[Click here to read GodSpy's interview with Rod Dreher]
Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do. —WENDELL BERRY
I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority. —E. B. WHITE
Truth? I am an avid indoorsman, a man who finds it difficult to get all misty about the great outdoors. That's where the snakes live. I am as hopeless about outdoor life as ur-urbanite Woody Allen, but Woody has an excuse: he was born in New York. Me, I grew up in rural southern Louisiana, and spent a lot of time with a shotgun or a fishing pole in my hand. My heart wasn't in it. Many was the morning I spent as a kid in the kitchen at Fancy Point Hunting Camp, on the banks of the Mississippi River, drinking hot, sweet, milky coffee as my dad and the other men planned that morning's deer hunt, secretly wishing I could stay behind in the toasty-warm kitchen to help Preacher, the cook, prepare the meal for after the morning hunt.
Preacher was an old black man who had done prison time for burying a hatchet in the heads of his wife and her lover when he caught them in bed together. He was a kindly old gent when I knew him, and what he'd done as a young man didn't bother us much. He talked in this gravelly Ray Charles voice, and told the funniest stories. He made us kids jelly cakes on our birthdays. I loved him dearly, and figured my time would be better spent around his radiant stove, helping him roll out biscuits and listening to his crazy stories, than hunting.
My father and the men of the hunting club cared passionately about wild things and wild places.
But I always went into the swamp, and froze my ya-yas off while waiting for a whitetail buck to run by so I could take a shot at him. As if I cared. One grimly cold morning when I was twelve or thirteen, a big buck finally did run by me, and I pulled the trigger on him. My dad and I found blood on the leaves. We tracked him through the woods, and found him lying on his side atop a ridge, dying. I took another shot, and up the buck went. He didn't get far: he fell dead in the dirt road just before he hit the Mississippi River.
It should have been the proudest day of my life, but I felt sick inside. I'd killed this beautiful animal for no reason but sport (I didn't even like to eat venison), when all I'd really wanted to do was sit in the kitchen talking to and cooking with Preacher. Not long after that morning, I quit going to the swamp with a gun at all, and that was the end of that.
You'd think that would have made a tree hugger and animal lover out of me, but it didn't. Despite the deep sense of spiritual violation I felt at having taken the life of this creature for no good reason, I've never been much of an environmentalist, or interested at all in animal rights. Though I was tenderhearted toward animals, it was plain to me that men like my father and the men of the hunting club cared passionately about wild things and wild places. It sounds paradoxical, but it's true. I've seen it with my own eyes. The respect they had for game, and the rules of the hunt, amounted to a natural kind of piety.
On occasion, someone would bring a rich lawyer or a state politician up to the camp from Baton Rouge, and if one of those city fellows showed bloodthirstiness or any lack of respect for the animals and the unwritten rules of the hunt (e.g., shoot only what you intend to eat), the disgust of those rural men of the club was palpable. Those men—my father and his friends—considered themselves conservationists; as far as they were concerned, "environmentalists" were citified liberal pantywaists, uppity sentimentalists who didn't understand a thing about the woods and the creatures who lived there.
To be perfectly honest, for many years I shared their opinion. Every time I heard the word "environmentalist," I'd think of the sanctimonious cultural elitists who seemed to have such worshipful regard for trees and owls, but so little concern for people. The animal-rights people were the worst. When I lived in Brooklyn, every so often this obnoxious crone would set up a table on Saturday mornings along the main street of our neighborhood, and pass out animal-rights literature, stopping to yell abuse at families walking by with children. "Breeders!" she'd scream. "You're crowding out the animals!" And that was the image I had of the animal-rights cause.
What turned me around was reading a remarkable book called a few years ago. Its author, and I moved in more or less the same circles. He is a fellow political conservative, and had even worked for a time at , where I was then employed. At the time of the book's publication, Matthew, whom I knew somewhat, and admired, was working as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush. I hadn't realized that he was an animal-rights advocate. How did a conservative get hooked up with those kooks? I had to find out, so I bought his book.
It was a revelation—one that didn't make a vegetarian out of me, but one that did make me fundamentally reassess and repent of the cavalier and philistine attitude I had toward both animals and, because nearly every principle Matthew elucidated in their defense also applies to the environment, to the entire natural world.
The first thing I came to understand, simply through the thoughtful, reasoned tone of a fellow conservative, was that I had long been using the image of that crazy animal-rights lady in Brooklyn, and the dye-throwing PETA extremists who always made the papers, in the same way liberals use the shrieking fringe of the pro-life movement: as bogeymen to avoid having to con-front difficult moral questions.
One cold afternoon that first winter in Brooklyn, I was sitting in a Starbucks on Court Street and got into a discussion with a young couple about the abortion issue. They were firmly pro-choice, but they were polite about it, and seemed genuinely surprised to find out from me that most pro-lifers do not sympathize with clinic bombers and doctor killers. We had a good talk, and though I didn't win them over, I came away thinking that they were at least willing to give my arguments more consideration than they would have otherwise. I'd violated a stereotype they'd used to justify not thinking about the abortion issue from the pro-life point of view.
What Wendell Berry finds tough to take from so many Christians is their blindness about the environment.
In the same way, it took about fifty pages of Matthew's book for me to realize how closed-minded and dishonest I, a conservative, had been about animal rights and the environment. How often had I sneered at environmentalists to hide the fact that I didn't really understand what they were talking about, and, more to the point, didn't want to?
In Dominion, Matthew wrote that when we look at an animal (and, he might have said, a forest) and see it only in terms of what practical use it can be to us, we are not seeing what's really there, only an extension of ourselves. Conservatives see quite clearly the danger of sentimentalizing the natural world; hence our dismissive attitude toward those environmental extremists who see no essential difference between a redwood tree, a spotted owl, and a human being. But what we on the right don't see so well is the cost, moral and otherwise, of our hardheaded so-called realism.
Take factory farming. If we only think of farm animals, say, in terms of their ending up on our dinner plates, there's no logical objection to industrialized meat production of the sort that crams thousands of animals into cramped pens, never lets them see daylight, and jacks them up with antibiotics to avoid infection from their unhealthy confinement, and hormones to boost their growth. But people recoil from films and photographs depicting the ugly reality of factory-farming methods, because there is something within us that cannot abide treating creatures this way—even creatures we plan to slaughter for food. Again, this paradox is hard to explain to vegetarians, but responsible hunters and livestock farmers know it instinctively. It's about respect.
"Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind's capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship," Matthew wrote. "We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don't; because they all stand unequal and powerless before us."
This is true about the environment as well. Technology and wealth have given mankind dominion over nature unparalleled in human history. Everything in the tradition of conservatism—especially in traditional religious thought—warns against misusing that authority. Yet the conservative movement has become so infatuated with the free market and human potential that we lose sight of what Matthew described as our conservative belief "in man as a fundamentally moral and not merely economic actor, a creature accountable to reason and conscience and not driven by whim or appetite." If we lose our ability to see nature with moral vision, we become less human, and more like beasts.
By his own admission, the Dominion author is not a church-going man, but he does understand that Americans (conservatives especially) root our moral reasoning in religion. Perhaps this is why his case for stewardship was so persuasive to me. As a practicing Catholic, I was most struck by the following quote from Pope John Paul II's 1990 encyclical :
In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way. At the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error, which unfortunately is widespread in our day. Man, who discovers his capacity to transform and in a certain sense create the world through his own work, forgets that this is always based on God's prior and original gift of the things that are. Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray. Instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him.
Well. Many's the time we on the Catholic right were grateful for John Paul's clear and unequivocal statements in defense of the culture of life, of human dignity, and of the sovereignty of truth. But honestly, if we ignore his equally clear teaching about stewardship of the natural world, we are no better than the cafeteria Catholics we disdain as pick-and-choose Christians. And not just Catholics either: John Paul spoke out of an ancient and consistent biblical tradition. No one who claims the Bible as a moral guide can ignore its command to honor creation.
If we lose our ability to see nature with moral vision, we become less human, and more like beasts.
But we do. All the time.
"I don't know how many ministers I've heard say over the years that animals are here for us, and for our use, and so is the entire natural world," Matthew told me when I reached him by phone. "But there's another [Christian] tradition that calls us to respect the dignity of all life, and to be mindful of animals as our fellow creatures. This is the tradition of Saint Francis and many other saints, which recognized above all that a respect for animals is an essential part of living well and living with integrity."
Unlike Matthew, I am a carnivore, and indeed an enthusiastic one. He said that he doesn't think it's necessarily a moral duty to eschew eating meat, but refusing to participate in cruelty is, however, a firm obligation—and that conservatives ought to be the first to point that out.
"Conservatives I respect a great deal are always telling us that man is not just an economic being, but a moral actor," he said. "Well, there are moral costs to efficiency. Most people will tell you that the cruelties of factory farming are intolerable, and they want nothing to do with them. All people have to do, then, is to consult their own standards and live by them."
"That's how I see it too," I replied. "But lots of times, when you point out that this or that way that conservatives live doesn't seem particularly true to conservative principles, boy, does that make right-wingers mad. I don't know about you, but I've found that one of the quickest ways to start a fight with most people in our tribe is to say that factory farming is problematic from a conservative point of view. They get real hot about how if we didn't have these things, where would we get cheap chicken?"
"As if that's the highest good!" Matthew said. "Conservatives have assumed this posture of disdain and even contempt for people concerned about the natural world and animals, but you don't need anything more complicated than a simple standard of animal husbandry."
As Matthew sees it, proper animal "husbandry," which comes from word roots meaning "bound to the house"—that is, the animals were seen as organically connected to the farmer's home—means that man asserts his own legitimate demands on animals, but gives them something in return. You protect them from predators, and you breed them in a way that accentuates their strengths.
"And you let them live their lives as animals," he said, not as biological products mass-produced in a factory farm. This is the same humane philosophy that guides the men with whom I grew up hunting deer: a respect for the natural rhythm and conditions of life, and honor for the animals and their condition.
In a world where efficiency is the highest value, honor comes at too high a price. If you think about it, conservatism today often takes on the characteristics of what conservatives say they hate most of all about liberalism: self-interest above anything else. It is a vision of man as an autonomous being who has only needs to meet and demands to make, no obligations to fulfill.
"At a certain point, they tend to see people more as consumers," Matthew said. "I remember when a particular conservative columnist strolled into my office one day at the White House. We started talking about this issue, and I told him I was finishing writing a chapter in my book about how we needed to get away from factory farming. His response was 'But that's going to cost more money.' Conservatives should be the first to understand that we're not just here to make money, that we have other duties in life."
I admitted to Matthew that for years I had looked at environmentalism, especially animal welfare, as something essentially trivial, something that I could shrug off. I found lots of company on the right.
"My response to that is that you don't get to shrug things off just because they're little things," he said. "Little moral wrongs have a way of growing into much greater moral problems unless you take care of them. And that has happened in the case of industrial farming. All moral values have been subordinated to economic values."
‘Breeders!’ she'd scream. ‘You're crowding out the animals!’
That this fundamentally indifferent or even hostile right-wing attitude to animal welfare also extends to trees, fields, mountains, and rivers hardly needs detailing here. Many conservatives can easily recall having been part of conversations in which fellow conservatives held forth arrogantly about paving over the wetlands, or improving a pasture by putting in a parking lot. Some of this gets said simply for shock value, but it does reflect a fundamental scorn for the natural world, except insofar as money can be made out of it. When I hear conservatives talk like this, I hear the voice of the callow city hunters that I grew up learning to despise—men like the top Louisiana politician who brought his son to the hunting camp one day, and when the kid illegally killed a doe, was shocked when the other hunters refused to laugh it off.
How did the conservative movement become identified with such prideful philistinism? We weren't always like this. In fact, it is an attitude of relatively recent vintage. Readers of Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk, two of the philosophical fathers of modern American conservatism, cannot fail to be impressed with the profound respect those men had for the natural world, and their distress over the way industrial capitalism saw nature merely as a thing to be exploited.
These traditionalists saw an ethic of conservation as entirely consistent with conservative principle, in part because of conservatism's understanding of human nature. If you believe that man is inherently flawed—what religious people call "original sin" (the only Christian dogma, according to English writer and proto-crunchy con , that can be proved by recourse to the daily newspaper)—it follows that man, if left to his own devices, will tend toward ego-driven disharmony. Traditionalist conservatives know that absent the restraining hand of religion, tradition, or the state, there is nothing to prevent human beings from acting in ways contrary to their own best interests, or those of the community.
For a true conservative, that community includes men and women yet to he born, and for whose sake we are morally obliged to be good stewards of the world we have been given. "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," Kirk wrote. He demanded that Americans behave more prudently, to honor "the future partners in our contract with eternal society."
What can that mean to a society and a government putting its children and children's children in hock to foreign creditors to keep the great smoking engines of consumption pumping—and the politicians, including Republicans, who profess conservatism, in power by pandering to voters? Can today's conservatives even understand what Kirk was talking about?
There are signs, however, that that might be changing.
In 2005, the not a magazine known for its liberal sympathies, opined that "the greening of conservatism is a revolution waiting to happen." The magazine pointed out that a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll revealed that 49 percent of Americans approve of President Bush's handling of the environment. What's more, a coalition of Washington defense hawks, including former CIA director James Woolsey, signed an open letter to Mr. Bush calling on him to make reducing America's dependence on foreign oil a priority, citing the country's vulnerability to economic shock should Mideast violence severely disrupt our oil supply. The neocon defense strategist Frank Gaffney, a cofounder of the initiative, told me that he sees action on this front as "inevitable," given the precariousness of the nation's Mideast oil supplies.
The most important political development toward the greening of the GOP is a revolution in the thinking of evangelical Christian leaders, whose movement is the backbone of the Republican Party, especially in the South. Over the last two years, key evangelical pastors and lay leaders have embraced environmental stewardship ("creation care" as some of them call it) as a biblically sound value, and indeed a divine command. According to one poll, 52 percent of evangelicals now support strict environmental regulation. This is not to say that evangelicals have warmed to mainstream environmental activists, some of whom have semipagan sensibilities that rankle Bible believers. But in recent years, these same religious folks have worked closely and fruitfully with feminists to fight pornography and the international sex trade, so there is every reason to think that once the two sides get comfortable with each other, they will make common cause in political efforts.
…the greening of the religious right is the most natural thing in the world.
Given how serious they are about bringing their basic moral and religious convictions to the public square, the greening of the religious right is the most natural thing in the world. As , the Christian farmer, poet, and essayist has written, "We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy ... You cannot know that life is holy if you are content to live from economic practices that daily destroy life and diminish its possibility." He teaches that Christians practice, or fail to practice, their faith by how they treat creation, the handiwork of the Lord God
Berry phoned me one night from his Kentucky farm after chores were done to talk about conservatism and the way we conservatives think about the natural world. Berry is one of the rare writers whose work is prized by folks on the left and the right, though he can irritate both sides for his ornery refusal to fit neatly into the boxes others have prepared for him. In one of his most trenchant essays, "Sex, Economy, freedom, and Community" (published in a 1993 collection of the ), Berry chastised both the libertine left and the libertarian right for colluding to destroy community life with their exaltation of individual gratification above all things.
When we spoke, I told him that I found his writing to be prophetic and deeply resonant with my conservative values.
"I call myself a conservative in a way, because I'm interested in conserving things that need to be conserved," he responded. "But I hesitate to call myself a conservative publicly, because I don't think there are too many in the conservative movement today who care about conserving much of anything except money. I have a lot of sympathy for so many conservatives, but when they incorporate themselves politically, nothing seems to account for the way they act."
Berry said the country has become so polarized that you're either stupid or brave to identify yourself as a conservative or a liberal nowadays. Lately, he's been writing to his liberal friends to tell them that left-wing intellectuals ought to quit demonizing Christian fundamentalists, though he himself practices a more moderate form of the faith. "If they'd just get to know some of them, they'd find they don't all foam at the mouth, and most of them are good people," he said.
But what Berry finds tough to take from so many Christians is their blindness about the environment. "The Bible says that God made the world and approved of it. That means the natural world. One of my favorite texts is in the book of Job, where it says if God gathers to himself his spirit and his breath, all flesh will perish together, and man return again into dust. Now, this is a terrifying idea. It says God is not just transcendent, but immanent in creation, and we and all creatures live by God's spirit, and by breathing His breath.
"How can you get from that to the support that this administration has given, for instance, to mountaintop removal in Virginia and Kentucky is more than I can fathom. These people are destroying the world, and they've fired and mistreated the people who have tried to enforce the law. This has been going on here for forty years, and it's gotten steadily worse. I can't understand why these people claim to be devout worshippers of God, yet have this perfect indifference, even willingness, to this destruction."
I suggested to Berry that the recent news about important evangelical leaders changing their tune on the environment was encouraging, and he agreed, saying that he hoped that the secular left and the religious right can quit anathematizing each other and work together for the sake of the natural world. One important thing the mainstream environmental movement can learn from conservatives, he observed, is respect for human community.
"I've been carrying on kind of a battle with the environmentalists for a long time, because I can't get them interested in the conservation of the working landscapes, the economic landscapes," he said. "I made a vow that I wasn't going to sign on to any wilderness-protection projects that didn't also try to preserve the environment where people made their living. They are assuming that they can preserve the natural world by means of wilderness protection, and I think that's false."
In other words, the dualist view pitting man against nature, one that partisans of the left and right share, is an illusion. To see the two as inevitably and unavoidably engaged in a will-to-power death struggle is not only to close off reasonable compromise, but also to cause unnecessary and perhaps irremediable harm to either the natural world or the people who live in it. It is poverty that creatures and places that might have been preserved with a substantial measure of dignity should be trampled under so that men may live as they choose. It is also poverty that the livelihoods and legitimate needs of men and their families should be trampled under so that ardent defenders of the natural world can live out their utopian convictions at the expense of people whose names and faces they don't even know.
These are the reasons why environmentalists have made such limited progress with the general public, even as the public's attitudes have become greener in recent years: people are pleased to hold the "correct" green attitudes until it costs them something, and they understandably don't want to be preached at by rigidly righteous environmentalists. But the environmentalists, in far too many cases, fail to see how dependent they are on the works of grubby human hands for the things that sustain their own lives. Like it or not, we are all in this together.
What's needed, then, is for both sides to open their minds, to think of ways to cooperate for the sake of a healthier environment—domestic and natural—for all living things. It begins by ceasing to think of man and the natural world as separate and competing entities, destined to be at odds in a zero-sum game. Nothing substantial can be done to find a workable compromise until both sides free themselves from this pointless and destructive dualism. As Berry wrote in a 2002 essay collected in his book :
To me, it appears that these two sides are as divided as they are because each is clinging to its own version of a common economic error. How can this be corrected? I don't think it can be, so long as each of the two sides remains closed up in its own conversation. I think the two sides need to enter into one conversation. They have got to talk to one another. Conservationists have got to know and deal competently with the methods and economics of land use. Land users have got to recognize the urgency, even the economic urgency, of the requirements of conservation.
Failing this, these two sides will simply concede an easy victory to their common enemy, the third side, the corporate totalitarianism which is rapidly consolidating as "the global economy" and which will utterly dominate both the natural world and its human communities.
Wendell Berry's conservationism is of the sensible kind you would expect from a thoughtful and pious man who lives on and works the land, and who understands the need for harmony, for balance between the nature idolatry practiced by many liberal environmentalists and the blasphemy carried out by many conservatives. As the Bible says, man was given dominion over the things of the earth, but also required to exercise stewardship of the gift. Whether you're a religious believer or not, that is traditional wisdom worth heeding.
And it is wisdom that political conservatives can and should embrace, and translate into public policy. The standard line is that the environment is for Republicans what defense is for Democrats: not an issue that comes naturally to them. Republicans need only familiarize themselves with the teaching of some of modern conservatism's founding fathers, as well as the Holy Scriptures, to find the theoretical basis for a conservative environmentalism. Here's a brilliant plan, which I'll give to Karl Rove for free: let's brand it "conservation," and act like it was our idea.
It's not easy being a green conservative, but if we conservatives want to be true to our principles, we have to move in that direction. It is morally right. It is religiously correct. It is economically prudent. It strengthens national defense. And it makes a better world for our children, and our children's children.
As the most committed indoorsman west of Manhattan, I turned green not because I love to hug trees or bunnies (unless they're baked in mustard sauce). No, I turned green because, as schmaltzy as it sounds, I love to hug my kids.