When I have to go into Whole Foods, I am suffocated by the feeling that I'm surrounded by a bunch of commie, pinko, hippie liberals. I feel like yellin pro-Bush slogans just to cheese them off. That said, my sister and mother like whole foods, too, and they're Christian neocons! My sister's interest in green conservatism prompted my previous post on organic foods. Anyway, I'm a fan of all things that fit the category of what I call "Purple America," that is, neither red nor blue, so here's an article on green conservatism that my sister likes. The article is by the "Crunchy Con," Rod Dreher. I was attracted to some of his writings because he has some Christian anarchist in him, but I am all too often disappointed by his reasoning. Still:
Earth Day is not my day, not really.
As both a conservative and an avid indoorsman, I've always seen it as a high holy day for hippies, Whole Foods devotees, spotted-owl fetishists and sundry crunchy-granola types who believe that "Think Globally, Act Locally" is the Eleventh Commandment.
But you know, I've got to wonder how much longer we on the right can justify an environmental philosophy that amounts to little more than sneering at liberal tree-huggers.
For one thing, whatever the self-righteous excesses of the environmentalist left, it is impossible to be true to traditional conservative values (to say nothing of the Christian faith conservatives like me profess) and hold laissez faire attitudes about the use and abuse of the natural world. And for another, have you noticed that, um, it's getting really warm in here?
I justified my hostility to environmentalists because of their alarmism, their stridency and even a narrow but toxic vein of misanthropy among their lot. What turned me around was reading Dominion, a book by former Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully, who made a conservative moral case for animal welfare.
Scully's critique rests on the classical virtue of piety — a term taken these days to mean religiosity but which, in its older usage, means a deep sense of reverence and humility as a fundamental stance to reality. In fact, piety toward nature is part of traditional conservatism's intellectual patrimony.
Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver, two founding fathers of modern American conservatism, hated the way industrial capitalism saw nature as merely a thing to be exploited. Weaver observed that we moderns "have allowed ourselves to be blinded by the insolence of material success [and] the animal desire to consume." He saw this as alienating us from nature and the foundations of a sustainable conservative order.
Kirk wrote: "In America, especially, we live beyond our means by consuming the portion of posterity, insatiably devouring minerals and forests and the very soil, lowering the water table, to gratify the appetites of the present tenants of the country." He demanded that Americans act with more self-discipline to honor "the future partners in our contract with eternal society."
A world with no limits
As it turns out, the ecological catastrophe Kirk feared that would be the consequence of our impiety appears not to be one of radically diminished resources, but of potentially catastrophic climate change. It comes from an arrogant refusal by a modern consumerist society to accept limits on its desires. Kirk's idea of the "eternal society" evaporates before the insatiable demands of the Everlasting Now.
No serious person can deny the overwhelming scientific evidence that the world's climate is changing dramatically for the worse. Conservative skeptics, however, argue that the science isn't clear enough to pinpoint the degree to which human activity is responsible. Even if that were true, given the staggering magnitude of the stakes, it is wildly imprudent to wait for a level of certainty that may never come, or come too late.
Tim Flannery, an Australian scientist and former global-warming skeptic, says there is no way to account for the temperature rise outside of human activity. In his book The Weather Makers, Flannery writes, "Skepticism is an indispensable element in scientific inquiry, but when the intention is to mislead rather than clarify, we have not skepticism but deceit."
There's much self-deceit about global warming among us conservatives. To take this stuff seriously would mean confronting the fact that we cannot continue living as we like. It would mean dealing like grown-ups with the real possibility that we are condemning future generations to excruciating hardship because we refuse our duty to stewardship.
A spiritual duty
For too long, conservatives have ceded political efforts to care for creation to liberals. We Christian conservatives are finally recognizing that conservation is a matter of moral and spiritual integrity. And we're learning that the challenge facing humankind from climate change dwarfs the narcissism of the usual left-right politics.
Politics, however, is the primary way to address a challenge to the commons this massive — and politics won't shift until our paradigm for thinking and talking about the environment does. The responsibility for that lies with open-minded and imaginative folks from both the liberal and conservative camps — men and women who care more about conserving the natural world and the human civilization dependent on it than they do about protecting their political purity and fundraising base.
Bottom line: When people like me start to believe Earth Day is for us, too, the earth will move under Washington's feet. But as long as cultural perceptions keep Earth Day a sectarian holiday for secular liberals, the pace of political change will be, alas, glacial.
Me, I'll just continue to sneer at liberal tree-huggers.