Forestry’s Next One Hundred Years: Leopold

Gifford Pinchot’s utilitarian philosophy and management methods dominated US Forest Service thought, policy, and action throughout the 20th century. A quick read of Harold Steen’s The US Forest Service: A History, David Clary’s Timber and the Forest Service, and Paul Hirt’s A Conspiracy of Optimism: Management of the National Forests Since World War Two is testament enough of Pinchot’s domination. Add in the Forest Service sponsored movie The Greatest Good for icing on the cake.

But the next century belongs to Leopold at least in the eyes of film producer Steve Dunsky, who produced The Greatest Good. Dunsky’s new film, The Green Fire is about Leopold and his influence. Leopold’s revolutionary ideas emerged with the publication of A Sand County Almanac (1966), but the transition to mainstream thinking would not happen in the 20th Century. Dunsky says the 21st Century belongs to Leopold:

I think that was what was so exciting about doing this film is we didn’t just want to do a film about Aldo Leopold’s life, we wanted to talk about why he’s important today and the reason that this is in a way a sequel to The Greatest Good is that we see Leopold as being kind of the guiding vision of the Forest Service in the 21st Century. Gifford Pinchot and his colleagues in the early part of the 20th Century had a different idea about conservation: that nature was there to be used by people and it is. But Leopold’s vision is much more about people being part of a natural community, and that shift has been occurring in the Forest Service over the last twenty years. And I think that now is the time that we are really seeing the manifestation of that in the agency’s policy and our actions and so the timing is really perfect for Green Fire to be coming out.

Moving Beyond Agrarian Forestry
Like Dunsky, I believe the time is at hand for a change in philosophy from Pinchot to Leopold, or from “Group A” to “Group B” as Leopold described it:

[O]ne group (A) regards the land as soil, and its function as commodity-production; another group (B) regards the land as a biota, and its function as something broader. How much broader is admittedly in a state of doubt and confusion.

In my own field, forestry, group A is quite content to grow trees like cabbages, with cellulose as the basic forest commodity. It feels no inhibition against violence; its ideology is agronomic. Group B, on the other hand, sees forestry as fundamentally different from agronomy because it employs natural species, and manages a natural environment rather than creating an artificial one. Group B prefers natural reproduction on principle. It worries on biotic as well as economic grounds about the loss of species like chestnut, and the threatened loss of the white pines. It worries about whole series of secondary forest functions: wildlife, recreation, watersheds, wilderness areas. To my mind, Group B feels the stirrings of an ecological conscience.

Leopold’s Philosophy in Brief
Leopold began his Forest Service career in 1909. He was promoted rapidly and was proud to part of the “outfit.” He was true-blue green Forest Service. Leopold became a forest supervisor of New Mexico’s Carson National Forest at age 24. But his enduring philosophy developed later. [We wouldn’t expect many 24-year-olds to have much of the world figured out]. As he grew older and wiser, Leopold developed the philosophy that would guide him, along with many in the wildlands preservation movement, the environmental ethics movement, and more. Here is an essence: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

With age and wisdom, Leopold began to be more contemplative about his own and others attempts to “manage the land,” to “manage wildlife”, and so on. That led him to his commitment to help humanity discover a rightful place as “plain members” of a broader ecological community: “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals; or collectively: the land. … In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.”

Ten Key Insights from Leopold’s Land Ethic (The Encyclopedia of Earth)

First, Leopold’s Land Ethic helped create the field now known as “environmental ethics” or, more generally, environmental philosophy. … [Leopold] makes human considerations regarding the land and land use central to environmental decision-making and practice, but does not go as far as to make the land itself deserving of human moral consideration.

Second, Leopold’s land ethic challenges us to rethink our notion of what it means to say something deserves our human moral consideration (is “morally considerable”). … Western philosophical tradition restricts moral considerability to (some) humans on the grounds that only humans are capable of reason and rationality, use language, are rights-holders, duty-bearers, interest carriers or are endowed with a soul. By making the land itself morally considerable, Leopold challenges traditional Western conceptions of moral considerability …. [F]or Leopold, “the land” was included in the realm of things deserving moral consideration.

Third, Leopold’s land ethic challenges us to rethink what it is to be human. … Western philosophical tradition is that humans are different from and superior to nonhuman animals and “nature” … Leopold’s land ethic challenges and repudiates this division.

Fourth, in place of the favored Western view of humans as unlike other animals and nature, Leopold posits the notion of human beings as [plain] members of both human and ecological communities. This notion of humans as embedded in social and ecological communities forever challenges the time-honored distinction between humans and “the rest of nature.” No longer is it “obvious” that there is an essential difference between superior humans and inferior nonhuman animals and nature….

Fifth, Leopold’s land ethic challenges us to rethink what counts as a morally relevant value in ethics, ethical decision-making, environmental policy and philosophy. No one before Leopold had ever defended the view that ecosystem integrity, diversity and beauty were morally relevant—perhaps deciding—values in human interactions with other humans, nonhuman animals or the natural environment. In doing so Leopold went far beyond traditional theories of ethics, ethical selves and ethical values: He made the “integrity, diversity, and beauty” of ecological communities, along with the requisite nutrient flows and energy cycles that are necessary for “land health” (or, the ability of the land to self renew), as themselves morally relevant values—ones which sometimes could and should trump traditional values of human self-interest, individual rights, human freedoms (or liberties) and economic efficiency. …

Sixth, Leopold’s land ethic challenges humans to rethink the role of emotion, care, love and empathy not only in ethics, ethical decision-making, and ethical policy, but also in what it means for humans to owe things to each other and the land. For Leopold, the development of an “ecological conscience”—necessary to the adoption of the land ethic—requires the development of emotional, experiential (e.g., hands-on) ecological literacy. Rational intelligence that is not exercised in concert with affectional or emotional intelligence is simply inadequate in ethics, environmental ethics and environmental decision-making.

Seventh, Leopold’s Land Ethics has yet to be understood and appreciated. It challenges us to understand the relationships between ecological diversity and cultural diversity in the creation, maintenance and perpetuation of human and land health. Leopold explicitly links cultural diversity with biodiversity when he writes, “Wilderness was never a homogenous raw material. It was very diverse, and the resulting artifacts are very diverse. These differences in the end-product are known as cultures. The rich diversity of the world’s cultures reflects a corresponding diversity in the wilds that gave them birth.” … Leopold laments the “exhaustion of wilderness” and “world-wide hybridization of cultures” as the destruction of both ecological and cultural diversity. For Leopold, the “wild roots” of cultures and the importance of our ecological heritage are part of our humanness and our human cultural heritage that should be recognized and preserved. …

Eighth, Leopold’s land ethic makes forest and wilderness preservation necessary for any adequate ethic, environmental ethic or environmental policy. …

Ninth, Leopold’s land ethic is that he saw the valuable roles to be played by both the ecological scientist and the ordinary individual in the preservation of [wildness]. …

Tenth, Leopold’s land ethic challenges us to rethink the relationships among ecology, ethics and economics. Leopold rejected the conception and practice of both traditional laissez-faire economics and ethics because neither made ecological awareness and sensitivity to ecological contexts central to their enterprises. He writes: “That man is, in fact, only a member of a biotic team is shown by an ecological interpretation of history. Many historical events, hitherto explained solely in terms of human enterprise, were actually biotic interactions between people and land. The characteristics of the land determined the facts quite as potently as the characteristics of the men who lived on it.”
[footnote and hyperlink references omitted . See here]

One Final Leopoldian Notion
I’ll finish with one of my favorite Leopold quotes: “Obligations have no meaning without reference to conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of social conscience from people to land.”

Is Leopold’s time at hand?

4 thoughts on “Forestry’s Next One Hundred Years: Leopold”

  1. When I saw a preview of the Leopold film, I wondered how it could be possible that so many could not be aware that this “Leopoldian” worldview of the world and all beings in it as One is the viewpoint of many traditional (Earth-based) religions and eastern and western mystics of all religious persuasions.

    I would argue that westerners did not “lose touch” with the Earth; those two sides of our nature (thinking and feeling) have been swirling around in the western imagination forever. John Phillip Newell writes about this in what he would call the Christian “household” as the tension between Peter and John. See his Book of Creation in Reader here..

    Maybe it’s a question of taste, but I resonate more with this kind of writing..

    The Friends of John Philip Newell has been formed to advance the message and work of John Philip Newell as a powerful voice for spiritual renewal in our time.

    We exist to serve the Spirit at work in the human soul and the earth

    • By raising awareness of life’s sacredness
    • By addressing the depths of the world’s brokenness
    • By prophetically serving earth’s oneness

    We speak from within the Christian household in communion with humanity’s other wisdom traditions, calling for a new ancient harmony.

    Than the more cerebral discussion of the “land ethic”. I would argue that a land ethic without an inclusive “people” ethic is not a good basis for an ethical framework.

    What concerns me a bit about the hagiography of Leopold (who was a great man, don’t get me wrong) is that to some extent, it is saying that “until a white man scientist “discovered” them, these ideas did not exist.” In fact, the People have known the truths of our Oneness with all beings and the Earth as long as our kind has walked upon the Earth.

  2. Sharon says,

    I would argue that a land ethic without an inclusive “people” ethic is not a good basis for an ethical framework.

    As did Leopold. Leopold built his ethics foundation right on top of the well-established foundation of a “people” ethic. That’s why he used the word “extension” here: “the problem we face is the extension of social conscience from people to land.”

    Sharon adds,

    the People have known the truths of our Oneness with all beings and the Earth as long as our kind has walked upon the Earth.

    Yes, but! There certainly is an emergent and continued awareness of the “Oneness with all beings and the Earth” in some theological traditions, including but not limited to Christian traditions. But that “Oneness with the Earth” is/has been largely eclipsed by concerns with People. And when Politics and Power are added in, the “largely eclipsed” can be nearly equated with “eclipsed.”

    Leopold’s magic, in part was to bring mysticism, reverence, and a form of sacredness back into the bureaucratic/scientific rationality perspective from which “management” and “science” were addressed (mostly still are addressed) in the early and middle 20th Century. He did not intend for his message to embraced by any narrow ideological or theological group. Indeed, Leopold framed his writing in ways that were in keeping with the norms of the day that suggested a wide separation of church and state (Wikipedia link).

  3. Dave- your comments are very interesting, and lead us down a path we have never explored. your sentence

    “Leopold’s magic, in part was to bring mysticism, reverence, and a form of sacredness back into the bureaucratic/scientific rationality perspective from which “management” and “science” were addressed (mostly still are addressed) in the early and middle 20th Century. ”

    The terms “magic” “mystic” “reverence” and (a form of ) “sacredness” are all terms associated with some kind of spiritual life- a life about the things beyond the touchable.

    Wikipedia’s definition of “magic” says:

    “It is in contrast to science, in that science does not accept anything not subject to either direct or indirect observation, and subject to logical analysis, whereas practitioners of magic claim it is an inexplicable force beyond logic. Magic has been practised in all cultures, and utilizes ways of understanding, experiencing and influencing the world somewhat akin to those offered by religion, though it is sometimes regarded as more focused on achieving results than religious worship.”

    What is interesting is that

    “He did not intend for his message to embraced by any narrow ideological or theological group. Indeed, Leopold framed his writing in ways that were in keeping with the norms of the day that suggested a wide separation of church and state (Wikipedia link)”

    Magic or spirituality is a worldview (sometimes thought to be, but not really at odds with science) that many have throughout the world and throughout time. If Leopold is said to “call us back to the magic side” my point was that many people other than the establishment had never left that side. It is great that he reintroduced many people to these concepts; I was just pointing out that he was legitimizing due to his gender, ethnic background and class, rather than “discovering” them.

    I kind of think we are agreeing.

    But I don’t know quite where spirituality and magic cross into a “narrow theological or ideological group”. Many of us find that a pillar of our spiritual practice is the challenge and blessing of being in community. That community might well be called a “church.” So I don’t see a harsh line between having spiritual/magic thoughts as per Leopold and being a member of a church, and using those moral and ethical principles to inform my actions.

    When you or Leopold talk about ethics, to me, you have crossed into spiritual country. His writing is beautiful. I agree with much but not all of what he says (his science was based on equilibrium thinking of the time). But as I tell the doorbell ringing sellers of salvation, I have an ethical framework that works just fine, thank you.

    • Sharon,

      When I used the phrase “Leopold’s magic,” I was talking not about his philosophy, but about the fact that his little book has made such an impact in fields ranging from natural resources to ethics, to ecological economics, and more.

      That said, there a a spiritual side to forests, and Nature in general, and Leopold framed it in novel—non theological—ways. Those of us who are closer to an atheistic persuasion, still marvel at the wonders of Nature and the glory of existence—magnified by majestic landscapes, wonderful waterways, serene old growth timber stands, and more.

      What Leopold did was to frame all this with rhetoric that would work its way into scientific discussions without the need to invoke theological rhetoric, and particularly without the need to talk about “creation stories.”

      This proves important when we begin to consider where science has moved since Leopold wrote. Now instead of a Newtonian-Cartesian worldview (see, e.g. here) we have complexity theory (and Chaos Theory)—about the workings of complex adaptive systems (biophysical and human) that were not on the table in Leopold’s time. Magic and mysticism are no longer shunned in scientific discussions, as they were pretty much back then. Or maybe I’m just being delusional and didn’t study the right “science” books when I was younger.


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