“Nature, which is the time-vesture of God and reveals Him to
the wise, hides Him from the foolish.”

—Thomas Carlyle

I don’t believe I realized, until I began reading up on the subject of Deep Ecology, how far the rot of despair and self-loathing has penetrated the Western world. Multiculturalism as an expression of the West’s failure of nerve and of confidence in its own traditions seemed bad enough. In Deep Ecology, Western anomie is given scope to deplore twelve thousand years of human civilization, which Deep Ecologists believe was fatally misdirected about 10,000 B.C., when Paleolithic societies of hunter-gatherers became agriculturalists at the start of the Neolithic era. You’d think the Afrocentrists at Stanford would be acting a little less smug these days.

If the Heritage Foundation on the subject of environmentalism makes me feel like George Washington Hayduke in The Monkey Wrench Gang, Earth First! on almost any topic brings out my Flem Snopes side. It is characteristic of societies that have lost touch with truth, which is single yet at the same time complex, to think that something in order to be anything must be everything; for people living in the modern era, a thing is all or it is nothing. The earth is either sacred, or it is mere stuff. It is to be worshiped intact and inviolate, or it is to be exploited as a cornucopia of resources for human beings to consume. Those are the choices acknowledged by the great majority of contemporary writers, and people who cannot or will not accept unequivocally one or the other of them are dismissed as quislings, tergiversators, and moderationists. “Conservatives,” with tongues thickened by fervent repetition of the liturgy, mumble the Biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it, and deny that there is or ever could be environmental catastrophe ahead; radicals and liberals rant against anthropocentrism and speciesism and prophesy an impending “eco-crisis.” The radicals would be more persuasive were it not for self-hatred and the well-grounded suspicion that they are attempting to replace the failed economic argument for the destruction of civilization with the ecological one, while the “conservatives” would sound more plausible had they not proven themselves in power to be as selfish and irresponsible as the liberals, and as fundamentally committed to merely economic ends rather than to principle, tradition, and sanity. “The evolutionary paradigm,” Max Oelschlaeger writes in The Idea of Wilderness, “(alternatively: organism and not mechanism) will likely rule the postmodern world”; the 21st century, he believes, will be the century of ecology, as the 20th was the age of economics. I think that Mr. Oelschlaeger may well be correct in his prediction, which is why it seems to me necessary for conservatives (as distinguished from “conservatives”) to take the environmental argument seriously and debate it carefully and conscientiously. It is crucial that sane people—Christians especially—provide it with a foundation as different as possible from that constructed from the absurd premises and insane conclusions of Deep Ecology. That way, come the eco-crisis, we shall be prepared to meet it as the sons of God rather than as brothers to the grizzly bear.

Although it carries the Yale University imprint, The Idea of Wilderness is not a work of scholarship but of imaginative intellectual synthesis that in better and less frivolous times would have been published by a sober trade house. Its thesis, stated succinctly by the author, is straightforward. “In context, ideas of wilderness (Paleolithic, ancient, modern, and postmodern) appear as historically inevitable. If the hypothesis that The Idea of Wilderness is linked with the developing character of human existence is cogent, then the contemporary wilderness philosophy represents more than the extolling of the recreational value of wild nature, retrograde romanticism, or mystical escape from an over-populated, industrialized, anxiety-ridden, polluted, and violent world.” Instead, it develops the understanding that, “We are not the privileged children fashioned in the image of God but coordinate interfaces of the historical process of nature. We do not impose value on a valueless cosmos; rather, we are sensitive registers of values created through the unfolding of time.” Thus, “the emerging post-wilderness philosophy is more than environmentalism in new guise. It represents a convergence of scientific research and reflective thought on the premises that the human and cultural—including the ethical, theological, and philosophical—are linked with the material and organic. . . . [T]he idea of wilderness in postmodern context is . . . a search for a new meaning—for a new creation story or mythology—that is leading humankind out of a homocentric prison into the cosmic wilderness.”

According to Oelschlaeger, Paleolithic man did not regard himself as existing at a remove from nature, but rather as a complementary part of it. He lived in reverential and nonexploitive harmony with the natural world and thought of it in all its interwoven and mutually supporting aspects as a sacred entity, filled with spirits and symbolized as the Magna Mater. The concept of wilderness was one he had no means of recognizing. For perhaps two hundred thousand years—”the hegemony of the Great Hunt”—mankind lived the archaic life of the hunter-gatherer before the Mesolithic transition to “agri-culture” occurred. Oelschlaeger denies emphatically that any economic motive or “longing for civilization and abhorrence of wild nature” led to “agri-culture”; he suggests that population pressures, climatological changes, and human nature helped bring about the shift. Although human beings continued to inhabit a sacralized cosmos, “Once humans became agriculturalists, the almost paradisaical character of prehistory was irretrievably lost,” since farmers assumed the task of subduing the wilderness and men acquired the habit of drawing boundaries between nature and culture. This process Oelschlaeger associates with “the so-called Fall”: “The Neolithic mind no longer thought of itself as the child of Magna Mater. . . . ” Agriculture begot in turn the mental and material preconditions for theology and philosophy and the emergence of modern civilization, until history, as it is said, began at Sumer. As agriculturalists worked at taming and managing nature, men began to wonder whether the world were not in fact designed for their own ends; but although they ceased to worship animal gods and began reverencing anthropomorphic ones instead, no major change in religious attitudes occurred until the Hebrews and “the birth of historical consciousness.” The Hebrew prophets were the first people to associate truth with the supernatural rather than with the natural, while during “classical antiquity human effort was effectively redirected from the physical and economic world to the intellectual and spiritual.”

Oelschlaeger is easier on Judaism and Christianity than many critics of his type have been, stressing the degree to which the Old Testament supposedly incorporates Paleolithic and Neolithic attitudes sympathetic to nature. Nevertheless, the fusion of elements of Greek rationalism with Hebrew and early Christian thought (“a peculiar combination of Attica with Jerusalem”) produced ultimately the concept of wilderness that has “fatefully” directed the development of Western civilization over two millennia. In the course of this period, the “Judeo-Christian” idea of the world as having been created by a loving Father in six days for the benefit of His children was replaced by the Newtonian-Cartesian one of the world as a mere machine, governed by immutable laws that made changes in it impossible and built by an impersonal God, whose animals were also machines and where the boundary between mind and matter was absolute. Both of these ideas were finally superseded by the evolutionary view developed by Darwin, which led to the discovery of “the inescapability of time” and revealed “the impossibility of a divine or Parmenidean vantage point from which to describe reality.” By the evolutionary concept, the errors of the past twelve thousand years have been revealed, and contemporary man is granted the choice of continuing on what Bill McKibben in The End of Nature calls “the defiant road” or accepting the “humble” one through the rediscovery of the wisdom of his Paleolithic forebears and the creation of what Oelschlaeger terms an “old-new” synthesis, a “posthistoric primitivism.”

Oelschlaeger reveals his hostility to Christianity by degrees. His use from the beginning of the book of “B.C.E.” for “B.C.” is an early warning sign. (Whether Max Oelschlaeger believes in the divinity of Christ or not, does he really disbelieve in His historical existence? Plenty of agnostics, acknowledging the findings of modern Biblical scholarship, have granted that much.) In due course, he condemns the intolerable arrogance of accepting one’s self as made in God’s image and set at the head of creation. Since Christians, Jews, Mohammedans, and others regard this idea as a truth revealed by God to man, and not by man to God, Oelschlaeger’s indignation is patently silly. For Oelschlaeger, God as a transcendent Being is nonexistent: rather, “the entire physical universe [may] be the medium of expression of the mind of a natural God. In this context, God is the supreme holistic concept, perhaps many levels of description above the human mind.” As for the argument from design, Oelschlaeger claims it was exploded by George P. Marsh, whose Man and Nature appeared four years after The Origin of Species and whom Oelschlaeger credits with having proved that, “the notion of any primal consonance simply could not be reconciled with the facts.”

Unfortunately for Deep Ecology, the notion is nonsense that while God might have made the universe in a single act of creation lasting six days, it is impossible for Him to have created it by evolutionary process. God, by definition, can do anything He pleases, as Blaise Pascal pointed out three centuries ago. In Matthew 13:31-32, Christ gives us the parable of the mustard seed: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the biggest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air can come and shelter in its branches.” Who says that God cannot think evolutionally? Yet Oelschlaeger assures us that the “prevailing Judeo-Christian” conception of the universe has been “intellectually discredited.” Really? If so, by whom? Certainly not by Max Oelschlaeger, who appears to be unaware that modern science, theoretical physics especially, so far from having confounded the possibility of supernatural reality has substantiated the likelihood of it. What Oelschlaeger means is that the acceptability of Christian truth has been denied by a broad sector of the contemporary world. But that of course is another matter entirely.

A second development of which Oelschlaeger seems to be ignorant is Christianity’s own version of postmodernism (see James Hitchcock’s review in this issue of After Ideology by David Walsh). Christian postmodernists are unhappy with the modernist world for many of the same reasons the Deep Ecologists are; they agree with them and with Mircea Eliade that Homo religiosus has been supplanted by Homo economicus, si species whose problems with such concepts as the sacred versus the profane are notorious. The difference is that David Walsh’s postmodernists find their inspiration in the civilized Mediterranean Basin of the first centuries A.D., not, like Max Oelschlaeger’s, in the Mesopotamian wilderness of two hundred thousand B.G.E.

An orthodox Catholic and fellow traveler of the environmentalist movement myself, I have no trouble agreeing with the proposition that Christians have historically been guilty of undervaluing nature in ways they assume are consistent with their faith. They have been guilty of undervaluing many other things as well; yet the fault lies not in their religion but in the human fallibility that can lead them into misinterpretation of it. There is nothing anywhere in the Bible that enjoins us to be anything but conscientious stewards of the land and its creatures, and as for wilderness John the Baptist lived in it and Christ Himself withdrew to it to fast and pray. True, the supernatural principle is exalted in the New Testament above the natural one; but again, why do moderns tend to assume that if a thing cannot be accepted as being of the highest value, it must therefore be treated as worthless? (Even so, Christ taught the resurrection of the body and went so far as to provide a demonstration of it.) The destruction of nature is part of what Oelschlaeger himself acknowledges as “the modern project”; now that we are experiencing the effects of that project on the natural world, even people who believe that they are supernatural beings destined for eternal life are beginning to reconsider the question of the right relationship between man and nature.

Max Oelschlaeger, in The Idea of Wilderness, works hard to appropriate Aldo Leopold as an early Deep Ecologist, but in this he is notably unsuccessful. Leopold (1886-1948) made his career in the U.S. Forest Service, where his was a stentorian voice on behalf of wilderness preservation. He has been called the father of wildlife management, and he was also the author of several books (including A Sand County Almanac, today regarded as a classic) as well as of numerous essays. The River of the Mother of God is a selection from these, published and unpublished; while many are of an essentially technical rather than a philosophic or literary nature, nearly all of them make good reading. Leopold, a graduate of the Lawrenceville School and of Yale University, was a highly civilized man who wrote with great clarity and elegance, and though a visionary he was not insane. He grasped firmly the extent to which, “Plants, animals, men, and soil are a community of interdependent parts, an organism,” deplored what he called the “iron-heel mentality” typical of the Machine Age, and argued, “All history shows this: that civilization is not the progressive elaboration of a single idea, but the successive dominance of a series of ideas. . . . Engineering is clearly the dominant idea of the industrial age. What I have here called ecology is perhaps one of the contenders for a new order.”

“A thing is right,” Leopold stated in what became the maxim for his famous “land ethic,” “when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Wilderness and economics he thought to be “mutually exclusive,” and for that reason unreconcilable. But he believed also that, “[the] extension of ethics . . . is actually a process in ecological evolution. . . . The first ethics dealt with the relationship between individuals. . . . Later accretions dealt with the relationship between the individual and society.” While recognizing that, “There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relationship to land and to the non-human animals and plants which grow upon it,” Leopold suggested that the extension of ethical principles to this third element of human relational experience was “an ecological possibility.” In the meantime, he advised, “the reaction of land to occupancy determines the nature and duration of civilization.”

If you are so much as thinking of converting to ecology, the writings of Aldo Leopold should be the object of your earliest inquiries. 


[The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology, by Max Oelschlaeger (New Haven: Yale University Press) 488 pp., $29.95]


[The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays, by Aldo Leopold, Edited by Susan L. Flader and J. Baird Callicott (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press) 384 pp., $22.95]