- Conservatism is a rejection of utopia for reality-a preference for improving society bit by bit.
- Mr. Scruton's alternative is an environmentalism based on localism and reform, not alarmism and radical upheaval
- Part of the problem today is that even if people want a stable habitat they aren't always willing to do what's necessary
Environmentalists might think they've scored an unlikely ally in Roger Scruton, arguably Britain's most famous philosopher-and a proud conservative. But Mr. Scruton's case for environmentalism is classically conservative, centered on the love of home, the importance of local institutions, and especially the suspicion of state power.
With "How to Think Seriously About the Planet" (out next month in the U.S.), Mr. Scruton casts his lot with environmentalism but not with the contemporary environmentalist movement. The book is something of a cry in the wilderness, keeping wary distance from all sides of the current political debate. "It's an attempt," as he puts it, "to say, 'Look, wake up, here is what it's all about really.'"
On a radiant spring afternoon, I have tea with Mr. Scruton at his farmhouse in the Cotswolds. Over more than four decades, he has written tracts on Spinoza and Kant, among other heavyweight subjects from sexual desire to music and hunting. But Mr. Scruton seems most at home fighting to defend traditional culture against its despoilers: fragmentation, nihilism, disenchantment, postmodernism.
Dressed in a rumpled sweater and corduroy trousers, his craggy face crowned by an unruly thicket of dust-colored hair, Mr. Scruton certainly looks the part of weathered back-country scholar. Lush hills spill in all directions outside the windows in his living room, where the 68-year-old is settled into an easy chair. The culture warrior is in his element.
Not that Mr. Scruton, ever the anti-radical, would describe what he wages from his desk in rural Wiltshire as "warfare." His practice is to tear through liberal convictions without abandoning his calm erudition.
On immigration policy: "The real cure to immigration, obviously, is to make sure that there is prosperity around the world so that people don't have the motive. Not just prosperity, but freedom."
On pornography's effect on young men: "Most people are not sexually attractive. Certainly they don't have...what the people on the screen have-all the attractions. And so they just think, 'Oh God, I'm out of all that game. It's just something to look at.'"
On climate scientists: "Many of the people who brand themselves as climatologists are not in the first rank of scientific minds, you know? I'm not really entitled to say that. But you do have a sense that these are guys who are not particularly good at mathematical modeling, they're not particularly good at computer science, they're not particularly good at physics, not particularly good at chemistry, but who put all those together . . . [and] become an 'expert.'"
Mr. Scruton became a conservative in May 1968 among the student rioters in Paris, where two centuries earlier another group of agitators helped crystallize the thoughts of British philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke on political change and social order. By publishing "The Meaning of Conservatism" in 1980, he outed himself within academia-he was teaching at Birkbeck College in London at the time-and became persona non grata among his British peers. America suits him much better, and he's now a visiting scholar at Washington's American Enterprise Institute when he isn't teaching part time in Britain.
"The Meaning of Conservatism," however, may be as explosive to some American conservatives today as it was to the London intelligentsia in 1980. Conservatism, Mr. Scruton wrote, had been "betrayed by the free marketeers" and misunderstood by almost everyone on the left and right. Conservatism's relationship to capitalism is tenuous, he argued. And conservatism takes no position on liberty, individual or otherwise.
Rather, conservatism is a rejection of utopia for reality-a preference for improving society bit by bit over fixing society by rubbing it out. If conservatives maintain any principled allegiances at all, they are to one's own people and place, and to the rituals, customs and social knowledge contained therein. Anything beyond that depends on the circumstances.
A friend once told him, as he recounted in a 2005 essay, that "Conservatism is a political practice, the legacy of a long tradition of pragmatic decision making and high-toned contempt for human folly. To try to encapsulate it in a philosophy was the kind of naïve project an American might undertake."
What of liberalism? "My own view," he tells me, "is that left-wing positions largely come about from resentment-I agree with Nietzsche about this-a resentment about the surrounding social order. They have privileges, I don't. Or, I have them and I can't live up to them. Things should be organized differently.
"And there's always some sense on the left that power is in the wrong hands. You know, that the world is misgoverned. And in particular, the nearer something is to yourself, the more you feel that on the left. There's this rejection of your own country, of your own government."
"That emotion is very strong," he continues. "I think it's the fundamental source of left-wing politics throughout the 20th century. And when it turns itself into an environmental movement, the resentment remains."
Mr. Scruton's alternative is an environmentalism based on localism and reform, not alarmism and radical upheaval. He notes that the first modern environmentalists were English Tories who resisted industrialization and the imposition of the railways on the countryside. But reverence for our surroundings and love of home-or oikophilia, as Mr. Scruton prefers-go deeper. There is a basic human impulse, he says, to derive significance from the places we settle. We make them into homes; we give them names.
It isn't just that we like to keep our hedges well-trimmed. Long-term political order, he says, depends on responsible stewardship. Here Mr. Scruton calls upon Burke's concept of trusteeship, which broadens Rousseau's social contract to encompass not only current members of society, but the dead and unborn too. Our responsibility to them offers us a natural incentive to conserve our habitats-one that strong, centralized states usually crowd out, as the environmental devastation in Russia and China suggests.
The temptation for transnational solutions to environmental ruin is equally apparent. "But of course they never work," Mr. Scruton says, "unless the people who subscribe to them have a motive for obeying the result. It's finding that motive that is the real problem."
In other words, while it's straightforward for most people to see why they shouldn't litter, it's harder to attach importance to treaties concluded faraway by mostly unelected officials, the effects of which will be felt only indirectly. The environmental movement's task, Mr. Scruton argues, is to remind people why they should want clean air and green land in the first place-and to empower them to make the change themselves.
Part of the problem today, says Mr. Scruton, is that even if people want a stable habitat they aren't always willing to do what's necessary to conserve it. It's too easy for individuals and big businesses to externalize their costs: We dislike the accumulation of plastic in landfills and public spaces, but we aren't willing to give up the convenience of grocery bags. We dislike air pollution but won't stand for higher fuel taxes or reduce our driving and flying.
Here, decrying addictions to "fast food, tourism, luxury and waste," Mr. Scruton sounds familiar notes. I suggest that there's a fine line separating this sort of position from the old left's resentment of bourgeois lifestyles.
Mr. Scruton says the Marxists objected to those things because of the inequality they saw in people's ability to access them. He, on the other hand, objects to the things themselves. They "are eroding something important in the human condition-that actually human life is not just about consumption, it isn't just about enjoying yourself and having fun." With that last phrase, his face crinkles.
"There are goals in life of a more spiritual and moral kind, which actually require us to control our appetites. I think this is an old religious idea, which is there in Christianity, in Islam, at least some forms of Islam, and of course in Confucianism as well. . . . And that is not a lefty position. It's rather an old-fashioned moral and spiritual position, which isn't asking governments to do something about it. It's asking individuals to clean their own souls."
He continues: "I think this whole environmental movement has arisen because people recognize that we do need that spiritual discipline, and they're looking for it, partly in the wrong place by trying to get the government to do that discipline for us."
By Ramond Zhong, Brinkworth England
Mr. Scruton is hopeful that environmental degradation will be reversed from the bottom up, as countless other problems have: through civic associations, community groups and local organizations. Even larger, international outfits like the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders get credit, he says, for not being "career structures" like the European Union. "What is to be done," he says, "is essentially a work of education, opening the space for volunteering, reminding people in one way or another that the responsibility is theirs, and not confiscating the space in which they can act."
None of that can happen without the love and transcendent bonds that sustain any society, Mr. Scruton says. And so we circle back to the matter of home and country, and to a world in which those old allegiances are dissipating rapidly. But less so in America, says Mr. Scruton: "America has this wonderful ability to recover from its own mistakes, which is why it's so hugely superior to China. People worry that China is going to take over, but there is no reverse gear in China, there's no corrective procedure. . . . It will always come up against a wall."
The philosopher of the English countryside knows that most of his intellectual kindred are to be found across the Atlantic-and probably across much of the coastal U.S., too. "America is the one place," he says, "where you can talk of 'this nation' and everyone knows exactly what you think. People put a flag on their porch, and they do have a desire to localize everything and celebrate things locally.
"You know" that, he says, "if you go to a rodeo in the West, or a point-to-point race in Virginia or somewhere like that, or a pigeon-shoot . . . where you see ordinary people getting together to have a beer or celebrate their community. It's happening all over America just the way it always did."