“Politics without conservatives” is the slogan proudly displayed in France by the Young Ecologists. You can read on their website: “The old world is dying. The cult of infinite growth, unbridled productivism, ever crazier capitalism: every day we realize a little more that the old recipes of the past no longer work and are destroying our societies.”
Depending on what is meant by “old world,” and by “old recipes of the past,” we might either join our voices in condemnation to the old ways, or we might be tempted to consider those expressions as titles of glory.
The discourse of official ecology—the ecology of political parties, or the ecology defended in international organizations likely to be honored with a Nobel Prize, or the ecology of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—is today a profoundly revolutionary discourse in its modalities. Starting from the observation of the serious degradation of our environment, it advocates a clean sweep of a whole set of practices considered to be guilty of this degradation. The purpose is to replace them with “eco-responsible” behaviors that fall under the sign of novelty, change, innovation, and progress. A whole catechism and a code of good conduct is thus established for the defenders of the planet.
In these arguments, the themes of change and of breaking from the “old world” are preeminent. There is no question of drawing any solutions from a past wisdom. Human history can be summed up as a destructive march from which we have now to take a radical turn.
However, on closer inspection this conviction is a vast deception. Indeed, the vademecum of the perfect environmentalist activist and of the urban ecologist-bobo who is obsessed by the idea of saving the planet has many points in common with the “traditional” way of life that this activist seeks to destroy. This way of life had been reached during the 1950s, which is often seen as a kind of civilizational equilibrium, but then was seriously damaged after the Glorious Thirty had run its course and released unrestrained industrial consumerism upon France. Our eco-bobo prefers to cook good small dishes with fresh products rather than to buy ready-made products from the supermarket (except that it is now ‘Mr.’ who cooks: if it were ‘Mrs.,’ it would be too cliché and retrograde). He makes sure to buy fruits and vegetables in season. Of course, not so long ago, it would have seemed perfectly absurd to eat tomatoes in December, and recipe books reflect reams of imaginative ways to prepare squash, lentils, and split peas from October to March. In order to fight against the Empire of the Plastic Bag, he uses a cotton canvas bag for his shopping—the modest heir of our grandmothers’ baskets. He sorts his clothes to avoid accumulating piles of chlorine-bleached T-shirts made in Bangladesh in his closet. The mother of a large family still reproduces this gesture today, because she’s concerned about saving space and avoiding waste, and making quality, timeless clothes last among all her children.
Some personalities in France proposed “Green Monday” to save the planet and limit the carbon footprint. The aim of the Green Monday practice is to have a day without meat and fish. We would like to remind them that not so long ago, there was a great ecological thing called fasting, which was practiced on Fridays, but not only. A few decades ago, in a world that was still Christian, during Lent and Advent or even before the great feasts, Christian cultures abstained from meat. Cumulatively, over the year, this meant many more days without meat than the 52 Green Mondays proposed by these new prophets.
We could multiply the parallels, however our apprentice saviors of the ecosystems must not be told that they ape the practices of the “old world.” They would take it very badly. Today’s ecology must pledge allegiance to progressivism.
On closer inspection, the inherited wisdom of our ancient ways of life was profoundly “ecological.” Clearly, the means are not new, yet nowadays ecologists speak of a revolution. If the means are not new, then perhaps the goal has changed: this revolution is no longer in the service of man, but against him. That is the tragedy. The “old world” is today vilified and despised on the grounds that it exerted an unbearable moral pressure on individuals, a responsibility that appeared to encroach upon freedom. Upon inspection, this new world feels moral compulsion too, where pressure is exerted in the columns of the newspapers and no longer in the pages of the missal. But in this new world, unlike the old one, there is no longer any prospect of salvation. The idea of the search for happiness itself tends to wither for the sad sires who celebrate the gospel of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). They are obsessed by the preservation of a cold and disenchanted universe where one no longer knows exactly what is worth preserving–feeding on the desiccated morals of ecological duty.
Does it work? One is entitled to wonder. In a debate organized at the University of Paris-Descartes in 2019 on ecology, the discussions ended up raising a real problem. Does ecology make us happy? Ecology must make people happy. We are made for happiness … but the ecological program doesn’t generate the enthusiasm and the motivation that could be expected. Instead it musters anger and frustration.
The explanation is quite simple: the ecological discourse is based on a vision of the world as all-biodegradable. Where for centuries, even millennia, the dignity of a civilization lay in its ability to engrave its history and values in marble—a principle that gave rise to a multitude of builders—our modern world is currently obsessed with the idea of leaving no trace. Material productions must self-destruct; on the human level, we refuse to have children. Sustainable development characterizes a human activity that must disappear. Leaving no trace is not the mere necessity to avoid using nature as a trash receptacle. The problem is deeper: the reflex of ‘no trace’ is a sign of a humanity that is afraid of itself, devalues itself and comes to advocate for its self-destruction. Mankind is thought of as exogenous and outside the natural system. The new ecological world is a world based on contempt for human activity and its eminent dignity. It refuses the hierarchy of creation which places humanity at its summit—a hierarchy revealed in Genesis. By refusing the reproduction of the human race in the name of the preservation of the planet, the Malthusian ecologists come to refute the idea of possible progress of the human condition and sclerotize it, while the conservative, by founding a family, believes in the free development of man and bets on hope.
Is the ecological enterprise doomed to failure? At minimum, there is a deep contradiction within it: all the principles in the defense of nature, erected as virtues, are valid for the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms, but not for the human. The commitment to preservation is valid in the name of endangered species, but not in the name of man, who is perceived as fundamentally external to the natural system that he is supposed to defend and protect. Today, the fashion is for the organic, natural, and traceable. Eating a frozen piece of meat is considered too ‘industrial,’ but women are encouraged to reproduce with frozen gametes. Human life has no place under the auspices of ecology. Instead, this ecology feeds mortifying germs. We may wonder if ecology is able to generate any substantial commitment from our contemporaries, since its claims are deeply dehumanizing. It is in contradiction with the every-day experience of the majority of the individuals, whose destinies evolve in a family continuity looking towards the future. In this context, even planetary ecology suffers from being disembodied and fundamentally devoid of affect. It erases the process of identification, since it poses the principle that mankind is, a minima, drowned in the mass of the other species, and a maxima, foreign, other, and as such, essentially illegitimate. Only an urban minority steeped in intellectualism can be satisfied with this scheme and find in it a motivation to “change their behavior.”
For the Christian who respects nature, because Creation is to be respected, it is therefore important to reverse the values of the ecological model that is proposed to us today. To be effective, true ecology must be at the service of mankind as a rooted and social species. Those living in society build communities of life around values, which are hierarchized and because they are attractive. The preservation of the natural and human environment is thus nourished by an interest, not a petty or ‘self-interested’ calculation, but rather an attachment to what is valuable in the eyes of mankind. The value judgment and the push to transmission goes hand in hand with conservation.
The lessons contained in traditional knowledge and customs are extremely rich in terms of ecology. They are also far from being exhausted, thanks to their concrete character. They are nourished by the observation of daily life and enriched by family experience, both which guarantee the transmission of a proven knowledge that will facilitate the reproduction of the small society, the community whose rules are conceived and polished in harmony with an immediate environment. An awareness of an inherited knowledge, known and appreciated at its true value, pushes the transmission to the following generations. The curator is therefore in essence the one who cares about future generations because of a desire to keep the best of what has been received.
The intuitional urge to return to the local and rebel against globalization is in this respect one of the positive aspects of the ecological discourse. Of course, the defense of the “local” as it is presented to us has its limits and ambiguities: it is considered meritorious to buy apples from the local producer, for instance, but it is more praiseworthy to fight for the survival of a Tupi-Guarani village than for that same village that provided the apples. It is therefore important to remember that the ‘local’ is not only a question of economic circuits, but is first and foremost a question of identity. If we who resist the new ecological philosophy can mobilize to revalorize the ‘local,’ a nova lingua word for the homeland of the heart and the familiar horizon, it is not only because, at a stratospheric level, it will reduce the carbon footprint, but rather because it refers to an emotional proximity. Dare we say that there can be no ecology without a homeland, and without a family? It is certain. We defend and preserve that which we love. So there is no ecology without love either.
From a conservative perspective, the question of the motivations of the ecological fight pushes us to finally reintroduce the importance of education and morality. The damaged Nature that we discover through shocking reports on oceans drowned in plastic is also a victim of our loss of moral references and sense of responsibility, both individual and collective. Is throwing a piece of paper in a garbage can and not on the sidewalk just an ecological gesture? No, it is a gesture of respect for oneself and for others, transmitted by education in the service of life in society. The return of morality allows us to reintroduce an emotional dimension into our behavior: I will throw my paper in the garbage out of respect for the people who live around me, and with whom I share the enjoyment of a small corner of the city, knowing that a sense of order and cleanliness will make us happier.
Contemporary culture has destroyed any feelings of belonging by making people cosmopolitans, citizens of the world who are from here, there, or nowhere. How can an uprooted person preserve anything? We perish, and the environment perishes from an excess of cerebral citizenship and abstract brotherhood. In terms of ecology then, conservatism is far from a nostalgic fixation. It can feed a profoundly human ecology, testify to a deep love of life, and help develop lasting attachments to a framework of life shaped by centuries marked by the constant search for perfection and harmony. Imagine one of those hills of the Sienese countryside, polished by generations in love with their land and celebrated by the greatest masters of Italian painting. Each farmer eventually fades away, the memory of the individual men lost with the years. But their patient work has built a marvel that testifies both to the genius of the Creator who gave the brown earth its warm shimmer, and to the action of the creature who knew how to adorn it with the vine and the olive tree.
Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).