The external costs of our mass consumption, once safely out of sight and mind, are now spilling back onto ourselves.
So what does the philosopher of the right consider the most urgent political problem of our age?
In his 2012 book, Green Philosophy, Roger Scruton writes that conservatism can address environmental issues more effectively than either liberalism or socialism. According to Scruton, the “crucial figure” in any “sensible environmental philosophy” is Edmund Burke, “who recognized that there couldn’t be anything like a political order which didn’t identify a first person plural.”
He writes: “Burke took the view that society is an association of the dead, the living and the unborn and this carries a precious hint as to how the responsibility for future generations arises. It arises, on Burke’s view, at least, from love. And love directed towards what is unknown must arise from what is known. The future is not known. Nor are the people who will inhabit it. But the past is known. And the dead, our dead, are still the objects of love and veneration. It is by expending on them some part of our care, Burke believed, that we care also for the unborn, for we plant in our hearts the trans-generational view of society that is the best guarantee that we will moderate our present appetites in the interest of those who are yet to be.”
To create a Burkean “we” robust enough to protect our rivers, forests, oceans and air, humans must — at least in part — transcend our tendency for rational egoism, says Scruton.
The human urge to get while the getting is good regardless of externalities can only be effectively tempered by what Scruton calls oikophilia (from the Greek oikos, meaning “household”). This love of home, love of locality, love of family and, ultimately, the love of the nation is, in the Scrutonian worldview, a necessary motivation for successful care of the environment: “This is what I think is the most dangerous part of our current environmental crisis: people have used it as an excuse to turn their attention away from the things that they know and love, towards great global schemes, towards treaties to be signed by everybody and towards business on the global scale. That is not just futile in itself, but it’s also taking our attention away from the things that we know how to deal with.’
In other words, when environmental problem-solving is taken out of the hands of individuals and communities and placed into the hands of large, abstract governing bodies like government bureaucracies or NGOs, the oikophilic motivation, this love of the home, is lost. Scruton argues that oikophilia is also damaged by uglification, a word created by Lewis Carroll for Through the Looking-Glass and resuscitated by Czech author Milan Kundera. Kundera uses the term to describe an increasingly apparent feature of our rational egoist world: “By discarding our waste everywhere, by leaving behind us a trail of the things that we don’t want, we uglify our environment, so that others are alienated from it too.”
Consume. Discard. Uglify.
Roger Scruton knows — perhaps as well as any other conservative thinker — that this vicious cycle has caught up to us. The external costs of our mass consumption, once safely out of sight and mind, are now spilling back onto ourselves.
“Rather than shivering in the cold,” Scruton once wrote, “modern man [sic] has preferred to set the house on fire and dance for a moment in the final conflagration.”
But to douse this flame and start saving our planet, we’ve got to first think very seriously about what ”we“ really means to us.
— Anthony Halley is a Vancouver based writer and former policy analyst at the OECD.
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