‘What leads people to spoil their environment, and what leads them to protect it?’ According to Roger Scruton, this is ‘the real question, that of human motivation’, that environmentalists have failed to address. The answer, he believes, is that people act to protect the environment to the extent that they can think of it as their home. Thinkers of the left – including many environmentalists – have either not properly acknowledged or actively disparaged the human need to settle in a particular place. Partly for that reason, they have tended to belittle the idea that caring for the environment is best done by what Edmund Burke called ‘the little platoons’. Instead, mainstream environmentalists have looked to mass movements and governments to curb corporate power and ultimately create a new economic system. The results of this sort of environmentalism have been at best mixed. For example, Greenpeace’s attack on Shell’s plan to dispose of the Brent Spar oil facility at sea can only be described as foolish and counterproductive; while abolishing capitalism altogether – as was done in the Soviet Union and Mao’s China – led to the worst ecological disasters of the twentieth century. Against this type of activism, Scruton argues that Greens can only succeed in protecting the planet if they embrace the insights of conservative philosophy and focus on building local institutions.
As Scruton acknowledges, the claim that ‘conservatism and environmentalism are natural bed-fellows’ is not new. There are clear parallels between the two ways of thinking: conservatives reject any account of human institutions that sees them simply as instruments for satisfying present wants, while environmentalists reject the view that the environment