By Jonathon Van Maren
Late last year, The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh took aim at an unexpected target: the Bachman’s warbler. The little yellow songbird is now widely considered extinct, a casualty of changing environmental conditions. Walsh was unimpressed by the hypocrisy of activists who care more about birds than human beings and want to thin the human herd while protecting other species. It’s a fair point to make—the death of a single human being created in the image of God is more tragic than the death of the last member of an animal species, because a person has an immortal soul.
But Walsh’s comments about the warbler were, unfortunately, indicative of a much wider strain of utilitarianism within American conservatism. “I don’t know what we’re going to do without the Bachman’s warbler,” Walsh noted sarcastically on his podcast. “That’s a great tragedy, that the Bachman’s warbler isn’t going to be joining us on Earth anymore. I’m sorry—who cares? Who cares if these species are going extinct? What do we need them for?”
I want to note here that I really like Matt Walsh. As a conservative in the public square, he does invaluable work on the issue of gender ideology, and his “what is a woman?” framing of the transgender question is genius. But with these comments, he has ridden the pendulum from one extreme—where climate activists value endangered animals more than human beings—to the other, where creatures are only valuable insofar as they serve the interests of people. Animals were created by God for His honor and glory because He wanted them to exist. The Bachman’s warbler was thought up in the Divine imagination and put on Earth for His purposes. The warbler’s sinless song praised his Creator, and it was very good.
As Sebastian Milbank of The Critic Mag noted: “This form of ‘conservatism’—shallow, utilitarian, nasty, materialistic, against all that is poetic and religious in the human soul—is simply the other face of liberal modernity. It’s a slavish, unworthy way of looking at reality and those who embrace it deserve our contempt. Who cares about every creature? God. It is Christ who said to us that a single sparrow shall not fall on the ground but that his Father in heaven would know it. And yes, ‘ye are of more value than many sparrows,’ but every part of creation is God’s and has been given to our care.”
Walsh may very well believe all of those things, too—he’s a podcaster and has to speak for hundreds of hours a year. When you’re putting in that kind of time in front of the mic, the pressure of producing hot takes means that sometimes you put your foot in your mouth. But I’ve been thinking about Walsh’s comments for awhile because I think they represent a faction of modern conservatism that needs to die—the faction which holds that all of Creation exists not for God’s glory, but exclusively for our (usually commercial) use.
Of course, it is true that God gave man a specific mandate to care for Creation in Genesis 1:26:
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
Here is how conservative firebrand Ann Coulter interpreted that biblical mandate: “The ethic of conservation is the explicit abnegation of man’s dominion over the Earth. The lower species are here for our use. God said so: Go forth, be fruitful, multiply, and rape the planet — it’s yours. That’s our job: drilling, mining and stripping. Sweaters are the anti-Biblical view. Big gas-guzzling cars with phones and CD players and wet bars — that’s the Biblical view.” Coulter was being intentionally provocative, of course, but she was also serious. Hers is a good summation of how a certain brand of materialist conservative views the relationship between man and nature. It is also a deeply impoverished one.
Because our politics are so polarized—if the “other side” says something, we must disagree entirely—we’re increasingly incapable of recognizing that both sides get some things right. The fact that environmentalists often value animals over people is wrong; the fact that many conservatives undervalue the creatures God chose to put here (“What do we need them for?”) is also wrong. I see no contradiction between conservatism and conservationism because wilderness and old-growth forests and coral reefs and endangered species are all things I’d like to conserve. Not at the expense of human lives, of course—but in some cases at the cost of human profits.
As Francis Schaeffer put it: “Man is not to be sacrificed…. And yet nature is to be honored.” Schaeffer deals with this question extensively in Pollution and the Death of Man. “Christians, of all people, should not be the destroyers. We should treat nature with an overwhelming respect,” he observes. “If we treat nature as having no intrinsic value, our own value is diminished…We should treat each thing with integrity because it is the way God has made it.” Being Christian should make us more concerned with the natural world around us, not less. After all, we know that nature is not a cosmic accident, but Divine artwork.
Part of the problem is how our imaginations have become constrained by the digital age. Paul Kingsnorth, the Orthodox writer who has written exquisitely on the subject of environmental degradation and the Fall, has noted that “civilization is three days deep”—that to actually escape the layers of technology we have built up around us and experience Creation as something truly wild, we need at least a few days without the omnipresent background buzz to refocus. But even a short excursion into the wild can jolt us back into a non-digital reality. I found this most recently when I visited the Central American rainforests. The birds alone were jaw-dropping.
The Costa Rican cloud forest is filled with the sort of beauty that grabs you by the throat. The emerald mountains thrusting into the mists are a mystical world unto themselves, throbbing with Divine genius. The perfectly matched flowers and butterflies; the achingly gorgeous quetzals, glimmering green and glancing about curiously; the tiny frogs of black, blue, and red. We went out one evening with a guide and a flashlight to see the midnight dance of the Monteverdes—a sloth with her cub clutching her chest swinging through the vines, an armadillo scuttling through the leaves, a coiled serpent poised still as a sculpture on a fallen tree. I do not understand how anyone can enter these worlds and remain unawed.
I’ve been privileged to visit several of the world’s wilds and witness their creatures—the Colobus monkeys in the Jozani rainforest, the ibex in the Negev desert, the inhabitants of the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti, the Great White sharks off the Cape Town coast. Closer to home, there’s the pronghorns of the prairies, the otters of the northern rivers, the buffalo of the plains, and the birds and beavers of my backyard. Most of these animals aren’t useful in the sense that they provide people with material benefit (although beavers and bison were both nearly hunted to extinction when they did). But by their very nature they should provoke awe and a consideration of the Creator. As it says in Job 12: 7-9:
But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee: Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee. Who knoweth not in all these that the hand of the Lord hath wrought this?
We tend to mock environmentalists for their pantheistic invocation of “Mother Earth,” but there is a Christian version of this, as well. After Job is stripped of all his possessions, he says that “naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” But what does Job mean when he says that he will “return thither” to his mother’s womb? According to the great American theologian and revival preacher Jonathan Edwards, this refers to earth—“the common mother of mankind.” After death, Edwards writes, Job will return to “the bowels of his Mother Earth, out of which every man is made.” Earth is valuable precisely because “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.”
To be Christian—and to be conservative—is to value Creation because of the Creator, and because of the biblical mandate given to us to care for it. There is a rich intellectual tradition within conservatism that rejects the crass materialism of Ann Coulter and the dismissive scoffs of Matt Walsh. Beyond Francis Schaeffer, there is Sir Roger Scruton’s How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism; Wendell Berry’s magnificent corpus; less eloquent but still helpful is Dr. Gordon Wilson’s A Different Shade of Green: A Biblical Approach to Environmentalism and the Dominion Mandate. Wilson has also produced a powerful series of nature documentaries titled The Riot and the Dance, advocating a Christian view of God’s handiwork.
There’s a viral conservative meme that recently went around Twitter that is surprisingly powerful. It features women complaining about the male lack of emotion, with the next frame featuring a bearded man gutted by a 1987 recording of a Kauaʻi ʻōʻō bird calling for a mate, unaware that he was the very last member of his species. The pauses in his song, echoing through the Hawaiian rainforest, were for the female to chime in. I remember listening to the recording in a National Geographic special in the ‘90s, when scientists were still hunting for the tiny bird. It is haunting to hear; the extinction of an entire species fits into the short silences within the one-sided duet of a beautiful creature running out of time. It is what loneliness sounds like. When a species died out, we are all poorer for it.
Not because the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō bird is useful. Because God created it, and it was good.