We must find wonder in nature to point us back to an adoration of its Creator.
In the United States, caring for the environment has come to be seen as a left-wing position. The Democrats’ job is to care for the environment, and the Republicans’ job is to push for more fossil fuels. However, the recent GOP debate might offer a paradigm shift. In response to a question about what the candidates would do about climate change, Vivek Ramaswamy declared that, “the climate change agenda is a hoax.” Mr. Ramaswamy was met with a unanimous boo from the crowd. While the candidates might still be stuck in old talking points that place corporate profit over care for the environment, it leads to the question: Has the base simply shifted to the left, or is it possible that environmentalism is actually the true conservative position?
It is not the case that environmental conservation has always been associated with the left. For example, it was Richard Nixon that founded the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as signed the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Much of the environmental protections that now exist in the United States is the legacy of Nixon. It seems that environmentalism is in many ways a conservative idea. The goal is to conservative the environment as an important, beautifying part of our nation instead of allowing it to be destroyed by the progress of technology. A conservative environmentalism can serve as an important part of a national identity and a bulwark against progressivism.
How might a conservative environmental policy look different from a progressive one? Most notably, it starts from a very different view of nature. Western civilization is in many ways the fusion of Biblical revelation with Greek philosophy. Aristotle developed one of the most robust accounts of nature of any of the Greek philosophers. According to Aristotle, everything has a nature which orders it to an end. For example, it is the nature of bees to create honey. All the various natures of things are ordered in a beautiful cosmic harmony. Man is not outside this realm of nature, for man too has a nature. Man however has rationality, and so unlike anything else, man can move away from his natural end of happiness. Man can also use his rationality to understand the rest of nature and see its beautiful harmony.
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The Biblical account goes beyond what Aristotle could have known through reason alone. It teaches us that the environment is the creation of God, a beautiful art representing the Creator. It also teaches us that man, like the rest of the creation, is something created as well. Thus, man is not something outside the creation, but an integral part of it. In fact, man is the crown jewel of creation. It is only after the creation of man that God declares the creation “very good” (Gen 1:31).
Man is created in the image of God and called to have dominion over the creation. Thus, man can take up and transform the creation. He has a duty to use this as a gardener, continuing God’s work of beautifying the creation. However, because of sin, man frequently becomes antagonistic to the creation. For example, when Cain kills his brother Abel, God tells Cain that “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” (Gen 4:10-11). Cain’s sin harms creation itself. Man was meant to serve as the beautifier of creation, continuing the work that God started.
However, man now serves as a destroyer. Thus, Cain’s punishment is that “when you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength” (Gen 4:12). Cain’s sin has destroyed his relationship with the creation, and thus he is unable to benefit from it through agriculture. Cain responds by going out and building a city. Since he cannot work with the creation in ordinary patterns, he must seek to dominate the creation through technology. Of course technology in itself is not bad, and is an expression of the image of God, but when used to dominate it becomes what Pope Francis has called “technocracy” (Laudato si’, 101-136).
In contrast to this Biblical and Aristotelian vision, the modern world has offered two false alternatives. The first is the view of the “scientific revolution,” pioneered especially by René Descartes and Francis Bacon. In this view, man is in no sense part of nature. Thus, man is free to dominate and exploit nature to the maximum extent possible. Science ceases to be about wonder at the creation, and instead becomes about exploitation. (In fact, every relationship becomes one of exploitation, and so the economy shifts from being about mutual gifting and becomes about harnessing greed.) This is the foundation of the right-liberal approach.
The other view is the evolutionary paradigm, in which man is not a special creation in the image of God or a uniquely rational animal, but simply a highly evolved animal. Man’s advantage over the other beings is only quantitative, not qualitative. Thus, environmentalism has no special call to preserve creation for the sake of man. If preserving the environment requires evil acts like population control, so be it. There is no fundamental difference between controlling human and animal populations. This is the foundation to the left-liberal approach. While this appears to be a true environmentalism, it is anything but that. It is misanthropy disguised as environmentalism. Pope Francis has stated in strong words the problem with this approach:
A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings. It is clearly inconsistent to combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking, unconcerned about the poor, or undertaking to destroy another human being deemed unwanted. This compromises the very meaning of our struggle for the sake of the environment … The critique of a misguided anthropocentrism [must not] underestimate the importance of interpersonal relations. If the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity, we cannot presume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships. Christian thought sees human beings as possessing a particular dignity above other creatures… Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb (LS 91, 119).
Perhaps this is what Mr. Ramaswamy meant by the climate change “hoax.” That is, he was not referring to climate change as such, but to the various ways the issue is manipulated by those in power to push an anti-human agenda. If so, there is nothing objectionable about his statement. However, abusus non tollit usum. Just because some use the issue of climate change to do evil things does not mean that caring for the environment is not a real issue.
What might a genuinely conservative, that is Aristotelian and Biblical, approach to environmentalism look like? It would be one that does not seek to preserve nature for its own sake, but as an integral part of the common good. Humans are part of creation, and so part of nature, but also hold a unique role in it as its head. We cannot have an environmentalism which seeks to eliminate man, or even one which is antagonistic to labor. As Pope Francis says,
Any approach to an integral ecology, which by definition does not exclude human beings, needs to take account of the value of labor, as Saint John Paul II wisely noted in his Encyclical Laborem Exercens. According to the biblical account of creation, God placed man and woman in the garden he had created (cf. Gen 2:15) not only to preserve it (“keep”) but also to make it fruitful (“till”). Laborers and craftsmen thus “maintain the fabric of the world” (Sir 38:34; LS 124).
The false alternatives presented by left and right liberalism both start with the false presupposition of antagonism between man and nature. This is because they start with postlapsarian man and forget the original creation was one of harmony. We must make policies that deal with the issues of environmental destruction in a way that accords with human dignity and the natural law. The best way to achieve this seems to be subsidiarity.
The big business and big government conglomerate, what Hillaire Belloc terms the “servile state” and Pope Francis calls the “technocratic regime,” is the primary cause of climate change. Our farming ought not be replaced by large corporations and global food chains, and instead should follow the processes in line with nature that have been done by farmers for millenia.
Likewise our cities should not be artificial wastelands, but should be filled with the beauties of nature, like the New Jerusalem (Rev 22:2). In all of this, we must live in harmony with nature as its summit and director, not under it or against it. Of course, subsidiarity should not be confused with libertarianism. The government will have to intervene to protect the environment. However, we must ensure this does not happen in such a way as to worsen the problem by violating nature.
Pope Francis also calls us to an ecological spirituality. Many critics of Francis have misunderstood this as a call to worship nature, but this is not what he means. “A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshiping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot” (LS 75). We must find wonder in nature, and we must allow this wonder to point us back to an adoration of its Creator. Only this can be a true ecological spirituality.