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Climate & Energy
Tracing the Threads of an Evolving Ethic
Curt Meine

One of my favorite items in the archives of conservation history is an exchange of letters between Gifford Pinchot and Aldo Leopold, more than three decades after the two American conservation leaders had first met. Pinchot was a generation older than Leopold. Through the largesse of the Pinchot family, Yale University established its Forest School (now the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies) in 1900. Leopold graduated in the Class of 1909 with a master’s degree and joined the ranks of the newly established US Forest Service. Pinchot was then serving as the Service’s first chief. Although their careers would eventually take them both away from the USFS, they would remain in contact, intersecting over the years through various campaigns, conferences, and meetings.
Leopold's trips to the Rio Gavilan region of the northern Sierra Madre helped shape his thinking about land health. Credit USFS CC BY 2.0

In December 1939, Pinchot wrote to his erstwhile acolyte. Pinchot was giving thought to writing an account of the early days of the Forest Service—“the story of what we did, what we faced, and why.”1 He had sent off letters to a number of “old timers,” asking them to share their memories and stories. Leopold replied, “I applaud your proposal to write a history of the Service,” but wondered whether “any one book, even from your pen, will capture all the angles of the story, and perhaps a generation or two must elapse before its values can be truly weighed by anyone.”2

What has always impressed me about that exchange, however, is not the details of their recollecting. Rather, it is the spirit in which Leopold, then just shy of his fifty-third birthday, responded to his old boss.He addressed his letter to Pinchot: “Dear Chief ....”

In understanding the contrasts and conflicts in forestry and conservation history, we often use key figures as proxies for entire philosophies, paradigms, and styles: Pinchot the Wise Use Utilitarian; Muir the Wild Preservationist; Roosevelt the Bull Moose; Leopold the Land Ethicist; Carson the Environmentalist. This can help us to sketch the broad outlines of that history, but it tends to underplay continuity, to overlook the dramatic flow through which our collective conservation consciousness has emerged, evolved, assimilated new perspectives, and come to define new needs. Pinchot’s request to Leopold was more than a call for colorful anecdotes. And Leopold’s greeting in reply revealed more than just a playful deference to his professional elder. It signified that, despite conservation philosophies that had in some ways diverged, Pinchot and Leopold remained collegial allies, engaged in a common and continuing cause.

As the two veteran foresters reconnected, each in his own way was trying to comprehend where the ever-emerging conservation movement had been, and where it was headed. Leopold was increasingly interested in the ethical dimensions of conservation. He understood the dynamic state of ethics in human cultures and communities, and in the grand scheme of human civilization. “Conservation,” he wrote, “viewed in its entirety, is the slow and laborious unfolding of a new relationship between people and land.”3 He held that this “new relationship”—continually informed by science and history, literature and the arts, faith traditions and philosophy—had to define a broader range of human responsibilities, for one another, for future generations, and for other species and non-human nature as a whole.
In the 1930s, sandhill cranes were rare in Wisconsin. Populations have since made a remarkable recovery and the cranes are once again a regular feature on the landscape that inspired Leopold. Credit: USFS CC BY 2.0.

Leopold’s summary view, published as “The Land Ethic” in A Sand County Almanac (1949), expressed his understanding of both the substance of an ethic and the process by which ethics develop. “A land ethic... reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”4 Essential to this redefinition of conservation was Leopold’s ecological understanding of “land” (by which he meant “soil, water, plants, animals, and people”5) as more than a mere economic commodity, but as a living and changing community.

Ethics provide guidance for our relationships within community. A land ethic, in Leopold’s view, cannot be handed down from on high; it is “a product of social evolution.” It is not reducible to formal documents or statements (even his), “because nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘written.’” It is not the invention of any one individual; it “evolve[s] in the minds of a thinking community.” And it is not static, because “evolution never stops.”6

In all this, Leopold challenged the dominant ethic that he had inherited as a young forester and conservationist. His own experiences, relationships, reading, data, reason, and intuition led him to push beyond what he saw as the limits of the utilitarian, “wise use” philosophy typically associated with Gifford Pinchot. And therein lies the power and poignancy of his reply to his “Chief:” because Leopold understood himself in the context of a broader community of thinkers, and a developing body of thought, he had no difficulty acknowledging his debt to his elder. And Pinchot had no difficulty appealing to Leopold as a source for his own reflections. No Pinchot...no Yale Forest School ...no US Forest Service (at least as they came to exist). No Forest Service...no Forest School...no Aldo Leopold (as least as he came to be known).

We can trace such threads of continuity backward through time. Pinchot was, of course, an inheritor himself of connections and convictions. Before him there was, among others, George Perkins Marsh, who wrote in his foundational book Man and Nature (1864): “We have now felled forest enough everywhere, in many districts far too much. Let us restore this one element of material life to its normal proportions, and devise means for maintaining the permanence of its relations to the fields, the meadows and the pastures, to the rain and the dews of heaven, to the springs and rivulets with which it waters down the earth.” Pinchot received a copy of Man and Nature on his twenty-first birthday (in 1886), and later referred to it as “epoch-making.”7
The Leopold Family Shack: a re-built chicken coop along the Wisconsin River where Leopold, his wife, and children lived close to the land. Credit: Tom Koerner/USFWS CC BY 2.0.

Marsh had his own sense of a land ethic, his own way to frame our changing notion of our responsibilities. “All Nature is linked together by invisible bonds and every organic creature, however low, however feeble, however dependent, is necessary to the well-being of some other among the myriad forms of life.”8 And before Marsh, providing a foundation for a global view of environmental change, was the German explorer, naturalist, and polymath Alexander von Humboldt.9 “The noblest and most important result” of scientific study, Humboldt wrote, was “knowledge of the chain of connection by which all natural forces are linked together, and made mutually dependent upon each other.”10 In his epic work Cosmos (originally published 1845–47), von Humboldt aimed to provide nothing less than a coherent view of the universe, the Earth and its community of life, and the comprehending human mind.We humans had the capacity, he held, to perceive “unity in diversity,” to acknowledge “one great whole animated by the breath of life.”11

We can also trace such threads of continuity forward through time. Leopold’s expression of the land ethic lay relatively dormant for two decades, until an emerging environmental movement cast his words in a new and more urgent light. Readership of A Sand County Almanac burgeoned. Among its readers was the Trappist monk, activist, and writer Thomas Merton. In The Catholic Worker in 1968, Merton wrote: “Aldo Leopold brought into clear focus one of the most important moral discoveries of our time. This can be called the ecological conscience. The ecological conscience is centered in an awareness of man’s true place as a dependent member of the biotic community .... He must recognize his obligations toward the other members of that vital community.”Within his own faith tradition, Merton did not hesitate to press the case. “Catholic theology ought to take note of the ecological conscience, and do it fast.”12

pull quoteWhich brings us to the present. As a global community, we find ourselves searching for new ways to understand our changing human role on a rapidly transforming Earth, knowing that this also requires unprecedented change in our human relationships and responsibilities. We can now look back and see Leopold’s words in 1949 marking not only movement beyond an inadequate utilitarianism, but opening new conversations about the global prospects for humans and nature. The thread from von Humboldt to Marsh to Pinchot to Leopold to Merton leads directly to Pope Francis, who in his address to the US Congress on September 24, 2015, cited Merton as “a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”13

In his landmark encyclical Laudato Si’, the Pope has taken up Merton’s challenge. In “The Land Ethic,” Leopold had stated that “no important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections and convictions.” He expressed frustration that “philosophy and religion [had] not yet heard of [conservation].”14 Now Pope Francis in the encyclical calls for “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots concern and affect us all.”15 The word ethic (and its variants) appears twenty-seven times in the document; the word responsibility fifty-five times.

In framing an “integral ecology” and emphasizing the “urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution,”16 the Pope has not only intensified the conversation within his own global institution, but entered into full dialogue with other faith communities and secular organizations. In the encyclical we find a tapestry of thoughts whose threads do include (among so many others) Saint Francis and Alexander von Humboldt, and that connect indigenous belief systems with contemporary science-based land ethics: “Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth.”17

We come to this moment in time and space from varied places, backgrounds, and traditions. In forging links between a local and intimate land ethic and an emerging Earth ethic,18 we find that, despite differences, we can and must benefit from all sources of wisdom; we can draw vital lessons from our diverse cultural experiences. The human meaning of conservation is still being forged, the ethic is evolving, our community of concern is expanding. Our differences will hardly disappear. But perhaps they will fade, or be folded in, as we strive to live in right relationship within “our common home.”

Curt Meine is a Senior Fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation and at the Center for Humans and Nature. His publications include Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work, the first full-length biography of Aldo Leopold.
Credit: Flickr user DebAnne70 CC BY 2.0

1 G. Pinchot to A. Leopold, 11 December 1939. University of Wisconsin Archives, Aldo Leopold Papers (LP) 3B9, p. 526. http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/AldoLeopold.ALStatesOHTN
2 A. Leopold to G. Pinchot, 4 January 1940. LP 3B9, p. 525.
3 Leopold, Aldo. 1940. “Wisconsin Wildlife Chronology,” Wisconsin Conservation Bulletin 5:11, 8-20.
4 Leopold, Aldo. 1949. A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. New York: Oxford University Press.
5 Leopold, Aldo. 1947. “The Ecological Conscience,” The Bulletin of the Garden Club of America, 45-53.
6 Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac.
7 Mitchell, Nora J. and Diamant, Rolf. 2005. “The Necessity of Stewardship: George Perkins Marsh and the Nature of Conservation,” Forest History Today, 4-9.
8 Marsh, George Perkins. 1865. Man and Nature, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. New York: Charles Scribner.
9 See Walls, Laura Dassow. 2009. The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
10 von Humboldt, Alexander. 1858. Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe, Vol. 1 New York: Harper & Brothers.
11 von Humboldt, Cosmos.
12 Merton, Thomas. 1968. “The Wild Places,” The Catholic Worker 34. Merton’s essay was later reprinted and excerpted several times. See O’Connell, Patrick F., ed. 2013. Thomas Merton: Selected Essays Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
13 Pope Francis, “Address of the Holy Father,” United States Capitol, Washington, DC. 24 September 2015. https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2015/september/documents/papa-francesco_20150924_usa-uscongress.html
14 Leopold, Also. A Sand County Almanac.
15 Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, para. 14.
16 Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, para. 114.
17 Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, para. 92.
18 Callicott, J. Baird. 2013. Thinking Like a Planet: The Land Ethic and the Earth Ethic. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.
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