Review of Roger Scruton’s Green Philosophy

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Posted Mar 12 2013 by Dave Darby of
Roger Scruton Green Philosophy, by Roger Scruton, out in paperback, 2013, Atlantic Books.

Roger Scruton is probably the nation’s most famous right-wing philosopher. So you might find it surprising that as a director of an environmental organisation, I found a lot to agree with in this book. He’s in favour of the type of local, voluntary action that promotes all the time – although he seems to have an all-encompassing and over-romantic faith that ‘locals’ always want to protect their environment – in the same way that the SWP have a romantic notion that the working-class are all egalitarian and right-on. In my experience, most locals are much more interested in attracting or retaining industries that bring jobs and money, whatever their environmental impact.

However, the basis for his support of ‘little platoons’ of local volunteers, as he calls them is the classic libertarian right opposition to state power, in the name of freedom. Nothing wrong with that – but he fails to speak out against corporate power with the same gusto. The right tend to think that ‘small government’ will result in more freedom, either refusing to recognize (or actually not recognizing) that real power is corporate, and reducing the size of government will hand more power to corporations, resulting in less freedom for the average citizen. Of course, it’s pointless attacking individual corporations or bringing down an occasional rogue Enron, when we have a system that ensures power stays with corporations – whoever those corporations happen to be.

It’s not a spectrum though, with government power at one end and corporate power at the other. They are hand in glove, and often they are the same people. Congressmen and women tend to be on the boards of large corporations, and I don’t have to tell you (do I?) how governments bend over backwards to reward corporations, from bailouts to turning a blind eye to tax avoidance? Governments are no counterbalance to corporate power – far from it.

Scruton unfortunately repeats the tired mantra that as a country’s income increases, environmental damage falls. Well, maybe it falls within that country, because as countries develop, they export their manufacturing industries to Asia and Latin America – but it grows globally, as goods have to be transported longer distances, and more flights are taken by wealthier citizens (emissions into international airspace don’t count towards a country’s total). His corresponding argument that as GDP rises, per capita energy consumption falls is nonsense of the highest order, for the above reasons. A country’s energy consumption figures do not contain the energy used for international flights, or to manufacture goods on the other side of the world and import them into the country (although they should!).

He just seems to miss the main problem in a way that the left (Terry Eagleton, for example) don’t, and yet, in a way, his solutions have more value than Eagleton’s. He’s right that we don’t need a coercive state, and that’s always going to be a problem with the left (the real left, not the Labour party), but to assume that coercion withers with the state is just plain silly – likewise to think that that state can do nothing to protect the environment. If the will were there, environmental ‘bads’ (fossil fuels, cars, pesticides, cement) could be taxed to subsidise environmental ‘goods’ (renewables, public transport, organic farming, lime). But the will isn’t there, because Western states are under corporate control. Even on this point, Scruton argues that taxing things that we want to reduce won’t work, because where’s the incentive to do it if it’s going to reduce the government’s income? Well, income doesn’t have to fall if we tax corporations properly, close offshore tax havens, introduce a Tobin tax and stop bailing out ‘too big to fail’ banks when they hit hard times – split them up into smaller units if they’re too big to fail! Scruton never touches on any of this, which makes his agenda pro-corporate – whether intentionally or not.

But I’d also like to point out the potential for overlap with left and right thinking. How many of you, for example, could find common ground with Scruton when I tell you that:

  • he opposes Monsanto and the WTO’s campaigning for agribusiness
  • he’s in favour of local food
  • he supports the Permaculture movement
  • he supports the Transition movement
  • he’s a fan of Simon Fairlie
  • he believes that (beyond a certain point) we may have to question growth
  • he cites the closure of local abattoirs requiring the transport of animals long distances as the cause of the last foot and mouth disaster
  • he’s critical of consumer culture
  • he believes developers, agribusiness and supermarkets are detrimental to local economies and environments
  • he opposes the trashing of nature by the building of bypasses
  • he opposes the Americanisation of cities, with zones that you have to drive between, and an empty central shopping zone in the evenings (hello Milton Keynes)
  • he opposes the creeping suburbanisation of the countryside
  • he opposes too-stringent legislation on health and safety, packaging and storage that can be met easily by supermarkets and agribusiness, but not by small businesses and farms
  • he’s in favour of small, organic farms
  • he supports the decentralisation of energy production

And at least Scruton understands the dangers of continuing to damage ecology. You can’t say that about many philosophers or virtually any politicians. But his idea that conservatives have a natural tendency to protect the local, the small and the environmentally-friendly is not borne out by the parties that represent them – the Conservative and Republican parties are corporate-oriented, growth-obsessed and ecologically rapacious. But then again, so are the Labour party and the Democrats.

Scruton has very little to say about the way that modern capitalism hands power to corporations, which hampers any meaningful action on the environment at the local, national or international levels. But many right-wingers, especially libertarians, do indeed recognise this, and it is with these people that the left can make common ground, if they can see through the smoke. We don’t have to get rid of markets, but we do have to get rid of the cancer-like casino at the centre of capitalism. We can’t challenge corporate power under casino capitalism any more than challenging the power of monarch and church would have been possible under feudalism. We don’t need to talk about utopian blueprints – that has led us into disaster after disaster in the past. We just need to discuss ways to get better leaders than are possible under the current system. Little platoons – yes. Initiating discussions about systemic change – also essential.

Scruton bemoans the fact that the left don’t get his ideas. But they might, if he didn’t label himself ‘right’. Those labels are defunct. As long as left and right continue to fight each other, corporations are sitting pretty. We need to unite to challenge them, and to start talking about real alternatives.