The Books Interview: Roger Scruton

Can you sum up the case for a conservative environmentalism that you make in your new book, Green Philosophy?
I'm trying to plot the structure of our thinking about environmental questions and to distinguish the positive ways of thinking from those that are dead ends. I am hostile to the idea that collective solutions have to be made by committees and then imposed top-down. I very much prefer bottom-up solutions.

You're not a climate-change sceptic - but is there a reason why those who are sceptical usually place themselves on the right?
I go into this in the book. I think that, on the whole, risk-taking entrepreneurial characters regard nature as a sort of background that we can use for our own advantage. And if things go wrong, you change it. They tend to exaggerate the extent of human capacities and turn a blind eye to fate and to the power of nature.

You argue that there's nothing left-wing about environmentalism.
That's right. It's historically wrong to think of this as a left-wing thing. Look at what left-wing movements were like in the 19th century - they were all about progress, the engineering of the world, the reshaping of nature, and so on. It's only postwar, really, that people on the left have come to see the environment as a critical issue.

Although some on the left have distanced themselves from statism, there is still a tendency to go for statist solutions [to environmental problems] - partly because of distrust of big business, of people who have more power than they perhaps should.

But what about the environmental slogan "Think globally, act locally"?
The environmental movement is constantly recruiting people to put pressure on governments and to formulate treaties about matters that can't be solved by treaties.

One might conclude that you're much more exercised by untrammelled state power than you are by the depredations of big business.
I would hope that isn't true. I assume that the case doesn't have to be made about large enterprises. My main argument is that environmental destruction comes when people externalise their costs and pass them on to future generations. That is obviously something that large enterprises do and they become large by doing it.

I'm pretty severe on supermarkets, after all, which are one of the big environmental catastrophes.

So that means we have obligations to future generations?
Edmund Burke deserves credit for having first put this on the political agenda. He made the interesting observation that
human beings protect the unborn, while they revere the dead.

Someone's made a sacrifice on your behalf, so you must pass that on by making a sacrifice of your own. That's a crucial observation he makes against the French Revolution. How to translate this insight into policy is another question.

What do your friends on the US right make of your claim that conservatism is not the same as the ideology of the free market?
They're highly gentle people and they say, "Scruton's a bit of an eccentric but maybe he has a point." There's quite a big move on the American right towards an old-fashioned conservative position, anyway; they recognise there's a limit to these radical business solutions to everything.

My book is a defence of settlement. And settlement is something that I've always thought of as being the sine qua non of a well-governed society. It doesn't mean that people can't move around but they must move primarily in search of settlement.

So, in your view, is a sense of loyalty to a place essential to living a flourishing human life?
Yes. A sense of settlement. Love is essential and love doesn't come on the hoof - it comes through stopping.

Love of place isn't always politically benign, though, is it?
There are all kinds of things that can go wrong. People are shit. But when contained, you can live with them.

Roger Scruton's "Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet" is published by Atlantic Books (£22)

Jonathan Derbyshire is executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama