book of the week GREEN PHILOSOPHY: HOW TO THINK SERIOUSLY ABOUT THE PLANET by Roger Scruton Atlantic, Pounds 22, 457pp Pounds 20 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
With the Tory leadership distancing itself from the environmental agenda it had courted so keenly before the last election, and the Coalition government dangerously divided over green policies, philosopher Roger Scruton's thoughtful study on environmentalism in the conservative tradition arrives at a timely moment. Acknowledging that the environment is the most urgent political problem of our age - an intellectual step that already takes him beyond most Conservatives - the author, who is both a conservative and a conservationist, seeks to reclaim it from the clutches of the left.
It is, he says, the fault of left-leaning environmentalists like myself, who believe that "international capitalism, consumerism and the over-exploitation of natural resources" are primarily to blame for environmental problems, that better solutions to those problems have not been found. Given the severe economic and environmental crises we currently face, the line he quotes from the Green Party's 1989 manifesto, rallying against the "false gods of markets, greed and consumption and growth", actually strikes me as pretty close to the mark. But I suppose that makes me one of those who have yet to learn "how to think seriously about the planet".
Focusing on the local and national levels, Scruton champions the "conservative" values of personal responsibility and local sovereignty, while lamenting the "decline in volunteers" to care of our natural heritage. He is scathing about state solutions to environmental challenges and the "grand schemes" promoted by "unaccountable" NGOs, instead preferring Edmund Burke's "little platoons" as a way of creating a sense of stewardship over our habitat, and encouraging greater shared knowledge and respect.
Overflowing with references to history, philosophy, art, cultural theory, literature and law, Green Philosophy is beautifully written and ambitious in its scope. But it is also curiously old-fashioned, unashamedly tribal and deeply contradictory. Scruton himself admits that his approach is "more philosophical than practical" - and many of his lines of inquiry simply take the reader around in circles.
In Scruton's little village or Big Society utopia, where individuals are seemingly untroubled by the pressing priorities of earning a living, putting food on the table and heating their homes, the real enemies are the state, pressure groups and leftie activists who, by confiscating individuals' sense of personal responsibility, interfere with their natural attachment to place. The nostalgic notion of oikophilia - "the love and feeling for home" - is, Scruton says, the sentiment which underpins the kind of environmental stewardship we need. It's a desirable sentiment. It is what we saw expressed in the aftermath of the riots, for example, where people came together with brooms and sponges to wash away the wreckage caused by the violence.
But this oikos assumes a strong loyalty to one locality, which in this age of globalisation feels outdated. And when faced with global problems which traverse borders, cultures and societies, this small- world approach doesn't quite cut it.
If people are "creatures of limited and local affections", how do we instigate environmental action in a world where people are more dislocated than ever before - and where, for many, the real-life impacts of problems like climate change seem far away? This is the killer question, but sadly, you won't find the answer here.
At the heart of this logical weakness is Scruton's ambiguity on climate change. In the chapter on "Global alarming", the philosopher acknowledges that his old-school conservatism looks feeble in the face of this urgent global problem. At first, he seems to accept that climate change is indeed a reality that requires significant co- ordinated action. …