Called to Account
Peter Ainsworth learns that there is a solution to the challenges we face and that it lies in the ancient Greek concept of oikophilia. Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously about the Planet by Roger Scruton. Atlantic Books, 2012, ISBN: 9781848870765
This is an important book that should be compulsory reading for all politicians, whether they think that the environment is an interesting issue or not. It is the most searching study of the economic, philosophical, ethical and political issues to do with the place where we live since Jonathon Porritt published his book Capitalism as If the World Matters in 2005. The place where we live and the planet that we occupy are the only places we have. Green Philosophy helps us to understand how to look after them better.
Roger Scruton is not just a thinker: he is a composer, a journalist, a countryman, and an occasional (rather gentle but altogether passionate) polemicist. As this book proves, though, he is first and foremost a philosopher; and he does indeed require us to think seriously about the environment, as his subtitle nudges us to do.
It’s not an easy read, even though it is beautifully written throughout. The reason why it is not easy to read is that Scruton confronts some of the most difficult issues of today, places them in a huge historic and moral context, and asks the hardest questions. For example, “What leads us to care for those who are not yet born?” The answer is much more than a genetic disposition to do so.
Scruton is also, clearly, a believer in the importance of maintaining, conserving and nurturing the natural resources upon which we all depend. He understands all that. He just takes issue with the way that we, collectively, have tried to do it.
His essential case is that the State is utterly hopeless at delivering good outcomes for the environment – or for anything else really. He makes his case well, with a vast field of reference that dates back to ancient Greece, takes in the French Revolution and the Soviets and ends with the European Union and the CAP. Although government can intervene to create both infrastructure and regulations that can control and channel human rapacity, its essential job is to enable people to take charge of problems themselves. Centralised political control doesn’t work.
He is not afraid of controversy; I suspect that he courts it. An entire chapter is devoted to the forensic dismantling of the precautionary principle, which has underpinned so much environmental thinking in recent years. But he is far too clever to fall into the divide that lies between climate change deniers and alarmists; instead he seeks to mediate between them, accepting the probability of humanity’s contribution to climate change whilst challenging the way that politicians are attempting to deal with the problem. Similarly, whilst advocating a market-based approach to environmentalism, he is forthright in condemning the damage done by intensive farming and is happy to assert that a hypocritical and cynical conspiracy exists between government (anywhere) and the motor-manufacturing, supermarket and aviation industries, pointing out that they receive huge hidden subsidies and are always the last to be called to account for the environmental damage they cause.
The question of why the environment seems to be the prerogative of the political Left is superbly dealt with here. Scruton argues that neither Right nor Left nor radical Greens understand what they have in common, and that they should learn from each other. Whilst observing that “just as radical Greens are disposed to exaggerate environmental problems, so conservatives are disposed to belittle them”, he also suggests that the difference is existential. I warned you: he is a philosopher.
Homer, Wordsworth, Lenin, Constable, D.H. Lawrence, Aristotle, Rilke and Vaughan Williams are all brought in to bat at various points. All serve his purpose with distinction. The abiding presence though is the 18th-century writer Edmund Burke (“not a philosopher”, according to Scruton), whose belief in the value of the “little platoons” is finding an important contemporary resonance in the localism agenda. Scruton has no time for international treaties or global politics, arguing instead that the solution to our problems lies in the ancient Greek notion of oikophilia: the love not only of home, but of the people contained within it and the surrounding settlements, “which endow that home with lasting contours and an enduring smile”. Who could ever resist the prospect of an enduring smile?
Scruton, for all his intellectual credentials – and they are deeply impressive – is a romantic at heart.
But will love be enough?