Brecon, Wales. Probably ever since the first cities arose in Mesopotamia ten thousand years ago, urban elites have distinguished themselves from purportedly backwards country folk. Our word “pagan,” for example, comes from the Latin word for country yokels. Similarly, the Romans borrowed the Greek word barbaros, which originally referred to anyone who didn’t speak Greek, to describe those deemed uncivilized—indeed, our word “civilized” derives from the Latin for city (civitas). Throughout history, being civilized has meant being a city-dweller, a partaker of urban culture.
Contemporary culture is no different. As Wendell Berry writes in his essay “The Prejudice against Country People,” “The small farmers and the people of small towns are understood as occupying the bottom step of the economic stairway and deservedly falling from it because they are rural, which is to say – not metropolitan or cosmopolitan, but socially, intellectually, and culturally inferior to ‘us.’” That small towns are for the small-minded is an assumption that runs through our media and politics. The evidence of this is sufficiently prevalent to need no further comment.
In both America and Britain, the divide between cities and the countryside now mirrors our political divide. Rural populations generally vote for conservative candidates: Republicans in America and Tories in Britain (though Liberal Democrats often do well in affluent English market towns). In America, they’re typically more religious, socially conservative, and achieve lower levels of education while in Britain they were much more likely to vote for Brexit. Throughout the West, to become cultured and civilized normally requires young people in the countryside to escape to the city. Consequently, our cities absorb not only natural resources but also talent and youth.
Meanwhile, progressivism has become primarily an urban and suburban phenomenon. Both Labour and the Democrats draw their votes from areas of dense population with high levels of education and consumption. Can you imagine Democrats winning a presidential election without New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles? Where would Labour be without London, Birmingham, and Manchester? In Anglo-American society, at least, progressivism seems to require a certain population density and standard of living to be viable.
Indeed, as cultural battles have eclipsed former debates about enfranchisement and workers’ rights during the past fifty years, the split between urban progressives and rural conservatives has become starker. Gone, for the most part, is even the memory of the progressive farmers and socialist sharecroppers of yesteryear. This divide is illustrated by electoral maps that depict small pockets of progressive voters in a sea of conservatism that reflects the divide between cities and the countryside (though these maps do make the divide look starker than it really is).
So far, none of this is particularly controversial or neglected by political commentators. But when looked at from a global perspective, another dimension to this divide begins to appear. Compare any map of global attitudes about women, human sexuality, and religion to one ranking countries by their energy consumption or carbon footprint. Discounting those countries with high emission levels due to oil production, the top emitters also enjoy per capita consumption levels that dwarf the rest of the globe. These same countries are also among the most culturally progressive in the world. Indeed, they’ve historically been the drivers of progressive agendas and cultural change. This raises the question of whether their ecological impact is only coincidental to their progressivism or is a necessary requirement for it. The answer should be obvious: progressivism in its present form appears to depend on a degree of urban affluence that’s ecologically unsustainable. The reason for this is progressivism’s dependence on consumerism, which seems to provide the ideal environment for more liberal attitudes to take root.
If this is the case, is progressivism sustainable? If you leave aside all other questions, the answer would almost certainly be no. The conditions for progressive culture seem to demand a high degree of physical, social, and financial security combined with the easy availability of goods and services. Such conditions only arise through the intensive consumption of food, energy, and other natural resources that are the foundations of consumer culture. What happens to progressivism if those conditions change? Could progressivism actually survive the root-and-branch ecological revolution for which many of its champions advocate?
Admittedly, this is both a broad-brushed and controversial way of stating things. Many will point out that conservatives have equally high levels of consumption but often resist doing anything about it. This is certainly true. Many on the political right have their own set of unsustainable commitments and practices, especially those defending unrestricted use of fossil fuels, mineral extraction, and agrobusinesses (on which, of course, our urban centers of consumption depend). But the right has so far received the lion’s share of political and ideological criticism while progressivism has generally escaped ecological opprobrium.
Too often cultural progressives fail to recognize that the society on which many of their attitudes depend is as much a product of extractive economies, cheap labour, and conspicuous consumption as that of their ostensible political opponents. Their solutions to injustices and inequalities also use the same playbook as many on the right: prosperity based on infinite economic growth. Thus, the path towards more progressive societies has generally led to rapid urbanization and modernization that has resulted in severe environmental degradation. Indeed, the myth of human progress is itself a primary product of the industrialization and hyper-urbanization that have created our climate crisis. The progressive left seems to share a belief with the political right that the world can be saved and improved by devouring itself.
The inability of progressives and conservatives to recognize the ideological roots of our ecological crisis lies in their shared underlying libertarianism. Both conservatives and progressives assume that our Western lifestyles are or should be available to everyone in the world. In other words, they subscribe to a view of the good life that consists of radical personal freedom expressed through consumer lifestyles that require relentless technological development and the exploitation of the world’s resources and cheap labour. As a result, they collaborate in creating a civilization that sustains itself through excessive consumption. This is why our solutions to ecological problems are usually technological, driven by a mission embraced by those in power to modernize everything and everywhere. And modernization is more often than not just another name for urbanized consumerism. Thus, we continue to witness the ongoing massive migrations from the countryside to our megacities across the globe—from two to over thirty such cities in less than seventy-five years.
But the technological innovations currently being pursued by our multinational corporations will never make Western economic prosperity possible on a global scale. We’ve learned how to create a simulacrum of heaven on earth for a fraction of the world’s population only to discover that it requires four earths to sustain it. We’ve demonstrated that such progress is self-defeating in the long-term because it requires our living far beyond our means in the short-term.
In order to arrive at a healthier form of politics, we must undergo an almost unique revolution: we must become less civilized. By this, I don’t mean that we must become more brutish nor even that we should dismantle our megacities (though a case can be made for repopulating smaller cities rooted in local economies). What I mean is that we need to work out how to allow nature to be our social and cultural guide. We must develop ways of living that nurture our local environments rather than impose themselves destructively on them.
A good place to begin is by learning from agrarian thinkers such as Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, and Wes Jackson. Central to their shared philosophy is an ecological basis for identifying health and prosperity. Instead of considering what may be best for some imagined future humanity (understood in a way that is isolated from the rest of creation), they argue that we should take “nature as our measure.” What this means practically is that we aim for the good of all nature rather than focusing on humanity alone (which generally means only some humans). We do this by embracing the commonwealth of creation, acknowledging that we cannot long flourish unless nature joins in our prosperity. This is what Leopold called the “land community” in which our ethical strivings “include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”
This will require us to challenge a fundamental assumption of modernity, which is the Will turned relentlessly towards the mastery of all things: ecosystems, all forms of life, each other, and even our bodies. Just as progressives have sought to overthrow the power of the few over the many, so too should they challenge our attempts to dominate nature for our own convenience. The “mastery of the human race” is a heresy that has endured far too long and looks increasingly destined to bring about our own destruction. A brighter future lies in our ceasing to be creation’s master and learning to be her stewards.
We must, therefore, plant our notions of the common good and human flourishing in the good of creation and, insofar as it lies within our power, to nurture the flourishing of land and sea even when this limits our pleasures or costs us economically. Progress, enlightenment, and innovation need, therefore, to yield to husbandry, community, and conviviality. Our notions of justice must sink roots in fertile soil so that our desires and expectations become earthed. Progressivism needs, in the words of Wes Jackson, “to become native to our places in a coherent community that is in turn embedded in the ecological realities of its surrounding landscape.”
Similarly, we should critique our relentless pursuit of perfectibility. The Western world is even now discovering that a society of ever-increasing security, ease, and opportunity has out-stretched our planet’s capacity to sustain it. Much of our so-called cultural enlightenment has been gained at severe cost to others. Our frantic struggle to overcome our mortality has led to the impoverishment of other life. The Anthropocene is too high a price for human transcendence. Indeed, we may be about to return to the ordinary human condition defined by scarcity and want (still typical in most of the world) rather than of unfettered personal freedom. To become satisfied with less requires as much a spiritual transformation as it does a social one.
Practically, it will require a braver critique of not just the distribution of wealth but also the means for obtaining it. Ill-gotten material wealth is not redeemed by the manner of its distribution. Can progressives unyoke social progress from its historical dependence on infinite economic growth and technological advancement? The only way to do so is for progressivism to embrace expanded notions of wealth that don’t require the mass consumption of natural resources. The haves of the world must learn wisdom from the have-nots and give greater voice to the indigenous peoples of our planet. Our civilization must learn from those we too often deem uncivilized, who live outside the walls of our cosmopolitan centers but retain deep wisdom for living well within their local environments.
If this is beginning to sound like an old-fashioned form of conservatism, then perhaps that should tell us something about the ecological times we’re entering. We cannot sustain the rhetoric of conservation and sustainability if our society remains fixated on ideas of economic and technological progress. We cannot become a people who cherish the land and seas if we continue to expect an unsustainable degree of material affluence.
At its best, conserving is simply the nurturing of that which is good; its aim is the flourishing of the life it protects and promotes. As with farming or gardening, such nurturing also involves weeding and fertilization. Thus, a healthy conservatism confronts the evil and corruption in our world and promotes the health of the land and the life it supports. Our motivation, however, should not be the betterment of the human species for its own sake but rather the flourishing of all creatures. This consequently requires humility and community rather than hubris and individualism.
The good news is that there are plenty of connecting points between agrarian conservationists and environmentally-conscious progressives. If progressives can value the local as much as the global, critique lifestyles that depend on material affluence, and find ways to promote sustainable forms of belonging, they’ll come to discover a greener form of politics. If they can encourage lifestyles that connect people to the land on which they live, they can also learn what it means to take nature as the measure of their social strivings. If they can step away from their cosmopolitan bubbles, they may start inhabiting the actual ecologies they are defending.
But if they do meet these challenges, they will no longer be as they are today. That’s the nature of revolutions. Change politics, economies, and society and you also change the ideologies that depend on them. In short, a true social transformation towards an enduring, greener society will dramatically reshape society, culture, and politics. If such a transformation occurs, I suspect progressivism will ironically look a lot more like classical conservatism. But that would be no bad thing since many on the right abandoned their conservative roots long ago. Perhaps the revolution progressives need is to embrace a re-imagined conservatism that seeks to conserve not so much the present order or even a golden past as the ecologies on which we all depend. Such a progressive impulse towards conserving might even be the impetus for radical reform and renewal.
If so, what dogmas might progressives sacrifice to achieve a cultural renewal measured by nature? And how would a progressivism dedicated to conserving ecologies reshape its social expectations and cultural yearnings? Working out possible answers to these sorts of questions might lead to the discovery of a radically new progressivism, one that is truly sustainable.