“An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence. An ethic, philosophically, is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct.”
--Aldo Leopold from "The Land Ethic"
Reading, again, A Sand County Almanac with the Conservation Biology class feels especially poignant given that my heart despairs more than a little for the fate of the natural world in 2017. The country has managed to elect a Congress and a President who does not embrace and sometimes denies science-derived evidence. And if you will not use evidence as a starting point, then one is surely lost. Dealing with climate change was finally on our table with the Paris Accord—we were late to the table, but finally there. Yet now, we are poised to abruptly depart. Environmental protections are already beginning to be removed (such as blocking of the Stream Protection Rule) and with all regulations appearing to be viewed as harmful and evidence viewed as irrelevant by the administration, where will this leave biodiversity and humanity?
It is some 68 years after Leopold’s book was published, and in so many ways, we have come a long way. All the major environmental laws and regulations that have been enacted since A Sand County—the Wilderness Act, the Clean Air Act, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act—have put us on firmer ground, drinking cleaner water, and breathing less polluted air. Yet still, we Homo sapiens remain “conqueror of the land-community” rather than “plain member and citizen of it.” We continue to “abuse the land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect” (p. vii).
In 1949, Leopold noted “There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. Land, like Odysseus’ slave-girls, is still property. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations” (p. 203). Leopold’s comparison always shocks me because it demands that we view abusing or owning the land to be on par with the iniquity of people as property. Yet, perhaps to find our proper place in the community, we must value the land and its inhabitants as dearly as we would another of our own species. A challenge for the best of us, but anathema to those in charge who value our country—both land and inhabitants—solely in terms of economics and power.
What gives me hope is Leopold himself. In Part I, the actual almanac part of A Sand County Almanac, Leopold follows the year on his farm through each month, along each skunk trail, through each season, restoring a worn out old farm with shovel and ax. Things were not good for the environment when he was writing, although there were billions fewer humans. But, does he despair? I imagine he does. However, he also puts hands to work and he does what he can. He buys his 120 acres and he watches every winged visitor and furry resident. He gets both food and if not shelter then warmth from his acreage and he restores what is tattered to something better. He uses his lifetime of knowledge in a way that sows both wisdom as well as pines. At the end of the day, the patches of earth around us, that is something within our sphere of control. We must keep our eyes open and restore what can be returned to life, even while our voices rise up in dissent.