Monday, January 18, 2010

Conservatives and Conservation

You don't have to be a scientist or environmental activist to recognize that without healthy soil, potable water, and clean air, life is not possible on our planet.   In his book Collapse Jared Diamond wonders what the person who cut down the last tree on Easter Island was thinking?  Could he not see that without the trees the island was subject to soil erosion and water loss?  Did he lack the imagination for foresee the collapse of agriculture and the hunger, desperation and starvation what would follow?  Removal of the trees amounted to removal of one of the main sources of the island's life.  It amounted to eating the seed corn or poisoning the stream at its source.  It was short-sighted, foolish and suicidal.  A more conservative approach would be to ask how many trees could be taken for the purposes of day to day life while still preserving the forest intact.  This would make life possible both now and in the future.  A conservative approach would recommend frugality, forethought and care.

I am perplexed that "conservatives" in this country are the leading opponents of such careful stewardship of our resources.  Why is this considered a "liberal" cause?  Why are our conservatives not interested in conserving anything?  Why do both our liberals and conservatives seem oblivious to the profligacy of our lives?  And why are so many so scornful of those who raise such questions even gently?

Last week I taught a class on the American writer Wendell Berry, a farmer, poet and essayist from Kentucky.  He is a critic of the wasteful, destructive economy he has seen destroy the health of his beloved state.  Theologian Stanley Hauerwas once said he was a pacifist because he was so violent.  I told the students I read Wendell Berry's critique of consumerism because I am such an ardent consumer.  I am as much a part of this destructive economy as anyone.  But I cannot understand the resistance of so-called conservatives to the evidence concerning climate change and the likelihood that we are making life on earth increasingly difficult and perhaps eventually impossible.  I cannot understand why so many Christians seem indifferent to the whole issue.

Perhaps we think it is all a lie.  We actually have plenty of oil (although it looks like we may run out in 40 years or so).   Perhaps we think global warming is some liberal plot.  But to what end?  Don't we think "liberals" are as attached to their consumptive lifestyle as "conservatives"?  Perhaps we think, like James Watt of old, that Jesus is coming back and the earth is going to be destroyed anyway.  Or perhaps we just don't care.

The most likely explanation is that we like our consumptive and wasteful way of life and will not countenance any threat to it, even if it means our great-grandchildren will despise us.  In the end new laws out of Washington or Copenhagen will not solve our problems.  This is a spiritual issue.  This is a moral issue.  This is a cultural issues.  It will require a change of heart and mind in millions of individuals to make a difference.  Evangelical Christians are rightly concerned about abortion.  We are appalled at the loss of life it entails.  But if we do not change our way of living we may have the blood of billions on our hands.  Is this not a life issue as well?

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