Green Philosophy

March 13, 2012

Today the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton is giving a talk at Policy exchange about his new book, “Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet”. The title itself is an interesting challenge to environmental philosophers – thinking about the planet is, in itself, impossible; forming a judgement about the billions of separate inputs, parameters and indeed lives that comprise our world cannot be done in same way as we decide whether to kill the fat man. We cannot accommodate planet-wide problems within the rather limited confines of our thought processes, outwith analyses of serried ranks of numbers that are not amenable to our normal moral intuitions.

Yet, the very nature of climate change means that we are forced to consider the moral issues around planet-wide problems and to make judgements about them. Such judgements may, if we are not careful, degrade into mere social signifiers – e.g. “I do my recycling to demonstrate that I am morally good”, without any broader consideration of the issue to hand. The macro scale of the decisions to be made around preventing climate change – decisions iterated across billions of people and across decades of time – means that the judgement of ‘We should do something about climate change’ will not be made by any one person at any one point, but rather through the aggregate of the choices made by everyone in the years past and the years to come.

Therefore, in considering environmental philosophy, one does not consider any particular decision but rather one’s character, which gives rise to the decisions one makes. We should consider what virtues we can cultivate that make us more likely to undertake the ecologically correct action in any given situation. In this context, Scruton advocates that we should cultivate a virtue he calls oikophilia’. This is not, as one might assume, a reiteration of Cameron’s call to ‘hug a hoodie’, but rather refers to a love of home and community, and comes from the greek word ‘oiko’, meaning house. This is contrasted with a lack of this virtue – ‘oikophobia’, which as Jonathan Ree points out, it is difficult to imagine anyone actually possessing.

Scruton’s argument for this virtue is that it motivates; people do genuinely care about their environment inasmuch as it constitutes the framework that enables their community and home to exist. Oikophilia, when cultivated, motivates one to act in stewardship of one’s community, with the environmental protections that entails. Of course, this limits judgements made in the pursuit of environmental protection to those that do not disturb one’s understanding of one’s own community, as evidenced by Scruton’s statement: “Why care for the environment, if the price of doing so is the loss of an environment that you could care for?” The virtue cannot be self-defeating; one cannot destroy one’s motivation for following it through decisions arising from it.

Scruton calls this virtue conservative. However, it has a surprising level of similarity to, if one were being kind, one could describe as the ‘neo-peasantry’ advocated by the likes of the New Economics Foundation, and with the kind of embedded social networks discussed by Karl Polanyi. Indeed, it makes for odd bedfellows with Scruton’s commitment to free markets; if I am committed to my community, why should I buy goods from people who live beyond it? Why should I accept ownership of anything in my community by someone who lives outwith it? Even more broadly, why should I accept incomers into my community from outside?

This confusion has arisen because Scruton has failed to realise that the partner ‘vice’ to his virtue is not ‘oikophobia’ – as mentioned above, it is difficult to think of anyone who hates their own homes – but rather ‘biophilia’, the love of all life regardless of its connection to your community or, indeed, yourself. Scruton has recognised a rather basic psychological truth, which is that our intuitive moral concern does diminish with distance from the self, and attempted to harness this effect to motivate pro-environmental judgements. Oikophilia is not a virtue so much as a base state of mankind; one hardly needs to go round the world to identify that mankind is adept at organising itself into communities. Even in our great cities, communities exist: they merely overlap and coexist in the same space as each other; witness this description of a community forming around the use of Twitter during Question Time. While oikohilia can motivate environmental protection, it will necessarily do so in a way in which puts the protection of the aspects and parts of the environment of most meaning to that community over and above that of other communities. Scruton clearly recognises this tendency:

“Environmental degradation has one cause above all others: the propensity of human beings to take the benefit and leave the costs to someone else, preferably someone far away in space or time, whose protests can be safely ignored.”

However, he fails to realise that it is the partner of the virtue he advocates. Oikophilia can, and has been, harnessed in the cause of local environmental protection, but only incidentally in the cause of global action. Scruton rejects any imposition on communities from outside of, for example, a penalty on the use of fossil fuels, but simultaneously claims that those communities will accept that cost if it is imposed by themselves, even when the actual ‘cost’ of fossil fuels will, in all likelihood, not fall on that community for many years. There is no rational reason for a community of oikophiles to accept a cost that will fall on other people, and Scruton does not seem to provide one.

A true Green philosophy is to cultivate the virtue of biophilia, to possess a love of all life powerful enough to impose costs upon oneself in proportion to the costs of climate change across the planet, not simply their likely impact upon one’s community. Scruton’s rather narrow variant of this will do nothing beyond hand his fellow conservatives the justification to reject any remedy they dislike. Which may, perhaps, be the point.