Look at That: Ecology and Culture

When the astronaut Edgar Mitchell recalled seeing Earth from a lunar vantage point, he offered a priceless quote:

You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”

This is a delightful and colorful example of what we might call the ecological consciousness: the ability to see things in relation to one another, and to understand the innate connections between beings. This way of seeing is a fundamentally conservative impulse. It is the ability to see the connection between action and consequence, between influence and result. It is to be aware that no one thing is separate from any other thing. “When we try to pick out anything by itself,” John Muir said, “we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

I am an ardent conservationist and lover of nature, usually more comfortable among starlings and smallmouths than among most humans. I am also a traditional conservative (and there is not usually much overlap in that particular Venn diagram). I am suspicious of the claims of applied science and technology, deeply skeptical of the efficacy of large-scale social programs, a proponent of local control, and a general advocate of humility, simplicity, and practicality. If something good and decent has endured for a long time, I generally assume it has something great to offer and that we should be reluctant to change it. I am skeptical that there is such a thing as “moral progress” and of the assorted claims of revolutionaries and disrupters. I lament the decline of chivalry, the erosion of manners, and the collapse of the nuclear family.

My question for my fellow ardent environmentalists is this: why aren’t you? Alas, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard my eco-minded compatriots follow this basic script in a conversation:

Him: “Conserve all nature! Leave it all alone! It has built itself up into a powerful network of symbiosis and resilience! If we destroy these precious and fragile webs, we destroy them forever!”

Me: “Great idea. What about social life and culture?”

Him: “Tear it all down!”

The stubborn naïveté of so many environmentalists, the shallow understanding of the similarly fragile state of culture, and the craven surrender to an identity politics that worships the Self and deifies man—I am weary of it all. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot lambaste instrumentalism and utility-maximization in a protected forest while ignoring its rise in our newly tech-centric schools. You cannot sing the praises of a river’s ecological networks while ignoring the equally significant ecological networks of marriage and family. If I spray a toxin on a crop, it will enter the groundwater; from the groundwater it will enter streams and thereby fish; from fish it will kill birds. This process has been observed again and again. Now just consider mass divorce, out-of-wedlock births, a disposable social culture of addiction and abandonment—and think of it as one big stew of DDT, destroying communities and eroding support networks just as surely as the eggs of peregrines and ospreys crack under pressure.

If you are going to praise the ability of a rain forest to self-regulate, and to build up over time an amazing ability to sustain various forms of life, then you should respect that ability wherever one finds it. Consider the monogamous two-parent family. Maybe it’s not a natural arrangement. Maybe it is an institution invented by society. But so what? It has worked incredible wonders. A child learning from direct experience how men and women interact, how to treat others, what a good role model looks like, what commitment and loyalty can do, and how mature parties can quarrel and bicker and still kiss at the end of the night: what a blessing for a young person!

If an ill-conceived dam redirects salmon away from a river, you remove a good food source for bears. Without the salmon, the bears don’t help fertilize the trees and undergrowth quite as much. Without that salmon-rich fertilizer, plants don’t do as well and other species suffer. And so the loop of river ecology shows, again and again, that tampering with part of it usually means tampering with all of it.

If an ill-conceived culture of no-fault divorce and lack of commitment takes away two-parent families, you generally do harm to children. Development suffers. Academic performance suffers. Families become unstable and bonds become tenuous. Those children themselves become more likely to divorce down the road. And so the loop of social ecology shows, again and again, that tampering with part of it usually means tampering with all of it.

How do birds learn how to fly, where to eat, and what to avoid? They watch their elders. There is a right way and a wrong way to do things. This is a basic fact of animal life. Why, then, are we so reluctant to communicate a right way and a wrong way to our fellow humans? I am weary of left-leaning environmentalists who claim a value-free outlook of the world, declaring themselves to be tolerant of all possible views (except conservative ones, as it usually turns out). This is nonsense, of course. Each time we make a choice to undertake an action we are revealing what we value, namely, that we consider one way of doing things to be superior.

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community,” wrote the iconic conservationist Aldo Leopold. “It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Is our social life and shared culture any less a biotic community than Leopold’s beloved Wisconsin marshland? No, it is emphatically not. Why, then, are so many left-leaning environmentalists so keen to smash the very structures—the nuclear family, the code of the gentleman, and the natural human tendency toward hierarchy—that have brought so much integrity, stability, and beauty to our culture? At the very least, shouldn’t we be a bit more hesitant about declaring tradition to be oppressive? It may satisfy your sense of self-righteousness to shout, “Smash the patriarchy!” at a group of young men, but watch a father teaching his son the names of plants and animals and you may realize that there is benefit in a masculinity that creates respect for other creatures.

If there is anything that unites our two political parties and their noisome adherents, it is an obsessive focus on the individual. This is what makes it so difficult for one to be a conservative in the modern United States: one has no political home. One party is fixated on social individualism, advocating for removing all constraints on individual desire. The other is fixated on economic individualism, muttering threateningly about removing all constraints on economic activity. Two parties, two sides of the philosophical liberalism coin. Conservatism is nowhere represented.

Except, of course, in those of us who love our natural and cultural home, who see the fragile ecology of nature and culture alike, and who are extremely reluctant to change either without considerable forethought. I don’t want to tamper with a river, and chances are most progressives don’t either. But I also don’t want to tamper with a family, and it’s a minor tragedy that many progressives will disagree. For if there is anyone who can speak to the inherent fragility of ecosystems, it is environmentalists—the tree-huggers and dirt-worshippers and those who watch the robins skitter from grass to tree, worm to beetle, all the while maintaining and preserving robin culture in each humble avian action.

Ecosystems are tough to build and easy to destroy. It’s a point worth bearing in mind when you call for eradication of tradition. Each time one of my fellow environmentalists calls for smashing this or that institution, or insults a church or civic group, or chuckles in low-hipsterish amusement at those rubes with their 4-H Clubs and Bible studies, I want to grab him by the scruff of the neck and show him a family playing a board game, a parish volunteer at a soup kitchen, a citizen standing up at a neighborhood meeting, or a father pointing to a hawk in an updraft with his son’s gaze following skyward and I want to say—

“Look at that, you son of a bitch. Look at that.”

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail of “The River Wye at Tintern Abbey” painted by Philip James de Loutherbourg in 1805.

R. M. Stangler


R. M. Stangler is an administrator at Donnelly College in Kansas City. He earned a Ph.D. in rhetoric at the University of Kansas, where he wrote his dissertation on Weaver and his Southern Agrarian mentors. He has published a review essay in The New Atlantis and an essay on agrarianism and Christian thought in The St. Austin Review.