Review: The Disfiguration of Nature: Why Caring for the Environment is Inherently Conservative

In his provocative, controversial-at-times book, James Krueger makes his case why environmentalism is inherently a conservative cause. He prefers the term “conservation” to make clear the word’s ties to conserving and conservatism. This book is of supreme relevance in a time when political divisions are becoming starker, nuance feels like a relic, and we seem to have forgotten how to submit to one another for the good of the whole. At times his rhetoric is abrasive and grating, especially when he adds in inflammatory topics of LGBTQ and abortion rights. But don’t give up and throw the book aside. We already do too much of that in our inabilities to truly dialogue anymore. Krueger has much of value to say and it is important to at least be open to his challenges, lest we only wall ourselves into echo chambers of those who think and believe just like we do.

Krueger’s main premise is that our political identities have strayed far from their origins, and both sides now believe in the goodness of progress (however that is defined) regardless of cost (e.g., neoliberalism), and very often to the detriment of the very earth we live on. He re-defines (or rather hearkens back to) definitions of conservative and liberal. “Conservatives” were once defined as those who use tradition as a guide for the future, who strongly value family life and other social organizing systems that keep us beholden to one another, and who prioritize morality and personal integrity (p. 6). “Liberalism,” as he defines it, prioritizes progress for the sake of progress, supports technological advances, and a market- and profit-driven system that is given free reign by a limited government (p. 7). Clearly, our conservative and liberal political parties have moved a tad from such origins. Today’s Republican party has much more of a libertarian instead of a conservative ideology, and both parties swim somewhere in the soup of classical liberalism. Because of this, classical conservatism has been lost.

A conservative by his new / old definition, Krueger is not against a government with authority to set limits on businesses and provide social safety nets for the vulnerable in society. He acknowledges that big business is very poor at self-regulation and believes it is the role of government to set the needed limits that then benefit all instead of the few. What is important to him is respecting the laws and limits of nature and being humble about our own place in the world.

Krueger brings in LGBTQ and abortion issues because these are often, for Republican voters, issues that keep them away from a pro-environment vote (which is now solely the realm of Democrats). He does not support governmental promotion of LGBTQ or abortion rights, because he believes that both of these issues go against laws of nature and traditional moral principles. In some ways, especially with LGBTQ rights, I feel he is setting up a straw man argument (though it may appeal to today’s conservatives) about what the LGBTQ population wants: the destruction of the marriage institution, sex and sexuality becoming un-sacred and used solely for one’s personal pleasure, without concern to how we are responsible to one another in relationship. Perhaps it is my own personal experience of knowing so many married or monogamously committed, and very often Christian, LGBTQ couples that this argument barely makes sense to me. He also assumes there is no biological basis to homosexuality, whereas I do not think you can make such an argument based on what we witness even in the rest of the animal kingdom. On the issue of abortion, I give him credit that he supports much more social, governmental support for single mothers who keep the babies they are not ready for. I too wish for this and wish the Republicans could take this up as a pro-life issue.

Krueger’s book is a thin volume but very densely and academically written. It is not for the faint of heart if you fear being challenged, inspired, and even angered all in the same chapter. I do not agree with all of what he has written, yet I still want to shout the underlying message from the rooftops: Conservation is not an inherently liberal issue! Conservatives need to take up the issue of conservation! We have no time (or land, or water, or air) to waste!

Those of us who live in small towns, who naturally have more connection to the land and may either farm or know farmers nearby, easily understand this. My own town of Bellefontaine, Ohio has a free recycling program, has reduced their trash waste by 24% just this last year, and many people compost in their own backyards. They also tend to vote Republican. Conserving and being a conservative are not mutually exclusive.

So what is it we must do? In my opinion, people on both sides of the aisle must stop monolithic thinking and bring some humility to the table. Democrats, especially big-city Democrats, must gain respect for the giant red swath of America in the heartland, the people who are often much more intimately connected with the land and submission to the cycles of earth. Republicans need to recall their roots and end the unhealthy marriage to big-business interests and false individual autonomy (e.g. through lowering taxes no matter the cost) that has somehow come to define them.

Additionally, I appreciate Krueger’s bold yet hard-to-swallow stance that we cannot continue our technological race forward that serves to consume more and more resources, even when we try and commit to using renewable resources in our gluttonous consumption. A lesson that seems most difficult for Americans to learn is that we cannot have it all, we should not have it all, and we must stop thinking we can have it all instantly. I’m only a fish swimming in this same water yet I know this greedy desire is one of our great moral downfalls. Are we willing to give up our pride, our greed, and be willing to submit to each other and to the earth in time to rescue our planet from destruction?

2 thoughts on “Review: The Disfiguration of Nature: Why Caring for the Environment is Inherently Conservative

  1. Christine I totally agree with the need to challenge ourselves to open our belief systems and we cannot have it all. Looks like a thought provoking read tie gather on my next trip to the library.

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