Yesterday my conservation biology class had an environmental ethics debate on two topics—reintroducing the wolf into Ohio and prioritizing species known to benefit humans in conservation ethics. It was interesting to listen to the arguments that they made and subsequently think about how such arguments play out in our society, in our politics. The arguments based on the intrinsic value of species preservation is one that many of us inherently accept, while still recognizing the challenges and the need to balance conflicting demands between protecting biodiversity and humans being able to have a high or acceptable standard of living. We can argue how these two factors are not at odds with one another, but that a high standard of living will always require maintaining the ecosystem life support system that sustains us. We can also make economic arguments for protecting biodiversity, realizing that they will ultimately fall short for species that do not appear to offer any direct or indirect benefits to humans—that we need a multifaceted argument that highlights our reliance on nature for living a high-quality, meaningful life, while also appreciating our moral obligation to our fellow humans and our fellow species that we share this planet with.
But, morals are tricky and instilling an appreciation of nature is not something everyone grows up with or understands, although I’d like to think we could all stand before nature and be reawakened into amazement. Reading (really, rereading, but I’ve forgotten so much it might as well be hot of the press and news to me) Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac with my class, reminds me how removed we all are from the survival we ultimately reap from nature, while thinking subconsciously (if knowing consciously otherwise) that it comes from Kroger or Walmart. It is a speedy world where having more stuff and having tools that allow us to do things more quickly seems to make us move through our day in a frenzy squeezing in more than would have seemed possible 100 years ago, or even 20 years ago. Look at Leopold describing a tree struck by lightning and weathered a year before the day he cut it down to warm their home lovingly called “the shack.” My home is warmed by flipping a switch, and I only occasionally give thought about the coal used to generate the electricity that flows into my house. Leopold contemplates the tree, the world around the tree when it first rooted itself into the ground and as it grew. The labor of felling the tree is enough that they often cry “Rest!” to catch their breath, a process that causes at least that one man to ponder the oak that will keep him warm as it is turned to ash, and to appreciate his connection to the living world. Perhaps a little more labor for our warmth or the clothes upon our back or the food on our table would serve all of the natural world well and remind us daily that our own survival is related to ground below our feet and the sky above.