How to Think Seriously about the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, by Roger Scruton. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 464 pp. $29.95.
The British philosopher Roger Scruton has emerged as one of a rare breed today: the prominent public intellectual who writes on matters of broad interest in ways that, while accessible to nonspecialists, are sophisticated and truly intelligent, and who is not bound to some shallow partisan agenda. In How to Think Seriously about the Planet Scruton seeks in part to re-establish, or to remind us of, the close relationship between conservatism and concern for the environment. He also argues that the only really sound and successful environmentalism is a conservative environmentalism, and describes such an approach. In the process, he offers a broadly Burkean understanding of what conservatism is.
Scruton explains: "My intention in this book has been to argue the case for an approach to environmental problems in which local affections are made central to policy, and in which homeostasis and resilience, rather than social reordering and central control, are the primary outcomes" (325). Many of the ideas which appear in How to Think Seriously are drawn from prior works by Scruton, but they are here organized around, and applied to, the practical problems of the environment and environmentalism. The environment and environmentalism are in fact two distinct--though of course intimately related--problems. Scruton argues that environmentalism as it has been typically exhibited by the left is generally not good for society, and often not even good for the environment. Yet legitimate conservative aversion to such environmentalism has contributed to a tendency of many self-identified conservatives to ignore, reject, or simply not involve themselves in real environmental concerns, ceding this policy area to the left. The book attempts both to address what is wrong with typical left-leaning ways of approaching environmental issues today and to offer alternative ways of thinking about, and caring for, the environment that should be embraced by conservatives.
While large-scale efforts are sometimes needed to address environmental concerns, environmentalism has become too much associated with bureaucratic centralization. Scruton offers numerous examples of how political and economic centralization and socialism have been environmental nightmares. It has long been recognized that a central problem in addressing environmental concerns is that of externalities; polluters are essentially evading costs which are borne by others in the form of environmental degradation. For Scruton an important conservative ethic underlying pollution-fighting efforts is therefore that of responsibility. One might think that a socialized state, in which there are no large private polluters because industries are owned by the government, would solve the problem. But, of course, given the limitations of human nature this actually amplifies the difficulty: "Public bodies are able to externalize their costs in a way that private bodies seldom manage. ..." (95). Governments can police private polluters much more effectively than they can police themselves; inevitably, officials take advantage of their powers to sacrifice the environment for short-term gains. The examples offered by Scruton are drawn not only from the most heavily socialized states, such as the old Soviet Union and its satellites, but from Western Europe as well. And, more broadly, Scruton shows how regulations aimed at reducing risk often actually increase risk and reduce safety.
Scruton argues: "When it comes to environmental policy ... the worst thing that can happen is that the left-wing movements and their mobilized spokesmen should...