Roger Scruton: “Activate the right motives of people”

In January 2012, Sir Roger Scruton gave a conference about his book: “Green Philosophy: How to think seriously about the planet” (Atlantic Books, 2012). The talk was hosted in London by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).

In the below extract of the talk, the speaker discusses environmental consciousness with host Matthew Taylor (13’ video). With the kind permission of the RSA, we publish a transcription of the conversation, with slight edits intended at readability. Full audio recording (47’) may also be downloaded, including audience Q&A.

Roger Scruton. I suppose I’ve always been somebody with a keen environmental consciousness. I was brought up in a socialist household and by a father for whom the human habitat was the principal problem of the day. He looked with dismay on the advance of the sixties styles in architecture, and in particular on the destruction of his town by the planners and by the local council then in the hands of the Conservative Party, which was in turn in the hands of the builders and the developers.

We all know this problem. We in England perhaps have a better track record than most of resisting this kind of destruction of the human habitats which we’ve seen expanding across our country since the last war. Just about every town which has anything worth conserving in it has a local conservation society. My father indeed established such a thing in High Wycombe, the town where we lived. He regarded this as absolutely fundamental to the socialist cause that really in defending his historic settlement and the beautiful streets and facades that had been built in it, he was actually just defending the people against the exploiters: the people who were doing the damage with a great development companies coming from elsewhere, not people who lived in this environment, but people who exploited it for their own commercial purposes, and of course likewise the Conservative Party for him was an instrument of these malign forces, one which they could use to manipulate the law and the social opportunities from the top. At the time, I agreed with him about that.

I don’t agree with him anymore but I did inherit from his activism this thought that the human habitat is every bit as important as any other habitat that we might protect. And indeed the protection of nature makes no sense if we don’t at the same time also conserve the viable settlements in which people can make a home and take an interest in their surroundings because those surroundings are both home-like and beautiful. So this planted in me another conception of what environmental activism really would be, that it perhaps shouldn’t be conducted at the high level of national and certainly not international politics but rather at the local level in which people protect things that they know and love, things which are necessary for their life and which will elicit in them the kind of disposition to make sacrifices, which is after all what it is all about.

There is an approach which we have seen adopted and advocated by some of the big NGOs in our time and by the environmental movement on the continent, which believes that really, these questions are so big that once we’ve defined them, we can only solve them by rearranging the world. And we can only rearrange the world if we have, as it were, a new plan for living, a new plan which has to be agreed among the nations, in treaties in which we all participate, and then imposed through the law as a central solution to the great problem that concerns us all. It’s not just that plans go wrong, it’s that plans also depend upon information that comes to the planner from the activities of ordinary people. We have seen many environmentally interesting plans imposed upon people which have gone wrong for this reason.

Environmental questions have settled on regular forum which has been called the Tragedy of the Commons, a very well known article written by Garrett Hardin, and according to whom environmental problems arise when there is a common resource to which nobody has a specific entitlement, and in order to ensure maximum share, each person goes and grabs as much as possible. One solution, if it can be managed, is private ownership. If there is a person who actually has the right to exclude others from this resource so it is no longer common, then of course it is no longer subject to this tragedy. But that is not the way we want to go because after all we can’t privatize everything, and in any case, we can’t trust necessarily the person into whose hands it is privatized. But there have been historically many attempts at establishing forms of common right and common ownership which do solve these environmental problems. A very good example is that of the Lofoten Fisheries in Norway until it was nationalized at least, in which a community of fishermen over a period of a hundred years managed the fish breeding stocks around the islands in such a way as to be a renewable resource. Then it was never overfished. They shared the rights to it and there was a procedure of legal rights and ways of resolving conflicts, which led to producing cod right down to a sustainable level. Our coastal fisheries were like this until we were compelled to join the European Common Fisheries Policy, which has introduced this tragedy of the commons, not only around our southern coast but all across the North Sea.

And this tragedy arises as one case of a more general problem, which is that people externalize their costs. If you can take the profit from something but pass on the cost to someone else, then if you’re a rational being according to the normal models of rational conduct, that’s what you will do. I would argue that market solutions are the right solutions only if the actors in the market actually pay the cost of what they do, and our environmental problems come because people don’t pay the cost. They passed them on to future generations. And we see this in particular with the hidden subsidies that have made supermarkets so much more able to deal with with the modern economy than their local competitors. Supermarkets can easily undercut a local economy but they do so only because their costs have been externalized, or a large number of their costs have been externalized in a way that the local shopkeeper cannot.

So what is the answer? I argue that we need to discover in people the kind of motive which enables them to confront these problems for themselves, to do the kind of thing that my father did, and that all the people who were animated by him, in other words to settle in a place and defend it as your home.

In the case of climate change, we have been bombarded not only with noisy descriptions of what the problem is and what it will amount to, but also so-called solutions which were impossible to implement, like international treaties that we’re all supposed to sign up to, even though most states don’t have a motive to obey them. And also most of the states who would sign the treaties don’t have a rule of law which would enable their citizens to enforce it.

That kind of distraction has led to us thinking, to ordinary people at least: “This problem is insoluble, I am going to turn away from it.” So I think that that we’ve been bombarded with unreal solutions and that we ought to start again from the bottom and work out just how we could solve any kind of environmental problem and try and project the solution upwards to the big problems that frighten us. (…)

Matthew Taylor. Cultural Theory suggests, as you know, four basic dispositions towards a problem:

  • The hierarchical disposition which is to say this will be solved by people in authority making plans. Whether that’s the private sector or the state sector or whatever, it is authority strategy planning.
  • The individualistic view which will say: “Well, no, it will be individual ingenuity, it will be science, technology, markets, inventions. Human beings have solved problems in the past, they’ll solve problems in the future.”
  • Egalitarism, which says it’s really about us becoming vegetarians, turning down the heating, wearing jumpers and changing the way we think about the world and its satisfactions.
  • Fatalism, which says: “No, I don’t do anything until the water is lapping around out next, so I’m gonna watch TV.”

I think Cultural Theory would argue you need clumsy solutions, you need solutions which take all of these elements of the solution and develop things which tap into all of these motives. And you’re quite right cultural theorists attack Kyoto because they say this is an egalitarian and hierarchical solution. It assumes that people are nice and it says governments will make them do the right thing. It discounts individualism and fatalism in that way. But is there a danger in your book that you’re overstating this dichotomy that you’re suggesting that only the kind of bottom-up solution will work.

Roger Scruton. Yes, you’re absolutely right that there is a danger. My main concern was to present the complexity of the problem, so that one realizes that there aren’t necessarily simple solutions that can be discovered and imposed, that the real solutions emerge. But the real solutions will only emerge if we activate the right motives of people. That’s what I feel has been left out of account. People have not asked themselves the question of what leads people to protect their environment at all in the first place. (…)

Matthew Taylor. It isn’t so much that our attitudes have changed, but the ways that we live have changed. Is it the footloose fast-moving nature of modernity which undermines these values?

Roger Scruton. Footloose people can also, as it were, come home. I’m a great believer in the Hegelian dialectic which tells us that we begin from a state of immersion and inclusion and surrounded by things that love us and protect us. And we burst these chains asunder in order to affirm our right to be the obnoxious thing that we are. And yet, at a certain stage, love intervenes again and imprisons us. And we gradually come back and repossess the world as a home, instead of as a place where we are simply pursuing our own advantage. You see that in your own life, you see it in people around you. The great problem in modernity is not that this process has been extinguished, it’s that too much emphasis is placed on that middle bit. (…)

Matthew Taylor. When I look at local environmental groups, transition towns, … I was in Todmorden recently, there was this fantastic project called “Incredible Edible Todmorden” where they go around planting herbs and vegetables and fruit trees in local public spaces. It’s fantastic projects, but if I asked those people about their politics, they would all say: “We are going to smash the multinationals, we need to elect a left-wing government that is going to impose regulation…” They wouldn’t share your broader worldview, so even the people whose activism you favor also believe in some of the actions which you think tend to be counterproductive.

Roger Scruton. If you look at it in its true historical complexity, you realize that these small-scale activist associations have not always been activated in this radical anti-capitalist way. Think of the Women’s Institute, which in our part of the world has been a major player in reviving the local group food economy, and supporting farmers in justice activity. Well think of the National Trust: four million members. It’s completely deeply a non-political organization and people join it because they think it’s wonderful that the countryside is being protected.