The Progressive’s Inner Conservative. Why He’ll Protect Wolves But Not Men

By Joe Long Published on January 13, 2019

Political progressives want every child to help “change the world” and transform society. Imagine a child declaring that he wants to transform the environment — by encouraging more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so more people can grow more food. Suddenly, the progressive becomes backward-thinking. He wants to stop change and even reverse it. Restoration looks like a better idea than transformation.

Perhaps this gives a way to explain to the progressives what they don’t see about the rest of reality. They care for the physical ecology; they should care about the human ecology. But they don’t.

Talking to the Progressive

Why isn’t environmental change necessarily good? Because so much depends on balance. Everything depends upon everything else. Many of the connections are subtle. The bad effects of a supposedly good change might take years to become evident — and be impossible to remedy. Treading lightly on our precious planet seems wise.

This logic makes the average progressive resist environmental change. Like a plan to “fundamentally transform” a rain forest into a giant, manicured pest-free garden or an automated commercial farm. The Washington Post and CNN would run long stories about the the great villainous scheme and the plucky heroes who want to foil it.

This isn’t a bad instinct. Large changes to complex systems made quickly can have catastrophic, irreversible results. That complex system became the good thing it is over millennia of development. We should move slowly and carefully when making changes to the rain forest, to conserve the good it does. That’s a good conservative instinct.

Our Challenge

Our challenge is to help the progressive apply this insight outside his idealized FernGully. What’s true of a rain forest is at least as true of a society. So much depends on balance. Everything depends upon everything else. The social environment is just as real and just as fragile as the natural environment. Artificial change often does widespread damage. There’s a natural wisdom reflected in what’s grown up organically in an ecosystem, or in a society, and it shouldn’t be casually disregarded.

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An educated progressive understands how devastating it can be to remove one species from an ecosystem. He knows that although wolves kill livestock and threaten people, they have their place in nature. He knows it would be a loss for them to vanish from the earth. In fact, the progressive favors the restoration of wolves to environments from which they’d been driven out.

That’s not merely “conservative.” It’s reactionary! 

What About Masculinity?

Why doesn’t he see the same thing about removing one role from the family? What about human masculinity, then? Yes, it has it dangers. But it also has its necessary place. Ought it to be ceaselessly hounded until it disappears? Won’t there be widespread effects? Just because you find something scary or unattractive, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an important role.

Natural metaphors of this sort abound. Removing ideas from circulation because someone thinks they’re politically incorrect is like removing nutrients from soil. Forsaking inherited customs might expose things they protect to erosion, like stripping trees off slopes erodes the soil.

Pollution is also a ready metaphor. The informed environmentalist knows it’s not just toxic chemicals that constitute pollution. Seemingly innocent electric lights along the Atlantic coastline can damage sea turtle egg-laying patterns. What “doesn’t hurt anyone” actually might.

Plastic is said to affect the oceans, including the fish we eat. It’s a slow poison that accumulates over time. So … could constant vulgarity in the entertainment media have the same slow-acting negative effect on civility?

The Big Lesson

The biggest lesson, though, has to do with perspective. Centuries back, the riches of the natural world seemed endless. Old-growth timber, passenger pigeons, the buffalo, were not protected. They didn’t need to be. Mankind could take for granted the “system’s” impressive ability to repair itself over time.

Today it’s a free and prosperous society we take for granted. It seems indestructible. Society has been recklessly meddled with before, and repaired itself. (Prohibition comes to mind.)

That’s dangerous confidence. We have no guarantees. Other cultures have gone extinct. The society we’ve inherited has a lot in common with a primeval ecosystem. We should approach it with humility. We should “raise awareness” that if we’re not really careful with it, it won’t be there for future generations to enjoy.

Conservation has sometimes united very different people. Hunters and hippies with little else in common have worked together for their woodlands and wildlife. That’s why I think that inside any good environmentalist might be, if not a potential cultural conservative … at least a potential cultural conservationist.

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