In a time of increasingly fractured political life, environmentalism has the potential to be the medicine our ailing public discourse needs. Indeed, a kind of environmentalism that lies deeper than party lines might be able to temper the harsh sectional differences we see between liberals and conservatives and to infuse something of a sound moral philosophy back into our public life.
Environmentalism, properly understood, has the power to appeal to something more fundamental than partisan divides, nurturing the primary community loyalty necessary for healthy politics. It can remind us that our relationship as neighbors is more basic than our political identities and that most people, whether liberal or conservative, can agree on the moral principles that form its foundations. Among these are the ideas that nature has a given order that is not of our making, that we live best when we live in harmony with this order, and that things have value above and beyond their economic utility. In a way, these might be said to be eminently conservative principles; they might also be called eminently human ones.
Conservatives should not be shy of environmentalism because of its association with leftist political programs. Rather, they should be attentive to the conservation of our environment as, in the words of philosopher Roger Scruton, a “pre-political” concern. By caring for our mutual home—the land that binds us together and sustains us—we can dedicate ourselves to our neighbors, recognizing our place within an organic order that we did not create yet have a responsibility to conserve. In doing this, liberals and conservatives can take a step together toward a more healthy civic life.
Can a Conservative Be an Environmentalist?
The philosopher-farmer mentioned above, Roger Scruton, lays out the natural connection between conservativism and environmentalism in his excellent book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet. We might often associate environmentalism with a certain cultural clique, a kind of irrational radicalism, and a whole raft of accompanying ideological commitments. Yet concern for the natural world’s conservation is not limited to this superficial stereotype; the umbrella of “environmentalism” covers a diverse cultural and political array. Although our idiosyncratic sociocultural situation has severed many conservatives from ecological morality, there are a good number of conservative environmentalists walking among us today, even if they would not themselves claim the title. They are not handing out fliers for Greenpeace or tying themselves to trees, but they are supporting local measures to protect the lakes where they fish and the woods where they hunt. They are members of the local Izaak Walton League, gardeners, recyclers, and chicken-coop keepers. Liberal environmentalists and conservatives might be surprised to find out that they have a great deal in common, if only they communicated with one another.
In its origin, environmentalism might almost have been called a conservative movement, and the defenders of the environment in the early decades of industrialization tended to lean politically conservative. This makes some sense, because at the heart of conservatism is the idea that we have a responsibility to those who went before and those who come after us. We must preserve and augment what we have inherited, putting what is lasting ahead of the fashions of the present hour. The English theologian Richard Hooker described this conservative disposition well when he said that we were alive in our forebears, and they too live within us and our children. We are born into a sort of covenant between generations and across time.
This attitude also recognizes that there is a kind of social entropy present in human societies. Put simply, it is easy to destroy what we have inherited and very difficult to preserve it. This is just what the environmentalist says when she protests against the pollution of our waterways or clears the trash from her local woods: someone has preserved this for me, it is eminently worthwhile and fragile, and I ought to preserve it, too.
Furthermore, it is typical of authentic conservatism to recognize that not everything is to be bought and sold—that value exists above and apart from markets. The conservative ought to be a defender of the useless things, things that are above and beyond use, worthwhile in and of themselves. Conservatives understand this when they seek to defend family life, or to preserve our cultural and civic inheritance. These are things that need to be defended from the corrupting influence of acquisitiveness and an incautious spirit of innovation, just as our wilderness and countryside must be. The conservative and liberal may differ on the specifics of policy and how preservation should be balanced with human need, but we can share a fundamental recognition of the value of things beyond their profitability.
The Foundations of Environmental Morality
Conservatives should join their neighbors in active concern for their environment not only because we have a responsibility to conserve our natural home, but also because environmental ethics rest on moral principles that have the potential to renew our public conversations about morality. Chief among these is the recognition that nature has a given order which we did not create and with which we must be in accord if we want to live well.
Nature is the way it is and has its own ends embedded within it; this is something the farmer or the vintner knows well, for even with our modern agricultural technologies, the farmer must work in tandem with the soil, the plant, and the weather, if he is to draw a good harvest. It is also evident to the environmental biologist or ecologist, who observes the delicate order, logic, and balance inherent in each ecosystem. To step outside this order of nature and treat the natural world as if it were so much raw material is to assess nature wrongly, and so to put oneself in wrong relation to it. This always has a significant cost, whether it is the pollution of our waterways, the depletion of our soil, or the spoliation of our woods and prairies.
Conservatives recognize that this is true of human beings too. The human person is not inert, purposeless material to be melded in any which way. Human beings are a certain way by nature, and we cannot militate against that nature without cost. For instance, human beings are social, embodied persons. We cannot isolate them from a sense of place within a community and family without alienation and anomie. As environmental psychology has taught us, we cannot put human beings in soulless and ugly surroundings without also making them sick of body and anxious of mind.
The defender of human nature ought to be a defender of nature at large, not least because human nature is an integrated part of the larger natural whole. If we can agree with our fellow environmentalists on the value and order of nature, we will have found a common ground from which we can talk about other issues of moral importance too, like the encouragement of healthy family life, the goals of education, or the ways in which we can help our poor neighbors.
Thinkers in the Catholic tradition of ethical thought have used the term “human ecology” to describe this sort of ethics of the specifically human habitat, how we relate rightly to it, and how human communities can flourish in it. Pope John Paul II wrote that human ecology reminds us that we ought to cooperate with nature, and Pope Francis has reminded us that care for the environment goes hand in hand with care for the poor who can be left behind or exploited in industrialization.
Our sense of belonging to our own organic human community is tied to our sense that we belong to the same land—that we share a love for and dependence on these fields and these creeks and these woods. We naturally need attachment to certain communities and certain places in order to feel at home, to understand our place among our neighbors, and to flourish and find meaning in our lives. This shared attachment should be the foundation for relationships and shared responsibilities that are not predicated on shared political opinion or partisan identities, but on our being among these people and in this place that is ours. I do have a responsibility to my neighbor not because she agrees with me but because we are human beings who share this place together. Actively working for environmental conservation instills in us and our neighbors the understanding that we are by nature part of a community larger than ourselves, for which we are ready and willing to sacrifice.
Returning to the Roots
It is dangerous to make generalizations about the modern age as a whole. Still, it seems clear that the understanding of nature laid out, most notably, by René Descartes represents an important and influential current in modern thought. For Descartes, nature is mechanical rather than organic; it is defined not by purposes and ends, but by regular, mechanistic causes. It does not contain objective values and qualities, but only extension and quantity. Value, purpose, and quality are not of the world but of the mind; the world is nothing but so much raw material.
It would be wrong to draw a simple line from this mechanistic metaphysical view of nature to our moral problems today. Even so, this idea that the world is not inherently ordered, valuable, or purposeful does seem to have helped to change our moral calculus. Nature is often seen in a merely instrumental way as a thing to be used for our own goals, rather than to be understood and cooperated with in its own right. For many of us, then, not nature but satisfaction of subjective desire is the chief moral measure. In returning to environmentalism, we find a way of drawing again on the nourishing taproot of sound moral principles and a right understanding of nature, which could help fight the blight present in the other branches of our public morality.
A care for the environment, then, is an essential part of authentic conservatism. Laudably, this moral vision survives in the circles of the left and right among those lovers of lakeshores, birds, and wetlands whom we call environmentalists. It is in this respect that environmentalism holds within it resources for the renewal of our political and moral discourse: it makes us loyal to one another in a fundamental way, it points us to values beyond mere utility, and it directs us back to the natural order of which we are a part. An emphasis on these truths could help redeem and renew our civic discourse, our politics, and our shared life.
Nathan J. Beacom is a writer living in Des Moines, Iowa.