Okay, maybe I was brainwashed as a kid. Not by sitcoms and rock and roll, nor even by the CBS Evening News. Such dreck bounced right off me-as did the politics of PBS. In fact, "educational TV," as we called it in the early '70s, was perhaps the only oasis of high culture in the bleak and brainless reaches of outer-borough New York where I grew up and still reside. PBS (and now NPR) was a window into Evelyn Waugh, Shakespeare, Roman history, medieval architecture, art and the history of science. Meanwhile, my best friend, an Italian-American, thought that the Greeks who lived down the block still worshipped Zeus and Athena, despite the crosses that stood over their Orthodox churches. I was scared to touch Greek food, the smoky shish kabobs and grape leaves-all much too "ethnic" and earthy, beside the cans of Chef Boyardee that mom used to open. We looked at Manhattan-"the City"-as a stinky warren of alien cultures and sexual deviants, to be shunned except for business trips or exotic outings. Without PBS, I might well have become a minor, negative character in one of Spike Lee’s movies.
No, the television shows that affected me deeply, whose impact still resonates with me today, were the nature shows. National Geographic, Wild Kingdom, even a little show called Zoorama, which explored each week a different, famous zoo. Each program would begin with tranquil depictions of the extraordinary landscapes of faraway, unspoiled places: Broad, wind-raked savannahs; moist, teeming jungles that echoed with wild birds; unbounded fields of tundra, ice and rock, abounding with seals, waddling penguins, quick-footed wolves pursuing arctic hares. The men who lived on the edges of these natural sanctuaries seemed primitive and wise, eking out their existence in balance with a nature they lacked the means to tame.
Perhaps because I’m a New Yorker, I found myself rooting for the predators. The lion in full flight after a band of wildebeest; the hawk peering down with knowing eye on the slowest lamb; the polar bear harvesting salmon by the bloody pawful. But one also learned to love the wildflowers; the apes, those prattling parodies of man; the tree frogs that scampered up glistening limbs of glistening, baroque rain-forest trees, the Egyptian hierarchy of the bees, termites and ants, and the stark solitude of the shark.
Above all, I discovered the subtlety, the exquisite complexity of the organic world, the profound interdependence of species overtly hostile to one another, the symbiosis between predator and prey. Because I also received, at mother’s knee, a religious education, I didn’t need the TV announcer to tell me that all this came from the mind of a loving, almost madly artistic Creator. (It wouldn’t have hurt, of course.) When the shows spoke of evolution, and I read my Children’s Old Testament, it didn’t strike me as hard to believe that the force which had hung the stars and whirled the planets some billions of years before, had chosen a subtle, gradual means for growing his creation. It seemed to me then and now more elegant, more godlike, for God to plant the world as a garden, and guide its development lovingly in the direction of beauty, life and order-rather than simply plunk down a populated world, full-blown, like a stage-set with props, as biblical literalists seem to believe.
As I studied chemistry in high school, it struck me how much more subtle, complex and delicate were the interactions of organic chemistry, next to those that linked inanimate chemicals. The equations were so much more difficult, the conditions within which life was possible were so narrow and specific, so easy to disrupt. I still remember struggling to get down photosynthesis, the organic process by which the simple, unfeeling plants of the field harvest the light of the sun and turn it to nourishing chlorophyll-and seeing in that complexity the work of a cosmic poet, a sonnet planted in every crack of the cement.
But almost every nature show ended sadly, in a catalogue of dangers to this extraordinary creation: Tractors plowing down mangrove stands, chain saws felling ancient redwoods, bounty hunters gunning down the proud elephant or rhino for tusk or horn, hacking off the shark’s fin and leaving him to drown, the gold-miner burning whole forests or poisoning rivers to gain a handful of gleaming nuggets. The narrator would chronicle how many wondrous species were already extinct-hunted like the passenger pigeon or buffalo for sport, massacred for hat plumes, aphrodisiacs, or cheap protein by reckless adventurers. The more sophisticated programs would take account of the difficult lives of the men who lived in or near these habitats, how their struggle for survival and development led them into tragic conflict with the beasts and birds, the latter doomed to dwindle and disappear, before the implacable needs of man and his machines. (The latest, and best depiction of this conflict appears in the extraordinary animated film Princess Mononoke, the best film of 1997.)
I’d usually finish these shows with tears in my eyes-like the single tear drop of the TV Indian on the public service ads. I still find it hard to go through a zoo or nature museum, because of the inevitable tags you see on half or more of the exhibits: "Endangered," "Threatened," "Only 300 left in the wild."
For this reason, I find it impossible to join in the easy contempt so many conservatives feel for environmental causes, or to embrace the idea of world population increasing at breakneck speed, forever. I was appalled when James Watt was reported to have said (if indeed he said) that the environment didn’t matter much, since Jesus was coming soon.
The world which we have been given is a sacred trust-as are the moral values, cultural heritage, and civilization we inherited, which we did not make ourselves. For centuries, conservatives were the ones who sought to restrain the force of industry, the technological power of man to remake the world in his image-to efface God’s creation with man’s, to obey Descartes’ infamous dictum, that man become "the master and possessor of nature." In Europe, aristocrats preserved the land from over-hunting; in America, responsible hunters, fisherman and nature-lovers such as Theodore Roosevelt pioneered the preservation of wild spaces, and helped create our magnificent system of national parks.
We should not allow the Left the easy victory, the unearned right, to champion the goodness and beauty of God’s own creation, and align ourselves unthinkingly with "development," any more than we should promiscuously support all "religious" forces around the world, or promote libertine sexuality through the U.N. Conservatism, unlike Marxism or fascism, is not an ideology. It is a complex mode of responses, a set of attitudes and sentiments, one of which is Piety. That means a loving regard for the past, a skepticism towards the present, and a prudent stewardship for the future.
Surely, the ecological disasters which litter the socialist world prove that state ownership of land is a mixed blessing at best; the best way to preserve most resources is to privatize them, so that the users of the land have some material interest in preserving it, for themselves and their heirs. But not every good thing can be monetized, and not every species worth preserving-because God made it-can be turned to immediate profit. Just so, not every act of kindness done towards a poor man will make him self-sufficient, or even grateful. But some things are worth doing, even at the cost of sacrifice.
The very piety that drives men to die for their country can be harnessed—and should be, by conservatives—to encourage them to save that countryside, to pass it along in decent condition to the children of future centuries. If purely rational calculation drove every decision, most soldiers in most wars would rightly defect or throw down their guns. Few Americans in 1944 really had to fear that they personally would be enslaved or murdered by Hitler or the Japanese. Even their wives and children were probably safe, across the boundless oceans from those tyrants. It was only a love for what cannot be counted, for the future generations whose fate we cannot know, for the children of utter strangers, and their freedom, that drove men to die righteously at Normandy and Iwo Jima. Conservatives are the only ones morally equipped to employ the same sophisticated calculus of decency in our decisions about the stewardship of creation. If we don’t, the misanthropes, eugenicists, and hedonists of the Left will step in to fill the gap. Their ideologies were hatched in Utopia—that is, in “no-where,”—and that’s exactly where they lead.
Dr. Zmirak is author of Wilhelm Röpke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist. He writes frequently on economics, politics, popular culture and theology.