Julia Roberts in 'Erin Brockovich' movie
Julia Roberts in ‘Erin Brockovich’ movie

The moral high ground of environmentalism seemingly was ceded by free-market proponents a long, long time ago.

There exist multiple reasons why this appears to be so, but perhaps the most often argued — if not the most persuasive — case employed against the free-marketers is the intrinsic “evil” ascribed to the profit motive of businesses and individuals alike.

Nothing could be further from the truth, but urban mythology abounds with bad actors passing out carcinogens like Halloween candy while polluting groundwater, rivers, lakes and streams. This mythology is bolstered by the Hollywood subgenre of whistle-blower flicks of the past 40 years or so.

This is not to exonerate those few who in real life actually circumvent environmental regulations to grease the skids of profitability, but to acknowledge that it more often makes sense to steward the environment for sustainable economic gains rather than winning the short-game.

This last is but one of the conservative arguments presented by philosopher Roger Scruton in his thought-provoking “How To Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism.”

Of course, Scruton isn’t the first writer of a philosophical bent to make the connection between “conservatism” and “conservation.”

Michigan’s own Russell Kirk argued from the same perspective in his syndicated “To the Point” newspaper columns throughout the 1960s. “In our 20th century, humankind is proud of ‘conquering nature,’ by tools that vary from the bulldozer to insecticides,” wrote Kirk in his 1968 essay, “Man, Enemy of Nature.” The author of “The Conservative Mind” warned: “But like other merciless conquests, this victory may end in the destruction of the victor.”

Kirk continued: “[M]an’s assault on nature is the more deadly and persistent. Lake Michigan is being poisoned by man’s industrial and domestic wastes, so that within this century it may ‘die,’ its fish destroyed by a human upsetting of the natural balance. It may become a vast sewer in which no one can swim.”…

In the years since Kirk filed his essay, things have gotten far less dire — but his environmental concern at the time was well-founded. Ever the man to pronounce from the shoulder of giants, Kirk quoted Edmund Burke: “Men who do not look backward to their ancestors will not look forward toward posterity” before adding in his own words: “What we call ‘piety’ includes respect for the natural balance in the world, and for the people who will follow us in time. An impious generation often has been roughly rebuked by mysterious forces not subject to human rationality.”

Kirk’s right-minded view of conservation echoes without credit throughout Scruton’s book, which provides a plethora of anecdotal evidence of environmental harms committed either inadvertently or on purpose, and the often overreaching remedies demanded by environmentalists of both the government regulatory and non-governmental organization stripe. Scruton identifies the ideological impasse between environmentalists and business as a battle between “egalitarianism ‘justice’ ” on one hand and “individualist ‘freedom’ ” on the other, and asserts the argument should be reframed: “The real evil against which both sides should be united is the habit of treating the earth as a thing to be used but not revered. Instead, they are fighting over competing claims to use it.”

Sometimes a reasonable middle ground can be reached, resulting in positive outcomes for both sides, as Scruton illustrates with the story of Ravenna Park in Seattle, Wash. The park was established in 1887 by Mr. and Mrs. William Beck, philanthropists who purchased the property to preserve a stand of giant fir trees and provide public access. The couple contracted the building of a pavilion for concerts and lectures and charged 25 cents as an entrance fee.

Had the story ended here, it might’ve served as a perfect example of private ownership and conservation of publicly accessible parks. But, alas, the city of Seattle bought the park in 1911, whereupon park employees immediately began cutting down and selling the timber. Other trees were condemned as threats to public safety. By 1925, all the trees were gone. Writes Scruton: “An effective private investment that had conserved an important environmental asset, and created a lively public interest in maintaining it, had been destroyed by public ownership in a matter of 14 years.”

Scruton explains: “Public bodies are able to externalize their costs in a way that private bodies seldom manage, and this fact alone makes them unreliable trustees of our collective assets.” He readily admits that private companies also externalize costs by lobbying government entities “for the regulations and procedures that will ease the attempt. Moreover, the familiar devices of modern business — limited liability, shareholding, bonus payments and secured pensions — can give rise to large rents with small accountability. To this familiar problem, however, state control is not a remedy. On the contrary, it is a way of augmenting the disease.”

Scruton takes it upon himself to identify “feedback loops” other than market forces by which people may preserve nature’s equilibrium as well as displaying how such government interventions as subsidies and regulations serve to distort these feedbacks.

Because Scruton is more of a philosopher, he might’ve ended his book there. Redeeming environmentalism as a primarily conservative cause is important and long overdue. Instead, he seeks to find “middle-ground” and “conservative” solutions to contend with climate change, which he too easily surmises deserves such manmade remedies as cap-and-trade schemes. Your writer respectfully disagrees with the diagnosis as well as the prescription, but these do not hinder Scruton’s book as a valuable addition to what one hopes is an ever-growing shelf of conservative environmentalism.

Bruce Edward Walker is an editor-at-large and former managing editor of MichiganScience at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Michigan. Reprinted with permission from Michigan Capitol Confidential.