One can’t help feeling a little sorry for Aldo Leopold, the author of A Sand County Almanac. For him the world is too modernized and is “so greedy for more bathtubs that it has lost the stability necessary to build them or even to turn off the tap.” His message is still relevant, as we live in a world where we build and take what we want without questioning how or why we do it, but his tone is quaint and since he is writing this in the 1940’s he is both supremely ahead of his time in regards to environmental ethics and extremely outdated when it comes to the specifics of his complaint. His complaints about ecological irresponsibility would be less outdated if only they extended beyond the overuse of bath water and the deregulation of lumber plants.
This book was recommended to me by Alex Scott, an environmental engineer, as an early text of environmental ethics. Aldo Leopold himself states the purpose of the book as an attempt to shift the values of his ‘over-mechanized’ society. “Perhaps such a shift in values,” he writes, “can be achieved by reappraising things unnatural, tame and confined in terms of things natural, wild and free (xix).” The first two parts are wonderfully written and as worthwhile as Thoreau’s Walden. Leopold, like Thoreau, records the detail of a year lived in the wilderness of Wisconsin, with additional sketches of places across North America, each contributing to his argument for the importance of conservation. The third part of the book lays out a rational and ethical foundation for the preservation of land, and provides a timeless argument for conservation that I’d like to summarize (I encourage you to read it yourself).
Aldo Leopold’s argument is essentially that land should not be treated as property but as a special member of the human community, and that therefore land should be recognized as deserving the same respect we extend to individuals in a human community. All ethics “rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of independent parts (239),” and that an ethic “is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence (238).” Thus far, in Western Civilization, we have treated the natural world around us as ours to do with what we like. The Earth is partitioned into a million plots of property, each subject, (eminent domain and village construction permits aside), almost entirely to the owner’s will. Only recently are we realizing that land is an important component of our society and thus treating it semi-ethically, with the intention of preserving both the land and ourselves (or ourselves through preserving the land).
But even conservation techniques are conceived from within an economic framework. In Leopold’s time, as well as our own, most conservation was achieved through government interventions designed to make it profitable for people to treat their land properly. Often economic interests were the only concern. “A system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided. It tends to ignore, and thus eventually to eliminate, many elements in the land community that lack commercial value” and it “assumes . . . that the economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts (251).”
An ethic is needed on the part of society as a whole and on the part of individual landowners. But for Aldo Leopold, “it is inconceivable . . . that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land and a high regard for its value (261).” He does not mean economic value, but valuing land for what it essentially is, the originator and sustainer of all life. This sort of value demands an appreciation and education far beyond National Park visits or scenic walks; it demands a complete sea change in our understanding of how we live in relation to the world. Seeing the natural world as something we conserve in some parts, combat in others, and draw economic value from whenever possible, is not sustainable. As long as economic or lifestyle concerns are more important to us than the land, the land will not be appropriately valued. In order to build cities wherever you want them, you must build dams and power plants to support those cities, thus destroying the surrounding environment. As long as you want to eat whatever food you feel like whenever you feel like eating it, you will be forced to farm destructively, eventually destroying the land. The idea that we are capable of extracting whatever we want without sacrifice from a healthy, infinitely forgiving mother earth is utterly false, and increasingly dangerous.
I’m pretty sure that I am just selfish enough to not really care. I think I care only enough to do what it takes to preserve the earth for my own lifetime – meaning I’d like to help curb our current destructive tendencies, but I don’t want to do what is necessary to live a completely sustainable life. I don’t care that San Francisco will most likely be without water when the Hetch Hetchy reservoir dries up or that the energy it takes to live in that city means expelling horrible chemicals into the air – I mean I care, of course I care, but if given the opportunity, I’d love to take a long drawn out shower in the Richmond District, sit up all night with a heater and lights on looking at the well lit skyline reading about new recipes for Asparagus that, being the winter time, would have to be shipped on a gas powered steamer from Peru but I’ll pretend it’s ok because I’ll buy them from an all organic market.
I’d like to be better. I’d prefer to be someone willing to live a sustainable life. I think Wendell Berry, Joe Salatin and Aldo Leopold are heroes. But if I’m really honest with myself, if I really confront what is necessary to remain sustainable and live ethically, I am too selfish and I lack the courage to do what is right. And I refuse to delude myself into thinking I’m saving the world or even just doing my part just because I recycle or use less detergent or try and buy local. I’ll do what I can, of course, but I know exactly what it takes to live ethically with the land around me and I know exactly what lifestyle is needed for a sustainable planet, and I am just unwilling to do it. Technology will not make up for my poor ethics, and even if others can’t see it, I’ll always know the way I live is wrong. This is not to say that A Sand County Almanac is not an extremely worthwhile and convincing book but I’d rather just be honest with myself and accept the notion that most likely I participate in an immoral era consciously perpetrating irreversible destruction. Sorry Aldo Leopold. I’ll do the best I can to appreciate the finite natural world like a sinking sunset, all the more precious for its finitude.