Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet

The limits of Roger Scruton’s love of the land.

Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet
Roger Scruton
Atlantic Books, 464pp, £22

Two decades ago, seduced by the romance of the Vale of the White Horse Hunt, the philo­sopher Roger Scruton decamped to rural Wiltshire and bought himself Sunday Hill, a run-down farm. He hoped to become part of an "organic" community that still had palpable roots in its terroir, and set about energetically connecting himself. He played the organ in the local church, ran a few sheep, launched a rural consultancy called Horsell's Morsels and - because he is a word-farmer, too - wrote a memoir about the experience. Curiously, News from Somewhere (2004) isn't one of the many titles from Scruton's oeuvre quoted in this, his latest book, despite the mutual resonance of their themes. Perhaps the messy and compromised business of living on the land would have been destabilising in a book of conservative philosophy.

Green Philosophy is a book about mindset, not praxis. In one sense, it is an attempt to give a green gloss to the Conservatives' "big society". Scruton's argument is that sustainable living on the planet results only from dwelling properly at home, in a community, in a real and comprehensible place, trading freely and forming civil associations (the Women's Institute is his favoured model) to effect gradual change. Then, by a process we might call "trickle-up", the sovereign nation, too, becomes principled and evangelical, and acts unilaterally to inspire others. He calls this strong and motivating sense of one's intimate human habitat "oikophilia", from the Greek oikos, meaning "household". It is telling, as his argument unfolds, that he has chosen this remote classicism rather than the beautiful, home-grown Celtic word cynefin, "a place of personal belonging".

Whatever it's called, the cherishing of one's pays is a powerful and universal sense that transcends political - and species - boundaries. So Scruton sets out to explain why, so far, it hasn't become the salvation of the planet. The culprits, it need hardly be said, are any agencies that interfere with the free play of the market: the centralised state, all regulatory bodies, unelected NGOs, trade unions, internationalists, activists. Not only does he find all such determined busybodies distasteful, but he believes that they don't work. Action on climate change is frustrated by the futility of attempting to reach global consensus (yet it inches forward in Durban as I write, from a process resembling an all-night Occupy assembly). The precautionary principle shackles business with such bureaucratic inflexibility that it stifles the very innovation that might generate solutions. All undeniable. But this ignores the ways in which corporate power also profoundly warps the decent workings of the market.

It must be a bleak time to be a conservative with such beliefs, when the full power and unscrupulousness of corporate business has come into plain view. The essential unfreedoms of the free market are especially glaring in environmental affairs. Market theory is partly based on a kind of skewed Darwinism, imagining the economy as a sort of evolving ecosystem, sensitive to demand, full of specialised niches for all kinds of productive organism. It was hard to see evidence of this when the oil companies bought out the patents of bacteria-based slick dispersants because they would compete with their own, oil-based detergents. Or in that metaphor for the oikophobia of the market, the sterile "terminator gene", genetically engineered in crop-seed for the developing world so that poor farmers are not able to harvest their own seedcorn. Freedom of choice, and the respect for habitat and tradition that Scruton so values, are invisible here.

The author scarcely mentions those poor, ravaged regions of the planet - South America, Africa, south-east Asia - where the worst environmental crises are brewing. Yet oikophilia is a global idea. Chico Mendes's rubber tappers, Congolese charcoal-burners, the tree-hugging Chipko women of India, who began their campaign against deforestation in a single village, all changed national policy. But they succeeded because they used the kind of direct political action that Scruton deplores.

The once-fair Albion is Scruton's own oikos. Yet even here, his dogged ideological insistence on interpreting environmental history as a series of stand-offs between state bureaucracy and the free market results in a catalogue of errors. He praises, quite rightly, the work of the grass-roots groups that have saved fragments of the countryside - an achievement that looks decidedly less impressive when you consider what has been lost.

It is essential to Scruton's thesis that it insist the real rape of green England began with the postwar intensification of agriculture, backed by national and eventually European subsidies. But it began much earlier, with the enclosures of 1750-1850. In this period, more than two million acres of downland, heath, fen and ancient wood-pasture were cleared for cultivation. Put that together with the four and a half million acres of open arable fields privatised in the same process, and a quarter of the entire land surface of England and Wales was robbed of its cynefin. The process was archetypal, and familiar. Small cadres of landowners and lobbyists, acting no doubt from their own sense of oiko­philia, drew up "improvement" blueprints and submitted them to parliament for enactment. The members of the community most directly affected were not consulted, and except where they took direct action to protect their rights, they were fobbed off with smidgens of allotment by way of compensation.

That rural cliché "the way we do things here" was always a tad totalitarian, and oikophilia is a more fractious and pluralistic feeling than Scruton can afford to admit (though his discussion of ideas of beauty as neither wholly objective nor subjective, but evolving, like language, from long social arbitration is one of the better and more democratic-minded sections of the book). And insidiously the exclusivity of his sense of place emerges. There are sour passages about how travellers and ethnic groups that wish to maintain their culture can't partake of it. The right sort of dead people and the unborn can, but not, mysteriously, other creatures, because - it is one of Scruton's many scientific solecisms - they don't possess our repertoire of social feelings. You might expect a strong insistence on public morality to come in here, yet corporate looting must not be curbed by the law, but corrected by tort and the passing on of all environmental costs to the greedy consumer. The poor are not even mentioned.

Scruton is right that cynefin is a powerful force, already active across the planet, and may be the best route towards reclaiming and "naturalising" politics. But this, in more than one sense, is a spoiled book. Its oikophilic version of love of patria is privileged and exclusive. Its world is still riven by dualism: subject and environment, stakeholder and wretched commoner. What a generous tract it could have been if he had taken seriously his insistence that we should think in the first person plural, and had recognised that cynefin involves a kind of identification with place and everything alive and inanimate that comprises it, with all the many conflicting passions this generates. Negotiating these differences is why we have the kind of politics Scruton dislikes.

Richard Mabey's latest book is "The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn" (Profile Books, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...