Tonsor – Bunny Hugging is so Bourgeois
Stephen A. Tonsor
University of Michigan
"Bunny Hugging is so Bourgeois"
Luncheon Address, April 25, 1998
The Philadelphia Society
All Rights Reserved
As I drove thought the landscape of South-eastern Michigan, shaped and
mounded by the last great glacier, I recalled that not so long ago, as history
goes, these moraines and eskers, these lakes and dunes, were covered and
created by hundred of feet of ice pressing down in a great shield over what we
now call the Middle West. Michigan and Illinois were still a glacial landscape
only 10,000 years ago. You will recall that a literate human kind has occupied
portions of Europe, Asia, and Africa for 5,000 years, or half that length of time.
From the standpoint of climate and geology that is only yesterday.
It is sometimes said, though it is certainly false, that we conservatives are
resistant to change, that we above all believe in stasis, in a pervasive status quo.
I wish to suggest to you that this is not the case, that in fact given
conservatism’s sense of history we know that change is inevitable and often
desirable. What we believe is that values and principles are in the realm of the
permanent things and that these values must always be instantiated in the new
historical context and given a form congruent with present needs. Stasis is a
reactionary rather than a conservative value or should I observe that in the
current political situation stasis is a liberal rather than a conservative value.
I raise this interesting and vital question particularly with respect to the history
of climate and climate change, the transformation of the environment and the
adaptation of nature to human purposes. These, of course, are not new
questions, though the notions that stasis in nature and the preservation of the
status quo in climate are new, and may be a powerful delusion with destructive
The fact is, the climate is always changing. Those of you who have read Times
of Feast, Times of Famine, A History of Climate Since the Year 1000, by
Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie, currently director of the Bibliothéque National in
Paris, know that since the year 1,000 A.D. in Europe there have been great and
sometime catastrophic changes of climate and the environment. These changes
took place long before the widespread employment of fossil fuels.
Paleo-climatology reaching back into history long before the written record,
established the fact of great global warming and cooling wholly aside from
man’s transformation of the environment. Moreover, no one has been able to
establish with any certainty the causes of these major shifts in climate.
Is it invidious to suggest that there is a major science industry dependent upon
research money; that funding is always a problem and that scare tactics have
become an intrinsic part of the struggle for public and foundation moneys? We
were treated to such a show recently with the prediction of an asteroid collision
with the earth in the not so remote future. It is rather like predicting that there
will be a winter day in January in Michigan.
From the standpoint of political theory stasis is not a sound or genuine
conservative value. From the standpoint of environmentalism it is a delusion,
but a delusion fraught with the most momentous consequences.
How ought conservatism to view and participate in the debate concerning
climate change and environmentalism?
Conservatives, above all others, know how ambiguous in character change is.
That something has changed for the better or the worse becomes clear only well
after the change has taken place. One of the most important principles of all
historical and political analysis is the unanticipated consequences of rational
action. Beyond the effects of calculated action lie a host of derivative and
related effects which may be both astonishing and disastrous in their
consequences. The costs of intervention may be greater than the costs of
non-intervention. Alas! historians usually approve the way things are and the
devious and treacherous path by which we have arrived at the present.
Hypothetical history of "it might have been" never seems to be very popular
either with historians or politicians. As I drive across the Midwest in August and
take pleasure in the bounty of corn and soybeans which make these Midwestern
states the granary of the world, I am not dissolved in sorrow that the prairie sod
was broken and that buffalo no longer roam across the present location of the
village of Pleasant Plains.
This ambiguity of ends and means of the evaluation of change and the
unanticipated consequences of rational action forces a consideration of values
and purposes in human action in relationship to nature. Are wolves in Idaho
more desirable and important than the construction of a hydro-electric project
which will light a city and power an industry?
During World War II, I was sent to New Guinea where I encountered Papuan
savages. It was apparent to me that this archaic culture was doomed. At that
time, unsophisticated as I was, I felt that these poor, fear ridden, dirty, scabby,
illiterate creatures who had not yet made a connection between sexual
intercourse and childbirth ought to be civilized, sent to school, taught hygiene,
inducted into the rational processes of a civilized life. I knew then, without a
course in anthropology, that their culture was doomed; that once they had eaten
the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil their lives would appear
to them as they appeared to me. Would it be desirable on the remote slopes of
Karstenstop to erect a gigantic aboriginal preserve where fear, ignorance, short
and nasty lives would be kept intact as a kind of anthropological museum?
How ought one to make choices with respect to other cultures and what we
have come to call "nature"? A materialistic and positivistic science will not
provide us with a solution to the problem. Aztec human sacrifice in the
thousands becomes, in term of anthropological relativism, as acceptable, as
praise-worthy, as the self-sacrifice and humane service of Father Damien among
the lepers or Albert Schweitzer in his hospital at Lamberine, the Marxist
exploitation and corruption of the environment more praiseworthy than the
careful employment and inventive renewal of resources in advanced capitalist
economies. Scientific relativism will not and can not yield a solution to the
problem of choice in the realm of man and nature.
Let me be more specific and assert that in discussing scientific relativism I
include in this term not only the so-called "natural sciences" but also the
so-called "social sciences," particularly economics. These sciences are, and will
always remain, value neutral. They will not and cannot yield "a guide for the
perplexed" in the extremely complex and difficult area of human choice with
respect to human culture and the environment. There cannot be a workable
environmentalism nor a convincing respect for cultural diversity aside from an
anthropology based upon an analysis of man’s nature and natural law.
Moreover, a theology of the created order is a sine qua non essential to
environmental choice. In a Lucretian world in which differentiate order is the
consequence of an initial atomic swerve there can be neither hierarchy, value,
nor defect. In such a world deserts are as desirable as gardens; the city dump as
humanly satisfying as an organized community.
Nor will sentiment alone serve as a substitute for a rational analysis of man’s
nature and his place in nature. Bambi’s mother can tell you the costs of
sentimentality. By sentimentality I mean indulging a feeling without paying the
costs of that feeling. When push comes to shove and we must decide whether it
is a lion’s skin or nakedness we will, like Hercules, choose the lion’s skin.
Bunny-hugging is a safe posture so long as we do not need a new muff or cap.
Sentimentality about nature and man’s place in nature is, I believe, not because
of the closeness of modern man to nature but an evidence of his estrangement
from nature. As the archaic rituals of hunting and fishing have disappeared from
the bourgeois society the urban dweller has waxed sentimental about the animal
world. Religious awe and the community of the Gods, beasts, man and blood
as seen in the cave paintings of Altamira and in the myths of St. Eustachius
who, while hunting encountered a stag with a crucifix between his rack of
antlers, this religious awe, which every hunter in some measure feels is replaced
with a mawkish sentimentality which the bunny-hugger gets from reading books.
As with hunting, our relationship to nature is determined by our participation in
the cycle of nature in sowing and planting, cultivation and harvest. As these
activities become more and more remote and ordinary individuals are estranged
from the land our knowledge of nature becomes more and more attenuated.
Riding high in the air-conditioned cabin of a tractor or harvester-combine is
very different from driving a horse-drawn reaper or mower across the fields. To
find the nest of a meadow lark or feel the clods of earth thrown up by the mould
board of the plow with one’s bare feet is a special but not virtually unknown
thrill to a Midwestern farm boy.
If I recall correctly Richard Weaver, one of the founders of modern
conservatism left Chicago each spring to return to North Carolina and plow with
mules a patch of dirt symbolically. These "rites of spring" were an affirmation
of the reverence and solidarity without which there can be no genuine
This concern for and involvement with nature is above conservative and
traditionalist and reaches back in American history, as does the constitution
itself, to medieval and earlier social structures. Aristocracy from the Greeks to
the present has its peculiar forms and functions and these have made possible
those feelings of worth and individual freedom which are the essence of our
strange republicanism. The evolution of the family, the creation of the state and
the care and preservation of the natural order have been the consequences of
the fact that the chief activities of any aristocracy are making war, making love
and hunting. It is interesting to note that Francis Parkman, historian,
out-of-doors man, adventurer and gardener, and Theodore Roosevelt, warrior,
family man, hunter, adventurer and conservationist, were by birth, temperament,
inclination and behavior, aristocrats.
It can be argued that only an aristocratic society is capable of the altruism
essential to environmentalism and conservatism. If this, indeed, is the case is
any long range environmental and conservational policy possible in a
democratic society? Will not that democratic society, when taken to the extreme
as in communist societies, always result in the destruction of the environment in
pursuit of short-term gains? Is not the poacher democratic man writ large?
I have said that American republicanism is peculiarly medieval and aristocratic in
its origins. It is possible that these values will carry over into our treatment of
the environment. The folk myth projected by John Wayne is that of the last
medieval knight. When hunting season begins in Michigan, shops close,
services are unavailable and the men and boys go North in order to get their
bucks. It is an ethos which reaches back through the millennia to those early
societies in which status was determined by prowess in the hunt and in which
the community with nature is a solidarity sealed in blood. The other important
values conducive to the preservation of the created order have their roots in
medieval aristocracy. In a fascinating illustration of the way in which values are
displaced from upper to lower classes, this regard for the created order has
become in an important way the ethos of our republican society.
Amid the babble of ecological freaks and ideological maniacs, conservative
postures, values and principles which place major responsibility for
environmental preservation on the individual and the actions of the local
community remained the only certain way to preserve the integrity of the
environment. These values arise out of a piety for the created order and a
profound sense of man’s community with that order. A great medieval
conservative, Martin Luther, who believed that we lived in the last days said:
"Und wenn ich wüsste das morgen die Welt unterginge, würde ich heute noch
ein Baümchen pflanzen." "And if I knew that tomorrow the world would come
to an end, I would still plant a sapling today."