One of the more extraordinary features of the current generation of students is the near- universal embrace of environmentalism. While previous generations have had their share of environmentalists, they tended to constitute a fringe movement notable for their affection for muesli and Birkenstocks. Many of today’s young environmentalists are preppy and mainstream.

Environmentalism has for a long time been perceived as a liberal cause, and a number of students would doubtless share that identification. This has much to do with the longstanding alignment in American politics of conservatives with business interests who see in the environmental agenda a threat to their bottom line. For their part, liberals perceive the main source of environmental degradation to arise from the activities of rapacious industrial concerns. Doubtless this is true enough. But in quickly seeking to affix blame for environmental degradation on a small number of nefarious actors, we tend quickly to avert our eyes from our own pervasive culpability in the damage wrought upon the natural world.

Among other things, we are the main supporters of those industrial concerns. For instance, we are increasingly addicted to electronic media, and are even told that it should be incorporated in every classroom. Yet all of our gadgets are powered by electricity in one form or another, an energy source that is largely produced in the United States by mining coal, which is among the most environmentally damaging practices. Our conscience is largely undisturbed because of our distance from those places where coal is produced. Too often environmentalism consists mainly in making the degradation less visible.

At the heart of our own complicity is our near-universal ethic of consumerism and our addiction to economic growth. The farmer and author Wendell Berry has said that the worst imaginable future is one in which a cheap and nearly limitless energy source is discovered, for surely we would wear out the planet even more quickly. He argues that we need not a technological fix, but a moral fix – we need an ethic of less.

Widespread commitment to the environment – praiseworthy though it may be – functions as much to obfuscate our own complicity in its degradation as it potentially provides a path to better practices. One could cynically argue that the more vociferously we declare our care for the environment, the more we are excused from the deep thought and sacrifice that would be necessary to achieve the ends we claim to embrace.

One of the reasons for our inability to see clearly our complicity lies in the very use of the word environment. This usage falsely describes our relationship to the object for which we claim to care, exacerbating our distance. An environment is something that surrounds us, but from which we are separate.

Consider, instead, what would follow if we called the object of our concern by its proper name: nature. We would no longer be conceptually separate from the world; as humans, we are embedded in and exist as parts of nature. We would not be permitted the distance that our current language encourages.

Further, that word would be accompanied by the long history of philosophical associations. Nature is a standard and a norm. It defines who we are – and who and what we are not. To have a nature is to have an essence. To be a creature of nature is to be subject to natural laws. It is to be governed by limits and requires an acknowledgment of an intricate ,created order that we do not simply govern as masters.

Historically, liberalism is the political philosophy that aimed to liberate us from nature. It is a philosophy of “liberation,” and viewed nature as among the greatest constraints upon human liberty. Consider efforts by advocates of Plan A: Hoyas for Reproductive Justice, the reproductive rights coalition formed by H*yas for Choice and United Feminists. The insistence upon reproductive justice rests upon the idea that justice can only be achieved by using technology to circumvent or master nature. From the same impulse has arisen our environmental crisis, the belief that human freedom is contingent upon the technological mastery of nature.

In short, to invoke the language of nature is to see that a true care for our planet would be a fundamentally conservative obligation. It would demand seeing ourselves as part of an order of things, not standing apart. It would demand recognition of our debts and obligations – which, more often than not, are generational, as with the “democracy of the dead” of which G.K. Chesterton wrote. It would have at its heart a principle of conservation, the obligation of good stewardship to leave the planet as good or better a place for our children. If we really want to save the planet and ourselves, we need to become conservatives, properly understood.

Patrick Deneen is an associate professor in the government department. He can be reached at Against the Grain appears every other Tuesday.

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