Inside America’s ‘Crunchy Conservative’ Counterculture

For some, being environmentally conscious is a fundamentally conservative idea.

Daniel Griffith was a superb athlete, a linebacker who was recruited by many Division 1 football teams. One fall day he collapsed on the practice field — and no one knew why. It was months before he was diagnosed with a debilitating genetic disease of the joints and lymphatic system failure, which, to this day, is mysterious in its origins. His future as an athlete was over.

photo of barn in virginia
Crunchy conservatives like Daniel Griffith embrace practices like permaculture rather than industrial agriculture systems. Photo by Kipp Teague.

His health continued to worsen. He lost over 90 pounds and racked up more than 50 visits to the doctor. Leaving his home became a monumental task. That’s when Daniel’s mother recommended an intense change in his dietary regimen. By 2014, Griffith had moved to a gluten-free and dairy-free diet.

These dietary strategies worked for a little while. He even went back to school — only to get sick again a year later. His health continued to spiral out of control; this time, he lost around 60 pounds.

Sitting in his backyard one day, a realization struck him like a thunderclap: going gluten-free or shunning lactose was not the whole solution. In his view, it was his lifestyle that needed transforming. “Although it took many painful years, I learned that [growing and] eating nutrient-dense, pastured, grass-fed, and whole foods was the best way to overcome my day-to-day pains and transform my life emotionally and physically,” says Griffith.

Daniel and his wife Morgan immediately set out to change their way of life. Once he graduated college, the Griffiths moved to rural Virginia. They currently live on a 200 acre farm outside of Charlottesville, that is home to 1,000 chickens, 20 cows, 10 goats, and a dozen sheep. As permaculture farmers, they practice a regenerative land strategy which makes for healthier animals, healthier soils, and healthier, nutrient-dense foods.

Today, Daniel’s diet is balanced and his health is thriving.

The Griffith family is deeply connected to their home and to their land. But although they espouse a holistic, back-to-roots lifestyle, the Griffiths are not your typical “lefties” or tree-hugging, granola-crunching liberals. They are inadvertent members of a conservative counterculture forming all across America. Journalist Rod Dreher calls the movement “Crunchy Conservatism.” Back in 2006, he even wrote a book about it.

Crunchy conservatives are different from mainstream conservatives, who, for the most part, tend to regard nature as a resource to be exploited rather than a wonder to be stewarded/protected. Dreher lays out this contradiction in no subtle terms in Crunchy Cons.

Many conservatives can easily recall having been part of conversations in which fellow conservatives held forth arrogantly about paving over the wetlands, or improving a pasture by putting in a parking lot. Some of this gets said simply for shock value, but it does reflect a fundamental scorn for the natural world, except insofar as money can be made out of it.

Crunchy cons therefore reject America’s overly efficient and domineering approach to nature and the impact it has on our lands, forests, rivers, lakes, and animals. Their conservatism incorporates conservationism, which is a much older, more robust standard than what’s currently practiced by the American mainstream.

Their philosophy dates back at least as early as Aldo Leopold, one of the earliest politically conservative conservationists. Leopold belonged to the Boone and Crockett Club, a wildlife- and land conservation organization that was founded in 1887 by President Theodore Roosevelt. Griffith describes himself as a disciple of Leopold, who espoused the idea that wilderness had a great and ancient partnership with mankind. Like the “Crunchy Cons” of today, Leopold believed that human society should nourish the soil and sustain the roots that provide us with life.

The founders of modern conservatism, like GK Chesterton and Russell Kirk, also viewed the conservation of land and animals as an essentially conservative exercise. In 1953, Kirk wrote that human beings, particularly Americans, would be tempted to live beyond their means, “consuming the portion of posterity, insatiably devouring minerals and forests, lowering the water table, to gratify the appetites of the present tenants of the country.”

This has indeed come to pass, with the widespread prevalence of modern-day extractive industries, including industrial agriculture. The consequences of these practices have undoubtedly been devastating, with far-reaching impacts on the health of people and the planet.

“Today, the average age of a cancer patient is 35; male fertility has decreased by nearly 60percent, threatening a very logical and mathematical collapse of the human species,” Griffith says.

Currently, our topsoil, the layer of Earth’s crust that supplies vital minerals and nutrients to our food, is washing into the rivers and oceans at nearly ten times the rate than we can regenerate it. Meanwhile, the chemical pesticides and fertilizers in our food system have been proven to harm both adults and children in the highest courts of the world.

As Kirk rightly noted more than half a century ago, it will be impossible to sustain this kind of consumerism and consumption in coming decades.

These concerns, as Rod Dreher argued in his book “Crunchy Cons,” should be at the front of every conservative mind, particularly in a fast-warming world. To Crunchy Cons, just as it is important to pass on a moral and religious worldview to the next generation, it is crucial to leave behind clean and healthy lands in which they can prosper.

This is exactly what the Griffiths have set out to do on their permaculture farm. Every day, Griffith makes a start on the farm chores at around 5 am, when everything and everyone is quiet. In the outbuilding, where the thick aroma of old milk mingles with alfalfa, he milks his small herd of goats and shepherds them to pasture. Then, he moves his bovines from one side of their field to another. This exercise is repeated twice every day to keep fresh pasture in front of the cows, and their manure behind them.

“It helps efficiently sequester carbon, build topsoil, enrich the water-mineral cycles, and foster a greater diversity of living pasture organisms,” says Griffith.

In Griffith’s mind, this daily routine ensures his family’s health and that of the lands around him, but it also engenders a deeply spiritual mindset: one that sees the “extreme interconnectedness of God’s creation”. Working on his permaculture farm has led Griffith to feel more connected to the environment he inhabits; to “understand that man is merely one part of this wondrous handiwork.”

At their farm in rural Virginia, the Griffith family is guided by the tenets of “regenerating the land; nourishing the soul; and healing the body. It’s a “crunchy conservative” formula that might just show Americans everywhere how to preserve their environment for future generations.

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