CONSERVATIVE BY NATURE
By ROB TRAVER, Ed.D.
AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Originally published in the summer 2005 issue of REP’s The Green Elephant newsletter
It came about when I emailed one of my favorite conservative blogs. I said I was disappointed with their approval of the Senate vote to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I said: We conservatives come up short in the long view of things when we take conservation lightly or, worse, treat it as an item that belongs to the left.
There are important cultural values inherent in stewardship of the status quo. One of the “status quo’s” is the natural world where humans have tread lightly, if at all.
I told the blog it was Eisenhower, a Republican, who gave the Arctic Refuge political life. He understood the value of preserving a portion of Alaska’s wild and spectacular North Slope in trust for all the American people.
The vast, empty shoreline that characterizes the North Slope is not empty in the sense of worthless. The emptiness represents, rather, an opportunity for solitude, for humility, for deep feeling, to bear witness to a vast unchangeableness; and from these we conservatives can experience some of the core values of our persuasion: piety, restraint, durability, stewardship, a sense of God, or at least something a lot bigger than we are.
As conservatives, I wrote, we must keep asking: In a world that constantly changes, what must we work hard to save? The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in its pristine state, is one of them.
For thirty years, I’ve aligned myself with the conservatives in America and with the conservation movement. Never did I ask myself how I could hold these two value systems simultaneously while society maintains that the first is the American right and the second belongs to the left. Yet, I’d just written an email that implied that the conservation movement is inherently connected with conservatism. Was this just an emotional exclamation based on unexamined assumptions, a hypocrisy or contradiction? Or could a case be made on a conceptual level that might bring the two into some kind of alignment?
The etymological root of the words conservation and conservatism is one and the same: conserve. Both center on retaining (or preserving) something. Conservation is the safeguarding of nature through prudent stewardship; conservatism is the safeguarding of culture through respect for its traditions. Both abhor revolution, in the sense of a large qualitative shift in the organization of things, in what is valued, in how life is lived.
A revolution in nature is the destruction of its integrity, diversity, stability, and capacity to function as the supra-organism that it is.
A revolution in society is the destruction of the established social order, a breakdown of its integrity, a leveling of diversity, an untested restructuring of its direction and means.
In both of these, then, we are talking about conservation in the same kind of way.
There is congruence, however, beyond the words.
Nature itself is a conservative institution. It evolves, moving slowly from association to association, rarely making gigantic leaps of restructuring, holding in high regard the tried and true, retaining the essential parts and processes. At the most fundamental level of life, there is the hereditary process, a system based on remarkably accurate mechanisms for chemical duplication. Fir trees give rise to fir trees, not pines; and finches produce finches, not sparrows. Beyond this, there is stability of living associations: food chains and webs, ecosystems and biomes, all slowly evolved to yield niche, habitat, stability, and harmony.
Of course, the constituencies of nature change. Circumstances change, hereditary chemicals mutate, and species evolve. Organisms move out of old areas and into new. Moreover, the makeup is layered and complex, composed of intricate relationships, both delicate and robust, full of variety and energy, playful even, hierarchical and lateral. And while there is individuality, no individual organism is completely autonomous. No species is an island. Life is possible only as it is rooted in the web of relations that makes a community.
Thus nature is a living tradition, stretching back far into time, but always carrying forward the best of its past to ensure the survival of those yet to be born.
How like the descriptions of society that we find in the most articulate and passionate of the conservative writers.
For Edmund Burke, his disgust and abhorrence of the French Revolution, with its violent overturn of just about everything, resulted from his deep belief and extensive observation that a society functions best when it values and nurtures the tried and true in its government, laws, institutions, families, and church.
Similarly, Roger Scruton, a contemporary English conservative, describes the conservative attitude as the feeling that one belongs to a continuing and pre-existing social order, and that this fact is all-important in determining what to do. Moreover, it’s the desire to see this social continuity projected into the future—a will to live through one’s descendants—that drives the conservative to value the past and shepherd its best features into the future.
Nature, though likely not an intentional tradition, certainly exhibits an extraordinary capacity to do the same.
This deep structural similarity between nature and social tradition may underlie the opportunity that many have found in nature to learn values that foster conservative habits and attitudes.
The Boy Scouts, for example, have long used natural settings as prompts and challenges to build sound minds and honorable characters. How much more conservative can any short promise be than:
On my honor, I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my
country and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake and morally straight.
Or… what better list of traditional personal values than trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.
One can see a similar creed in those who farm as families. People who are closer to the land and nature often adhere to a more conservative lifestyle. (Just look at the geography of red and blue areas in the United States.) There is something about living life in, among, and through nature that instructs and affirms the fundamental, positive aspects of human goodness. It is a goodness that is honest, hardworking, prudent, careful with land, community oriented, and intergenerational. This is the stuff of conservatism.
Why, then, don’t we conservatives embrace nature conservation more fully? We are certainly capable of leaving things in their given state. Our psychology, history, stories, experiences—in a word, our habits— are very good at affirming the status quo. We are moved by what doesn’t move. We know how to say, “No.”
Why, then, are so many conservatives on the side of those who wish to radically change an ancient and instructive tradition? How is Yellowstone’s ecology different from the Constitution’s checks and balances?
Our conservative persuasion holds sacred the right to transfer property across generations, because we conservatives know that intact inheritance is a stabilizing feature of society. Yet we are willing to irrevocably diminish the commonwealth of America for a short-term oil fix or to fuel the taxpayer subsidized greed of special interests seeking to turn what should be a lasting heritage into quick cash for themselves.
Good parents would never do this to their children. Why are we doing this to our limited and special natural places?
The answer is simple: because the elements of nature—water, trees, land, animals, air, rock and soil— can be held as property, and private property is a foundation stone of American conservatism. Efforts to remove nature from the scope of private property have the look and feel of socialist nationalization.
Furthermore, the American left, through the environmental movement of the 60’s and 70’s, recognized the direct link between environmental degradation and irresponsible, unabashed profit-seeking greed in business, industry, and development. They used this link as a powerful anti-free-market, anti-business, anti-Republican weapon.
The combination of these wrenched the conservation of nature out of conservative policy. An effort to put nature conservation back into conservative policy will require hard work on the meaning and purpose of private and public ownership of property among individuals, families and corporations, now and over the long-term. It will also require conservatives to examine the balance between promoting a healthy capitalist drive for progress and enabling unhealthy greed to go unchecked.
In the end, I do not wish to make too much of this nature/society comparison. I am certainly not suggesting a one-to-one correspondence. Nature, for example, is not purposeful; humans are.
Rather, I believe that there inheres in nature a story of life that is remarkably compatible with the life story that we conservatives live and tell. And if it is one of our stories, then we must be sure to tell it; and to do this the story must be conserved.
Conservatives must strive to conserve nature—as one of the abiding institutions of our civilization—just as energetically as we seek to protect all the other traditions that sustain and renew us.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a good place to start.
THIS WAS THE CREDIT LINE IN 2005: Rob Traver, a REP member since 2002, holds an A.B. in Biology from Dartmouth, an M.S. in Education from Purdue, a graduate diploma in Natural Resource Management from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand (which he earned while on a Rotary Fellowship), and an Ed.D. from Harvard.
Rob ran several professional development programs in Boston Public Schools for teachers of math and science, as well as the freshman botany program at Purdue University. He was the Associate Director on a National Science Foundation grant that prepared K-12 teachers for math and science in urban public schools. He served two years as the Higher Education Coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Education’s State Systemic Initiative in Math and Science. He has taught high school math in inner-city public schools and high school science in a private school. Currently, he is the principal of the Massachusetts Academy of Mathematics and Science, a public magnet school for kids with high ability in math and science.
When we asked Rob to comment on the oft-expressed idea that REP members are “the thinking Republicans,” he responded:
“Yes, the thinking Republicans. That’s been a sore spot for me for a long time. We seem to have this image of being the dumb party. I’ve even seen studies of the Red/Blue state maps where it’s pointed out that the level of education of the average person in the red states is lower than that of the blue. How all those dumb people also get associated with the party of wealth leaves me a little quizzical.
“I want American conservatives to understand the intellectual roots of our persuasion. Somebody in this country should teach a course entitled American Conservatives: Philosophy, Policy, Stories, and People.
“As for REP… I suspect we’re made up of people who believe in good things: good education, healthy land, sound relationships between people, an honest dollar for an honest day’s work, things done well not to get ahead but just to get it right, good manners, good leisure as well as good work, and a desire to see other people in the world have their share of good things, too. It’s about quality.”