Most people think agrarianism is synonymous with farming. As a result, agrarian thinkers spend much of their time defending what they really mean—namely, that agrarianism is not so much about agriculture as it is an integrated life in which farming plays a central or at least respectable role. Eric Freyfogle wisely avoids this pitfall and begins broadly, as his title suggests, by equating agrarianism with the Good Society. In taking this approach, he effectively updates the rigid agrarian/industrial and urban/rural dichotomies that characterized the Southern Agrarians and other earlier agrarian thinkers. For him, agrarianism ultimately is good conservation, which makes a good society possible.
Naturally, land and a healthy land ethic are central to his agrarian vision. Through nine chapters, he discusses various problems in American land-use policy and practice. His recurrent theme is that the dominant American way of life, one centered on instant gratification and endless consumption, threatens to undermine the ecological health of the land. Our system has become so individualistic that there are few incentives for sound and long-term land conservation. Private property all too often becomes a license for greed and exploitation. Overgrazing, strip-mining, and factory farming are the most obvious examples of land-use patterns that have a short-term vision and carry many external costs that invite more government taxation and regulation. But many small landowners also wreak ecological havoc, which is fully protected by their legal right to private ownership.
Freyfogle does not see government ownership as a solution. Public-land policy emerged to protect land from excessive exploitation in the 19th century. But it has grown wasteful and expensive. Huge bureaucracies now “manage” tens of millions of acres of national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and other protected areas. Freyfogle sees the private-public dichotomy as both false and failing because neither system has long-term interests in good land use. More importantly, neither system involves local communities in land management. This is why he advocates a return to communally held land. This is not an invitation to more government or communal living. Rather, it attempts to develop more complex land-use arrangements by increasing the ways in which private and public lands can be utilized. The key is to build land-use policy around community needs and the ecological realities of a given region.
Freyfogle’s argument is moral as well as legal. In two chapters, he discusses Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, masterfully analyzing both books to underscore important moral connections between people and the land. In both stories, land serves a redemptive function; it sustains the physical and spiritual alike. As such, land is the foundation of all human communities and cultures. Once connections to the land are lost, society begins to lose its bearings. Freyfogle contrasts the cases of traditional rural societies depicted in these books with modern ones that have lost any sense of place and of the power of nature. He concludes that America is ecologically and socially unbalanced, and that restoration requires a reintegration of agrarian values through a new kind of environmental leadership. A new leadership must go beyond narrow Enlightenment concepts of people as purely rational decisionmakers, and of nature as comprising nothing but resources, or so many interdependent ecological functions. It must be able to think holistically and to work practically by utilizing basic moral and ethical principles as guides rather than as abstract concepts. One place you will not find such holistic thinkers and leaders is the modern university. (Freyfogle, who teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, knows what he is talking about here.) His colleagues, he laments, are hopelessly steeped in their narrow expertise and in careerism, a situation that simply reflects dominant American values. Few are connected in any meaningful way to nature or to living human communities.
The author is equally critical of modern environmentalism, which has become highly fragmented and fails to see environmental problems holistically. Environmentalism views nature as separate from human societies, and environmental problems as something that the marketplace or government will fix. Most importantly, environmentalists have failed to make environmental protection a moral and ethical issue. Much of this is in response to what he calls the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, which has made economics central to their platform and greatly influenced American public policy. This has put environmentalists on the defensive, since many Americans now view any environmental policy as inefficient, leading to job losses or simply ignorant Luddism.
Freyfogle, in countering this view, argues persuasively that a good land ethic actually saves money and requires far less government involvement in the long run. It also sustains human communities by providing many types of sustainable employment. Freyfogle offers some of his strongest support to social conservatives. In the final chapter, he states flatly, “The environment needs to regain its status as a moral issue, as a question of right and wrong, tied to religion, distinctly pro-life, linked to the welfare of generations to come.” Though Freyfogle employs the term pro-life on several occasions, he is critical of the term and also of the movement, which, he contends, does not go far enough. A true pro-life movement, he insists, while starting from the premise of the sanctity of human life, would seek to protect all living things for the sake of the common good and future generations.
Paleoconservatives will agree with most of Freyfogle’s arguments, though the author distances himself from any political affiliation. Freyfogle is first and foremost a conservationist. However, readers will find a few flaws or false notes in his book. One is the author’s frequent use of female pronouns, which becomes a bit pedantic. More importantly, he uses the terms “ethics,” “morality,” “community,” and “culture” without bothering to define them. This reminds me of Chesterton’s quip that moderns can identify all the pieces that make up a good society, but can they make them stick? Chesterton, of course, had in mind religion as the glue that keeps the pieces together. Most social conservatives would concur.
In Freyfogle’s defense, he is presenting a broad framework that he hopes will appeal to a number of cultures and creeds. And his argument truly has universal relevance, especially in the age of globalization, in which nature and organic communities are increasingly fragmented and destroyed the world over. He is also wise to leave these terms sufficiently vague, as much of his environmental readership might take offense at explicit (say, Christian) definitions of community and culture, thus causing his argument to backfire. Instead, he skillfully introduces these issues for an audience that is not used to drawing the connections between social and ecological issues. Freyfogle manages to present even his boldest assertions of the necessity for a pro-life conservation movement in ways that make it a perfectly consistent and logical precondition for sound conservation. Though many readers will not agree with him, his book may make them think about their own prejudices and inconsistencies.
Freyfogle has clearly been influenced by Wendell Berry, although he chides Berry for not advocating stronger community responses to environmental problems. But, like Berry, Freyfogle takes a controversial position, eminently sound and workable yet counter to the dominant culture at almost every level. Maybe this is why he makes a plea for social conservatives to become more active and involved in environmental issues. They, too, possess greater wisdom and common sense than most Americans and are ridiculed for being out of step with the times. Creating a strong environmental ethic—e.g., insisting on a strong personal moral code—is difficult and unpopular. But it must be done.
If a truly conservative conservation movement—one centered on local communities with a proper respect and piety toward nature—were to emerge, it could change the entire environmental debate. A renewed emphasis by social conservatives on community could also impact public policy in the way libertarians (and neoconservatives) did with economics. Radical leftists understand this, which is why localism, solidarity, and other catchy communitarian terms are becoming part of their political vocabulary. And so social conservatives need to be more than just “Crunchy Cons”; they must seize the political and intellectual initiative and make 21st-century conservation a distinctly conservative cause. To abandon this issue—one so naturally tied to a conservative ethos—is unforgivable. If leftist communitarians succeed, they may be able to protect the land, but no good society will ever come of it.
[Agrarianism and the Good Society: Land, Culture, Conflict, and Hope, by Eric T. Freyfogle (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press) 183 pp., $30.00]
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