Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What Would Aldo Do?

Last summer, I participated in a month-long institute funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities on conservationist Aldo Leopold. Leopold's not as well known as other environmentalist icons such as Thoreau and Rachel Carson, but arguably he's more important than either in developing a philosophical underpinning to the modern environmental movement. If he were around today, I think he'd have a thing or two to say.

In his essay "The Land Ethic," published in his book A Sand County Almanac (1949) the year after his untimely death, Leopold wrote:

"The 'key-log which must be moved to release the evolutionary process for an ethic is simply this: quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

Now, as I hasten to point out to students when we read Leopold, a land-ethic does not erase human claims or automatically subordinate them to the claims of non-human members of the biotic community; it does not mean that we should ignore the legitimate economic needs of human beings. Having lived through the Great Depression, Leopold knew better than to argue that human beings didn't need jobs, natural resources, and land on which to enjoy both. But having lived through the Great Depression, he also saw how reckless land-use had contributed to the breakdown of the human economy (think soil erosion and Dust Bowl), while as an ecologist, he saw how the same tendency to ignore all but short-term economic considerations had devastated the "economy" of Nature (think depleted wolf populations, deer overpopulation, downed forests, polluted waterways, and all the rest of it). He saw, in other words, that a reasonable accommodation had to be struck between human economic activity and the larger needs of the biotic community, including the needs of its human members.

Judged by that standard, the Marcellus Shale craze fails utterly. The integrity, stability, and beauty of the land are being ignored altogether in the rush to produce the profits and fossil fuels that drive the human economy; from what I've read, not a single thought is being given by industry or government to the ethical issues involved. Whether considered in solely human terms--as a grotesque infringement on human rights--or in ecological terms--as an equally brutal assault on the land and its non-human inhabitants--the Marcellus boom tragically illustrates how far we as a society are from the ideal Leopold articulated more than sixty years ago.

We need to organize, agitate, legislate, and do everything possible to combat this great wrong. But we need Leopold's voice as well to remind us that it is wrong, and that only we can set it right.

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