Organic Conservatism

Michael Gerson
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Posted: Jun 13, 2008 12:01 AM
Organic Conservatism

TETBURY, England -- At Highgrove House, Prince Charles' country estate, the wild minks are once again eating the large koi in the ornamental pond. But the plentiful birds, often fed by the prince's own hand, are keeping the snails on the hostas under control. These are among the trials and triumphs of modern royalty.

The Highgrove gardens are a marvel of this very British art. In the gnarled wildness of an area called the Stumpery, among the moss-clogged foundations, amid cozy clearings and wildflower fields and tumbled walls of discarded cathedral carvings, order is coaxed by craft, not imposed by pesticides.

At the Prince of Wales' nearby organic farm, rare breeds of British cattle graze on grass instead of the enriched feeds that would increase their size and shorten their lives. The farm manager, greeted by the cows like an old friend, explains his preference for homeopathic veterinary remedies and warns about the overuse of antibiotics. Vegetable and grain fields are renewed by crop rotation instead of nitrogen-based fertilizers, which change the nature of the soil and reduce the immunities of some plants.

Few places on earth more distinctly bear the mark of a single personality than this green and pleasant corner of the Cotswolds. When Prince Charles began his organic experimentations two decades ago, he was abused as a crank -- the battiest of the royals. Now the question arises: Is such battiness the future of the world?

Charles, it turns out, was a pioneer in a field that now includes Whole Foods and organic sections at every grocery store. (He sells his own brand of organic products called Duchy Originals; the oat biscuits are particularly tasty.) Many experts now argue that small-scale, sustainable agriculture, not a chemical or genetic green revolution, is the key to food security in developing countries. The surging price of oil and natural gas has raised concerns about nitrogen fertilizers -- a fuel-intensive product that has made the global food supply dependent on the energy industry.

I admit that some elements of the organic worldview make me uncomfortable -- its occasionally pharisaical intensity, the endless lists of symbolic and impractical "steps I can take to save the planet," the nearly universal mania with bird watching (I refuse to get excited about all the indistinguishable little brown ones).

But in the fidgety busyness of modern life, this intensity has a spiritual cause. Indifference to nature is a kind of blindness and deadness and poverty. And the rediscovery of the physical world leads us toward harmonies beyond it. Wrote the poet Wendell Berry:

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

The organic worldview also has political consequences. Out of a justified fear of the inherent irresponsibility of journalists, the prince's conversation with me was not on the record. But it is safe to say that he thoughtfully defends an older, small "c" conservatism: A suspicion of unbounded technology, consumerism and agribusiness; a disdain for the kind of cinder-block architecture that dehumanizes those it shelters. A conservatism of place, of tradition, of the land, which honors the awesome givenness of both nature and human nature.

There is a deep and neglected connection between conservation and conservatism. It has often been a scientifically minded liberalism that has proposed the planning of society and the manipulation of nature. "In many important respects," observes the impossibly bright Yuval Levin, "environmentalism is deeply conservative. ... The movement seeks to preserve a given balance which we did not create, are not capable of fully understanding, and should not delude ourselves into imagining we can much improve -- in other words, its attitude toward nature is much like the attitude of conservatism toward society."

According to traditional conservatism, politicians should be like Highgrove's British gardeners, clipping and pruning society to reveal inner harmonies not always evident on the surface -- instead of uprooting and replanting in, say, the severe order of a French formal garden. And there is every reason to apply this same conservative philosophy to the physical environment as well.

Depending on your view of climate science and agriculture, this organic conservatism may be increasingly urgent. But there is little doubt it would allow us to rest more easily in the grace of the world.