Saturday, April 9, 2011

Land ethic, the next generation

As a Wisconsin resident and student of environmental studies, I can't really get away from Aldo Leopold (but not that one would want to). His legacy turns up everywhere.

Among the marks that Leopold, a Wisconsinite, has left on the world is the land ethic, a philosophy he defined in his seminal book A Sand County Almanac. The land ethic calls for the recognition that humans belong to a community that includes the land and all it entails: soil, water, animals, plants, and microorganisms.

In Leopold's words, "In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such."

Aldo Leopold. Photo: Aldo Leopold Foundation

Few people would dare to argue against the concept of community. In essence, it is a value, one that is coveted and upheld by many, including the environmental movement. Facets of the movement such as localism, Smart Growth, and community supported agriculture reflect the quest for community.

But, aside from constructing programs and policies that foster community, how do we actually create the value of community at a deeper level?

“Everyone is in favor of community on the face of it. But what does it mean and how do you get to it?” asked Bill Jordan, author and co-director of Depaul University's Institute for Nature and Culture.

Jordan is the unofficial leader of an interdisciplinary batch of scholars that is trying to answer this question. As the cast of the environmental movement continues to grapple with how to rally the masses toward a more ecologically sustainable lifestyle, these scholars are setting out to provoke a new conversation in environmental thinking.

“We don’t have body of environmental thought yet that is commensurate with the size of the problems we face,” said Liam Heneghan, professor of environmental science at Chicago’s DePaul University and the other co-director of their Institute for Nature and Culture.

Informally calling themselves the Values Project Roundtable, the group runs the academic gamut, representing fields such as religious studies, history, philosophy, and ecology...and they are still trying to recruit more disciplines. I have been following them for the past year, as they endeavor to articulate their philosophy, test it out, and present it to the world.

What I find most interesting about their endeavor is their bravery to tackle the complexity of values and ethics--intellectual fodder that is relatively scarce in the mainstream. While most of the conversations within the environmental community these days seem to be wrapped up in politics and economics (well, that's my perception at least), the Roundtable is targeting the foundation of individual and collective behavior.

Taking Leopold's lead, they are essentially digging to the very roots to figure out how we actually create a land ethic and the values on which it is based.

The crux of their theory is that the path to these values may require the collective "we" to do two things. First, we must accept the negative realities of our relationship with nature. Second, in order to cope with these negative realities, we need to infuse our lives with more ritual.


Let me take the next few blog posts to explain. Stay tuned.


  1. I too am finding it hard to escape Leopold -- in a good way, of course.

    I look forward to your next posts while you flesh out this philosophy for readers.

    Also: Loved, "Dirt! The Movie"

  2. I had heard of Leopold and a Sand County Almanac before, but I didn't realize his history here in Wisconsin until I got here for grad school. Looking forward to your next post!

  3. I took an introduction to botany course for a gen ed requirement at the UW as an undergrad, and we had to read A Sand County Almanac. I loved it! I, too, look forward to hearing your thoughts about how we can be good members of our ecological community.

  4. Nice overview, Jenny. And great way to lead in to further stories! I'm definitely intrigued. Have you been to the Aldo Leopold Cafe in the new Discovery building? He certainly has left his mark here in Wisconsin.

  5. Have you ever read Walden by Thoreau? The story of his immersion into the environment (granted a much easier feat in the 1850's) might be something you'd enjoy.

  6. Wow, this is a fantastic post...both the content and the writing. Wisconsin sure has its fair share of storied conservationists...Leopold (who I've certainly heard of but admittedly know little about) as you mention, and John Muir comes to mind immediately too.

    My first thought when I read "negative realities" was 'Huh?' And then I saw your "Huh?" Funny. Definitely looking forward to reading more.