Conservatives Must Not Forget About Being Conservationists

The arrogance and contempt for the rule of law demonstrated by the Obama administration makes it hard for many conservatives to resist saying, “See? I told you so” (a Messiah complex is dangerous in a republic, as Lincoln warned in the Lyceum address) but those of us interested in advancing the cause of limited government should remember that we have a positive agenda of our own of which to be proud, not least when it comes to the environment.

Who wants to talk about the environment these days? With tens of millions unemployed and untold millions more out of the labor force not even looking for a job, even the absence of scandal probably would not make it easier to talk about anything other than this president’s failed record on jobs. I’m not saying Republican Senators Rand Paul or Ted Cruz should start focusing on global warming. But it’s good to remember, if you’re a conservative, that we will one day need to articulate a governing philosophy again (hopefully soon), and that when we do a healthy planet needs to be a part of it.

Why does a conservative want to protect the environment? The stereotype is that believing in the free market also means accepting the rape and pillage of the natural world. But conservatism cannot be understood solely in terms of freedom, because the greatest conservative thinkers have also always appreciated the need for order (see Burke and Kirk). This does not mean order imposed from the top down, by government, but rather the right order of the soul – habits of discipline, self-restraint, and respect without which a society cannot function. Although it’s possible to be virtuous without religion, the Right has traditionally held that the proper order of the soul is found in man’s relationship to God.      

In two of the great Abrahamic faiths, “God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26). Our dominion over animals does not come from the many ways in which we can manipulate nature, but rather from the fact that we are like God, unique in the universe and able to participate in the free work of creation. We do have power unimaginable even two generations ago, before the discovery of the DNA helix. But in Genesis power comes with responsibility. The Hebrew word for dominion is radahThe one time in the Bible that radah refers explicitly to God’s rule, Psalm 72:8, we see God not as a tyrant, but as a wise king. As stewards of the natural world, we will one day be held accountable for the use we have made of it.  

One writer who has explored some of these connections is former George W. Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully, who makes an impassioned case for the moral dignity of animals in Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. Having called attention to God’s blessing animals and bringing them to Adam to receive names in life, not death, Scully ponders the “radical departure … in mankind’s outlook on animals and the natural world.” In Judaism, for the first time, “animals are not only significant in themselves, belonging to Him and not to us; they are players, however lowly, in the story of our own moral development.” Tracing the history of that changed status from paganism to Judaism and Christianity would be a worthwhile undertaking.

I am far from making a programmatic environmental appeal based on the Bible. Scully looks at abuses in both factory farming and hunting (legal and illegal) worldwide. At least when it comes to species loss, the situation today is probably much worse than it was more than 10 years ago when he wrote the book (Scully mentions 5,000 tigers left in the wild. Today it is believed that there are at most 4,000). It’s not immediately clear what the U.S. can do to stop the recent explosion of the ivory trade in Africa, the insanity of deforestation in Indonesia, or the alarming lack of access to clean water worldwide (perhaps the next geopolitical reality in the Middle East). But conservatives should allow considerations other than those dictated by markets to come into play.         

The GOP need not run from its record on the environment. No Teddy Roosevelt, no great national parks. No Richard Nixon, no EPA or Clean Air Act. (Being highly troubled by the possibility of fraud in Climategate is entirely consistent with those accomplishments.) Conservationism is different from environmentalism, which sees man as the enemy. So especially if it wants to appeal to more millennials in 2016, the GOP should be mindful that conservatism will always be about freedom, but freedom need not mean anarchy. Ordered liberty imposes on us the duty of proper care for creation.