Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Oversights of Aldo Leopold

I saw a screening of the film Green Fire recently, about the life of Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac.  It was held on my campus and organized by a colleague and her Environmental Interpretation class; 200 attended and most stayed for the post-filming panel discussion. The film showed Leopold's life and influences, described in sweeping terms the "land ethic" for which he is known, and the inspiration he's been to generations since. For those who don't know him, he was a turn-of-the-century writer and naturalist.  His most famous book was A Sand County Almanac, published at the end of his life.  He died of a heart attack, running with water buckets to put out a prairie fire.  The book makes the point that humans are part of nature, as are all things, and that natural systems are intricately enmeshed.  At that time the main view of wildernes was that it should be conquered and tamed.  One conservationist interviewee in the semi-documentary said Thoreau, Muir, and Leopold are the three great fathers to the environmental movement.

I noticed that there were two distinct components to the Leopold story. Clearly, he felt connected to the wilderness largely because he experienced it firsthand.  This is the experiential, emotional piece.  But second, he was a Yale-trained forester and he took an academic interest in the world: the scientist's approach.  Throughout his life he would catalog the comings and goings of wildlife and plants -- in his journal: day of first bloom, last bloom, that kind of thing.  Maybe not scientific analysis, but close observation, anyway.

Knowledge,  and emotional connection  ...   You need both to run a planet.

It occurred to me that you really need both components to do much of anything that's good.  The "tree hugger" environmentalists, of the stereotypical sort, love nature in a naive way. Not enough knowledge.  If all living things are simply to be cherished, invasive species will quickly have their way.  The rats and Cowbirds, the Japanese Beetles and Buckthorn will take over, wiping out other species and taking down the ecosystem.  Nature is like a Rube Goldberg machine that is easily thrown out of balance. You may love to watch it whirr, but it takes quite a bit of knowledge to keep it in order. The laboratory scientists -- another stereotype -- may know how the contraption works, but they don't see the big picture, or may not even care.  That is, they don't care in a deep enough way to make sacrifices, to make a difference.

When Leopold died it would be seven years before Bill Gates was even born.  Today we have the Internet, mass media, cell phones and much more --  those wondrous things have transformed the world.  At my fingertips, in my living room, I have more -- and more current -- information than all the libraries Leopold ever heard of.  For example, the entry under his name on Wikipedia was viewed 13,000 times in the last month.  Want to see video of tube worms at the deep sea vents?  Youtube.  Need some inspiration or a fresh perspective on a big topic?  Try TED.COM.  Not to mention Google Maps, Google Earth, social networks, blogs, and on and on.  Many of the ideas Leopold discovered alone in the wilderness were probably not even new at the time -- after all, he had a picnic basket, binoculars, a notebook and a gun.  He did not have a search engine.

My point is that since WWII , knowledge has definitely gotten a goose. But what about inspiration?  Even TED, which is all about inspiration, is not like being outside.  and not at all like what is said to have inspired Leopold so deeply.  The Green Fire going out, in the terrified eyes of a wolf he had just shot in the back, and its pups too.  Listen to the prose:
"[....] We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.  In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy; how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable side-rocks.  We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view."
I can almost feel it; he's an excellent writer.  But clearly this kind of thing, like Leopold's suggestion that we "think like a mountain" is more on the emotional side, his writing was inspirational. 

In some ways he was shortsighted. I've gotten to the critique portion of my commentary.  By calling it the "Land" Ethic he overlooked the fact that 70 percent of the Earth's surface, 99.99% of the habitable area, and about half of all species, is in the ocean.  Why not the "Earth Ethic?"  Wisconsin is too far from the coast to think much about it, I guess, and no one cared much about oceans back than anway.    He was all rabbits and cranes when the world was all plankton and squid.

But my other criticism runs a little deeper.  He was right in recognizing humans as the stewards of the Earth -- we must see ourselves that way, and must manage natural systems with care for the system, not just for ourselves.  The web of life, not just raw materials -- a matrix, a raft. 

But he failed to see that we are also an invasive species, and one which has been kept in check by our own natural predators.   Our main predators were bacteria and viruses.  Cholera, Diphtheria, Dysentery, Influenza, Malaria, Plague, Scarlet Fever, Small Pox, Syphilis, Tuberculosis, Typhoid Fever, Typhus.   I wonder if there was a green fire when they died, as they did, in the face of modern medicine; Infant Mortality Rate plummeted.  Leopold had discovered the hard way that killing the wolves and panthers in the mountain range launched the deer population in to unsustainable and destructive growth.  The deer then shreaded their own environment trying to survive.  He stopped killing wolves, the deer populations stabilized and the ecosystem rebounded.  Didn't he notice that humans are deer who have learned how to kill our own wolves. 

Leopold was an inspiration to many because he lived on the land, taking a keen interest in the natural systems around him. This protected his own property, and to the extent that others did the same the world would be a better place. But he was a bad role model in another way: he had five children. If each of them had five, and theirs, there would already be 728 more humans today, because of him. 

When he was born the world population was about 1.4 billion; when he died it had nearly doubled.  Had he read Thomas Malthus's masterpiece "Essay on the Principle of Population," published around 1800, he would have known that populations, unchecked, grow quickly past their carrying capacity, and he wouldn't have had to kill all those panthers and wolves in the first place.  See?  A little more knowledge would have helped a lot.  Leopold even went to Yale, where surely he was exposed to Malthus but maybe he took a walk that day.  

Half a century earlier, fortunately, Malthus had been a key inspiration both to Charles Darwin and to Alfred Russel Wallace, both of whom guessed that natural selection is the driving force of change.  Darwin, the gentleman scholar and most prescient of the two, deserves a high place as a a father of environmentalism, if environmentalism itself would recognize the critical need for knowledge.  It seems all Thoreau and Leopold, not enough Darwin and Dawkins. 
Surely I'm simplifying, but Charles Darwin does provide the complement to Aldo Leopold, as science balances emotion, as knowledge balances feeling. This is not to denigrate Thoreau, but Muir (for politics), Leopold (for visceral connection) and Darwin (for understanding). That's my team.

Think like a mountain?  We can do better than that.


  1. Excellent piece of criticism! My thoughts exactly - "Knowledge and Emotional Connection...You Need Both to Run a Planet". Wondering if Leopold addressed the population issue in his writings on economics? He must have realized this problem.


I've allowed comments without login.