Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Bit of Green for Red Staters

This recent Roger Scruton essay, which articulates a conservative case for conservation, has just been published by "The American Conservative." The article is based on a lecture delivered at Georgetown University which was hosted by "The Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy," an initiative aimed at preserving classical liberal education (anyone who thinks higher education is in good shape should check my previous post). I began the program last year and serve as its current Director; Roger Scruton was one of the many very fine guests whom we hosted during the last academic year. Scruton is one of our best conservatives - in the true meaning of that term - less invested than many American counterparts in the electoral success of the Republican party, and more interested in the permanent things that lie at the heart of what deserves conserving. In this essay - originally delivered at Georgetown under the title "Conservatism as Conservation" - Scruton explores the rightful conservative claim to a movement often mistakenly attributed to the Left.

Scruton masterfully lays out the collective action problem involved in engaging in proper stewardship: in modern free-market liberal democracies, we have developed very bad habits of short term thinking, particularly in our thoughtless "externalization of costs" to future generations. He argues:

The real cause of the environmental problems we face is not so much large private enterprises or the pursuit of profit or even capitalism as such. It is the habit we all have of externalizing our costs. Consider air travel. If somebody offers you cheap flights, you will take them rather than the more expensive flights offered by a company that puts some of its profits into rectifying the environmental damage caused by airplanes. This is human nature: we try to ignore the damage done by our unnecessary journeys by air if someone else bears the cost of them.

Similarly, suburbanization forces millions to go to work in cars everyday when they might have been walking. It requires vast acreages of the countryside to be covered with buildings and roads, destroying natural ecosystems. Yet it goes ahead because it is something that people want, and the cost can be easily externalized onto other generations or people in other parts of the world.

Then there is nondegradable packaging. Those who live in cities don’t see the effect of this because street-cleaners gather it up and push it into landfill sites. But in the countryside, where trash blows around unpursued, you see it in every yard—a plastic bottle or a piece of packaging—and you can foretell that since these bits of rubbish are immortal, one day the entire world will be covered with a layer of plastic, and there will be no life beneath it.

Normally, if someone tries to force another person to bear the cost of his own misdemeanors, that other person retaliates, either by filing a lawsuit or by throwing the rubbish back over the fence. This conflict immediately opens the way to political solutions. If two people are in conflict, and if they have been brought up in a democratic culture, they will recognize that the best way to solve their problem is through a sustainable compromise rather than a lawsuit or a shootout....

There is a deeper problem, however, that politics cannot, in itself, address. Political solutions represent agreements among the living, but our real problems are transgenerational. At present, we are externalizing our costs not to people who can complain but to unborn people who can’t. Democratic politics, Burke and Chesterton pointed out, has an inbuilt tendency to disenfranchise the unborn and the dead.


Scruton concludes:

What then is the conservative solution, if there is one? A revival of trusteeship is the only hope for the future, and this attitude is natural to human beings. They enter the world through no choice of their own, to be greeted, as a rule, by the love of parents and the security of home. The trustee is the one who recognizes that his home, and all that it means, are inherited things, things to be safeguarded and passed on. This attitude exercises itself at the local level in the voluntary associations and small institutions of civil society. It is the core component in that associational genius that Tocqueville discerned in the American people. It is the legacy of a political order that regards people, not rulers, as the source of authority and the fount of responsible decision-making.

Environmental movements on the Left seldom pause to consider the question of human motivation. It is so clear to them that something must be done that they leap to the conclusion that it must be done by state power and imposed by law. The problem with that approach is that it makes mistakes into permanent legacies and provides no incentive to ordinary citizens to do what they are told. Conservatives, on the whole, are more respectful of human nature and will recognize in the attitude of trusteeship a feeling to which we automatically tend, when given the freedom to exercise it.


Human nature - manifested in our love and care for our children - rightly translates itself into a more expansive care for the world into which we are born, which we did not create, and which we hope to leave in good condition to future generations, as stewardship rightly demands. That is, human nature rightly sees itself as part of, and therefore responsible for, nature writ large. Read the whole essay, for a necessary reminder that at the heart of conservatism lies the duty to conserve.

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