Thoughtful Reflections on the Environment by a Conservative Giant – an Evening With Roger Scruton

I had the recent pleasure of sitting down with the English philosopher, Roger Scruton, to discuss his new book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for Environmental Conservatism.  It was my first time meeting Roger, and the evening lived up to every bit my expectation.  I, along with my good friend, Tracy Mehan, spent an enchanting evening with Roger, tucked away in a second-floor corner of the quaint, Tabard Inn, here in the Nation’s Capital, swapping stories and enjoying each’s company over dinner and a couple of bottles of Verget Bourgogne.

A self-described conservative Tory, and author of over 20 academic books, Roger has made the most of life, sporting as a fellow of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford, a barrister, novelist, opera composer, journalist, former professor, teacher of aesthetics, church organist, radio personality, and anti-communist warrior.  When he’s not ferrying across the pond to the U.S., where he is currently a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, he resides in Wiltshire with his wife, Sophie, and their two children, tending to the daily demands of an aging 250-year-old farmhouse surrounded by 35 acres of land.

We spent the evening talking about a lot – small things and big things, serious and some not so serious.  We shared anxieties and concerns about the current state of the planet and society’s seeming inability to come to grips with some of the earth’s most complex environmental challenges.  We talked about his aspirations and interests, including his strong objection to society’s obsession with plastic wrappings, water pollution from diffuse sources, the destructive force of the domestic cat on birds and wildlife diversity, and climate change.  We also spoke briefly of the 1970s, and his efforts as one of the few Western academics to seriously challenge communism by establishing an “underground university” in Prague, forging and sustaining links with Czech academics and thinkers, for which, in 1998, he was awarded the Medal of Merit of the Czech Republic, one of that nation’s highest state honors.

Dubbed Britain’s most famous philosopher, I took great pleasure in learning more about him as a person, the views expressed in his book, and his call to conservatives to take greater note of the environment not just for the sake of the environment and humanity’s sustainability on earth, but for the sake of a spiritual and aesthetic renewal.  He exudes a strong optimism and fondness of America, even during times when our environmental discourse has become so discordant.  Below are his reflections on the U.S. environmental movement and a brief pulse of our society on matters of environmental conservation.

How has your book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet, been received here in the U.S.?

As far as I know my book has been received well by those who think philosophically about environmental matters. But of course, they are not the ones who influence policy or the public debate, which has been captured by activists who prefer to alarm people rather than to engage their reasoning powers.

You speak at length in your book about the importance of establishing the right incentives. What role can and should the government play in establishing those incentives?

The first thing governments should do is to recognize that regulation always changes people’s incentives, and that this has unintended consequences which may make matters worse. I give many instances of this. The most important incentives should be those which lead people to internalize the costs of their own behavior. Farmers should be rewarded for preventing the run off from cow stalls from entering waterways, for example; bottle deposit schemes should reward people for returning plastic bottles to the distributor; the use of degradable plastics in food wrappings can be encouraged by pricing them below the cost of the current non-degradable alternative. Each such initiative will have side effects that will need to be assessed. And that means that no set of incentives should be permanently in place but all should be subject to revision as needed. This can happen in America, but not in Europe where a great bureaucratic machine issues 100 irreversible edicts every day.

What do you see as the biggest challenge to the environmental movement here in the U.S.?

The biggest challenge to the movement is that of its capture by climate-change hysterics, who concentrate everyone’s attention on insoluble problems. The result of this is a kind of institutionalized despair, and a reluctance to address the problems that we really can solve, such as the problem of plastic pollution. The biggest challenge to the environment, as I see it, is the life-style of modern people – fast food, packaging, pets, urban sprawl, and other things which can be rectified only slowly and only through a concerted effort of education.

Given how politically charged the topic of climate change has become, how do conservatives and liberals work together toward a common solution?  Is there common ground to be found?

I think that we can work together to cool the temperature of the debate. We have to recognize that we all have an interest in retaining our present standard of living, while reducing carbon emissions. This means pressing on with research into clean energy alternatives. International treaties won’t work while China and India remain the worst polluters, since neither has shown much willingness to be bound by international treaties – indeed, as I argue, China is incapable of being bound by treaty, since it is only in a polity with internal opposition that the binding process can root itself.

So many of the environmental problems, e.g., water and air pollution, that still confront society are the result of environmental externalities.  Shouldn’t conservatives care about addressing externalities?  What role should government play?

Of course. All environmental problems result from externalities, save those – the collision of an asteroid, sudden cooling of the sun, massive volcanic eruptions etc. – about which we can do nothing. Another name for this is waste. People leave a trail of waste behind them and do not think to clean it up. But I argue that we have an instinct to clean up after ourselves, just so long as we regard the place where we are as our home. That is the motive I call oikophilia, and it is at the root of conservatism in all its forms. The solution to environmental problems comes when oikophilia takes charge of them. This comes in the first instance from natural civic feeling; governments can discourage this, as socialist governments in Europe have done. But they can also encourage it, through educational initiatives, advocacy and – at the limit – regulations that price bad behavior out of the market.

I anticipate that we’ll be seeing and hearing a lot more from Roger – and for that we can all be grateful.  But in the interim, I recommend grabbing a copy of his book, which I’ve blogged about previously.  If you are a conservative, it will make you think differently about the environment, and, if you are a liberal, it may just give you some hope and ideas on how we can work together for the common good.