In the decades since World War II, the U.S. has declared a war on poverty, a war on drugs, and a war on terror. All three of these campaigns were unqualified failures, but the Biden Administration has nevertheless declared war on climate change. Or at least, that’s how some media outlets are describing his opening acts. Their rhetoric echoes the established pitch of leftist outlets and climate activists. It’s a hallmark of environmental documentaries to remind the audience that the world is going to end unless there is a worldwide conversion to climate-conscious pietism: recycle! drive electric! eat vegan! and for the love of mother earth don’t reproduce!
Thirty years of climate hysteria has failed to convince many rational people that they should give up their hamburgers and SUVs for the sake of “saving the world.” But now a slim majority has voted Joe Biden president, and he has vowed a “whole of government” response to the climate crisis, making it one of his top four priorities.
Seen in the best light, these executive actions focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to mitigate the effects of global warming and are accompanied by heartfelt promises that many jobs will be created along the way. Conservatives are skeptical that the economic gains will actually compensate for the losses. And Jonathan Berry has suggested that these climate change initiatives are more representative of elite interests than those of the common man.
But there’s another problem with Biden's climate policies: They are technocratic solutions for a relational problem.
Whatever one’s opinion about climate change—true, false, man-made, natural course of events, the most acute problem humanity faces, leftist unicorn, etc.—it’s undeniable that the average American is estranged from the land. That the earth is humanity’s sole source of food and water is as inescapable as “male and female he created them.” And just as conservatives insist that without a rightly ordered sexual ethic society will be in disarray, so should we insist that without a rightly ordered “land ethic” society is unsustainable. In fact, the two ethics are mutually enriching. When we properly steward the land, it gives forth in abundance. And the fertility of the land and the animals we husband on it naturally leads us to marvel at our own fertility as well. The commandments “till it and keep it” and “be fruitful and multiply” are wed to each other.
The term “land ethic” originates with Aldo Leopold (1887–1948), an American conservationist. In A Sand County Almanac, he writes that ethics “has its origin in the tendency of interdependent individuals or groups to evolve modes of cooperation” (emphasis mine). The evolution of ethics, Leopold argues, has had several stages. The first stage dealt with the relation between individuals, as in the ten commandments. Later ethics dealt with the relation between the individual and society, as in the Sermon on the Mount. But “there is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.” He goes on to argue that the responsibility of the land ethic lies with individuals rather than with the government because “we can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.” That’s exactly right.
Unless more Americans opt for the feeling of soil under our fingernails, our policies on climate change will continue to be monomaniacally focused on reducing carbon emissions and do little to connect us with the land or help us properly steward the earth. Biden's climate directives are easy to champion because they involve no personal involvement on the part of politicians—or most Americans, for that matter. We’ll soon have no choice but to buy products without synthetic greenhouse gases and drive electric cars. We’ll be able to continue along unthinkingly in the fallacy that we exist outside of the radical interconnectedness of natural systems.
As Carter Snead argues we need a new anthropology to undergird our public bioethics, so we need a new anthropology to undergird our environmental and agricultural policies. In both cases, this anthropology is the same anthropology: one that understands our embodiment—its limits and givenness—as essential. The same expressive individualism that drives transgender ideology also drives the search for synthetic meat. The same false love that meets the LGBTQ+ agenda with unqualified affirmation also argues that to artificially inseminate a cow is the same offense as bestiality.
To break out of these fallacies we must acknowledge our human limitations and open a door for the transcendent. A transcendent orientation helps keep our human endeavors proportional to our human capacities. The world will end one day, and there’s ultimately nothing we can do to stop it. But that doesn’t mean we forsake the duties that bind us today.
Leopold wrote that “your true modern is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets. He has no vital relation to it; to him it is the space between cities on which crops grow.” This situation persists, and it gives rise to a wrong-headed romanticism. Well-meaning people take a holiday at Yosemite and leave thinking that stewardship begins and ends with “leave no trace.”
It’s not that we need to simply minimize human disruption of natural landscapes; we need to use the knowledge we’ve gained over thousands of years to steward natural ecosystems responsibly. And while part of this does entail packing out your trash and minding the switchbacks, that’s not the whole story. As critics of John Muir point out, the beauty Muir witnessed in the Sierra Nevadas was the product of thousands of years of careful stewardship by native peoples.
Likewise, the legitimate abuses of industrial agriculture—from monocrops to CAFOs—do not mean that it would be better if we left all of our domestic livestock to their own devices. Extreme exploitation is not corrected by extreme neglect. Both extremes forsake our responsibility to till and to keep—to cultivate and to protect—the creation that God has entrusted to us.
Once people are in a right relationship to the land, it becomes clear how essentially fertile it is. And this, contrary to the typical hysterics, is cause for great hope. There’s a lot more we can be doing to help mitigate climate change beyond simply limiting carbon emissions. And a lot of these things are still the best practices even if climate change is entirely a fiction. Urban composting programs can help farmers rebuild their soil and reduce waste in landfills. Farmers can adopt the use of cover crops to stop erosion, rebuild soil health, and sequester carbon. With intentional practices, it’s possible to rebuild soil health within one generation and thereby increase yields and reduce environmental damage.
There is a growing contingent of people on both the left and the right who are rejecting modern man’s deracination by starting their own small farms and homesteads. Maybe some people are motivated to do this because of a sense of looming crisis. But just as it’s faith in the positive good of salvation and not fear of hellfire that sustains the Christian life, so it is the positive good of a life with dirt under the nails that keeps the farmer on his land.
Jacquelyn Lee is a junior fellow at First Things.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.