Although growing concerns over climate change have led to the adoption of environmental policies on all sides of the political divide, it would be fair to say that some conservatives remain more sceptical about the ‘environmental agenda’, in part because of its broader political associations as having sprung from the political Left.
In his new book, Green Philosophy, renowned writer and philosopher Professor Roger Scruton, fundamentally challenges both Left and Right for their positions on the issue. The Left has long seen the principal threats to the earth as issuing from international capitalism, consumerism and the over-exploitation of natural resources Scruton argues that this way of thinking is deeply flawed and poses a real danger to the ecosystems on which we all depend. The current environmental movement directs its energies at the bigger picture but fails to see that environmental problems are generated and resolved by ordinary people. However, he also rebukes the Right for in some cases not taking the environmental agenda seriously, and seeks to show that there is nothing incompatible with environmentalism and conservativism. Ultimately, Scruton suggests that people must be empowered to take charge of their environment, to care for it as a home, and to affirm themselves through the kind of local associations that have been the traditional goal of Burkean politics.
By kind invitation of James Gray MP, The Henry Jackson Society was pleased to host a discussion with Professor Roger Scruton, to explore these issues further.
Professor Roger Scruton is an adjunct scholar of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, a position he took up in July 2009. Since 2011 he has been visiting Professor at the University of St Andrews in the School of Philosophical, Anthropological and Film Studies. He is currently teaching a course in aesthetics at the University of Oxford and is a fellow of Blackfriars Hall. Earlier this year he gave the Stanton Lectures in Cambridge University and in 2009 gave the Gifford Lectures in St Andrews, on both occasions exploring the philosophy of religion.
He continues a freelance career as a writer, philosopher and public commentator and engages in contemporary political and cultural debates as a powerful conservative thinker and polemicist. His most recent book, Green Philosophy argues that the environment has long been the undisputed territory of the political Left, which has seen the principal threats to the earth as issuing from international capitalism, consumerism and the over-exploitation of natural resources. Green Philosophy shows the fallacies behind that way of thinking, and the danger that it poses to the ecosystems on which we all depend. The book sets out the principles that should govern our efforts to protect the environment. The current environmental movement directs its energies at the bigger picture but fails to see that environmental problems are generated and resolved by ordinary people.
His other recent books are Beauty, OUP (2009) a subject on which he also made a television programme, and I Drink Therefore I Am, Continuum (2010) a philosopher’s guide to drinking and thinking.
James Gray MP (Chair): I’m James Gray, I’m the MP for North Wiltshire and I’ve no reason for being here apart from the fact that I’m Roger’s MP and, I think, rather an old friend as well, which is great and very nice, therefore, to see him here.
Those of you who are not MPs might be surprised by how few MPs there are here. The reason for that is we’ve been on a one-line whip this week. There’s not been one single vote this week which, in my fifteen years in Parliament, I can’t remember ever happening. And when that happens, everyone just goes home and does important things in their constituencies which why they’re not at events such as this. But it’s nice to see one or two colleagues here.
My job is simply to introduce Roger Scruton to you. He, as they say, probably needs little introduction. I asked him just now what to say and he said: just be grateful they let me through security at the front door.
All I think I would say, and you all know his distinguished CV – and if you don’t, I think you have it in front of you – is that he is one of those people who, despite thinking things I can’t even begin to understand, is able to express them in language which even a think person like me can understand. I think some of his writings and works have been remarkably clear even to dummies like Julian Brazier who understands most of what he says. And for that, Roger, I’m extremely grateful. We read your outpourings to the press, in books and elsewhere with glee.
Thank you very much for coming – we’re looking forward to it.
Roger Scruton: Actually, in defence of Julian Brazier, he is the only Member of Parliament I ever come across who has tackled me on the question of Wittgenstein’s private language argument. We did not come to an understanding about it, but still rather remarkable I think.
I’m going to talk very briefly about the book that I’ve just published, ‘Green Philosophy’. The title is not mine but that’s the way things are these days. Publishers retain the right to brand your work according to the principles of the market.
Anyway, it does defend a philosophical position about the environment and about the political questions that have arisen concerning the environment. I suppose, to put it in a nutshell, it’s an attempt to confiscate the environmental agenda from the left. In other words, to put it back where it belongs, which is with the broadly-understood conservative movement, of which our Conservative party is on-and-off – currently rather off – an expression.
The point that I’m trying to put across is that the word conservation and the word conservatism are linked, not just etymologically but also philosophically. Really, properly understood, conservatism has always been about conserving things, conserving those resources which are necessary for the reproduction of society. Some of those resources are social, such as the inheritance of law and institutions. Some of them are economic: the business life and the economic life of the nation. And some of them are natural, and in particular the resources that we now think to be threatened by the environmental problems that everyone is familiar with.
My view is that the environmental movement arises from a subconscious acknowledgement that, in the end, human life is about conserving things and not about obliterating them and putting some new order in the place of them. And the conservative movement in our country and elsewhere has always understood this and has attempted to translate it in to politics, as it has done in the Tory party in Britain.
The question, then, is how do you re-express the environmental problems as problems which confront us from the conservative point of view? And what sort of thinking should be adopted in order to address them? I have to emphasise, obviously, that as a philosopher, it’s the thinking bit that interests me more than the politics, though of course, if the thinking cannot translate in to policy, it’s of no use. It presents an extremely interesting intellectual question.
My view is that, if we look back over the history of the environmental movement, in our country and elsewhere, you will see two very important points. The first is that it’s by no means new. It’s not something that was invented by the green activists in the seventies. It wasn’t the by-product of the loss of confidence of the socialist project or anything like that. The environmental movement in this country began at least in the 17th century with the book ‘The Complete Angler’ by Isaac Walton, of course, but also John Evelyn’s Silva defending the forests against the damage being inflicted on them by their military use and so on. During the 18th century, it had a very different form from the political form it has now. It was much concerned with the maintenance of the picturesque countryside and the translation of that countryside in to permanent images which would be inspiring to the nation.
But by the time of people like Wordsworth and Coleridge, it was a fully active political movement and Wordsworth himself took in active part in preventing the expansion of the railways, from destroying his beloved bits of countryside. His immediate successor and partial disciple Ruskin actually founded the conservation movement in its modern form. And Ruskin recognised something which the environmentalists on the left never seem to acknowledge, which is that the protection of nature requires also the protection of the human habitat, that our habitats are fundamental, not just to our own well-being, but to the well-being of other species and the natural world around us. This means that we must pay attention to how we build, to the shape of our streets, to the form social life that they encourage. We must develop an architecture which is an architecture of settlement rather than of passing on. That was what Ruskin’s defence of the gothic revival was all about. The defence of an architecture of settlement which would not just dignify human life but keep people in the place where they live and keep them happy there. One result of Ruskin’s efforts, of course, is the National Trust, which was founded by Octavia Hill, who was a disciple of Ruskin, in 1890.
1890 was already 120 years earlier than today and yet the founding of the National trust was a clear example of an environmental movement that involved ordinary all across the nation. The National Trust has four million members today. It’s not a government institution, it’s a private charity, civil association if you like, one which involves volunteers whose purpose is not to change the world but to keep it, and to keep it as it should be.
I think that kind of model is something that is completely ignored by the left wing environmental movements that emerged in the seventies and subsequently. Moreover, if you look at the history of socialism and what it has done to the environment, I think you must again feel very sceptical about the way in which people on the left have laid claim to the environmental agenda. My own view of left wing politics, which is a jaundiced, biased and bigoted view, but the nevertheless true, is that the true moral origin of it is resentment. It expressed itself in the 19th century in resentment against property and the private estate, resentment against the family, as you find in writing of Marx and Engels, and the spirit of home and the spirit of dwelling, resentment against the nation, which still exists, and against the middle classes, the NIMBYs, the people who are trying to protect their little backyards, resentment against religion and, in the end, resentment against settlement. And I think you can see this, when left wing politics actually assumes control of things, as in the Soviet example, you can see the environmental damage that follows. The environmental catastrophe of the Soviet Union has been documented, but not completely, but I think most people recognise that there has been nothing like it, with the possible exception of China by way of the irreversible destruction of natural resources and, in particular, the destruction of the human habitat. The cities in which people are forced to dwell or in which they are stacked to fester. I think any impartial view of the history of socialism would endorse my conclusion: that it can’t be the way to protect the environment.
So the real question is: what is the alternative? If you look at some particular examples, one interesting one is the case of the pollution of the English and Welsh rivers. These were, as I’m sure you know, symbolic resources for us. After all, as I said earlier, our environmental movement became conscious of itself with Isaac Walton’s ‘Complete Angler’, his celebration of the purity of the waters of our country and the refreshment to the spirit that can be achieved from sitting by them. Those waters were heavily polluted during the course of the 20th century and, in particular, by the nationalised power industry after the war, to the point that most of the larger ones became dead. There was legislation to control this, to prevent people from polluting the rivers, that people who put stuff in to the rivers which caused damage could be fined under this legislation and, in extreme cases, imprisoned et cetera. But this legislation was to be applied by local authorities who were themselves mostly responsible for the pollution. The pollution came through the local authorities’ disposal of waste and sewage and also through the power industries, which were pouring their surplus products in to the water.
So how was it solved? It was solved by a private initiative of a barrister who was an angler who got the anglers together to fight a case in law, and they discovered a principle of the common law embedded in a 19th century case which gave repairium owners the right to pure water flowing from their neighbours through their land. So they got together suit and got an injunction in equity. An injunction means that the people polluting the river have to stop, otherwise they’re in contempt of court. That’s much better than fining them after the event. It meant that the pollution had to stop immediately and rivers are mostly okay now, as a result of that action.
I took that case as an extremely important one, showing what sort of principles conservatives ought to be thinking about, by way of environmental protection. First of all they should recognise the value of the common law and, in particular, of the doctrines of equity in putting in the hands of the ordinary citizen the ability to stop the big polluters from doing what they want to do, and in particular in giving the ordinary citizen power against the state, which is what was achieved in this particular case, and stopping the pollution that comes from above, so to speak. That was one part of one lesson to be drawn from this. Another lesson to be drawn from it was the value of private ownership, in giving individual people the right to initiate an action in the courts. The anglers were able to initiate these actions by acquiring little stretches of the bank and asserting their right of ownership over the river that flowed through it. And then, of course, another lesson to draw was the fact that people can solve these problems if they combine together, recognise their common interest and assert that common interest against those who are defying it. So these principles seem to me to be obvious, and if you look back across the history of the environmental movement in our country and also in America, which I do in this book, you will see that those principles have been the most effective and the ones that have been most often effectively invoked in the efforts by ordinary people to protect their own environment.
By contrast, the state solutions have been ambiguous at best, at least in this level of treatment of problems, and often the cause of the problem rather than the solution to it. Then I ask the question, well, why is this so and why, in particular, has regulation from above been so ineffective in controlling the environmental problems that most of us are away of now? If you walk around the countryside, you can observe very quickly the plastic pollution, for instance. Why has that not been solved by regulation? Whereas it is solved in much of rural America by volunteers picking the stuff up and ensuring that it is disposed of properly.
I came to the conclusion that part of the problem is that regulation as it has been conceived, and is increasingly conceived now as a result of the European Union, is conceived without corrective devices. People regulate things without opening the possibility of changing the regulations, should they prove counterproductive. We all know about the law of unintended consequences, but when the unintended consequences happen, the regulations are not changed.
An interesting example being the EU regulations that require a professional vet to be present in any slaughterhouse, which is easy to do in Spain because you can get a veterinary qualification after six months and a cash payment, roughly speaking, whereas here it’s seven years battling against an education system determined to defeat you anyway. As a result, our little slaughterhouses all had to close down, as you know. There are just a few big one, to which our cattle have to be transported at great mental to cost to them, and great mental cost to the farmer, who does not like seeing his animals disposed of in that way. But as you know, one result of this was that the last foot and mouth outbreak was carried all across the country because animals have to be carried all across the country in order to be slaughtered. It couldn’t be confined in any one place. There is a huge cost from a stupid regulation, because there’s no proof that that regulation has ever done any good by way of protecting the human food chain. But the regulation is still in place because there’s no mechanism to change it. That’s partly because regulations can only be changed when they are the work of a democratically elected chamber which also has a revising process built in, so that when things go wrong they can change its mind. The mind, so to speak, of the European Union – if one could be entitled to use such a word – can’t be changed.
So there’s a very interesting example, but really, there’s a deeper question, a question of incentive. Our environmental problems exist largely because there are no incentives to solve them, but there are incentives to create them – the incentives that we’re all familiar with from the free rider problems and so on. What incentives could one call upon? So I devote a lot of my book to describing the incentive which I call oikophilia – from the Greek oikos, the home – the love of home, the desire to protect that place where you are settled, the place to which you have an attachment, a loyalty and a transgenerational allegiance. And I believe you can only develop this incentive in the context of the national loyalty and the nation state. And therefore we must move away from that transnational, internationalist approach to environmental problems that the environmentalists have been urging upon us, back towards the kind of motive that is exemplified by Octavia Hall and the National Trust. I think that history shows that that is the only motive that has done any good.
So what do we do about climate change? Climate change, if it exists, it’s a huge problem. We know that studying from geology that climate change has been radical in the past, has led to mass-extinctions, complete change in the nature of our planet and the possibility of finding a human habitat in it, and any such change must be confronted as a serious calamity. So how do we deal with it? I go in to some of the science in my book, but recognise that, really, understanding this problem is beyond me. My evidence for saying its beyond me is largely that it seems to be beyond everyone who has written about it. There is complete confusion as to the sources and the mode argument and the kind of models you should use, but I come to the conclusion that we should at least act on the assumption that pouring greenhouse gases in to the atmosphere cannot but change the temperature of the earth. It may not change it in any easily foreseeable or calculable way, but it isn’t something that we should do with a clear conscience if we can avoid it and therefore anything that can move humankind in another direction towards clean energy should be considered favourably and, if possible, developed in some cooperative way.
But I argue strongly against thinking that we can solve this by the kind of transnational, international treaty that people have been pursuing. Because those treaties are signed without identifying any motive for obeying them. And it’s fine, of course, for democratic governments to sign treaties when their citizens have the ability to hold their governments to the law, but who has the ability to hold the Chinese government to a treaty that it has signed? Nobody identifiable, at least. I feel that these treaties serve a purpose in that they keep these wretched environmentalists trotting around the globe and out of our hair. But they don’t actually produce a result that can lead to a cogent solution. The only cogent solution, I believe, must be a local one and it has to be a scientific one. The ultimate question is a scientific question: how can you produce clean energy in the quantities required by the world’s current population, and by the development of those parts of the world which are clearly going to be developed whether we like it or not? And that is something which is the only really important use of government funding in this area.
Again, this is a huge problem and I’m not an expert, but I know that research in to these areas is made increasingly difficult by the fact that universities, in their pursuit of funds, have a growing disposition to take out patents on everything that they do, rather than pool their results in the international scientific community, each hoping that they will get the solution first and the financial rewards attached to it. This, I think, is extremely negative in the circumstances in which we are now. But that’s another matter.
The climate change problem I recognise is a real problem, but it has to have a local solution. Meanwhile, we are given phoney solutions like the wind farms solution which appeals, in my view, to the same sentiments that were invoked by Lenin when he said that communism means electrification plus the soviets, so that you stick these things right above the charming places where the middle classes live and you can really destroy their comfortable worldview with them. But you don’t do anything by way of solving the energy problem because they don’t produce enough energy and they leave a huge carbon footprint of their own.
That may be controversial, but everything else I’ve said to you is surely not controversial at all.
James Gray MP (Chair): It isn’t, Roger. Thank you very much indeed.
Every time I hear you speaking, Roger, or read what you’ve said, I find it impossible to imagine either why people might not understand it, or indeed why people might not agree with it. It seems to me to be both extremely clear and extremely right, including what you’ve said about wind farms.
Can I just ask the first question, if I may, and I’ll leave you to perhaps catch my eye after that.
Incidentally, I was part of the 101 MPs who wrote to the Prime Minister to say don’t do wind farms, so you’ll be pleased to hear that, so I can rely on your vote in the next election.
Roger Scruton: Well there’s no alternative, that’s the trouble.
James Gray MP (Chair): But if there were, you might consider it, but there we are.
You didn’t take use one step further and say that if indeed we don’t like onshore wind, what is your view of nuclear?
Roger Scruton: I take the view that nuclear power is a very important temporary measure. The French have accepted this and indeed the Germans really have because they’ve got rid of their own nuclear stations, only to plug in to the French grid. There are problems – I’m not too worried about the possibility of meltdowns and so on. I think one can safeguard against that. There is the problem of terrorism, but there is also the problem that uranium is in finite supply and there is a huge energy cost in extracting it, so that it can’t be other than perhaps a hundred years solution at best. But I agree that, for the time being, that is the solution that I would favour. Meanwhile, one has to work on the business of concentrating solar energy in such a way that it can be transported.
Davis Lewin: Can I encourage you to say a few words about the green movement as it exists, the movement that you’re critiquing. Presumably you have some interesting thoughts about how we got here in terms of some of these quite abstract and unrelated motivations that seem to be pushing the human need much more than, in some cases, a sort of energy need.
Roger Scruton: Yes. I think you’re right, there are deep psychological factors involved. There is a human need to protest, which we all share, in respect of those things about which we feel powerless. We all feel powerless in the face of death, and people do protest about it, and one function of religion is to contain that protest. I think the environment has this capacity to evoke those emotions because it seems such a huge question and it’s very obvious that other people are involved in polluting the environment and we feel powerless against them. We feel powerless against the big things as well, and the environmental problems – if you pin them on the door of multinationals and other impersonal-seeming giants – then this emotion of powerlessness, Ohnmacht, as Schalo called it, is evoked and you want to do something violent against it. And I think that has been part of what has fed in to the environmental movement. Though it’s not all of it, because as I say, if you look back before our time, you fine a peaceable environmental movement of well-mannered Victorian ladies knocking on peoples’ doors, telling them to behave a bit better.
James Gray MP (Chair): If you’d like to tell us your name and so on as you ask your question.
Questioner 1: My name is Alan Milton, I’m here in a private capacity. I’d just like to ask two questions. The first is, why do you think that governments have responded in the ways that they have, almost across the world, to the environmental lobby or lobbies? And secondly, possibly more particular to our own government, what do you see as the role, if any, of subsidies in distorting markets in order to encourage a particular outcome?
Roger Scruton: Those are very important questions. I think governments have responded to the environmental movement for two reasons. One is that I think it’s impossible to deny that there is a problem. Forget about climate change – if you look at the depletion of the oceans, for instance, what has happened to fish generally, and if you look at deforestation of Africa and South America, I think most people would say, look, this is alarming, we ought to be able to do something about it, or at least we ought to consider it. So I think the governments have responded, especially democratic governments, because people feel this to be a real human problem. And I think democratic governments do respond to real human problems. Of course, the communist governments in the old days didn’t respond, and that was a very remarkable feature of them, that they went on dumping nuclear waste in to rivers without caring.
That’s part of it. I also think that anybody who makes an awful lot of noise can attract the attention of governments today more easily than people who don’t make a lot of noise. The Secular Society, which recently achieved the result of banning prayers in local councils, has 7,000 members. It’s less, apparently, than the Sausage Appreciation Society. But nevertheless, the Sausage Appreciation Society has never wanted to make any noise. So there is that problem.
About the distortions introduced by subsidies and the distortions in the market, I think this has been extremely important in environmental matters, in particular the Common Agricultural Policy, which has subsidised agricultural land, has pushed up the rental value of land enormously, and is a very wonderful example of the law of unintended consequences. The Common Agricultural Policy was there to protect the small farmer, who was the symbol of European identity after the war, the person who had gone on and kept us going, so these subsidies were given to him. But, of course, by pushing up the rental value of land, it meant that he couldn’t afford to farm anymore and so it accelerated the expansion of agri-business, so that now under the Common Agricultural Policy, I think the bottom 50% of farmers only get 2% of that subsidy and the top 10% get most of the rest. Agri-business is an environmental problem because it produces monoculture, which destroys wildlife, it has led to the stripping of hedgerows and covers, etcetera, across Europe. Now they’ve changed the policy so as to subsidise environmental schemes instead, but there’s no evidence that distorting the market in another direction, it won’t have the same kind of unintended consequences.
So I think you’re absolutely right that subsidies are a way of confiscating a problem from the people who could solve it.
James Gray MP (Chair): The gentleman over behind, and then you.
Questioner 2: Thank you very much, Professor Scruton, for a very lucid talk. It seems that there is a flaw in your historical evidence [unintelligible]. If you go back to the 18th, 19th and 17th centuries, and you praise the local, but then people of course only knew the local, but we very much live in the transnational, and it seems to me that is the problem with your concept of love of home. I can assure you that the evidence of today is that people do care about the human habitat and about nature of distant places. People do care for the animals that are suffering [unintelligible]. People do care that there are floods in Pakistan which have made tens of millions of people homeless. They even care in China about that. I’m not sure that your distinction between communist dictatorships and democratic governments works in that context. People do care about the transnational today. Therefore the fact that the local played such a role in the environmental protest in the past, I don’t think it’s so relevant. [unintelligible]. And surely if people do care about transnational events and the destruction of the human habitat, if people see people living as in those extraordinary photos from Pakistan, their entire village under water, and think “that could happen to my home”, then they will care, wherever in the world they are. And transnational action therefore [unintelligible].
Roger Scruton: I think this is an important observation. I think one has to distinguish two things from that you’re saying. One is that people care about other places, which of course they do, and the observation that people actually try to protect other places, which they don’t. Of course, if somebody steps in and says, give me your money and I will immediately restore that village in Pakistan, then they might very well give them the money. It’s likely to disappear before it gets to that village, though, as we know from the attempts to help people in Africa. I got an email from somebody just two-three days ago, who is running a scheme in Kenya, a local scheme to plant trees to try and counteract the deforestation of his country. He says, can I advise as to where I can find the funds to pay for the saplings? I thought, that’s terrific. There is somebody who is actually living there, doing something to protect his own home. That is the first positive thing I’ve ever heard about the environmental protection of Kenya. Lots of our money goes to Kenya for environmental protection, but we’ve never had any evidence that there are results from it. I think that, without the local incentives, these transnational sentiments don’t, as it were, touch the ground. So we still have to recognise that locality is what it’s all about.
Questioner 3: My name is Nick Darlington, I’m from the Tory Reform Group. In a previous book you wrote, “I Drink, Therefore I Am”, you said that just by consuming wine you can think better and more differently about the world around, and about wine itself I think. Do you think that also, perhaps, by consuming nature directly, you can think better about the world around you and about nature? All over the world people are gradually moving away from nature to the cities, we are losing the way to think about and consume nature the way you endorse in your book.
RS: I think there is of course a loss of contact with the natural world which is bound to have deleterious consequences on peoples’ understanding of how sensitive the environment is, that things are organically connected and cannot be torn apart and disaggregated in the way that they are being. In my book on wine I advocate the drinking of wine rather as an alternative to travel. I do accept what the environmentalists say about air transportation and I do think we shouldn’t be trotting around the globe all the time to amuse ourselves. My view is, I am a terrorist when it comes to wine; I think that you should sit there thinking that you are now, spiritually at least, in a little vineyard in Burgundy – and you’ve had your holiday. I think landscape painting did a lot of good in that respect in the 18th century. They could put it on the walls of their house and realize that there is the natural world you don’t need to go out and stomp all over it.
MP: If you ever get an invitation to go to Roger’s house for lunch or dinner, accept it because you will have some of the finest wines. In contrast, never ask him back because whatever you offer him will never be up to those standards.
Questioner 4: [inaudible]
RS: I think this is a very important question, and I don’t address it in the book I fear, except by implicating that the Napoleonic top-down system is a major environmental problem. It puts in the hands of local authorities and bureaucrats the ability to confiscate property for their own purposes without confronting these environmental questions. Despite the fact that France is far less densely populated than England, in fact I think one-tenth the density of England, you see the mutilations of the countryside there that has resulted from these eminent domain confiscations, very vividly when you travel through it. I would say that nevertheless there have been these strong movements there as well and I cannot sufficiently give an account of how successful they have been, but people campaign strongly at the local level in France about environmental things. It would be an interesting research project to see how successful it is. There was one very important thing that happened during the Revolution – the declaration that the Royal Forests henceforth were public property. They didn’t belong to the King anymore and had to be maintained for the public good. The right of the ordinary people to walk there and hunt there is guaranteed eternally, so the fantastic right that we have just abolished, with the first one granted at the revolution. I think that has done an immense lot of good to the environment in Paris.
Questioner 5: James Kidner, director of an educational foundation called Coexist, and I want to focus on the focus on some issues and the insufficient attention on others. Let me bring up the moral questions here: you said that the international treaties didn’t really produce solutions, and I completely buy into that, but you said that they needed to be scientific and local. I think we all interpret it that some of these issues can’t be tackled on a local basis. I am intrigued that you haven’t mentioned the role of religion in the social code of the time, there is something that has all the aspects of a modern religious movement. Can you tease out that little bit?
RS: I think this is very interesting that obviously it is difficult to talk about it without saying things that some people could find offensive. There is no doubt in my mind that human beings are religious creatures. They have a need to see the world in absolute terms and see their lives as part of a larger scheme of things. The fear of death is constantly coming back to them and these millenarian panics automatically spark off the religious need. Maybe that has fed into the environmental movement. But then I think once you look at what religion itself, the contributions it might have made to environmental understanding, it is difficult to give an absolute view on this, but the concept of stewardship is introduced in the very first book of the Hebrew Bible, in the story of the Garden of Eden. That image of the Garden of Eden has remained in our consciousness partly as a result of a religious education right through all the worst times of our history and was of course made into the fundamental episode of our greatest poem, by Milton, in the middle of the terrible conflicts of the 17th century. I think that that image has been extremely important in holding people to the accountability of the state of the earth. I think you find similar things in Hinduism as well. I would say the most oyciphile of all religions, if it is a religion, is Confucianism. The destruction of the Chinese environment came hand in hand with the destruction of Confucianism by Mao Ze Tung. A proper religion is actually a very good protective device, but these substitute millenarian religions can be very destructive, like Communism.
Questioner 6: How do you conquer the phenomenon of ‘Jellybyism’
RS: Like Mrs. Jellyby from Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, who devotes all of her energy to the people of Africa but neglects her 12 children. Human weaknesses are of many kinds and this is only one of them. Of course it is true that it is easier to wash your conscious clean by doing things for a distant people in distant lands whom you know nothing, and the result is, in a way, so that you don’t have to know if you are doing any good or not. This touches on a sore point, on socialism generally; often it involves spending other peoples’ money on causes whose results you never investigate. Real charity begins at home because it begins with those people you come across and need your help, like your own children. There are two readings of this parable of the good Samaritan, both of which are very persuasive. One says that really what Christ was saying was that moral laws applies equally to everyone, regardless of ethnicity, religion, etc. You must not make distinctions and discriminate and therefore you must be a sort of cosmopolitan, which encourages the Mrs. Jellyby’s of this world. The other interpretation, equally valid, is that the moral law obliges you to help that person you come across – he is your neighbour. It is focusing on the particular person that needs you rather than the universal humanity which of course needs you but you can’t do anything about. I think in all human beings there are both of these tendencies and you do not want to extinguish either, but Mrs. Jellyby has emphasized one at the cost of the other.
Questioner 7: I was just wondering what you thought about how well the current government has done about emphasizing local solutions to these types of problems, and are there any specific areas of improvement that you would identify.
RS: Well I think most people in this room would recognize that it is very easy to posture as the friend of the environment but it is often hard when you are in government because it means taking government time and public resources from things that people immediately care about and putting them to long term use. I don’t see that a great deal has happened, James may correct me (I might be quite wrong). In opposition, for instance, conservatives are always complaining about health and safety regulations – which are an environmental catastrophe. But when they are in power they don’t do the obvious thing and say there shall be none. It is a simple solution that wouldn’t cost anybody anything; there would be a few people that would fall to their death here and there but nothing serious. It is true that it is very difficult to know what to do. You are encouraging a volunteer society, that’s what the Big Society slogan means, people getting together to solve their problems. You can’t say that you can’t volunteer – you can’t make this easily into a government policy.
Questioner 7 (same as above): Is there a kind of deeper social revolution that needs to happen to get people to want to do that on an individual basis rather than being told to do it?
RS: It is a cultural thing of course and we inherited that culture. In America that culture has not been destroyed. The more people think that it is the state’s responsibility to do something, the less they will do it. We see this with the cleaning up of verges, this used to be something the communities did themselves. And now that the council has taken it over, it is not done. There are lots of examples like that of which people could do themselves. The planning reforms that the government has considered, although there are dangerous parts of them, the original intention was to put control in the hands of local communities, the ability to determine what goes on in their immediate environment. I think that is an important initiative, and the criticisms that have been made have largely to do with the fact that there are not enough safeguards to prevent the developers adversely exploiting – but that is a different question.
MP: To answer your question on the difference between opposition and government, I think in opposition you can posture and sloganize but in government you have to convert that into everyday decisions. I suspect, to a degree, that that is also a difference between the left and the right – the left tend to come up with clever notions about things but the right tend to actually do it.
Questioner 8: You touch on the issue of stewardship, how do stewardships really work – do they depend on private ownership?
RS: I think this is the most important point – that certainly the record of state ownership in environmental ownership is extremely bad, not just from the communist experience but from the experience of state-owned industry in Europe. The private ownership something of course gives a person a motive to protect it. But a right of ownership is also a duty – there is a duty to those who don’t own it not to use in ways that would spoil their environment. Once one has got a system of private property rights, it becomes perfectly coherent to settle the question how things should be used. That is what we have done in this country with our planning law. You have a right to own your house, but not a right that extinguishes your obligation to your neighbours not to offend them in the way that you use it. This has been taken very far in our country with quite strict aesthetic requirements. I cannot build in brick on my house; I can only build in stone and so on. We all feel that that is fair enough. The real difficulties come about in cases like the seas and so on where there is no clear ownership. There has been a lot of interesting work on solutions to these problems of seemingly un-owned things, in particular Elinor Ostrom got a Noble Prize on these small scale solutions to common ownership problems and the solution of the tragedy of the commons as it’s known. She develops this very well, in a manner in which has been upheld by the English law of trusts. Some things you think you own, you actually hold in trusts for others. There are ways of solving environmental problems like the problem of river pollution that fundamentally depend on these two things: private ownership on one hand and the law of trusts on the other. I think that if one could extend these solutions to the ocean that would be fantastic. In Norway, the fisherman have done this over a hundred years of actually a cooperative way of assigning property rights to the breeding grounds of the local cod. It is why the only remaining cod you will get in your supermarket comes from Norway. You won’t find it in the North Sea which was pillaged by the common fisherman policy which is not a form of private ownership.
Questioner 9: I think what links all of Elinor’s examples of local solutions to problems, is that you either have an approximate factor in terms of tying what is going on, location of what is going on, or proximity of the solution. How could you appeal to a local solution where the implications for people in other countries that aren’t born yet, and most importantly the solutions may not be in your own jurisdiction? For example, in the UK, when we are thinking about climate change, the biggest challenge is how to encourage people in China…
RS: I agree. I do consider this question in the book and recognize that you can’t solve these problems in Elinor’s way, but you can is develop locally a solution and then make it available. There is no evidence that solutions of this kind of scientific complexity are going to come out of China. Nothing has ever come out of China; although very much has gone in. Once the thing is invented, the Chinese get to work on improving it. Let us hope that this sort of thing could happen. When somebody discovers cheap energy that is also clean, and can be made available for free around the globe, that will happen and it is the only conceivable solution. You have to remember though that climate change is not only anthropogenic. It could be that we are in for some terrible climate change that is not due to overconsumption of energy but is due to sunspots or orbital nature of the earth and so on. In that case, what do we do? This is where prayer is the only known solution, but there are questions like that. But also human beings do have to be reconciled that their tenure on this earth is short. Whatever happens, the sun eventually is going to go, it will expand then contract into a red dwarf, taking with it the works of Shakespeare and Michelangelo. We did it, we managed Shakespeare and Michelangelo before it happened.
MP: Thank you very much Roger indeed. Never before have I heard a speaker in the same speech say well if you die, tough luck and that the entire works of Michelangelo and Shakespeare will be destroyed. Thank you very much also for the notion that the left have a monopoly on green and environmentalism is absurd and it is very important the right should retain some part of it. The book, I hope everyone will buy it; if you cannot afford it, go into your local library and demand that they get a copy as quick as possible. In which case large numbers will be sold – it is also very environmental because that means it can be read by lots of people. Thank you very much for coming.