Interview With James Krueger re: His Book The Disfiguration of Nature
There are plenty of books about the environment, and current environmental challenges are well published; why write this book, and what does it have to say that is unique?
The intention behind The Disfiguration of Nature is not to run through a litany of environmental woes or to convince people to develop sustainable energy sources, recycle, or other such things. Disfiguration takes a hard look at the moral and ethical frameworks that have inspired, and will continue to inspire, conservation efforts in America. Historically, conservation efforts grew out of the natural conservatism of small communities and stable land-users. It was a reaction against progressivism and the extension of distant markets into local economies of subsistence, which tended not only to unduly lay waste to land resources, but in turn eroded stability and localized relationships of obligation and reciprocity, right down to the desecration of traditional family units. Ultimately, this cycle turned an agrarian society—linked to, and rooted on, the land—into a predominantly urban one, now quite disaffected from the land. So, the book points out that conservation is a conservative endeavor, and not progressive in the least. Following this insight, the book goes on to question why environmentalism has become, at least in the popular mind and in the voting booth, a purely leftist, progressive agenda. By looking at common arguments that bolster other leftist agendas, arguments that at heart betray dangerously individualistic notions about human rights and prerogatives, the book goes on to ask whether or not these arguments can stand side by side with a robust environmental ethic. My argument is that the moral and ethical commitments of various leftist agendas are confused and confusing, to say the least, and that this moral confusion only serves to weaken and thwart the environmental movement. I argue that many leftist agendas are violently opposed to the value structures that will lead us into true care and respect for nature, stable community rooted on the land, and the health of the family units that comprise these communities. At the same time, I also point out that today’s so-called “conservatives” are rarely conservative in a classical sense, but are in their turn also steeped in liberal assumptions, in the rampant individualism that infects our age, and who take political stances that tend towards the libertarian. The Disfiguration of Nature seeks to clarify some of these confusions, and places the environmental cause within a moral and ethical framework that better fits its goals, one that is, as I call it, creatively conservative. The environmental crisis is ultimately a crisis of culture, and cultural crises are always moral, ethical, and theological in character. That is to say, culture crises have to do with relationships and the obligations inherent in them.
You take some fairly controversial or at least provocative stances in The Disfiguration of Nature; might these stances hinder the reception of your message? Would it not be better to meet people where they are in order to better reach them?
Eric Freyfogle, in his wonderful Foreword to the book, admits that he himself does not agree with everything that I say. It is one reason why I think his Foreword is so powerful. Nevertheless, he makes it clear that the book indeed has much to say, and much that environmentally-minded people need to hear. I am meeting people where they are, and I am asking them if being where they are is working. Anyone who sincerely gives a hoot about nature should answer that question with a resounding “no!” No, it is not working. The Left has succeeded in alienating many Americans and in inspiring extreme reactions. They need to take responsibility for that, and they need to see how it undermines the environmental cause most of all. If the cause of conservation, the cause of the environment, is going to succeed, we cannot by any means remain where we are. And I don’t just mean technologically; I don’t mean that we simply need to replace our fossil fuel technologies with solar or wind. We need to do some deep soul searching, and ask ourselves some difficult questions, the kind of questions that can lead to real transformation. As it stands, our culture is founded on untenable assumptions, especially our assumptions having to do with limitless prosperity and individual prerogatives. This is to say that our culture as it stands cannot stand for long. Love of nature means a willing obedience to the limitations of a finite world, a world that is objectively real and, being objectively real, a world that requires of us conformity and correspondence. As it stands, the American people are consumed by an insane fantasy that they can live, self-express, and self-indulge in a limitless way. We hear the slogans all the time: “no ceilings,” “no limits.” We harbor notions about equality that is disrespectful and destructive of natural distinctions. All of this translates in the end to impiety and irreverence towards nature. Disaffected from nature, unable and unwilling to surrender to the constraints inherent to embodied life in a world that is objectively real, we turn against this reality in a self-indulgent but ultimately self-destructive rejection of these constraints. Narratives about gender, personal rights, amputating the sexual act from its natural outcomes, technology’s celebrated attack on the distinctiveness of species and the value of human labor—all of this is part and parcel to our fundamental disaffection from, and rejection of, nature.
Your criticism of the Left seems equally matched by a criticism of contemporary conservatives. If you think that conservation is inherently a conservative task, why this criticism?
Today’s conservatives, likely since at least the Reagan administration, operate under the same liberal assumptions as the Left. They might apply them differently. For example, they may conservatively point out the limitations of personal choices and prerogatives and instead stress personal obligations when it comes to abortion, but are unwilling to do so when it comes to gun ownership, in essence using the same rights arguments that their pro-choice opponents might use. The notion of a free market left to regulate itself by some “unseen hand” without any government intervention or imposed limitations is a liberal notion dating back to the thought of Adam Smith and other Enlightenment-era liberal thinkers (though certainly not taking into account the nuances of their thought). Conservatives like to say that they believe in the stability of families and the sanctity of life, but their unquestioned support of big-business and free markets flies in the face of such values. It is evidently clear that the latter eats away at the former. The imposition of free market standards into all aspects of life is destructive to these values and of face-to-face relationships of reciprocity and obligation.
Classically speaking, conservatism is the understanding that individual human prerogatives are always tempered by tradition, community ties, and future generations. That is to say, individuals are obligated to the dead, to the living, and to the yet-to-be-born. Human institutions and traditions are organic. They are necessary for cohesiveness and order, and should reform slowly over time from within. Conservatism is suspicious of ideologies divorced from the experience of human communities and organic bonds, and of imposing such ideologies on human persons in revolutionary ways. This is the kind of conservatism that has historically bolstered, and will continue to bolster, the environmental cause. Nature itself is conservative in this way, and anyone who lives in close dependency on nature knows and respects this. It is, however, very difficult for urban and suburban people to understand this because they depend not directly on nature, but on a host of industrial middlemen.
Your vision of renewal can be described as agrarian; do you think this is tenable? Do you think that we can ever go back to being an agrarian society?
As Eric Freyfogle points out in the Foreword, agrarian societies and small farms have a mixed environmental record, though I would have to say that one small farm can never do as much damage as one big corporation. In the aggregate, however, irresponsible small farms can cause a lot of damage. What I propose—some kind of return to rural life and more localized economies—may not be tenable, even though I believe it is necessary. It may very well be that we have succumbed too far to the industrial, consumeristic mindset to ever return, short of some kind of global collapse by war, famine, natural disaster, or what have you. I am not very hopeful that we can or will be willing to turn this unyielding ship around, because I do not think that we are spiritually or emotionally mature enough to make the necessary sacrifices. Nor do we have the moral and ethical vision that would inspire such sacrifices. I do think that part of our answer lies in the reclamation of authentic rural life, which is to say life and community rooted and directly dependent on the land. It is the only way we can heal our current and rampant disaffection from nature, which leads to its disfiguration. President Teddy Roosevelt, remembered for his great contribution at least to a federalized conservation effort, envisioned a nation of individuals bound together by personal relationships, where each individual is endowed with a peculiar moral responsibility. Group-think and internal power struggles were discouraged, even while strong governmental leadership was encouraged in order to unite people in a common cause that transcended petty special interests. While the urban centers tended to breed discontent and social discord, Roosevelt recognized that the real strength of America lay in rural, agrarian life, as did Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and a host of other prominent architects of the American endeavor. It was this recognition that caused him deep concern when confronted with the great population shifts from rural lands to the industrialized urban centers that the Industrial Revolution stimulated. In December 1908, Roosevelt appealed to his successor, President-elect Taft, to implement a plan for the improvement and support of country life. America desperately needs such a concerted plan today. Without authentic connection to the land—not just as a playground to vacation in, but as an everyday reality to confront—the environmental cause will never flourish, nor will the confines of nature be duly appreciated and honored.
Is there anything else that you would like readers and potential readers of your book to know?
I would suggest that the book be read in a linear way from cover to cover, and that readers not merely jump to the more controversial chapters. My argument builds throughout the work, and what I say in individual chapters needs to be understood and appreciated in the context of the whole. It is a short book, anyway, so why not read it all? The argument that I build throughout the essay is applied, in what will likely be the hardest chapters for some readers, to a few of the flashpoint issues in the social and political sphere, such as abortion and certain LGBTQ agendas. Whether or not people apply the principals I highlight in the exact same ways as I have, I would want readers to at least take these principals seriously, especially if they are sincerely concerned about the environment. Because the conservationist cause has largely become the political child of the Left, a vote for the environment is also a vote in favor of pro-choice and LGBTQ agendas, to name but two. Environmentalists, therefore, need to be very careful not to muddle these issues and present them as agendas of equal weight or even of moral congruence. They are not equal, and I argue that they are not congruent, either. The health of the land is something that we all share. It is a far more crucial cause than those of various special interest and identity groups. Environmentalists need really to think about their value structures, and to give a unified and consistent message to the public about the moral and ethical duties of responsible citizens, duties that often necessarily limit the maximization of individual preferences, predilections, and prerogatives. Then they need to apply these same principles to other moral, ethical, and social commitments, both privately and publicly. The environmental movement stands or falls on our willingness to do so. Again, I would point the reader to Eric Freyfogle’s wonderful Foreword and approach the book as he suggests it be approached. All of what I say may not be palatable for all, but I believe that all have something to learn from this book.