Roger Scruton

19 March 2013 – Looking up from the park near where I live in Sydney, Australia, you can see cracks in buildings beside it. A  creek was here before the park and buildings covered it up. Watercress was once farmed in the creek. The long-ago-built-over creek’s hydraulic efforts have burst out as cracks in the buildings on top of it.

Far away across the Pacific Ocean, from the freeway in Los Angeles, US, you can see reeds in the vast cement drain, once the Los Angeles River. The river, buried by cement for 58 miles, flows today as a drain.

The water hidden now under the Sydney park and the LA cement has been rediscovered in different ways.

Behind those discoveries was the same thing which makes being human both special and wonderful – curiosity.

Yes, water can be the unexpected causation of good things. But without curiosity water’s magic may be missed, wasted, abused, lost, thrown away by we humans.

It’s curiosity that drives much that’s worthwhile in our lives and which, I suggest, is a foundation of a culture which thrives and sustains itself. Curiosity has an unbounded power to unexpectedly cause good things.

For example, when acting as a lawyer I conducted litigation for stallholders at Paddy’s Markets, Sydney, who sued the then Australian government treasurer, Paul Keating for approving foreign investment that would fund a redevelopment of the site and threaten their livelihood.

It was the curiosity of the stallholders that led to the markets being saved from Mr Keating’s decision to allow the markets to be swamped by a redevelopment of the site. Food markets are the belly of a city, and the markets remain today.

The stallholders had been promised 75 per cent of the ground level of the redeveloped building in which to continue their markets. It was their curiosity about whether the building plans delivered the promise that led the stallholders to discover the promise had been broken and, in turn, to litigate to force the redesign of the building and, eventually, legislation to secure their many small business futures.

The Federal Court decided in the stallholders’ favour  in the case, Yates Security Services Pty Ltd versus the Honourable Paul Keating MP; Rockvale Pty Ltd; Valtone Pty Ltd and the Registrar General of New South Wales [1990] FCA 432; 98 ALR 21 (2 November 1990).

(Keating at the behest of lobbying by former NSW Premier Neville Wran for the developer, had influenced design changes that triggered federal obligations Mr Keating had to protect the heritage values of the building.)

Recently, when I joined NSW MP Rob Stokes in a conversation about food and my book, Sustainable Food, at Berkelouw Books at Mona Vale it was curiosity about Rob’s recommendation for a new book, Green Philosophy by Roger Scruton, that led me to buy the book that evening.

Curiosity and deep reading falls from its pages.

Scruton argues that conservatism is far better suited to tackle environmental problems than either liberalism or socialism.

Conservatism:  far better suited to tackle environmental problems

than either liberalism or socialism.

Before I return to the LA River and the Sydney creek let me say why I agree with much of what Scruton says in this book – it’s essential reading for every person interested in public policy or the environment.

It’s the first of his books I’ve read. Now I agree with those who say he is the “outstanding conservative philosopher of our generation” (as former NSW Liberal Greiner government brains trust and Cabinet Director Gary Sturgess told me).

When I didn’t agree with his views the quality of the writing carried me easily to read on. In particular, in the chapter where Scruton argues against the extreme use of the precautionary principle, the analysis and writing was strong enough to change my mind from being ambiguous about the principle to become an opponent of it, too in certain cases. His example of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, one from many, will do:

 “Immediately after the catastrophe the Dutch government offered the use of ships equipped with devices for extracting oil from seawater and returning nearly pure seawater to the ocean – ships that have been used to great effect in managing spills and leaks from the oil platforms in the North Sea.

“The US government refused the offer, at least in part because the water being returned to the ocean would not comply with the strict EPA guidelines forbidding oil-contamination of water released into the Gulf.  If the water is not 99.9985 per cent pure, the regulations say, it may not be returned to the Gulf; and the Dutch equipment does not meet that impossible standard . . . this crazy decision exemplifies the worst effect of the ‘precautionary’ reasoning: by aiming to avert disaster, strict precaution renders us powerless to deal with disaster when it comes.” (p124, 125)

However on reasonable application of the precautionary principle Scruton is a firm supporter.

While Scruton considers much of what makes up Earth’s environment and what we humans do to her water, soil, food, air, forests with our belief systems and governments, it’s climate change issues which are threaded through the book’s 457 pages. At the end of the chapter on the precautionary principle Scruton puts a question which takes him the rest of the book’s chapters to answer:

 “What if the threat is of a catastrophe so great that no amount of resilience could enable us to survive it?  Surely, however uncertain we are that the catastrophe might arrive, we ought then strive to prevent it. This is the thought that has motivated many of the more reasonable advocates of interceptive policies against climate change.

The bad effects of our current activities will be felt

only when it is too late to rectify them

 “Global warming is not something that produces fast-acting negative feedback. The bad effects of our current activities will be felt only when it is too late to rectify them. But the effects might be really bad. So we must do what we can to avert catastrophe, however uncertain it may be. This returns us to the deeper question: what motive can we call upon to ensure that people will accept the needed policies?  Is rational self-interest sufficient, or must we call on some other, maybe less negotiable, source of action?” (p136).

 Before his answer at the book’s end, Scruton explores and argues refreshingly for a reconciliation between the Left and Right of politics.

“In fact, it is precisely in the fight against consumerism that left and right should be united, establishing an alliance on behalf of the environment that would also heal a rift in our civilisation.” (p246)

 He points out that “the love of the English people for the place that is theirs, for the landscape, the way of life and the institutions that hallowed it has been the greatest single cause of environmental stewardship whereby an overcrowded island has been maintained as a viable habitat for its population.” (p249)

In the concluding chapter, Modest proposals, after reviewing options to deal with climate change, Scruton writes:

“ . . . we should introduce a flat-rate carbon tax.  The more you emit, the more you pay.  Moreover this tax should be imposed on products regardless of their origin. Carbon-intensive products should be taxed at a rate that reflects the amount of carbon exhaled in their production, regardless of whether they are made in Britain, America or China, and the government should use the tax to finance research. This way the cost of climate change will be internalised by those who contribute most to producing it – and that means everyone, since the cost is passed on at the end to the consumer, who is the one ultimately responsible. The feedback loop will finally be in place.” (p 388)

Most of the modest proposals, however, are for local solutions to climate change. Thus, Scruton would “Impose on supermarkets the planning controls that are appropriate to town centres, so that building on the edge of town ceases to be an option preferable to slotting into the centre.” (p396)

And he would significantly undo the subsidies and distortion that the fertiliser and pesticide-governed agribusinesses enjoy.

He cites research to support this is alarming view, including data that the external costs of the current British food and farming economy are well over one billion pounds greater than the costs of the properly localised and organically managed alternative:

“The replacement  of local food economies [with our current food systems] is not the result of free and fair competition. It is the result of hidden subsidies and intrusive regulations – in particular regulations concerning ‘health and safety’ – with which only centralised business can comply”. (p397, 399)

(Two short appendices, Global justice –about carbon dioxide pollution and climate change, and How should we live? are tight, simply-written and fluent after dinner treats worth reading and re-reading.)

Back to the drain that the Los Angeles River is and to a journalist’s curiosity that’s helping to restore it.

The LA River, rescued

(If you’ve seen the car race in the movie, Grease, you’ve seen the river as the drain it’s been made into – big enough for car racing. It’s in movies and songs: In Time, and Under the Bridge by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and The River by Good Charlotte.)

In 1985 and 1986 a journalist for the Los Angeles Times, Dick Roraback wrote about a journey he took from the rivers’ headwaters to the sea.

Tily Hinton says that “because of its impact at the time of publication, and its lasting resonance decades later, it has become deeply connected to the revitalisation [of the river] movement.  Called In Search of the L.A. River, the eleven articles were published weekly between late October 1985 and late January 1986. All articles were generously illustrated with photographs, and together with extensive text each feature article typically spanned across three pages. The articles were written in the third person, about a character called “The Explorer” who was Roraback:

“He had known many of the mighty rivers, and he had learned to love their rhythms, their high-tide howls and low tide lisps, their sweet-and-sour smells, their roles in the history of the great lands they traversed. He had known and loved the great rivers and he had lived in the Southland for 10 years and he was ashamed that he knew not the channel that bisected his own city. He had heard of the Los Angeles River, of course – the mighty Porciuncula of yore – but he had never seen it. He had even crossed the river, he now knew – more than 15,000 times by rough reckoning – but he did not remember laying eyes on it.” (2)

Back to my park. I sat here to think what I would say when I wrote this.

When I walk from my park to Sydney harbour to buy fish at the Sydney Fish Markets most of my walk is over the buried creek which now enters the harbour as a drain.  I know it’s below my feet and I look for signs of its waters persisting below me, hidden.

I cross the park and creek below it most days when I walk out to work or to cafés. I see mown grass, play equipment, wide-shading trees and, recently, unusually, along the southern edge stands a galvanised iron trellis with four fruit trees espaliered to it, a living offering to anyone to harvest fruit.  It’s called “Peace Park”.

I savour thinking of the creek below not yet conquered by “peace” or bricks or us. I know that here below me was where the creek, never named by its suppressors, the colonialists who came here to set up a town where English convicts were to be sent, spread out into a lagoon. The farmers here grew potatoes and ran stock on the farm to provide the young colony’s food.  And on the lagoon they grew watercress; I try to picture it when I sit in the park.

Water can persist. And where it does, so does life in the forms of plants, worms, little critters.

But, now as I sit here in the park my curious mind asks: will we persist, we humans?

Let’s be honest.

None of us have saved a planet before.

Whether our guess is the fruit of a computer’s predictions or years of research, or an intuitive hunch, we’re just guessing at what may work.

Take the “sustainability” game: green buildings, green products, green technology – all efforts where we grope for solutions, myself included.

A December 2012 Australian Bureau of Statistics report found that despite the number of green buildings and homes, Australians are using 25 per cent more electricity and 22 per cent more gas than they were 10 years ago. (2)

Think of all the rules, money, debate and energy and water devoted to cutting energy use; for what?  So much red tape to redirect our behaviour so our societies use clean energy and end our use of dirty energy sources isn’t working.

Like the water below cement or parks and buildings there runs below our culture, including our “sustainability” efforts, the apparently irresistible demands of our human selves, and our demands grow as we increase our numbers by the billions.

I agree with Scruton, our best solutions are the local ones where we live and work. We can see local solutions in the messages to be seen in what’s around us. The still striving waters that talk to us as cracks in walls don’t just say our city is badly built when we “kill” a creek or river; they say, “We’re still here to be harvested if you wish to take advantage of the harvest we have for you” – don’t they? And they say, “It’s time to cut away the red tape which wastes water from our roads, buildings and parks”.

Lets refresh our eyes to see what our local streets tell us if we will look, so we may grow our curiosity about solutions.

And let’s make simple laws to empower and to reward those curious parts of us that look for ways to cut our own pollution, that rewards our self-interested nature.

Rate rebates, for example, for cutting our food waste, rebates for using clean energy, not using dam water, not using cars and so on … And let’s try Scruton’s incentives to cut our carbon polluting ways with these and other appeals to our rational self-interest, including less red tape, especially rules that are failing us. Let’s be curious, open to change, particularly to changing the things that have failed to keep Earth whole.

(1)  Writing a river: how journalism helped restore the Los Angeles River, by Tilly Hinton


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  1. Hi Michael
    I know you from many years ago when you facilitated a workshop at Sustainex in Melbourne in 1999
    I wholeheartedly agree with this statement
    Conservatism: far better suited to tackle environmental problems
    than either liberalism or socialism.
    I thank you for you efforts and for being curious
    Kind regards