Bernardsville, NJ. Sometime during college, I decided to become a farmer. Upon graduating, I moved back in with my parents and began to farm their sixty-acre property. Although I did not know it at the time–indeed, I believed my unusual decision to be the consummation of my commitment to progressivism–this was the first step on my journey toward conservatism.
During my years as a progressive, I did not realize to what extent my views were being held in place by a form of subliminal social coercion rather than by genuine conviction or persuasive discourse. That coercion, as my fellow progressive apostates will attest, is enacted by the implicit threat of social ostracism as punishment for dissent. For most students and city-dwellers, the preferable course in light of these conditions is simple: just be progressive. If you have misgivings, then try not to think about them.
By deciding to farm, I was unwittingly leaving the progressive dominion of my college’s campus, and sidestepping that of the urban centers to which most of my peers were destined. In the months that followed, it was not so much that I heard and was persuaded by conservative ideas–that was to come later. It was, rather, that the progressive ones, now lacking their routine maintenance, simply fell away.
The first notion of which I was disabused was my progressive environmentalism. During college I worked for, and found community in, my school’s Sustainability Office. Toward the end of that tenure, I began to take note of a consistent trend in environmentalist slogans, such as: “reduce your impact!”; “achieve neutrality!”; and “leave no trace!” These mantras construe humanity’s relationship to our planet as fundamentally parasitic. They allow no possibility of a positive, mutually nurturing connection between human societies and their natural ecosystems. And yet the whole of my burgeoning agrarian perspective was predicated on the assumption that a human-choreographed improvement of the land–its soils, its ecosystem functions–was possible.
Furthermore, what is the logical conclusion of the assumption that humans are parasites, that our actions can only ever be harmful? If neutrality on Earth is the sole ethical ideal, then basic moral presuppositions–such as the intrinsic value of human life–are called into question. In short, progressive environmentalism lacks a certain humanity.
The progressive perspective on resources also troubled me. Essentially, it is that there are fundamentally good and fundamentally bad resources, and that the crux of our troubles is that we are currently using the bad ones. Farming has led me to understand that there is nothing intrinsically good or evil about any resource–not even fossil fuels. The goodness or malice is located, rather, in the human-performed management of these resources. I learned this by having to figure out how to manage the livestock on my own fledgling farm. Yes, it is true what climate activists insist: cattle and other stock can be unbelievably destructive, both to the climate and to ecological systems. But this has nothing to do with the animals themselves. Under good management, their capacity for destruction can be translated into positive yields, including soil carbon sequestration, which reverses climate change by storing atmospheric carbon in stable organic soil compounds.
Progressives’ deterministic understanding of resources is reflected in the larger left-wing worldview, in which human nature is understood to be pure at birth, but becomes corrupted by undesirable social conditions. In the environmental case, these conditions are represented by our societal dependence on fossil fuels. Change the conditions, say the progressives, and improvement will be had. Change enough of the conditions, and utopia will be had.
Conservatives are correct in rejecting this premise, despite its leading to accusations of pessimism, and worse. The irony is that our alternative view–that we humans are born flawed, but possess the free will to try to improve on this flawedness–is the opposite of pessimistic. The profound hope of the conservative perspective is that it allows for the possibility of transcendent redemption. That man can improve his surroundings, that he can influence them at all, rather than be eternally and powerlessly subjected to their vicissitudes, is a perspective that locates social power in human beings. Conservatives know that it is we ourselves who must change before there is to be any societal improvement, for it is we who will adjust the systems and manage them in the future (barring an AI takeover). A few days’ work on any farm will instill this lesson into even the most hardened progressive (though he would probably not admit for some years that he has learned it).
One of the primary reasons that I wanted to farm was that I was attracted to the prospect of manual work. Spending the majority of one’s waking life sitting at a schoolroom desk is apt to spur anyone’s sense of the romance of physical labor. And while it has had its romantic moments, you will not be surprised to read that the work of farming is mostly toil. It is unrelenting and unforgiving, and it will never make me rich. Therefore, success in it requires a deeper motivation. At the outset, I believed that the ideal of ecological restoration would be inspiring enough to galvanize my work ethic. When the going gets tough, though, I have found that this and other earthly motivational wells are simply not deep enough. Some celestial aspiration is needed.
One of the first things that I did when I started farming was to contract a pernicious variant of Lyme Disease called Lyme carditis, which attacks the electrophysiology of the heart. I was 20 years old, and I nearly died of it. My heart rate dropped to an 11 (that is, one palpitation every six seconds), and I spent a week and a half in the hospital, from whence I was lucky to escape without a permanent pacemaker.
This brush with my own mortality prompted me to consider just how distanced we have become from the specter of death in modern society. Whereas in earlier periods infant mortality, death in childbirth, and death by infectious disease were commonplace, we have now mitigated the risk of untimely or unexpected mortality to such a degree that many of us hardly consider it at all in our day-to-day lives. But for the farmer who inserts herself into the natural systems of her farm, and who endeavors to cultivate a living soil, death, decay and regrowth are so simultaneously omnipresent that the borders between these phases are not always clear.
The overarching progressive theory about religious traditions is that they are obsolete superstitions that once served to assuage people’s anxieties over the imminence of their own deaths. The simplicity of this perspective is only possible from within a comparatively deathless (i.e. modern) context, because it conceptualizes death as a sort of external invader that intermittently and expectantly appears, like a comet, to reap the souls of the living. The older, truer understanding, retained within the living farming tradition, is that death is present in equal proportion wherever there is life. It is only once we have forgotten this, as well as a great many other things, that the longing for God seems to fade among the people. Remember its truth, and the longing will return.
Before I became a farmer, I can remember wondering: if conservatives are against centralized power and in favor of things like states’ rights, why then is the local food movement considered a left wing proposition? Suddenly, in this one area, affluent liberals had become populists and protectionists, demanding that restaurants serve them locally produced food and that farmers from outside a certain radius should not be permitted to sell at their local farmers’ market.
When I first began selling at my own local farmers’ markets, I came prepared with an elaborate sales pitch. All passersby were to know of my farm’s environmental stewardship, our greater nutrient density, and our generally superior quality. In practice, these proclamations had little effect on anyone. Before long I came to realize that the products themselves, superior though they often are, account for surprisingly little of the customer base’s motivations. It is too vulgar to claim that at farmers’ markets we “sell” a sense of community-in-place, but it is accurate to note that this sense, rather than any synthetic notion of obligation to the global atmosphere, is what draws the customers to the farmers’ market instead of the supermarket, week in and week out.
Like other progressive ideas, the local food concept was embraced more out of a pursuit of the fashionable than out of real world conviction. It became important to the progressive cause in conjunction with the emergence of climate change as a political issue. Paradoxically, it took a global crisis to prompt progressive acknowledgement of localism’s merits. But there is little reason to believe that simply by slashing food miles, one automatically reduces his or her carbon footprint. There remains, however, a compelling reason to support the local food movement, which is that a local-centric food economy engenders a love of place, and a sense of community among the people in it. Without these sentiments at its foundation, a local economy will not long survive.
Farming, especially a form of farming that centers soil health, provides constant reminders of the fragility and impermanence of good things. In progressive enclaves such as cities and university campuses, it is tempting to believe that the fact that things run relatively smoothly is due to the natural state of the world. Under this illusion, radical changes to the system could never result in chaos or regression, because order seems endemic.
We seem to suffer from the misconception, in agricultural as in sociopolitical matters, that the legacy bequeathed to us is something inert, created in a distant past by beings who are long dead. Perhaps an apt metaphor would be one of those thousand-year-old churches in a small village in England or France. Isn’t it alienating for the townsfolk to know how long ago it was built? Shouldn’t we be envious of the people who built it and presumably derived such a sense of meaning and purpose from the project? It is natural, especially for the young, to be tempted to tear it down, simply in order to build it again. But our institutions and social traditions are not a thousand-year-old church; in fact, they have much more in common with our soil than with our built environment.
This is because soil, when properly managed, is a living entity. Its health–and fragility–is a consequence of its being alive. We seem to have deluded ourselves into the belief that soil is not a living but an inert medium, through which synthetics can be pumped in order to grow and ultimately reap some yield. Stewardship, the practice of care by way of human participation, seems an obsolete relic of an ignorant age.
In my younger years, I would have said that not only do our social structures pass unweathered through time, but that this is the precise reason they must be torn down and replaced–because they cannot be reshaped, reformed, or enhanced. So many young people today are possessed by this vision, not because of true animus, but because they crave the creative process, the adventure of building something new. What we have lost is the comprehension that these structures are not static. They are amorphous, living, and in need of our participation for their (and our) survival. Progressives think that conservatives who know this–who call for cautious but enthusiastic engagement instead of headlong transformation–are hellbent on forestalling justice. On the contrary: we desire widespread prosperity and happiness. But where do these things come from? Not from plowing up and replanting, by which we risk all manner of calamity. Rather, by approaching with humble hands that which we have inherited, and endeavoring to shape it to our time and needs with care, such that it will provide not only for ourselves but also for our descendants.
Humanity, faith, localism, good’s impermanence. These are a few of the lessons I have received from returning to this farm. I love Roger Scruton’s definition: “conservatives are people who want to conserve things.” Not out of some fanatical reverence for the past, or nostalgia, or skepticism of advancement, but out of gratitude and humility.
I realize that most pieces here are going to be anti-liberal, but this one is more confusing than most. The author seems to confuse many of his theme’s as inherently conservative when they are blatantly liberal. Respect for the land and in fact the environmental movement were born in California, in the 50’s (at least as a practical political movement). Conservatives are consistently in favor of that which profits them most and fastest. This usually involves strip mining, agri-business scale farming and of course maintenance of a fairly horrible social status pyramid which ensures a steady supply of poorly educated consumers, rather than citizens. No group has a lock on good or bad ideas but interjecting faith into this discussion, which was probably necessary to get published here, is a pointless aside. In god you may trust, but everyone else needs to bring data. That data pretty unequivocally points to the fact that it is the conservative side of the intellectual spectrum which supports the me first and the gimme gimme attitude in a far more pernicious fashion. I do however salute your admission of honesty that farming isn’t romantic, it’s just hard work. Having grown up in a farm town, there is a reason I became a programmer!
I think that you and Mr. Salovaara have different ideas of what “conservative” means. Like many here, he understands conservatism differently than the modern conservative mainstream, in that he rejects that mainstream’s focus on consumption, “wealth” creation, and contempt for limits. Understanding conservatism as something different than the platform of the Republican party, his account is internally consistent. He even provides a definition of the brand of conservatism that he endorses at the end of the article.
It is interesting that I also had a similar response to Josh. I was frankly confused. I understood the upshot of the article which to me is something like — farming is hard, sometimes tedious, work and institutional change like farming is better done incrementally cultivating the good passed down to us as opposed to radical deconstruction and reconstruction. Who is the real bogeyman here? Liberals? Progressives? College students? Or the nihilists who in the name of conservatism (or progressivism) deliberately undermine our institutions. It’s just disheartening that we seem to define our opponents by their political party not their actions (including speech). I just am not sure we really know who our enemies are, nor our friends, but painting progressive college students as commissars and liberal shoppers at farmer’s markets as hypocritical cosmopolitans in local clothing distracts from a good piece otherwise. Isn’t there an old adage that we save our harshest vitriol for those closest to us? My point is that maybe we can begin to look beyond the partisan categories and think about a set of shared goals. Not every urban dweller is an unthinking globalist nor is every farmer an embedded localist. There is a bridge group waiting to be formed. I just can’t seem to find it.
Make that three. I, too, had exactly the same reaction that Rick and Josh did.
I think most people that come here can get on board with the basic values the author has espouses and the choices he has made. But the real spirit of the essay was the underlying “us versus them” partisan vibe. It undermined what could have been a constructive, edifying essay.
When are we going to quit this demonization of a “them” in order to justify our choices and feel we occupy the moral high ground?
Just tell about your evolution as a person and values, and what is bringing you life, and spare us the shallow and cheap analysis of your perceived enemies.
But if you must critique your “enemy”, at least bring some understanding and compassion to the effort.
“Shallow and cheap analysis”?
Pot, kettle, black.
For those taking issue with his issues with his critique of progressivism please remember that the title of the article is “A young farmer’s journey towards conservatism”.
It wouldn’t be a very interesting article if he did not thoroughly explain his motivations for leaving the progressive ideology.
Also Josh, you a lump in all conservatives with earth destroying unbridled capitalistic strip miners. The people running those companies *might be Republicans, but that does not equal conservative. There are very few conservatives in the Republican Party. Republicans do not conserve the environment, tradition, faith, culture, or finances.
Fine, Seth. Maybe the “disillusionment and escape” story is necessary for the arc of his narrative. My complaint goes deeper than that. It is not just Dennett’s freedom as unfettered autonomy that is the fatal and shared flaw of right and left. It is also this narrative of victimhood. It is just getting tiresome.
~~The people running those companies *might be Republicans, but that does not equal conservative.~~
Thank you: this cannot be repeated enough. Far too many liberals and leftists think that conservatism and the GOP are coterminous.
Thank you for this thoughtful and well-written article, Malcolm. If you were trying to point out “the enemy,” I totally missed it, but it was helpful for me to learn about some of the insights that you learned from farming.
While I have no problem with the author’s sentiments or work, which is valuable and important, this article strikes me as targeting a “straw man.” As the author of the book, AFFLUENZA: THE ALL CONSUMING EPIDEMIC, I am very much a progressive and most of the progressives I know would agree with the author. We are anti-consumerist, prefer to support local and sustainable products, and want to conserve. What bothers me is that I find nothing about today’s so-called “conservatives” and especially Trump supporters that is about conserving anything. They would trash the Arctic Wildlife Refuge for cash, they promote lavish, unsustainable consumption, they don’t reward hard work but rather financial wealth, they seem to care not one whit for what unrestrained capitalism does to communities–I could go on and on. No one readers of this article are confused, the author seems to have a very untethered view of what it means to be either progressive or conservative. I wonder where that comes from.
Seems to me that some of the “liberal” commenters here don’t understand that there is a strong, albeit minority, strand of conservatism that rejects libertarianism and corporatism and has done so for many decades. This strand, which in its 20th century expression can be traced to the agrarians and Distributists, found its way into 50’s conservatism largely via the work of Kirk and Weaver.
This form of conservatism is also found in Scruton, as the writer says. Perhaps the piece would have made more sense to the critics had Malcolm defined his conservatism at the beginning rather than the end, but as one who 20-odd years ago followed a similar path out of “movement conservatism,” albeit without the farming piece, I know exactly what he is describing and it confuses me not one whit. As a matter of fact, in the period of time between my abandonment of movement conservatism in the late 90’s and my final break from the GOP in 2008, I called myself a “Wendell Berry Republican.”
As Deneen, Mark Mitchell, and others have argued, the mainstream conservatism of the past 30-40 years is not actually conservative, but is rather a form of right-liberalism. This obviously applies to Kirk and Scruton as well, but their Burkeanism strongly tempers whatever Enlightenment sympathies they have.
In short, the critics of the piece are tarring with too broad a brush.
I’m a new arrival here, but had much of the same confusion as others who commented on this article. If there’s anything to add to this conversation, I would only say that I’d hope that conservatives who want others to take the time to understand the difference between true conservatism relative to the GOP or Republicanism, would be fairly asked to also understand that there are many ways to be a liberal. If Malcolm spent time among lazy progressives, I fully understand why he would embrace rigorous, Wendell Berry style “true” conservatives. But assuming that because one’s experience of a community was disappointing, that all expressions of it must also be that way, and no sincere version is possible, is bound to leave you somewhat blindered to real life. This is a point necessarily made to liberals as a cue toward better understanding those they think are their opponents. It should also be made here.
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