What the planet needs

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

Book Review of Green Philosophy. How to think seriously about the planet,  by Roger Scruton
Atlantic Books Ltd, London. 2012. ISBN: 978-84 887 076 5. 457 pages. £15.40

Roger Scruton’s Green Philosophy. How to think seriously about the planet is an outstanding book on the environment that shows how moral philosophy can be translated into policy. It is a massively comprehensive book that leaves no stone unturned in relation to rationalities and approaches that have been proposed to protect the environment, analysing them from many angles. There are two expectations behind his meticulous inquiry into the physical and the moral aspects of choices. The first is that it will provide all the facts needed to understand environmental problems; the second is that such understanding will recreate the moral connection between individuals and their immediate environment. As Scruton points out, this moral connection is already latent in humans and is based on the need for nurture and safety. These two expectations lead to what Scruton calls oikophilia, which literally means the love of one’s home, which is the key to unlock the moral connection that motivates people to look after their environmental resources in a spirit of stewardship.

Oikophilia works, Scruton explains, by promoting human resilience, autonomous associations, market solutions, effective tort law, aesthetic side-constraints which emerge from open discussions among citizens, biodiversity, natural beauty, local autonomy, serious research, and a regime of pricing and feedback that return the costs of environmental damage to those who create them. These are precisely the kind of things ‘which have a healthy environment as their effect’. This long list of things is, of course, part of the conservative morality which Scruton recommends. It comes with a huge problem: to overcome the hostile attitude of the left-wing mind set of the radical greens that tend to rebuff conservatism and to equate the market with attributes like consumerism, selfishness and greed.

There are arguments in favour of conservatism in most chapters of this book. In those arguments it is posited that the individualism at the core of conservatism, which combines freedom with responsibility, is complemented by other values such as respect for customs and traditions, namely those in the spheres of inherited affections, national sovereignty, free enterprises and civic initiatives. It is also argued that it is worth maintaining the things that were built into society at great cost, such as English common law, which has enabled society to cope with environmental problems long before the state began to legislate against them. The conclusion of the argument for conservatism is that tradition is precisely the source of practical knowledge that helps us know what to do in order to accomplish something successfully. Any suggestion that the author could be trying to appease the left-wing greens is dispelled completely by his summing up at the end of the book in the two appendices, where he posits some bold ideas that have the potential to attract other types of contrary reactions.

Green Philosophy examines a number of the most pertinent environmental problems, shows how such problems were tackled in the past, and reveals the mistakes that were made in the process. In Scruton’s view, both the radical greens and governments have limited visions of environmental problems and their habit of imposing top-down prescriptions for the environment disrupts the social equilibrium necessary for people to act morally as temporary trustees of the environment. To Scruton, these top-down solutions often either exacerbate the problem or create new problems in the process. If environmental problems are to be taken seriously, he argues, they should be subjected to public debate and accountability. Scruton makes the point that, in the recent past, people had control of their environment and an awareness of the risks it faced through their use. Removing control of the local environmental away from individuals is disingenuous since they are precisely the ones who hold the key to solving the problems relating to it. According to Scruton in order for people to regain control of their environment they must first relearn how ‘to turn on the moral equipment’ which will enable them to value what they have and to protect what they value.

Scruton’s Green Philosophy is a solid starting point for all public discussions surrounding the environment. In it, the author accepts that some environmental problems are so large that they have no realistic solution and the best that can be done is to manage them with the aim of putting them on the path of equilibrium. Global warming and the dwindling fisheries of the oceans are perhaps the two most notorious examples of large-scale problems.

Scruton’s solution for the problem of dwindling fisheries is to divide up the shoreline into plots and allocate property rights to each. He cites two examples of autonomous fisheries management that worked, the Lofoten fishery in Norway, which survived for centuries without outside regulation, and the system of ‘individual transferable quotas’ (ITQs) adopted by Iceland and New Zealand. Scruton is a fierce critic of the Common Fisheries Policy of the European Union (EU). He reminisces about a time past when each country in the coastal waters of Europe had their customary sovereign rights. Scruton fails to acknowledge that in the case of Great Britain and Denmark, accepting the Common Fisheries Policy was a pre-requisite to joining the EU. Therefore, his suggestion of returning to a system of property rights which would bring the good stewardship needed to safeguard the fisheries resource is nigh on impossible for a country within a transnational organization such as the EU. Furthermore, Scruton’s assessment of the problems of the oceans and the disappearance of fisheries and the stocks on which they depend, fails to take into account the existing body of scientific knowledge on the subject, omitting to suggest feasible ways of tackling the problems associated with the Common Fisheries Policy.

Scruton’s coverage of global warming is much better than his account of the oceans and their dwindling fisheries, and includes the entire spectrum of informed opinions, both past and present. He accepts the trend of global warming, that to a greater extent it is anthropogenic, and that there is a need to reduce carbon emissions. He explains the basis of the international solution proposed under the Kyoto treaty, known as cap and trade solution, as an attempt to create a market that will assign a price to emissions based on the logic of supply and demand. Although he recognises the market oriented solution underpinning Kyoto, Scruton is sceptical about cap and trade schemes due to their lack of transparency, which, in his view, is an invitation to corruption. Another reason why he opposes Kyoto is that it targets producers and not consumers, who, he believes, are ultimately responsible for the problem of carbon emissions. He proposes an alternative solution to the problem of global warming, by the introduction of a flat-rate carbon tax on all products regardless of their origin and to use this tax to finance research on cleaner technologies.

An overview of Scruton’s suggestions to manage environmental problems is provided in the last chapter of Green Philosophy, entitled Modest Proposals. Here, Scruton reiterates that the state should not undertake tasks that could be better undertaken by the citizens. In his view, what the state should do is to help citizens to act effectively, through deregulation for example. The first step of any environmental policy should be to devise a scheme for putting a price on pollution and waste that serves as a deterrent. The chapter, however, is followed by two appendices. Appendix I, Global Justice, is a philosophical examination of the problems of bringing justice to the environment, especially the so-called intergenerational justice, that seeks to save the environment for future generations. In the second Appendix, How Should We Live, Scruton delineates the difficulties of moral judgements and the tensions that exist between the pursuit of happiness and sense of duty. He also points out that in the modern era, when overpopulation became the greatest source of pressure on the environment, one of the greatest tensions is that between the virtue of charity towards the poor and the virtue of unburdening the planet. The starkest example is the campaign against DDT that took place after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, whose success led to an increase in the population of the malaria-transmitting mosquito, which in turn caused a huge increase in the number of African children who died of malaria.

One of the lessons of this book is that all actions designed to solve environmental problems in the present must be thought through to prevent a tragedy further down the line. For that, one must think seriously about the planet and reject top-down prescriptions and agendas about the environment. This, of course, requires the practice oikophilia, demonstrated by actions such as participation in civic associations, creation of sustainable neighbourhoods and respect for tradition. In the case of environmental justice, truth is not enough: only the whole truth will do. Many comprehensive books on the environment that have appeared before now have incurred errors due to incomplete visions. This is not the case of Scruton’s Green Philosophy — His polymath credentials have allowed him to uncover all the pertinent dimensions necessary for the care of our planet

SCRUTON, R. Green Philosophy. How to think seriously about the planet. London, Atlantic Books Ltd, 2012. 457 pages. ISBN: 978-84 887 076 5. Review by: PIRES-O’BRIEN, J. (2012). What the planet needs. PortVitoria, UK, v. 5, Jul-Dec, 2012. ISSN 2044-8236, https://portvitoria.com/