Edmund Burke’s Earth Day Speech: How environmentalists became Burkeans and Burkeans became environmentalists

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 8.48.25 AM.pngHere’s my favorite quote from Edmund Burke’s Earth Day speech, “Never, no, never did Nature say one thing and Wisdom another.” Isn’t that terrific? And so apt for the occasion! I couldn’t have said it better myself.

What’s that you say? Edmund Burke didn’t make an Earth Day speech! He couldn’t have! Earth Day was in 1970, almost 200 years after Burke died. That’s true, of course, but, nevertheless, there he was — big as life — seated next to me on the speakers’ platform. Funny, but what struck me as strange was Burke’s speaking at all. Why was Edmund Burke — of all people — addressing an Earth Day rally? Talk about a fish out of water!

Edmund Burke is regarded as the founder of modern conservatism, and Earth Day 1970 was a high-water mark of the then prevalent left-wing counter culture. My own remarks for the occasion, for example, were a savage attack on big business polluters in which I advocated mandatory life sentences for corporate CEOs.

More strangeness was to follow. When Burke began speaking, I — along with the huge crowd listening — was soon mesmerized by his magnificent eloquence. Speaking of nature’s bounty, Burke urged Americans “not to commit waste on the inheritance . . . hazarding to leave to those who come after them, a ruin instead of a habitation.”

(What a phrase-maker! “A ruin instead of a habitation” . . . I was blown away. That Edmund Burke is one heck of a guy. No wonder he’s got devoted followers the world over who proudly proclaim themselves Burkeans.)

As he went on, I realized Burke was describing a coherent, overall approach to environmental protection, one that was simple, powerful, and persuasive. Then it occurred to me — hey, man! — this is Burkean environmentalism. Here’s what it boils down to:

The Primacy of Prudence

It’s highly imprudent, Burke warned, for humans to radically intervene in the functioning of natural systems whose boundless complexity and infinite interdependence exceed our understanding. Such interventions are especially unwise and dangerous when these systems — such as climate — underpin our very existence. Plaintively, Burke asked what in past human experience suggests that such large-scale meddling is harmless? On the contrary, it’s prudent to assume that great risks are involved.

(In his remarks, Burke acclaimed prudence as “the chief among virtues.” So I wanted to be absolutely sure of the word’s exact meaning. I checked the dictionary: prudence is the exercise of careful good judgment based on actual past experience and the application of such judgment to show care for the future.)

When it comes to politics and government, Burke argued that prudence — simple, ordinary prudence — in itself provides a sound base for public policy on the environment. And because this is self-evidently true, environmental activists can stand and fight on this base with strength and confidence.

The Desirability of Organic Change

Burke made clear that his call for prudence is not a call to halt progress. He believes that change is desirable, necessary, and in any case nature compels it. “We must all obey the great law of change,” he declared. “It is the most powerful law of nature, and the means perhaps of its conservation.” The challenge, he said, is how best to manage change.

Burke believes the answer to this challenge may be found in the functioning of natural systems. Change must be sought organically. Organic change occurs on a small scale, incrementally, from the bottom up. It evolves without being forced or contrived.

Organic change should characterize environmental politics too. Burke said change in nature was “a condition of unchangeable constancy, (that) moves on through the varied tenor of perpetual decay, fall, renovation and progression. Thus, by preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve, we are never wholly new; in what we retain, we are never wholly obsolete.” At this point, Burke’s oratory had me swooning.

In this connection, Burke heaped praise on the thousands of new small green businesses and entrepreneurial endeavors now flourishing throughout the country. These businesses are not only transforming the economy, he said, they are also forming a vibrant and vocal political constituency. (Hearing this, I thought — wow! — a constituency like this is exactly what Burkean environmentalism needs if its promise is to be realized.)

When Burke finished speaking, he received a prolonged standing ovation, and then I led the crowd in a rousing version of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow!” Indeed, this version was so rousing that it woke me up. The whole thing had been a dream! But it was a dream worth reflecting on, that’s for sure.

I realized that, in my dream, all Burke had done was to trot out the arguments he’d made in Reflections on the French Revolution (1790) and apply them to the planetary ecological crisis. This book, his most famous work, was written to express Burke’s profound hostility to the revolution’s spirit of total, radical innovation.

It is said that a man of discernment who studies the past can predict the future. That’s a good description of Edmund Burke. In 1790, when most others were cheering the French on, he foresaw a breakdown of social order and, presciently, he predicted the coming of the Reign of Terror and the military dictatorship that followed, which instigated twenty-three years of European warfare and led to four million deaths.

As Burke saw it, the revolutionaries were violently dismantling a social system that had slowly evolved and endured for over a thousand years. Worse yet, they were dismantling it practically overnight. The zealous French revolutionaries were convinced they could build a new and better society from scratch, so they gleefully threw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

Here’s the green Burkean take on this: if it is unwise and dangerous to make radical innovations in social systems that have evolved and endured for millennia, then how much more unwise and dangerous is it to make radical innovations in natural systems that evolved and endured over eons?

Farmer Burke

How did Burke’s environmentalism come to him? It came naturally. Look at his life story. He was Irish, a commoner. He wasn’t rich. These were major disadvantages in the world he inhabited. There was little or no chance he could become a minister of state. He could serve in parliament only as the beneficiary of a wealthy, aristocratic patron who could secure him a seat.

Burke yearned to overcome these disadvantages by becoming “a gentleman.” In his time, being a gentleman meant owning land, a lot of land. So in 1768 Burke borrowed heavily to purchase a 600-acre country estate. The estate, a working farm, was near Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire about 25 miles west of London. Given his indebtedness, Burke had to make the farm pay. To this end, he became “Farmer Burke,” and, in doing so, he was true to himself. He sought the lessons that past experience have taught humans.

Burke talked to local families who had long been farmers. After his death, his literary executors, French Laurence and Walker King, wrote this about Farmer Burke: “. . . he was principally guided by the traditionary skill and experience of that class of men, who, from father to son, have for generations labored in calling forth the fertility of the English soil.”

Way back then, Burke was seeking to understand sustainable farming.

Today, Burke is remembered for his political achievements, his ideas, his literary gifts. His intimate association with the land is overlooked. It should not be. Laurence and King also wrote this about Farmer Burke: “He not only found in agriculture the most agreeable relaxation from his more serious cares, but he regarded the cultivation of the earth, and the improvement of all which it produces, as a sort of moral and religious duty.”

I argue that, for Burke, nature offered a living model of how best to manage change in politics and society. I’m not alone in this view. It is strongly buttressed by Yuval Levin, author of The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. (I learned tons from this splendid book.)

According to Levin, a devout Burkean, Burke had in mind “the example of biological systems transmitting their traits through the generations, a system of inheritance that he saw replicated in human society.” Levin argues that this gave Burke a focus on “the facts of birth and death and the need to manage change, decay, renovation and progress.” Politics + ecology: Levin got this right.

Given Levin’s input, I can’t claim to have cooked up Burkean environmentalism on my own, much as I’d like to. I also owe primary thanks to Amol Rajan, author of “Edmund Burke: How did a long dead Irishman became the hottest thinker of 2010?” This article in the British newspaper, The Independent, planted the idea of Burkean environmentalism in my mind where it has been growing by leaps and bounds ever since.

In his article, Rajan makes much of Burke’s statement that:

“Society is indeed a contract… [It is] a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

Commenting on this passage, Rajan states “On this analysis, the living rent the earth, but do not possess it; they are its temporary custodians, tasked with conserving a precious inheritance which will in turn become a future generation’s precious inheritance.” And then Rajan made this striking observation: “Very, very few environmentalists realize that this analysis presents Burke as their patron saint . . . a man who championed sustainability centuries before it was fashionable.” Then and there I decided to join these “very, very few” — to become a disciple of Burkean environmentalism.

Nowadays I’m seeking converts to the cause, but that’s no problem — at least not when I’m having dreams about Earth Day. There converts show up en masse. Swayed by the power of Burke’s language and reasoning, environmentalists become Burkeans, and Burkeans become environmentalists. And we all live happily ever after.