Environmental protection begins at home

Sustainability and Environment
Monday, September 24, 2012
Roger Scruton

The Labour Party is a party of causes, and during the years of New Labour the environment attracted the attention of the latest activist class.

When politics is defined by activists, however, it is in great danger of becoming one-sided, and also of making the problems conform to the solutions, rather than the other way round. This is what has happened with the environmental question, which has been simplified into the single issue of climate change, and provided with a single solution, which is clean energy. And - as is so often the case - the solution is made maximally visible, in the form of wind farms that mutilate the countryside, and solar panels plastered across the towns.

I am not a climate-change denier, nor do I doubt the need for clean energy. However, I am deeply opposed both to one-dimensional thinking and to purely symbolic solutions. To spend all our concern for the environment on the one issue of climate change is to ignore the many other matters about which we are far better placed to act - for instance, plastic pollution, species decline, the loss of habitat, urban sprawl and the decline of the local food economy.

Undeniably, however, there is something gratifying in campaigning for futile treaties on carbon emissions. You know in your heart that the treaties will come to nothing, since no country is prepared to meet the real cost of signing them. Hence you can enjoy the struggle and never be blamed for the failure. With problems closer to hand, however, failure has no excuse, since the solution is within our grasp. Take plastic pollution. Ordinary plastic can now be made oxo biodegradable at little extra cost – in other words, it can be made to disintegrate harmlessly when exposed for a given time to the air. Plastic packaging is stuck around our food largely because of pointless health and safety regulations that could be swept away tomorrow. A hundred initiatives are here available which would have a cumulative effect, leading quickly to clean parts of the world that might serve as a model to the scoundrels and a motive to rectify the terms of international trade.

That is one example of a real solution to a real problem. On the whole, however, activists have preferred purely symbolic solutions, often adopted without concern for their sideeffects, which are often far worse than the problems that they are designed to solve. The deep difference between conservatives and socialists lies here. Conservatives look for bottom-up solutions, devised, led and endorsed by local communities. Socialists look for top-down solutions, devised by activists and pressure groups, imposed by governments and led by bureaucrats accountable only to themselves.

In no matter has this been more evident that in the movement to produce as much electricity as possible by wind farms. According to recent figures these have added £400 to the average family electricity bill on account of the cost of installing them, and are so erratic that their owners were paid £25 million pounds last year to stop them from producing electricity during high winds, when they overload the grid. Wind farms appeal to the activists for two reasons, one positive, the other negative. The positive reason is that they transform solar energy (which is the ultimate source of wind) into electricity, without emitting greenhouse gases - true up to a point, provided you disregard the immense carbon-footprint involved in producing and installing them, and turn a blind eye to the fact that they can produce only a fraction of the energy needed and must always be backed up by another source.

The negative reason is that wind farms require a vast acreage if they are to produce a significant contribution to the grid, and so can be used to stunning effect both to irritate and to demoralize the 'nimbys'.

The negative effects of wind farms are not only aesthetic. Far more important is their effect on the motivation of people. Ask yourself how the British people have confronted environmental problems in the past, and what they have done to conserve their natural resources. They haven't managed perfectly, but they have done as well as any people with whom they might be compared.

The British people have done what they did to protect their environment out of the motive that I call oikophilia, the love of home. I have spelled out what this motive amounts to in Green Philosophy, and believe that love of beauty is a fundamental part of it. Much in our art, literature and music comes to rest in the experience of natural beauty.

A true conservative environmentalism, in my view, builds upon oikophilia, and attempts to recast environmental problems, one by one and as a whole, in a form that can be addressed by local communities, and solved as part of their love of home.

Windfarms have been imposed on us by lobbying from the environmental activists. Other blemishes are the result of lobbying from big business and the advocates of ‘economic growth’. Examples include the high-speed rail link and the current scheme for a new London airport. Of course the Thames airport will ease the flow of air traffic, for the time being at least. And no doubt it will make a contribution to ‘economic growth’. But economies can grow in more than one way, as ours once did through the slave trade. This is not an issue to be decided by bureaucrats with calculators. It is an issue that concerns real people – those who live on the Thames Estuary and who have valued and conserved that piece of countryside as their home. They have a right to resist and we should support them, since all environmental benefits come about because real communities get together to protect what they love from those who don’t give a damn since they live elsewhere. Environmental problems are created by absentees.

Small associations of citizens are a long way from the big environmental campaigns and the unaccountable NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. They don't make a noise, but they get on with the job.

Whatever is being done to protect our countryside from plastic pollution, our farmland from agribusiness, our towns from unsightly development, our rivers from pollution and our beautyspots from motorways and high-speed rail is being done by these groups, and usually in opposition to government.

For we cannot rely on politics to protect us. Again and again, and regardless of good intentions, governments fall into the hands of the wealthy lobbyists or bow to the EU, which means bowing to even wealthier lobbyists. Without the 'little platoons' of citizens the environment, it seems to me, is a lost cause.

All very well, you might say, but what are we to do about climate change? Either we can pretend to do something, like the Germans - covering the landscape with useless wind farms while plugging in to the French nuclear-powered grid in order to keep the home fires burning. Or we can do something real. That means looking for forms of clean energy that do not require back-up and which are cheap enough to be exportable around the world. The problem of clean energy is not yet a purely political problem; it is largely a scientific problem, which requires investment in research, rather than futile treaties committing governments to targets that they have no motive to reach.

Of course there are problems that we need governments to solve. But governments respond to pressure, and the pressure must come not from the lobbyists and activists, but from ordinary people who care.

Roger Scruton is a prominent conservative author. His work includes “Green Philosophy” and “Arguments for Conservatism”