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Mindful Conservatism: Humanity's Past—and Future?

Every day is Earth Day in a mindfully conservative society.

Conservatism has been part of western culture since the 19th century. Edmund Burke (1962), one of its most honored founders, emphasized maintaining a community’s traditions—the practices that worked over generations to support well-being, which by extension support a diversity of approaches to living well. According to Burke, abstract ideas from outside of a community were to be weighed for their benefit to the local community, not imposed on them from without. Also vital for Burke’s philosophy is a partnership among the community’s living, dead, and future members, strikingly similar to American Indian ethics of keeping in mind the “seventh generation” when making decisions.

Often criticized for supporting rigid traditions that oppress women and others, Burke’s ideas have been dismissed by thinkers who emphasize progress. Yet everyone in positions of power in industrialized capitalism today, whether self labelled conservative or liberal, has “progress” of one kind or another on their lips. Innovation for its own sake has infused the dominant culture at every level, from politics to education to parenting, contrary to Burkean philosophy.

Globalization as conceived by capitalist forces is contrary to Burke’s conservative principles because it undermines local community traditions and shows little respect for past, present or future generations. Ignored is the kind of expertise garnered from lived experience and handed on over generations, as among first nation communities who have lived sustainably for hundreds if not thousands of years. Burke’s conservatism has gone missing.

Instead, we have other kinds of conservatism dominating the political and social landscape. None of the identified political forms in the USA seem loathe to impose their ways on others, and few appear to concern themselves with generations ahead on matters such as climate change.

Two additional types may be of more interest to psychology. Temperamental conservatism is what psychologists and neuroscientists typically study and involves social inflexibility and preference for scripted hierarchical roles (Jost et al., 2003; Westen, 2007). Our laboratory studies (Narvaez, 2016) suggest that social inflexibility and hierarchical orientation can be shaped by early life experience that lacks the full provision of our species’ evolved nest.

Cultural conservatism is the assumption and promotion of the culture’s root metaphors, which for the USA include individualism, anthropocentrism, scientism and a mechanistic worldview, views that contrast with those of most societies through time, especially the sustainable ones.

C.A. Bowers (2003) suggested a rethinking of “conservatism” as it is labeled today and in light of the current context of ecological crises such as global warming, chemical contamination of earth’s living systems and the loss of potable water, topsoil, and fisheries. We should ask ourselves: what is it we want to conserve? Conservatism a la Burke would be deciding against innovations that create ecological crises and imperil current and future generations. This principle aligns with the practices of first nation peoples the world over who have lived sustainably but uniquely in their local landscapes.

Bowers pointed out that Burke did not go far enough in his focus on well-being. Like First Nation communities, we should include the well-being of the local ecology—comprised of animals, native plants, waterways, forests and more. Before capitalistic pressures, First Nation communities around the world respected the ecologies of their local landscape, or perished (Narvaez, Four Arrows, Halton, Collier & Enderle, 2019).

In fact, most of the preserved biodiversity on the earth is on the lands of indigenous peoples, many of whom are under severe threat today. Capitalism’s “progress” at externalizing ecological costs have led to the planetary emergencies we have today.

Understanding the dangers of Burkean ideas as tending toward rigidity and the condoning of mistreatment of women and minorities, C.A. Bowers suggested a mindful conservatism that includes participatory democracy—everyone participates in decision making.

Democratic conservatism could provide a way to discriminate between constructive and destructive innovation, putting the power of decision making in the hands of local people deeply rooted in their communities, rather than giving the power to outsiders. Such decision making was evident among the Iroquois Nation during the founding of the USA and inspired the structure of the U.S. constitution. Among First Nation communities, decision making is a long process that involves a circle of affected parties who put all concerns on the table without acrimony but thoughtful consideration, building to a consensus (Ross, 2006). Wise decision-making takes time.

The mindless conservatism-that-isn’t has a self-immolation orientation fueled by the misconceptions of human superiority to and separation from nature—both of which are countered by contemporary physics, biological science and by First Nation experience (Narvaez, 2014).

Conservatism-that-isn’t could be renamed a “sacred money and markets” liberalism, promoting tragedy wherever it goes unfettered, according to David Korten (2015). Market liberalism in the guise of conservatism is destroying self-sufficient communities in this and every country around the world, as well as poisoning and disrupting the ecological foundations for life itself. It does not have to be this way.

Mindful conservatism characterized all prior sustainable societies, focusing on the well-being of all, rather than on supporting accumulation and exploitation by the few, a characteristic of the U.S. today, and of nations that collapse (Diamond, 2005).

Burke’s conservatism principles place decision making in the hands of local communities, exactly the opposite of globalization efforts that take power away from main street, allowing the economic well-being of multinational corporations to take priority over families and children. Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom (1990) found no “tragedy of the commons” when decisions about commons use were in the hands of the communities who depended on them.

Can we return our communities to mindful conservatism—a “sacred life and living earth” worldview—to conserve the planet that conserves us?


Bowers, C.A. (2003). Mindful conservatism: Rethinking the ideologcial and educational basis of an ecologically sustainable future. Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield.

Burke, E. (1962). Reflections on the revolution in France. Chicago: Gateway.

Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive. New York: Viking.

Everett, D. (2009). Don’t sleep there are snakes. New York, NY: Pantheon.

Jost, J. T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A. W., & Sulloway, F. J. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 339–375. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.129.3.339

Korten, D. (2015) Change the story, change the future. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Narvaez, D. (2016). Embodied morality: Protectionism, engagement and imagination. New York, NY: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Narvaez, D., Four Arrows, Halton, E., Collier, B., Enderle, G. (Eds.) (2019). Indigenous Sustainable Wisdom: First Nation Know-how for Global Flourishing. New York: Peter Lang.

Ostrom, Elinor (1990). Governing the Commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ross, R. (2006). Returning to the teachings: Exploring aboriginal justice. Toronto: Penguin Canada.

Westen, D. (2007). The political brain. New York, NY: Public Affairs.

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