Sunday, February 03, 2019

Book Review: The Disfiguration of Nature by James G. Krueger

Those who would conserve are not called to reinvent the world, nor to save it through technological mastery or social revolution, but by obedience to nature. We are called to plant our roots in a place, which includes the human community of that place, and to live in harmony with that place and the people who share it for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health. In short, conservation demands a very real conservatism. It demands self-regulation and a commitment to allow one's own boundaries to be dictated, in part, by the limitations imposed by an "other" with whom we are in relationship. In this case, both the land and the people with whom we exist as part of that land--the dead, the living, and those yet to come--comprise that "other." When we cannot live with this kind of humble obedience to other, when self-regulation is subjugated by self-indulgence, then not only human community, but nature itself, will be disclaimed and disfigured. - James G. Krueger, The Disfiguration of Nature

Sometimes you start a book and are given some early indications that you aren't going to like everything that the author has to say, but he or she says enough to get you to nod your head and keep reading to allow them ample pages to develop their overall thesis.

Then at some point you're given a much fuller picture of where that development is headed, and you have a choice whether to see the argument through. To see the forest instead of individual trees, as it were. The other possibility is that those earlier indications become full blown distractions, either for the author or for the reader or even both, and the good point that one thought would end up being the heart of the book ends up getting buried beneath the muck that shouldn't have been allowed to overtake it to begin with.

I'm sorry to say that the latter ends up happening in The Disfiguration of Nature by James G. Krueger.

As I've alluded, the argument starts out with promise. Krueger laments the loss of conservationist thinking in more conservative political and theological circles. He points out that Theodore Roosevelt, a conservative and Republican icon, led the way in conservationist causes by establishing national parks and other protected land throughout the country for the purposes of enjoyment and appreciation of nature. In later years it was Richard Nixon of all people who continued the conservative effort of preservation of land, sea, and air through the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Krueger furthers his argument by calling attention to the way rural and small town areas tend to be more connected to the land not only through agricultural industry but also more of a sense of shared ownership in life and land alike. Many conservatives today would balk at the notion of communal responsibility and limiting freedom out of respect for the freedom and well-being of others. And yet, Krueger observes, these notions have their roots in conservative thinking. Now many who use the label "conservative" could be better described as libertarian, where communal life and the livelihood of neighbor--let alone the health of the earth itself--matters much less than what I personally can gain from something and how far my own freedom can stretch no matter the larger cost.

The first few chapters of the book focus on this reclamation of communal living and limiting one's own freedom in order to hold in proper respect and balance the freedom of others. It is a fine argument for creation care from a conservative perspective that many who may not share his overall worldview may even nod along with.

Unfortunately, the later chapters lose this plot almost entirely in favor of several long rants in a row, first about abortion, then the LGBTQ "agenda," and then the abuse of technology. In increasingly tenuous ways, Krueger seems to want to tie each of these issues back to his original point about limitation of freedom and communal well-being, but they end up relying on worn-thin talking points, stereotypes, and email forward-level demonization in order to make his point. And that point often doesn't even seem to be very clear.

The abortion chapter boils down to the belief that all women who have them are just being selfish. He throws a bone partway through to those medical situations where the health of either the fetus (a term he sometimes casually interchanges with "infant") or the mother is at risk and such a procedure becomes necessary. He even seems to be on the verge of a major breakthrough in thinking when he observes that our culture has failed to honor the feminine and has removed many protections for women and children, but stops short of realizing how these issues might be related to why some women choose abortion, i.e., the same lack of communal responsibility that he decries in earlier chapters. In his mind, it seems to come down to people wanting to be sexually free without consequences. And this is related to conserving the earth...somehow.

Next up is his chapter on LGBTQ rights, which is even worse. For almost 30 pages, Krueger indulges in many of the typical conservative arguments against homosexual (a word that isn't even used by that population anymore, to my understanding) behavior and identity, including implying a link to pedophilia, openly wondering if people who like bestiality will be able to advocate for their rights next, arguing that most in the community are sexually promiscuous and most only want to get married for the benefits, and so on. Again, there is little to no connection made in this chapter to conservation of land. His biggest concern is that environmental issues now often find their advocacy among the same people who care about LGBTQ rights, and due to that association many "decent Americans" won't want to support them. He also attempts to make all his arguments from a cold, clinical perspective, without taking into consideration the actual experience of real people. The bottom line is that there are numerous ways he could have argued for separating these advocacy  issues from each other without demonizing and stereotyping an entire group of people.

Since this book seems to be intended for more conservative-minded people, these later chapters will probably find a sympathetic audience. That doesn't mean that the arguments are constructive, helpful, fair, made in good faith, or even well-written. The first few chapters will help highlight the need for people of all political and theological stripes to take part in the important work of protecting and healing the earth. But then the book falls off a cliff and gets stuck in the muck that I mentioned earlier.

That said, I flat out would not recommend this book to anyone. I'm guessing that there are other books and other thinkers interested in advocating for conservatives to pay more attention to environmental issues. And they're likely able to make their case without resorting to some of the tactics and rabbit trails that this book chooses to employ and explore.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)