Two years ago, during a segment on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart highlighted some apparent hypocrisy surrounding Pope Francis, on the occasion of the release of his encyclica, “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home.” Stewart observed that so-called American conservatives, who all too often appear to self-consciously display a public Christian piety, seemed unconcerned with Francis’ enhanced focus on climate and the environment. The attack was nearly rote and formulaic on Stewart’s part. Perhaps the most memorable line in the entire segment, however, came close to the end, when Stewart remarked that climate change might get more support among conservatives if it were framed as, in his words, “preserving traditional sea levels.” It is a fine example of wit—and like all such witticisms, it lands because contained within it is a core of truth.
Environmental issues are not typically at the forefront of reactionary thought. This is, perhaps, only natural, given the justified focus of reactionary thinkers upon the actions and behaviors of men. Reaction is cultural, philosophical, artistic in its bent; what time it has for the natural sciences and their subjects is usually focused on what harm they have done, what strayings from tradition they have allowed. Men are the focus of the Right, because men cannot help but be the focus. Men are the fulcrum upon which the created order pivots.
But issues of the environment cannot be ignored. It’s dangerous to cede any area of thought to those obsessed with progress and forward motion; it is not fitting that one voice, or set of voices, should have a matter of debate entirely to themselves. The recent hurricanes and flooding in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean have brought discussions of environment and climate back to the forefront. A few things should be said on the subject from a more conservative perspective.
The word ‘conservative’ is an excellent place to start, as that word’s root, the word ‘conserve,’ is also the root of that potent word, ‘conservation.’ A cursory glance at the history of reaction reveals a not-inconsiderable focus on the natural world, on the world in which men live and what their attitude towards that world should be. Consider the great reactionary J.R.R. Tolkien; his masterwork “The Lord of the Rings” depicts a reverence for the natural world, from the carefully tended gardens of the hobbits of the Shire to the mighty guardians of the great forests, the Ents of the deep woods. For Tolkien it is a grave sin, an evil thing, to needlessly destroy and ruin the natural world. We must remember that the Ents are roused, not merely by the destruction of their trees, but by the wantonness of it, the cutting and burning for no good reason.
What would man be without the Earth upon which he lives? We are beings created of the dirt and the dust, with the breath of the wind in our lungs. So much of our culture, our history, our traditions are made and forged and kept in reaction to the slow motion of nature, from the Thanksgiving and other harvest festivals of autumn to the bright flowers and merry dancing of May Day in the spring. So much of that which makes men men is shaped in their response and reaction to the environment. When Perceval stops and contemplates the drops of blood in the snow, meditating on them and the way they conjure memories of his great love Blanchefleur, it is the whiteness and the chill of that French winter that acts as a lens, arresting the reader, focusing his attention upon the meditation in which the great knight is immersed.
A love of the natural world is inherently reactionary; that it is regarded as progressive, instead, is one of the great sleights of hand engineered by Modern thought. It is so often in the name of progress that men pave over wetlands and dump garbage in the oceans. Progress, and an insatiable need for economic growth, drive so often the degradation and corruption of the created order, whether on the small scale of cutting down a tree or the large scale of polluting the atmosphere. Indeed, it was in the name of economic growth that the city of Houston allowed its outlying wetlands and grasslands to be turned into suburban sprawl, thereby robbing it of one of the crucial defenses it once possessed against flooding.
We shouldn’t forget that what damage has been done to the environment in the Modern age has its origins in the very bedrock of Modernity. It was the great original Modernists—Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza—who shifted the West’s view of the natural world, moving it from a seamless created order in which man participated to a base collection of material resources which man ought to exploit for his own benefit. It was their mechanistic thinking—their minds of metal and wheels—that paved the way for the industrialization that, while it has done several very good things, has caused great harm to the living world, as well.
The descendants of these thinkers have a similar idea in mind; they merely employ it with different intent. Not only do progressive, radical environmentalists deserve not to have the issue all to themselves; they might perhaps be said not to deserve a voice at all, given the nihilistic ends to which their discussions ultimately turn. Radical environmentalists view man as divorced from nature, just as their radical predecessors once did. Where the early Moderns saw this as license to dominate nature, however, the current Moderns take it as license to exterminate ourselves.
In place of this, a recognition must be reasserted that man is not divorced from nature. The pope very much endorses this viewpoint in his encyclical; though not all of Francis’ moves during his tenure might be considered reactionary, “Laudato Si” is most certainly a work of reaction. It is a document that posits man atop the created, material order—but not apart from it. Man is the highest corporeal entity in the great Chain of Being, but he can only stand firmly if the chain’s lower rungs exist as a foundation. Man exists in mastery over creation, and yet he himself is part of that creation, to a degree he cannot escape.
And, indeed, this view, this “integrated ecology,” as the pope names it, is the only view that will indeed preserve and uphold the garden of our world. The ideology that has endangered the natural order cannot abruptly pivot and preserve it; the Modern perspective on man, the Earth, and the universe cannot protect nature when it has been the original cause of nature’s devastation. It is the old, and a return to the old, that alone may see creation kept well, kept safe.
The pope’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, was also intensely focused on the environment. For Benedict, focus on climate change and environmental degradation serves a moral, philosophical, and theological purpose. It forces Modern man to confront the fact that he is not, after all, divorced from the created order, and he cannot do with it as he pleases without consequence. There are hard, fast things in nature, things which Modernity cannot will out of existence, for all its sophistry. Benedict saw in this recognition an avenue to illuminate for Modern man other things he cannot ignore, other things that have been true, are true now, and will be true in the future: moral truths, philosophical truths, truths about the very nature of reality and the human person.
Let us, then, approach care for the environment from a position of reaction. Let us preserve our traditional sea levels, as well as those forests, fields, mountains, and valleys which have so transcendentally left their mark upon our culture and our history. Let that created order which stands as a pillar of our tradition be tended, cultivated, and preserved for all ages to come. Let it be cold and snowy in winter; let it be mild and flowery in spring. Let the summers be hot and the autumns be crisp, as they have been since time immemorial. Let man forget his feverish dream of being a god, and let him recover his true duty as a steward.