This issue brings together a number of discussions of man’s place in nature. Stephen R. L. Clark, Tibor Machan, and jay Mechling explore the implications of the animal rights movement. Debating the “moral status of animals” (to borrow one of Prof. Clark’s titles) is interesting not so much for what it reveals about beasts as for what it might tell us about what it means to be human. Our links with the rest of nature are discussed and argued every day and not just in philosophy classes. Our pulpits and religious· broadcasts thunder with denunciations against the Darwinist blasphemy that reduces man to the status of a “tailless quadruped,” and public school systems are becoming a battleground between the proponents of creation science and orthodox Darwinists.
These are serious matters with a great deal at stake-too serious to be turned into ideological footballs. Unfortunately, some conservative journalists have picked up the cute habit of pitting one school of evolutionist against another in order to produce the impression that the central tenets of the neo-Darwinist synthesis are still controversial among biologists. They are not. While these efforts cheer the hearts of obscurantists everywhere, their principal effect is to reinforce the smug isolation of scientists from the mainstream of intellectual dis course. The problem with Darwinism is not that it locates the origin of the human species among the primates, but that it is an ideology which claims to explain the meaning (or nonmeaning) of life. But it should be possible to take advantage of scientific research without embracing the ethics and metaphysics of the researchers.
Apart from ideology there are serious questions about our place in the scheme of things. Whether descended from apes or Adam and Eve, are we still a part of nature?
What, if any, are our responsibilities to the rest of creation? The Sierra Club has one answer, most conservatives another. In the eyes of many environmentalists, the only good thing is nature uncontaminated by human contact. In his “Perspective” Allan Carlson dissects the Malthusian ideology. What binds together the advocates of “limits to growth,” sex education, and radical environmentalism is a profound fear of human fecundity. They speak hysterically of a planet overridden by teeming masses of humanity. In Calcutta, these fears might be justified. However, any one who has flown over Montana or even North Carolina would realize what a fragile foothold the human race has established on this continent. But in the eyes of environmentalists, “every prospect pleases, and only man is vile.” No sacrifice is too much for us to make, so long as it will guarantee attractive vistas for backpackers and birdwatchers.
If the silliness of environmentalists poses a threat to economic development, some conservative responses approach blasphemy. NUKE THE WHALES is a funny slogan and makes a splendidly impudent bumper sticker. If taken seriously, however, it reveals a disturbing insouciance. A fragment of Greek verse sums up all too well the attitude of certain reckless industrialists:
When I am dead, let earth be mixed with fire [i.e., let the universe be destroyed], for when I’m gone, I’ll no longer care.
A few of the damn-the-pollution full-speed-ahead boys might enjoy the Emperor Nero’s emendation of the first line: not when I’m dead, but while I’m alive. One booster of Birmingham (Alabama) is said to have remarked, when the subject of his city’s dirty air was brought up:
“Pollution? Boy, that’s not pollution you smell; that’s money.”
It wasn’t too long ago that people saw a connection between conservatism and conservation. In America, at least, it was the liberals who were willing to “take the cash and let the credit go,” and who had as little concern for the welfare of their descendants as they had for the wisdom of their ancestors. Back in the 1930’s the agrarians (most, but not all, of them Southern writers like Allen Tate) were upset by what they rightly saw as a cavalier disregard for any good that could not be evaluated in economic terms. One of the most faithful of their number, Mr. Andrew Lytle, moved back to the country and has lived for years at the Log Cabin in Monteagle, Tennessee. These agrarians would now be described as politically conservative (if not downright reactionary), but their spiritual descendant-as a poet and defender of the land-Wendell Berry, is part of the environmentalist left.
You might say he was driven there. On the whole, the conservative movement has not made a positive contribution to conservation. Conservatives are justified in the ridicule they heap upon the heads of the Nature lobby and quite correctly emphasize the potential effectiveness of marketplace solutions to the problems of environmental pollution. They point out that many of our problems are not as critical as they have been made out to be; some of the Worst were created by government, not industry. But conservatives too often insist on reducing an essentially moral question to the abstract di mensions of economics. Some of them speak as if we should be free to negotiate over the relative advantages of jobs and profits versus oil spills, lead poisoning, and contaminated water. They would have us believe that the extinction of a genuinely unique species of life (whether created by God or evolved in the course of millions or years) is a laughing matter. The only prominent American conservative who speaks out on conservation would be James Buckley, whose single term in the Senate is a testament to personal integrity.
Real conservation – as opposed to the nuts and berries Malthusianism of the Sierra Club – is conservative; it is conservatism from the ground up. It is based on knowing our own limits, on recognizing that man was given dominion over the earth, not an empire won by conquest. For conservatives to repudiate all responsibility for the rest of nature does not, on the face of it, make a great deal of sense. If we claim to believe in the human heritage and in the traditions of our civilization, these traditions amount to more than platitudes about freedom and equality. They bind us with the generations who lived in this land before the revolution made us Americans. “The land was ours before we were the land’s,” celebrated Robert Frost. If we are willing to repudiate, to despoil our inheritance like a spendthrift heir, we had best shed the pretense that we are conserving anything except our own self-interest.
The right’s indifference to the environment is particularly deplorable for a less than obvious reason. If the United States is going to save its natural inheritance, conservatives are going to have to do it. The government planning advocated by the environmentalist left would only make life as intolerable here as it is in the Soviet Union – which has, by the way, worse pollution problems than the U.S. Conservation (and restoration) efforts will require some of the reverence for life displayed by the right-to-life movement combined with the free enterprise know-how of our best entrepreneurs. It will also require a contemplation of man’s place in nature and his relationship to what the Declaration once called “nature’s God.” cc