Conservatives would make better environmentalists

| January 30 2013
Christopher Cook

The foregoing is an excerpt from a review of professor Roger Scruton’s recent book How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism. There are a lot of reasons to take note of this review and the ideas it is describing from Scruton’s book. Personally, I found the laudatory description of the subsidiarity and civic-thinking in American conservatism to be accurate, and I found the notion that it could be better applied to environmental concerns than the left’s global, top-down, eschatological statist approach compelling. It sounds like Scruton goes off the rails on a couple of other matters, but this part in and of itself is worth appreciation:

How to Think Seriously About the Planet contrasts the conservative and liberal visions of life on matters ranging from practical reasoning to psychology to political philosophy. What Scruton calls the “conservative” vision recognizes that humans are and should be risk- takers, so long as the costs—and benefits—of risk-taking are borne by those who take the risks. The liberal vision, meanwhile, opposes risk-taking, perceiving it as a dangerous threat to a precarious planet always on the brink of disaster. For Scruton this difference of attitude shapes a difference of political approach to environmental issues.

In order to prevent people from externalizing the costs of their risks—from passing on those costs to people who did not incur them—conservatives support what Scruton calls “homeostatic systems.” Such systems are self-correcting, making use of negative feedback loops to react to change and to keep people accountable for the costs of their risks. Markets, traditions, customs, families, civil associations, and the common law are all examples of homeostatic systems.

Conservatism aims to preserve and maintain renewal of these systems, especially the “civil associations” that Scruton calls society’s “little platoons,” in the words of Edmund Burke. The little platoons—families, local clubs and institutions, churches and schools—keep us accountable to ourselves and our environment, teaching us how to “interact as free beings, each taking responsibility for his actions.” Daily life in these civil associations assimilates and connects us to a settled home, a place and a people we identify as peculiarly “ours.”

In the conservative vision, threats to one’s home, environmental or otherwise, are met by public spiritedness, by volunteering efforts united by what Scruton calls “oikophilia,” love of home. Politics then becomes modest, about compromise and enforcing the conditions that allow homeostatic systems to function properly. It also becomes localized, because it is only attachment to local civil associations that can solicit people’s loyalty and inspire them to accept the sacrifices that the common good requires. “Such associations,” he writes, “form the stuff of civil society, and conservatives emphasize them precisely because they are the guarantee that society will renew itself without being led and controlled by the state.”

The liberal vision supports a “salvationist” politics that shuts down risk-taking enterprises and seeks to insure people against the costs of risk-taking by collecting all power into a protective, centralized authority. While conservatives look to local or, at most, national institutions supported by oikophilia to counter threats and stabilize leadership, liberals rely on international regulation and borderless nongovernmental institutions (NGOs). They support organizations and movements structured around causes and campaigns, rather than civil associations that arise spontaneously out of a shared life.

Building on the distinction between the conservative and liberal visions of life, Scruton proposes that conservatism is a better response to today’s environmental crises than the liberal alternative. He argues that private property and free markets are necessary (but not sufficient) for environmental protection. Private property gives someone a sense of ownership, which supplies a motive for good stewardship, while markets establish homeostatic feedback loops that, when properly functioning, distribute costs to those who choose to incur them.

When governments become socialized or power becomes centralized, the feedback loops established by the market are disrupted, and government is able to damage the environment without having to pay the costs of doing so. Scruton cites myriad examples of the ecological havoc wreaked by communist and socialist regimes that exempted government-backed polluters from anti-pollution legislation.

Government regulation is often counterproductive because it protects and exempts its favorites, isolating them from the costs of their choices and creating moral hazard. It encourages rent-seeking and regulatory capture. Government also “disaggregates risks”: It deals with problems one at a time through discrete policies that in turn create new problems. It also aims to avoid future risks through the policy of “interception,” confiscating risks from those who will have to face the costs of failure, and leaving them unprepared to do so. Local stewardship, in contrast, can tackle problems collectively through “resilience”—a strategy of risk preparation that allows people to adjust to and meet threats when they come.

Centralized control is subject to the law of unintended consequences. Government regulation is uniquely able to warp market incentives in unexpected and often counterproductive ways. For Scruton, it also “lifts problems from their context and prevents them from being localized and solved by the kind of civic institutions that are the real source of stewardship.”

Scruton also defends environmental conservatism with arguments less often heard from American conservatives. Central to his case, for example, is his view that a local, voluntary, patriotic culture can motivate environmental care. Under local stewardship, people don’t defend the environment because they are on a global campaign to save the world. They defend it because they have thick ties to their home, and they want to keep their home safe and beautiful.

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