Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Leopold's Land Ethic: Still Not Listening

Why is it that so many early environmental thinkers get it ... and yet we -- with unarguable evidence in front of us, don't. Reading some of these older writers -- Muir, Abbey, Carson, Berry, Olson -- is always a refreshing look at the wilderness and the society where we live. The patterns, the structures, the mazes they recognize always made perfect, if not chaotic, sense.

Yesterday morning I had the joy of rereading Aldo Leopold's The Land Ethic. This timeless essay clearly and poignantly defines and describes why we are so wrong-headed in the manner in which we think about land use and our ecological imprint. Written in 1948, Leopold proved himself to be a forward thinker -- challenging those of his time to think more deeply and critically about the land which they lived and worked. His challenges, more relevant today than when first published, are either conveniently ignored or quickly forgotten. Yet his words must be read, heard, and understood if we are to maintain our world for generations. Unless we begin to better understand how everything is connected, we are in danger of leaving our children with only the messes to clean up. And by then it very likely will be too late.

Over a century ago Muir told us "When we try to pick anything out by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." Einstein told us "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." Certain Eastern religions practice the harmonious nature of yin and yang. The Ibo of central Nigeria learn early about their competing Chi's -- and the importance of finding balance. And yet here we sit in today's world farther away from Leopold's vision ... and the wisdom of balance ... than we have ever been.

Leopold's theme holds closely to the idea that humans must accept a different, more ethical role in respect to the land we interact with and occupy. He says "In human history, we have learned that the conqueror role is eventually self-defeating ... Because it is implicit in such a role that the conqueror knows, ex cathedra, just what makes the community clock tick, and just what and who is valuable, and what and who is worthless, in community life. It always turns out that he knows neither, and this is why his conquests eventually defeat themselves."

Not much hope in these words. The economic and environmental conversations we have today are controlled by those who see it as "man's right" to take profit from the land. Those who argue for balance and constraint, for sustainability, are said to be out of touch -- called environmentalists ...  tree huggers ... loons. Oil companies, industry leaders, radio and television talking heads, and wealthy CEO's argue, without any corroborating evidence, the false narrative that our lands, our waterways, and our air are healthy, and that we can siphon every ounce of profit from the land before we change our ways. And because those voices of sustainability don't have resources to fight their chatter, our ecological safety net falls into the hands of the very companies and political hacks who make money through the exploitation and destruction of both our public and private resources.

Leopold calls out the self-righteous libertarian thinkers of our day. He emphasizes that "a system of conversation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided." These libertarians believe unequivocally that the free market is the only place to find an honest ethical bargain. They argue against government regulations that protect the environment, instead choosing to believe that they can do what they want with what they have, and that only the consumers should dictate the market. Most libertarians see private property as a god-given right, and with this right they can do whatever they want with their own land, regardless of the implications for society. Hogwash. What is most critical is what is left after the profits. If we take a profit but change the geological look and feel of the land then we have unethically taken from the earth.  If we take a profit from the land regardless of the erosion, run-off, air-pollution, and destruction, then we have lost our ability to make ethical choices. It appears we have come to accept that profit is the purpose of our lands ... not our earth's long-term health.

Where are the ethics?  The soil, the water, the forests, the plants, the animals -- as well as us humans -- must all strengthen our lands for future generations. We must maintain soil that can grow safe food and provide potable water. But sadly, most of our discussions about land-use involve only "for profit" possibilities, not the ethical relationship judged by the health of Leopold's biotic land pyramid.

And so as we move though this summer of record heat we must begin to somehow challenge the status quo. We must somehow provide a place for a land ethic ... for a place where sustainable practices will benefit the economic health of our citizenry and the ecological health of our waters and forests. We can have both, but it will take a political will unlike anything we have ever seen, right smack in the middle of a political environment sick with greed and over indulgence. It won't be easy.

In Leopold's final section (The Outlook) he tells us that "It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense."

It is Leopold's (final) outlook that leaves me most distressed. Because in a world that seemingly no longer values any philosophical idea that doesn't worship the alter of the free market, even a perfectly reasonable land ethic, one based upon a long-term ecological - economical balance, one that must have government and business working together, and one that ultimately provides hope for my children and their children, sadly, has virtually no chance of implementation.

"There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot."  Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac.


  1. Catching up on posts here as my computer died of an ugly virus early this summer and then there was a recurrence of my old A-Fib and then some new called spasmodic torticollis a.k.a. cervicular dystonia. Yes I'm now one of those 1/10,000 people. Now back on tracked I enjoyed your thoughts and commentary on Leopold (I too just reread his Sand County), & your recent recall election. I could easily echo your thoughts about the demise of the reputation of public employees and particularly school teachers. This has been a long time coming and bothered me much over the years. I will stop there for now as I don't want to make too long of a comment. But know for sure I enjoy reading you blog for its thoughtful commentary.
    Ray Potthoff
    Spring Valley, Minnesota
    a.k.a. Troutbirder
    Unfortunately escapism is often my response to these sad times and we just returned from
    ten days of camping and hiking in beautiful southwester Montana, where I managed to avoid hearing about M. Bachman's new venture in McCarthyism.... :(

  2. T.B. (or Ray), Thanks for reading the blog and for sharing your thoughts. I'm reading (and rereading) lots of essays this summer in preparing for my new class. It's fun work!

    And there is nothing wrong with escapism. I am not getting nearly as much as I would like. I've only been to Montana once in this century ... and that comes after getting there nearly every summer in the 90's. Miss the place ... Miss the big cutthroats on big gaudy flies.

  3. Larry,

    Loved this heartfelt reflection on Leopold. I am sad that we really don't have a modern Abbey or Leopold, Muir or Enos Mills. Where are they? Oh how the free market lovers have won the day. Will we turn the tide and start living more simply? Will taking a walk be seen as more important than having your nose pressed to a smart phone? Don't know. Don't care. I'm going hiking.

  4. Thanks for the thoughts! I don't know if we will ever start living more simply ... but I do believe we will start to better use our resources, I just hope it isn't too late.

    Good luck on that hike of yours! I tried to comment on your blog but it isn't letting me. Using my older laptop. Tomorrow morning I will use my wife's and see if that cleans up the messaging glitch.

    If not ... your hike will go well. And those first few days just remember to stop and drink when you get tired ... and I don't necessarily mean the whiskey.

  5. Kia ora Larry,
    I wasn't too encouraged by the very ungenerous and even arrogant discourse I found in the states - thank goodness we still have Madison! I spent a bit of time in the Historical Library where the aura of Muir still permeates in the air. Not sure what he would think about what he would see now, but it wouldn't be a pleasant observation I am very sure. I guess coming away from the states I am more and more convinced that the real changes come from within and how I choose to live. That and also have my pack handy and ready to head into the hills. Cool to catch up with you e hoa. A real highlight of my trip. Stay in touch!

  6. Robb,

    I hear you. Living smack in the middle of this (lack of true) discourse is a bit unnerving. I am truly concerned about the direction we are heading. Ideology, not pragmatism, appears to dominate all political discussion and legislation ... and that is dangerous territory.

    I too know that I need to take care of the way I live and the way I treat others. It cannot and will not come from elsewhere. Much of me wants to hide within my own thoughts. That however doesn't work well when I am raising three kids ... kids who will be adults in this next generation. Maybe some leaders will come from their generation.

    And in the meantime ... let's continue to share our thoughts and words. I look forward to the next beer we can have together.