Rectifying the Names: Is Conservation Liberal?


Tsze-Lu, a student of Confucius, once asked the old teacher what he would first do if he were made advisor to the king. “What is necessary is to rectify names,” the teacher responded. Likely looking for something a bit more exciting, Tsze-Lu protested the answer. The teacher rebuked him, and explained,

If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, morals and arts will deteriorate. When morals and arts deteriorate, justice goes astray. When justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Therefore, a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately.[1]

On the level of political discourse, and discourse about the environment in particular, unrectified names encourage misapprehension about the nature of the environmental task. We talk about “conserving” resources or the “conservation” of the environment, and yet we call this task a “liberal,” “progressive” one, often naming “conservatives” as the enemy. Obviously, there is some confusion at work here. In order to help rectify the names, it is important that we understand these terms, a first step not only in clarifying political discourse, but also in elucidating the nature of the task before us when it comes to the environment. The terms “conservation” and “conservative” obviously are derivatives of the same root word. If we were to take conservatism seriously, might it help provide a guideline and proper direction for conservation, and vice versa?

Liberalism is that school of political and moral thought that emerged during the historical period commonly called the “Enlightenment.” It came into its own during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and served as the impetus for the American and French revolutions, as well as a host of other less prominent upheavals. Its provenance extends deep into the Middle Ages of Europe and the concerted efforts at reform undertaken by a new mode of Western Christendom that had recently thrown off its own sources in the East. The characteristics that coalesced around these efforts were marked by a top-down renovation of secular life driven by an elite and fueled by moral indignation.[2] This came to a head in the Protestant Reformation, and the Puritans who settled New England brought it with them, lock, stock, and barrel. Author Michael Walzer has traced a direct line of pedigree from these Puritans to contemporary radical political movements.[3]

The basic thrust of liberalism is the protection and enhancement of the autonomy of the individual person. It seeks to liberate people from an either real or supposed tyranny of tradition, which included the rigid and largely unchanging generational social structures of old Europe. In this, its roots are in the mercantile middle classes who, through market activity, were able to improve their economic standing and living conditions. Capitalism, the natural outgrowth of middle-class values, is an out and out liberal idea. It seeks to free the market, and people within it, from government controls, outmoded cultural constraints, and centralized structures that make an economy top-heavy and therefore stagnant. Many consider Adam Smith (d. 1790) the father of Capitalism. The ill-understood archenemy of many of today’s “liberals,” Capitalism could not be a more liberal institution.

Without going into the major players in its development, we can distill liberalism into a set of maxims.[4] First, it teaches that change is inherently progressive. Therefore, change is not only good, but should always be encouraged. Constant innovation, coupled with a distrust and even scorn of tradition and the past, is a prominent characteristic of liberalism. Therefore, the goal of education, according to this view, is to emancipate the individual from the perceived tyranny of tradition. That this has now become a tradition that shackles students’ minds and bars them from meaningful engagement with history and the sources of their own culture seems often overlooked.

The autonomy that liberalism ascribes to the individual not only shapes educational, political, and economic systems but also our association with nature. Early liberal thinkers extended human autonomy onto nature, which was no longer seen as a “creation” lovingly spoken into existence of which humanity is an integral part but instead a resource that can be managed and improved by human agency. Liberalism puts human persons in charge not only of themselves but also of their world like no other mode of thought in history. While a strong sense of human dignity is its inheritance from its Christian roots, roots that many liberal thinkers sought to defy, liberalism ascribes to human agency an almost unchecked and total autonomy. This is anti-Christian. I only say this to let environmental thinkers know that they can stop perpetuating bogus and slipshod readings of Genesis 1 as if Lynn White Jr.’s account is the final word on how Christianity shapes human relations to creation. Quite the opposite. Genesis instead tells of the profound limitation of autonomous human agency and is an extended reflection, which continues throughout scripture, on the catastrophic outcomes inherent in trying to thwart these limitations. In the Genesis narrative, to the extent that human autonomy and civilization advance, wickedness and senseless suffering—not just of people, but of the creation itself—proliferate.

Liberal thinkers routinely ascribe the highest value to individual liberty and the pursuit of self-interest. With this comes what conservative thinkers have disapprovingly called “moral relativism,” the belief that each person judges for him- or herself what ideas and values matter most. Finally, liberal thinkers endorse the rights and privileges of the individual. Not only capitalism, but also progressivism, utilitarianism, rationalism, materialism, and scientism are all shoots or roots of liberal thought.

While a great deal of creative energy burst forth as liberalism brought down the walls of convention, this philosophy has developed to such a degree that its own deficiencies grow clearer by the day. Its greatest flaw stands at its very heart: an overinflated, unworkable, and frankly hallucinatory emphasis on individual human autonomy. A liberal world is a world of atomized human units with absolute free agency. While in a young America religion or the vestiges thereof provided a common set of values to guide and govern this agency, even if it was the stunted Christianity or Deism that predominated in America’s infancy, it now no longer does. Our new religion is our rights. To appeal to personal rights seems to be an appeal to the highest value, and it is no wonder that people are feeling spiritually and socially starved. No one in earlier times would have considered his rights apart from his duties and responsibilities, or her privileges apart from her obligations. Promoters of abortion rights, gun rights, land rights, gay marriage rights, animal rights, human rights, worker’s rights, corporate rights, laissez-faire economics, laissez-faire morality, and so on are all liberals. They are all drawing from the same well, and as it dries up, its waters become increasingly acrid.

Environmental lawyer, professor, and writer Eric T. Freyfogle, in his wonderful Foreword to my previous book, The Disfiguration of Nature: Why Caring for the Environment is Inherently Conservative, spoke about his own struggles serving on the board of a large, national environmental organization. In trying to draft “a new environmental ethic” that would address the underlying cultural causes of the problems we face, the group struggled, as he put it,

to even comprehend the issue, given the larger movement’s tendency to dwell on facts, economics, and politics. They want all people to respect nature—to love it, even—and they know about nature’s ecological interconnections. But at the same time, they embrace individual human rights, particularly liberty and equality, and they are as prone as their neighbors to comprehend humans chiefly as autonomous individuals, free to set their own courses and liberated from dated, constraining traditions. What they experience and display in their struggles is the awkwardness of being at once a modern, open-minded, free-roaming social liberal and an advocate for the disciplined, responsible use of nature’s incredible richness. The way to bridge the gap they sense (as do their counterparts in other groups) is to promote the love of nature as an individual choice—the best choice, of course—and to encourage individuals everywhere to craft and embrace a personal land ethic.

What too few environmentalists see is that the presumptions of modern liberal individualism, all across the political spectrum, collide with a view of nature as interconnected and interdependent. Similarly, to deem nature worthy of respect … is to presume that we humans are duty-bound to tailor our ways of living so as to acknowledge a larger moral order beyond our own choosing…. To embrace liberalism in the human social realm, while putting out the call to respect nature, is to create intellectual and moral tensions that inevitably sow confusion.[5]

How does conservatism differ from liberalism, and why is it better equipped to inspire authentic environmental justice? Two examples from the so-called “culture wars” can help answer these questions: personal identity and evolution/progress.

Under the influence of liberalism, we tend to think of identity as that which makes us different or unique from others, valuing our lives according to the extent to which we can stand out. We celebrate the troubled geniuses whose talents raise them above the otherwise humdrum mass of humanity. Standing out and apart, however, is a grueling endeavor, and it causes a tremendous sickness in our souls. This mentality is also alienating us from nature, for nature always poses a threat to our autonomy.

For a conservative, on the other hand, identity is what binds individual persons to realities beyond them, often outside of their own power to choose. We are only persons in relationship. Identity is largely a given, based in shared experience, just as a name is given. Identity is determined by ancestry, biology, place, community, and by ritual and civic participation. Because conservatism is inherently communal and relational, and because it honors existing structures and seeks to develop these structures with real and meaningful continuity, it is grounded in the realities of nature much more than liberalism. Nature is inherently conservative, which brings me to our next example: evolution/progress.

The plight of the Monarch butterfly has become an axiomatic posterchild for the environmental cause. Dependent on the milkweed plant alone as a carrier for her eggs and on generational migration routes for winter survival, the Monarch butterfly is struggling due to habitat loss and fragmentation along its range. Millions of butterflies travel from the eastern part of the continent to one general location in Mexico. Others similarly voyage to congregation sites in California. This has been going on for as long as human memory can recall. Despite the destruction of these migration routes and the imposition of dangers along them, such as highways and pollution, and despite the reduction of habitat in their winter destinations (largely due to our demand for year-round avocados), the Monarch butterflies will not change their courses or their destinations to compensate. Rather, they will simply perish. This is but one example of the deep conservatism of nature.

Built on a strange mixture of Christian teleology and Darwinian evolutionary theories, we tell ourselves that all change is evolutionary, that resistance to change is not only futile but that it represents a dangerous anti-evolutionary reaction that threatens mankind’s continued advancement, always seen as a march into greater liberation. Progress is natural, and change is progress. While such a narrative (in however simplified a state I have presented it here) addresses the question of change, it fails to address the question of persistence. To be sure, we see creatures adapting to various environments and the challenges imposed by these environments, but this narrative does not take into account the incredible persistence of these same species. Adaptation, in fact, is persistence. I adapt so that I can persist without outside challenges overcoming me. In the natural world, these adaptations take a great deal of time, if they happen at all. The example of the Monarch butterfly illustrates the point. The fact is that, so far, it cannot adapt to the changes it faces in the environment.

Our liberal culture has over-emphasized change. It has failed to produce a fitting wonderment for nature’s persistence and the social and personal benefits in respecting it. The celebration of the new and novel is antithetical to the ways of nature. Even if we removed all talk of absolute sources and causes and were to find the source of our existence only in the natural order, we still would be bound by this source. Any direction apart or away from it would not be progress nor evolution but some kind of aberration, some kind of disease. There is no progress, only movements away from or toward the center, movements toward or away from what is appropriate, fitting, and wholesome. We do not choose the sources of our lives nor the conditions of nature. We must instead surrender our autonomy before, and align our wills and loves, to these larger realities, which will in turn reveal to us a more authentic identity.

Whatever goods we have obtained through liberalism, and there are many, it is eminently clear that its underlying paradigms will not serve conservation very well. In fact, though many environmental activists like to point out ancient instances of ruin related to a given culture’s misuse or overuse of the land, the magnitude, character, and complexion of today’s environmental crisis is nothing other than modern liberalism’s offspring. Our current aversion to duties beyond our choosing, our devotion to limitlessness in individual expression and gratification, and our genuine alienation from the realities and claims of nature in general would set our pre-industrial ancestors’ teeth on edge. All of these characteristics, inherent in contemporary society and central to the demise of nature, are the outgrowth of liberalism. Conservation is quite simply not a liberal undertaking.

  1. Confucius, Analects, 13.3.

  2. See John Strickland, Paradise & Utopia, Vol 2: The Age of Division (Chesterton: Ancient Faith, 2021).

  3. Michael Walzer, Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1966). For a detailed description of these developments in Europe, see John Strickland, Paradise & Utopia: The Rise and Fall of What the West Once Was, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4 (Chesterton: Ancient Faith, 2021).

  4. This section follows Krueger, Disfiguration, 51.

  5. James Krueger, The Disfiguration of Nature: Why Caring for the Environment is Inherently Conservative (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2018), x-xi.

    Image credit: “What Freedom!” by Ilya Repin via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Speaking of rectification of names, this is not “conservation”, this is just intentional complete economic destruction:
    Would an occasional blackout help solve climate change?

    A decade ago I assumed people would openly revolt if things got this far, but it’s clearly going to take things getting much, much worse before there’s any resistance to the madness.

  2. Thanks for this, Fr. James. If you’ve not read it, Roger Scruton’s book ‘Green Philosophy’ makes some similar points and is well worth a look. Even though he tends to be somewhat more sanguine about market forces than I am, I find his thought on the subject to be helpful.

  3. This is a complex essay, praiseworthy for the insight that “Conservation is quite simply not a liberal undertaking.”

    Why not? The main rationale leading to the salutary conclusion is a kind of homily about liberalism over-emphasizing consumerist tendencies, isolation, self-centeredness, and various other aspects of human individuality — a whole ball of wax that has become quite common among moralist screeds in recent years.

    Let’s go back to the title and initial paragraph about names. The introduction offers a Chinese syllogism about the importance of the rational mind for controlling society — a kind of anticipation of Genesis 1:28 urging humans to subdue the natural world, which Father Krueger rightfully links with the long history of liberal attempts to remake humans as a form of progress.

    IMO, all such sermons focus on only one side of the coin. Yes, we see a rampant emphasis on the rational, the “liberated” mind not bound by tradition, empathy, or spirituality. But the other side of the coin has become increasingly harder to ignore: the word “autonomy” appears four times in one long paragraph, but the LACK of autonomy is obvious among the fearful members of our species nowadays.

    The endless wars on drugs, money laundering, terrorists, climate change, and now viruses all instill fear, with no letup from one generation to the next. People cling desperately to their devices because they can still exert some real autonomy when using them, even though we are becoming more compliant in recent decades, trusting governments and experts with the same blind faith that we once reserved for religious leaders.

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