By Roger Scruton. His latest book ‘A Political Philosophy’ was published this week by Continuum (THE TIMES, 16/09/06):
THE ENVIRONMENT has been understood in recent years as a left-wing cause, one of those issues in which the altruistic intellectual fights the selfish exploiter on the victim’s behalf. The victim is no longer the working class, or women, or immigrants, or animals. It is the Earth itself — the mutilated mother on whom we all depend. But the old marks of leftist agitation are there: violent confrontation, demonisation, contempt for compromise and exhortations to change the world. So are the old battle lines: youth against age, jeans against suits, sexy slogans against bureaucratic jargon.
However, the appearances are deceptive. It is true that young people join the environmental movement with some of the idealistic passion with which their predecessors went to the barricades. But the cause that attracts them is entirely at odds with the traditional goals of the Left. Indeed, it is the very cause that leftists have always opposed, namely, conservation or, to give it its political name, conservatism. History makes this clear. Every leftist policy has favoured some urgent and non-negotiable purpose (the poor, the party, the classless society, the five-year plan) over long-term continuity and equilibrium. The goal justifies everything, and will sweep away everything in its way.
In the totalitarian economies of the Soviet empire and China, towns have been razed by open-cast mining; rivers have been dammed and diverted; valleys have been drowned and populations transported; all for the sake of the new society in which land and property would be “collectively” and therefore carelessly owned.
Leftists have been less damaging in the capitalist world, but only because capitalism has acted as a brake on their ambitions, preventing the gargantuan projects and setting limits to the invasion of private rights. Even in the capitalist world, however, the environment remains at the bottom of the Left’s agenda. Our Government would rather promote motorways and supermarkets as symbols of the classless way of life than condemn them as the ecological catastrophes that they are; John Prescott would rather abolish the green belt as a sign of middle-class privilege than preserve it as a vital impediment to urban sprawl.
And so far the Labour Government has proved as indifferent to the conservation of our unique ecology and landscape as it has proved indifferent to the conservation of our institutions and our way of life.
As for those people on the Left who have pointed the way — Simon Fairlie, of the Tinker’s Bubble project, for example, who has shown how easily and costlessly we might build without destroying the land, and how it is possible to include the Earth itself in the web of human kindness — so far as the Labour Party is concerned, they might never have existed.
This is why we should not be surprised if the Conservative Party under David Cameron is finally becoming conscious of the message contained in its name. Conservatism and conservation are two aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources. These resources include the social capital embodied in laws, customs and institutions; they also include the material capital contained in the environment, and the economic capital contained in a free but law- governed economy. The purpose of politics, on this view, is not to rearrange society in the interests of some overarching vision or ideal, such as equality, liberty or fraternity. It is to maintain a vigilant resistance to the entropic forces that erode our collective inheritance.
The conservative understanding of political action, as it was first articulated by Burke, is one that ought to appeal to environmentalists. Burke’s response to Rousseau’s theory of the Social Contract was to acknowledge that political order is like a contract, but to add that it is not a contract between the living only, but between the living, the unborn and the dead: in other words a relation of trusteeship, in which inherited benefits are conserved and passed on.
The living may have an interest in consuming the earth’s resources, but it was not for this that the dead laboured. And the unborn depend upon our restraint. Long-term social equilibrium, therefore, must include ecological equilibrium.
This thesis, which environmentalists are apt to express in terms of “sustainability”, is better expressed in Burke’s way. For Burke reminds us of a motive that arises naturally in human beings, and which can be exploited for the wider purpose of environmental and institutional conservation: namely, love. Human love extends to the dead and the unborn: we mourn the one and plan for the other out of a natural superfluity of good will. True social equilibrium arises when the institutions are in place that encourage that superfluity and channel it towards the maintenance of the social organism. The principal danger is that those institutions may be destroyed in the name of present emergencies, present appetites and the egregious needs of the merely living.
This emphasis on small-scale, observable and believable human motives is one of the strong points of conservative political thinking.
Socialists place before us ideals of equality and social justice. But they seldom trouble to ask whether anyone — still less whether everyone — is motivated to pursue those things. The same problem arises with the environmentalists’ goal of sustainability. It may be my goal and yours: but what about Jill, John and Marianne?
It seems to me, therefore, that the greatest weakness in radical environmentalism has been its failure to explore the question of human motivation. There is one overwhelming reason for the degradation of the environment, and that is human appetite. In the wealthier parts of the world people are too many, too mobile, too eager to gratify their every desire, too unconcerned about the waste that builds up in their wake, too ready, in the jargon of economics, to externalise their costs.
Most of our environmental problems are special cases of this general problem. And the problem can be more simply described as the triumph of desire over restraint. It can be solved only when restraint prevails over desire, in other words, only when people have relearnt the habit of sacrifice. For what do people make sacrifices? For the things that they love. And when do these sacrifices benefit the unborn? When they are made for the dead. Such was the core sentiment to which Burke made appeal.
But how do we build that sentiment into a believable political programme? Again it seems to me that conservatives have the advantage.
As another great conservative thinker, Hume, pointed out, benevolent motives are weak; but they are shared. Although in satisfying our needs and desires each of us selfishly pulls in his own direction, in those matters where our own interests are not directly involved we all pull together. The task of the politician is to gather the many feeble spurts of true benevolence, and to combine them in a continuous force, moving in a single direction.
And there is a way of doing this that is absolutely familiar to us, and which is the true and lasting conservative cause: namely the love of one’s country. This natural and class-transcending love has always been at the heart of conservative thinking, and it is the anti-patriotism of the Left that underlies the great destructive projects with which it tears things, both man-made and God-given, apart. The country is not the countryside, any more than the landscape is the land; but unless we love our country, our land will die. And we love it by making it ours.