Cultivate an Ecological Conscience

Be one with nature, don’t conquer it

Aldo Leopold January 11, 2023

Aldo Leopold, one of the fathers of the modern environmental movement, was born on January 11, 1887, 136 years ago today.  In his bestselling Sand County Almanac (1949), Leopold, a professor of wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, took a holistic view of the natural world as he called for a new “land ethic.” He wrote: “This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter down river. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species. … In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.”

The following is an excerpt from “The Ecological Conscience,” an article published in the the June 1947 issue of Bulletin of the Garden Club of America. Leopold criticizes the Soil Conversation District Law, passed by the Wisconsin legislature in 1937, and urges garden club members to be involved in the electoral process and “throw your weight around on matters of right and wrong in land-use [his emphasis].”  Barn Raiser republishes it here with the permission of the Aldo Leopold Foundation of Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Everyone ought to be dissatisfied with the slow spread of conservation to the land. Our “progress” still consists largely of letterhead pieties and convention oratory. The only progress that counts is that on the actual landscape of the back forty, and here we are still slipping two steps backward for each forward stride. 

The usual answer to this dilemma is “more conservation education.” My answer is yes by all means, but are we sure that only the volume of educational effort needs stepping up? Is something lacking in its content as well? I think there is, and I here attempt to define it. 

The basic defect is this: we have not asked the citizen to assume any real responsibility. We have told him that if he vote right, obey the law, join some organizations, and practice what conservation is profitable on his own land, that everything will be lovely; the government will do the rest. 

This formula is too easy to accomplish anything worthwhile. It calls for no effort or sacrifice; no change in our philosophy of values. It entails little that any decent and intelligent person would not have done, of his own accord, under the late but not lamented Babbitian code. 

No important change in human conduct is ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphases, our loyalties, our affections, and our convictions. The proof that conservation has not yet touched these foundations of conduct lies in the fact that philosophy, ethics, and religion have not yet heard of it. 

I need a short name for what is lacking; I call it the ecological conscience. Ecology is the science of communities, and the ecological conscience is therefore the ethics of community life. … [It is futile] to improve the face of the land without improving ourselves. …

About 1930 it became clear to all except the ecologically blind that Wisconsin’s topsoil was slipping seaward. The farmers were told in 1933 that if they would adopt certain remedial practices for five years, the public would donate CCC labor to install them, plus the necessary machinery and materials. The offer was widely accepted, but the practices were widely forgotten when the five-year contract period was up. The farmers continued only those practices that yielded an immediate and visible economic gain for themselves.

This partial failure of land-use rules written by the government led to the idea that maybe farmers would learn more quickly if they themselves wrote the rules. Hence, in 1937, the Wisconsin Legislature passed the Soil Conservation District Law. This said to the farmers, in effect: “We, the public, will furnish you free technical service and loan you specialized machinery, if you will write your own rules for land-use. Each county may write its own rules, and these will have the force of law.”

Nearly all the counties promptly organized to accept the proffered help, but after a decade of operation, no county has yet written a single rule. There has been visible progress in such practices as strip-cropping, pasture renovation, and soil liming, but none in fencing woodlots or excluding plow and cow from steep slopes. The farmers, in short, selected out those remedial practices which were profitable anyhow, and ignored those which were profitable to themselves. The net result is that the natural acceleration in rate of soil-loss has been somewhat retarded, but we nevertheless have less soil than we had in 1937.

I hasten to add that no one has ever told farmers that in land-use the good of the community may entail obligations over and above those dictated by self-interest. The existence of such obligations is accepted in bettering rural roads, schools, churches, and baseball teams, but not in bettering the behavior of the water that falls on the land, nor in preserving the beauty or diversity of the farm landscape. Land-use ethics are still governed wholly by economic self-interest, just as social ethics were a century ago.

To sum up: we have asked the farmer to do what he conveniently could to save his soil, and he has done just that, and only that. The exclusion of cows from woods and steep slopes is not convenient, and is not done. Moreover some things are being done that are at least dubious as conservation practices: for example marshy stream bottoms are being drained to relieve the pressure on worn-out uplands. The upshot is that woods, marshes, and natural streams, together with their respective faunas and floras, are headed toward ultimate elimination from southern Wisconsin.

All in all we have built a beautiful piece of social machinery—the Soil Conservation District—which is coughing along on two cylinders because we have been too timid, and too anxious for quick success, to tell the farmer the true magnitude of his obligations. Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land. …

[We have] one common need: an ecological conscience. The practice of conservation must spring from a conviction of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right only when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the community, and the community includes the soil, waters, fauna, and flora, as well as people. 

It cannot be right, in the ecological sense, for a farmer to drain the last marsh, graze the last woods, or slash the last grove in his community, because in doing so he evicts a fauna, a flora, and a landscape whose membership in the community is older than his own, and is equally entitled to respect. 

It cannot be right, in the ecological sense, for a farmer to channelize his creek or pasture his steep slopes, because in doing so he passes flood trouble to his neighbors below, just as his neighbors above have passed it to him. In cities we do not get rid of nuisances by throwing them across the fence onto the neighbor’s lawn, but in water-management we still do just that.

It cannot be right, in the ecological sense, for the deer hunter to maintain his sport by browsing out the forest, or for the bird-hunter to maintain his by decimating the hawks and owls, or for the fisherman to main his by decimating the herons, kingfishers, terns, and otters. Such tactics seek to achieve one kind of conservation by destroying another, and thus they subvert the integrity and stability of the community. 

If we grant the premise that an ecological conscience is possible and needed, then its first tenet must be this: economic provocation is no longer a satisfactory excuse for unsocial land-use (or to use somewhat stronger words, for ecological atrocities). This, however, is a negative statement. I would rather assert positively that decent land-use should be accorded social rewards proportionate to its social importance.

I have no illusions about the speed of accuracy with which an ecological conscience can become functional. It has required 19 centuries to define decent man-to-man conduct and the process is only half done; it may take as long to evolve a code of decency for man-to-land conduct. In such matters we should not worry too much about anything except the direction which we travel. The direction is clear, and the first step is to throw your weight around on matters of right and wrong in land-use. Cease being intimidated by the argument that a right action is impossible because it does not yield maximum profits, or that a wrong action is to be condoned because it pays. That philosophy is dead in human relations, and its funeral in land-relations is overdue. 

Aldo Leopold

The National Forest Service transferred Aldo Leopold to Madison, Wisconsin, in 1924. In 1933 he published the first text book in the field of wildlife management, and that same year he accepted a position at the University of Wisconsin as chair of the new game management department, the first in the nation. In 1935, he and his family initiated their own ecological restoration experiment on a worn-out farm along the Wisconsin River outside of Baraboo, Wisconsin. During weekends at “the Shack,” the family planted thousands of pine trees and restored prairies. Documenting the ensuing changes in the flora and fauna further informed and inspired Leopold. He died of a heart attack while helping a Baraboo neighbor put out a fire on April 21, 1948, one week before he would have learned that his manuscript for Sand County Almanac had been accepted for publication. With sales of more than two million copies, it is one of the most influential books on environmentalism ever written.

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