution excited British intellectuals to think that they too might get the chance to cut off the heads that contained less brains than their own. John Stuart Mill, when a Liberal MP, spoke for the intellectual majority by denouncing the Tories as ‘the stupider party’. An intellectual who emphasises his leftist credentials has a career advantage that will compensate for any amount of obscurity, confusion or mendacity in what he writes.

Still, when the environment came to the top of the political agenda I allowed myself the hope that respite was to hand. If the intellectual class is talking of conservation, stewardship and the duty to future generations it could not be long, I felt, before its members would see the point of Burke’s argument, that society is not a contract between the living only, but a bond between the dead, the living and the unborn. They would surely allow themselves to recognise the effect of socialism on the natural environments of Russia, Eastern Europe and China and of uncontrolled immigration on the urban environment of Britain and France. They might even begin to acknowledge the work of the romantic Tory John Ruskin and his many disciples in saving the English landscape from destruction during the 19th century. And how can they consider the history of this matter without recognising that there has been, at every point, a battle between civil society and the state, with the ‘little platoons’ of home-loving volunteers on the side of conservation, and the great machine from elsewhere, often programmed with socialist software, scraping away our settlements and habitats, for the sake of goals that nobody understands and few people want?

Well, it didn’t happen. The environmental agenda was confiscated by the radicals, wound into the old socialist grievances, and made into a badge of left-wing membership. The old targets — private enterprise, big business, middle-class values, markets and capitalism — were targeted, not as the cause of ‘inequality, social injustice and poverty’ only, but also of environmental destruction and the rape of the earth. The attack on big business was conducted on behalf of the state, with no consciousness that the state is the biggest business of all. Markets and private enterprise were vilified as the cause of the ‘tragedy of the commons’, by people who seemed unaware that, wherever the tragedy of the commons has been avoided, it is by a viable distribution of property rights and the emergence of markets — as studied by Elinor Ostrom, in her Nobel-prize-winning research. And the whole agenda was wrapped up in the panic over global warming, which was used to turn people’s attention away from local successes, and to prepare them for a collective surrender to solutions dictated from above by well-meaning leftists.

In writing Green Philosophy I did not hope to be taken seriously by the radicals. But I sensed that a new note of realism was entering the debate, and that the time might be ripe to make the crucial point, which is that top-down solutions, to be administered on our behalf by bureaucrats, have been the cause of many of our most serious environmental problems. To mention just a few examples: the destruction of the European fisheries has been imposed by the Common Fisheries Policy of the EU; the destruction of habitats by motorways all across Europe has resulted from the confiscation of property rights, the setting aside of democratic procedures and the vandalising of any environment that has stood in the way. Hidden government subsidies have enabled the supermarkets to destroy town centres and viable settlements all across Europe and America, while regulations imposed by the class of righteous guardians have ensured that our food comes wrapped in plastic and that everywhere is now choked by non-degradable waste.

What is the alternative? We must summon the motives that have led people to husband their environmental resources instead of squandering them. The earth has been properly maintained by communities who are at home and happy to stay there. It has benefited from the love of beauty, the sense of the sacred and the revulsion towards the presumptuous projects of nomads and absentees. Moreover, when people have been motivated in this way, they have received far more help from civil society than from central government. Environmental problems have been solved in our country by the common law rather than by the state, since the common law is the voice of the people, and not the voice of the lobbyists. (That was how the anglers rescued the rivers, and how the Ruskinians rescued the woods around London.) Civil associations like the Women’s Institute and the National Trust have recruited the energy and goodwill of their members, while big NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have merely jetted to conferences.

Of course, radicals will dismiss this defence of what I call ‘oikophilia’ (the love of home) as irrelevant. Climate change, they will insist, is overwhelming all other problems, and only they, drawing on their hard-won expertise, are able to solve it. And they will solve it by dictating a treaty, which the governments of the world, swayed by their impeccable arguments, will sign in a final act of capitulation.

That kind of wishful thinking is in fact the most dangerous of our environmental problems, since it leads to a kind of paralysis, preventing both government and citizen from attending to the issues that could be coherently addressed. Whatever the truth about anthropogenic global warming, it could not be reversed by a treaty. The major polluters include China, which has no disposition to hold itself to treaties against the interest of its ruling class. And the whole world economy is committed to oil. The only way to reduce carbon emissions is to discover energy that will be both clean and cheap, and to make it available around the globe. Clean energy means energy that is really clean, and does not need some dirty back-up. Thanks to Green activism the German landscape has been largely destroyed by wind-farms, which are so little capable of producing power when it is needed that the German grid must be permanently plugged in to the French, run by nuclear power stations that the German Greens are too virtuous to countenance. Not only is this ‘solution’ a pure fantasy; it assumes that you can go on uglifying people’s home with every kind of monstrous structure, and yet still rely on their desire to look after it.

So what should governments do? And what should our government do? The answers are clear. Governments must facilitate research into clean energy, look with suspicion on all top-down solutions, acknowledge the danger of fantasies and wishful thinking and stop subsidising the vandals. And our government should ignore the lobbyists, become true to its conservative tradition, and listen to the voice of common sense.