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Conserve the past, but the solution is in future

Conservation is certainly a hot-debated topic in the modern era.  On Thursday 5 March 2015, Professor Roger Scruton, a renowned philosopher, given a lecture titled ‘Love thy neighbourhood’ at the  Cabot Institute, University of Bristol as part of the Coleridge Lecture Series run by Bristol Festival of Ideas. Originally advertised as ‘The only true conservationist is a conservative’, the lecture sparked a great deal of controversy. Nevertheless, it also offered an interesting angle of observation to the topic.

Thy neighbourhood is thy home, though it must be beautiful

Scruton opened the talk by pointing out that most humans (rational egoists) have the tendency to externalise their costs while retain the profits. By doing so, damages accumulate in the surroundings of humans and causes the deterioration of our environment (‘Uglification of the world’).

To curb the tendency of externalisation, the speaker suggested promoting the recognition of neighbourhood community. By recognising the bigger community instead of just his personal circle as his ‘home’, and due to people’s innate reaction to love and defend their home (oikophilia), one may be more aware and more active in maintaining the quality of his surrounding environment.

However, he argued that, a person’s attachment to his home is stronger when his home possesses a certain amount of aesthetic value. When the home is not beautiful, its residents feel less obliged to protect it. Wind farms were listed as a bad approach to solve today’s energy problem. They are unadaptable, causing irreversible damages and an offence to our inheritance.

Professor Scruton also used plastic as a classic example of externalisation. He thought that the prevalence of plastic is largely due to the hidden subsidiary like the conveniences in transport and storage brought by either policies or technology. For example, supermarkets lobby for packaging legislations to drive their smaller local competitors out of market as they generally are unable to afford packaging. To solve this, Scruton proposed that the cost should be returned to the externalisers through taxations and encouraging local markets for grocery shopping.

Professor Scruton talked about urbanisation, and ‘failed cities’ with dead centres and that people keep moving towards the edge. He argued that such situations are caused by cities lack of aesthetic values, and ‘failed cities’ were built to solely serve their very limited functions. When the function no longer exists, the cities die with it. He suggested that cities should apply more restrictions to ensure only beautiful houses can be built so the aestheticism can be upheld.

Art thou Conservative or not? Art thou conservationist or not?

Despite his ‘Conservative’ self-branding, it is not hard to notice the obvious conflicts between Professor Scruton’s value and the Conservative Party’s current mainstream ideology. For instance, I wonder if the taxing solution to plastic problem would unsettle a few nerves of a lot of Conservatives; and regrettably, the ‘beautiful cities’ idea might be just too utopic.  During the talk, a few photos of ‘help to buy’ scheme housing were used to prove that modern cities are ugly. However, I don’t think that beautiful houses come cheap.  In Britain, cities brood opportunities, and serve as platforms for people with very little savings to realise their dreams. Inevitably, all major cities contain a considerable amount of low income population. To make the ‘beautiful homes’ affordable to them, we either need to use administrative forces to cap the housing price or use administrative forces to bump up personal income. Both ways would be deemed unacceptable by any free-market prone Thatcherite.

I also noticed that the speaker emphasized the conservation of human settlements rather than the nature, or emphasized the function of nature as aesthetically pleasing to humans rather than any scientific or ecological essence of maintaining its diversity and integrity. Also, by continually referring to Coleridge as the founder of conservationism, I sensed that the speaker’s idea of conservation still largely based on the romanticism of Coleridge and Wordsworth, and that it is more of nostalgia rather than science.

Time will solve thy problem

In some sense, I feel some problems mentioned were relatively subjective. For instance, Professor Scruton found wind turbines ugly and dismal, while me, along with many of my friends finding them elegant and pleasant. He argued that wind turbines cause irreversible damages and create a lot amount of waste, but modern technology ensures that most metals are recyclable and the rate of recycling will only increase with progressing technology.

Another example is the medieval cities. Although they look beautiful and lovely nowadays, it is well documented that such cities were heavily troubled by lack of infrastructure, their hygienic states were bad and would not have been regarded as ‘beautiful’ in any sense. Thanks to the modern planning and sewage systems, their residents no longer pour their waste into streets and old cities can be well illuminated at night, which not only gives them another layer of charm but also excludes reasons for curfews.

The speaker even provided evidences himself that his problem is only periodic. He mentioned that the Victorian railway to the Brecon Beacons was thought to be ugly back then but regarded as beautiful now. If this can happen to Victorian railways, why can it not happen to wind turbines and skyscrapers? In fact, humans’ aesthetic value is constantly changing with time. In a small scale, impressionism was deemed ugly when it first came out, Manet’s Olympia had to be hung very high so people could not destroy it. On a large scale, New York City is full of skyscrapers that serve as tourist attractions but not repellents.  All the things Professor Scruton found ugly now might be regarded as beautiful in the future - it is just the time hasn’t come yet.

Of course, one cannot predict the future, but one can look into the past. However, it is not evident that we should be pessimistic about the future and indulge ourselves in the past. Roger Scruton offered an exciting discussion on conservation, which were largely based on his personal views. All in all, I appreciate his broad knowledge and deep thinking, and certainly welcome his advocation for conservation. In the end, when coming to finding the solutions, I can only hope that people rely more on science and technology, less on ideology and nostalgia.
This blog was written by Cabot Institute member Dan Lan, a PhD student in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol.
Dan Lan

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