Who says conservatives can’t be conservationists?
Several years ago, at a conference for conservative college students, historian John Lukacs argued that Greens were the natural allies of the right. At the climax of his talk, he surveyed the young audience and magisterially proclaimed: “You cannot be conservative and be on the side of the concrete pourers and the cement mixers.” The students flocked around Lukacs after his talk.
You might not know it from the exhibit tables at most conservative gatherings, stacked as they are with explicitly anti-environmental flyers, articles, and books, but America’s conservative movement was once intimately linked with conservation. The influential conservative thinker Russell Kirk wrote warmly about Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring when it was published in 1962 and frequently held forth on the dangers of pesticides, the protection of endangered species, and the preservation of farmland. In fact, a near-apocalyptic tone suffused the environmental writing of many conservatives during the first decades after World War II. So, how did we get from there to where we are now, with environmentalists firmly established as the favorite whipping boys of conservative intellectuals, pundits, and politicians?
This is the question John Bliese has taken up in his book The Greening of Conservative America (Westview Press). Bliese marshals an impressive array of evidence for a proto-environmentalist streak within conservatism in the post-war years—proof, he says, that conservatives can comfortably approach environmental issues from within their own intellectual tradition. This issue is particularly important to Christians, whose faith counsels a sacramental vision of nature and opposition to the hubris underlying the modern economy and its institutionalized disregard for the care of God’s creation. “You cannot know that life is holy if you are content to live from economic practices that daily destroy life and diminish its possibility,” writes Wendell Berry.
Intellectual historians generally credit the journalist Frank Meyer with the successful unification of libertarians, traditionalists, and anti-communists in a single political front that today is known as conservatism. Meyer’s basic thesis, often called “fusionism,” was that in order for freedom to have meaning, it has to be grounded in the recognition of universal, objective moral norms, which are best articulated in the Western intellectual tradition. The pursuit of virtue, he argued, is possible only where men and women actually possess the freedom to choose the good; coerced virtue is no virtue at all.
The appeal of fusionism lay in its promise that the West could embrace, at one and the same time, both traditional morality and the cult of individual freedom. At a time when the West had only just defeated one totalitarian tyranny (Nazism) and was seemingly locked in a death struggle with another (communism), that promise was especially attractive. But in the face of the totalitarian threat, religious, communitarian, localist, and romantic aspects of conservatism, which could have been sources of a positive environmental approach, were intentionally de-emphasized. Over time, most conservatives came to see the state, not individualistic capitalism, as the primary evil facing the world. The rise of fusionism prevented the development of a conservative environmentalism. Think tanks depend on money to survive, and the funding for such institutions came—and still comes—largely from wealthy individuals, a few relatively small foundations, and a handful of big corporations. Not only does this system discourage intellectual risk-taking among conservatives, it also clearly biases conservative organizations toward the promotion of those things that wealthy individuals and corporations are comfortable with. (Woe to the outspoken conservative critic of individualist, free-market ideology who seeks to raise funds from those who most benefit from that ideology!)
So, today, so-called conservatives stand as enemies of environmental health. “Conservatives” have funded campaigns aimed at convincing the public that the concept of global warming is nothing but leftist anti-growth propaganda. They have broadcast stories about landowners being shoved around by thuggish environmental bureaucrats—stories that are in many cases completely bogus. And they try to tar anyone seeking even the most minimal environmental protections with the brushes of socialism and pagan nature worship.
Andrew Kimbrell, an attorney and president of the International Center for Technology Assessment, points out that the right is so accustomed to looking for the old “red menace” that they now dogmatically substitute a new “green menace.”
Indeed, the inflexibility of establishment conservatism has obscured the fact that genuine conservatism often has more in common philosophically with the political left than with the political right on issues of conservation. Note the downright reactionary nature of anti-sprawl movements, including New Urbanism, which, though many of its supporters would decline the label, is a deeply traditionalist movement. Consider the following paragraph, from Suburban Nation, by leading New Urbanists Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck:
“We live today in cities and suburbs whose form and character we did not choose. They were imposed upon us, by federal policy, local zoning laws, and the demands of the automobile. If these influences are reversed—and they can be—an environment designed around the true needs of individuals, conducive to the formation of community and preservation of the landscape, becomes possible. Unsurprisingly, this environment would not look so different from our old American neighborhoods before they were ravaged by sprawl.”
The New Urbanists sound an awful lot like pre-war traditionalist conservatives. It could even be argued that the anti-globalization protesters of Seattle and Milan, far from being true radicals, are really reactionaries playing at being revolutionaries; they are not so much agitating for more “progress” as they are condemning the forms that “progress” has taken.
Conservatives’ suspicion of what they call “social engineering” is perhaps the deepest theoretical underpinning for their antipathy to conservationists. Of course, considering the catastrophic damage inflicted by the infamous “social engineers”—Nazi and communist—of the 20th century, this revulsion is understandable. But taken to an extreme, it generates an understanding of government that is clearly at odds with early views from Christian and classical sources.
Good government, according to these teachings, prudently and wisely helps to create the conditions necessary for humans to attain their particular good. One of the ways a state does this is by helping to provide for those “common” things that no human can provide for himself or herself.
Political scientist Barry Shain has argued in The Myth of American Individualism that a communal, not individualistic, understanding of society permeated the thinking of early European Americans. Our forefathers were more than willing to countenance a good deal of government-sponsored “social engineering,” as long as it was enacted and enforced at the local level—a level that reflected community norms, traditions, and beliefs. Until relatively recently, Americans assumed that freedom consisted only in community, and that, within broad limits, a community could act justly through its government to reinforce its values.
And if ever “social engineering” by government is just, surely environmental issues call for it. However, the environmentalist movement itself must deal with its own confusing and contradictory alliances with the left. As John Lukacs has written, Greens are often the self-made prisoners of their leftist and anti-establishment inclinations. They are split-minded: traditionalists and anti-traditionalists at the same time. They want to conserve the land, and they are opposed to the inhuman progress of bureaucracy, automation, technology. In that respect they are conservatives, in the proper, larger-than-political sense of that word. Yet at the same time they favor abortion, feminism, unlimited immigration, nomadism—at the expense of the traditional family, of traditional patriotism, of traditional humanism, of the traditional respect for rights of property.”
Who knows? Perhaps Greens would not have been driven to embrace such allegiances if conservatives had not abandoned their conservationist roots. The crowd that forms around Lukacs whenever he speaks to young audiences is an encouraging sign that someday soon, there may be a conservative movement that is dedicated to healing that schism.
Jeremy Beer has written on conservatism, environmentalism, and agrarianism for a number of periodicals, including First Things, Crisis, and Modern Age. From re:generation quarterly (8.1), a Cambridge, Massachusetts–based magazine that is as liable to quote Henry David Thoreau as Saint Francis of Assisi and covers a range of contemporary issues from a progressive Christian perspective. Subscriptions: $19.95/yr. (4 issues) from Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834.