Friday, October 23

Care for Creation: Aldo Leopold and the Land Ethic

The film Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for our Time helpfully lays out the life and times of Aldo Leopold, a forester, scientist, teacher and observer who is responsible for the notion of the “land ethic.” Born in 1887 in Burlington, Iowa, his parents encouraged him to use his youthful imagination, so Leopold borrowed his mother’s binoculars to watch the birds, and his father Carl was a proto-conservationist. He taught Leopold that what you do in the outdoors reflect your personal ethics. This ethic grew into what we now call the “land ethic.” As the conservation movement grew to maturity, he came of age, and got involved - but at that point in history, Forestry was the only related field you could enter into. At the very start of his career, he shot a wolf, and he saw a “fierce, green fire” in its eyes. He came out of the experience not fully understanding this moment for another 35 years. The passing of the wolf later came to symbolize the deep history of the mountain and the fullness of its community of life. The encounter with the wolf was an early turning point and he followed this until it led him to his land ethic.

Leopold began to see the connection between his job and the health of the land. This shift in perspective would make all the difference, as he realized that conservation is also about our own communities and cultures. He developed ideas of ecological restoration - helping to rebuild forests, prairies and such that were destroyed when the Europeans came. Leopold and colleagues worked to heal the land in Coon Valley,Wisconsin. It was here that the conservation movement began. Farmers joined, and together, they created the first watershed project in the nation. Leopold started on the public land but came to realize the importance of private land. In fact, most of the productive land is on private lands. Out of this came the idea that to protect the environment, we would have to do it with the private land owner in order to conserve the public interest. Land to Leopold was more than just soil - it included water, wildlife and humans. It was a community of relational systems.

What does one make of this documentary film? As Leopold once said, we abuse land because we regard it as a commodity to us - but we need to see it as a community. He sought to understand the interrelationships of the natural system. More to the point, you cannot solve any conservation problem if you do not address human relationships and the relationship of people to the land. The science of ecology helped him to bring us back to the notion of community and why community is important. But in order for the community to be concerned for the environment, it must begin with the individual. Thus the film convictingly asks: does one need a lot of material goods to be happy? In other words, is a higher standard of living worth the environmental cost? Further, it asks me, what can I do in my own life to be more eco-friendly and environmentally conscious?

Leopol's seminal work (1949)
The Franciscan ethic would say that we can find absolute happiness with the least amount of things. St. Francis realized this, and what he lacked in possessions he made up for in love. Matthew’s gospel says, “blessed are the poor in spirit,” and Luke’s says, “blessed are the poor.” Francis would fit both of these beatitudes. The care for creation espoused in the Catholic Social Teaching on the environment calls us to protect creation and tend to it, but one way of doing this is living simply and mindfully. In living simply, one can grow into a greater appreciation of the environment around us and be more attentive to the forests, the soil, the wetlands, the rivers, the creatures, and the many other pieces that make up the mosaic of creation. Now, most people live on less than $2 a day. Some of these individuals voluntarily live like this in order to be in solidarity with others, while yet others live in involuntary poverty.

One must also think on how living simply and caring for creation can be done. What are some good real-life examples of how to get involved in this? It begins with awareness, so that the more we become aware of the world around us, its intricacies and complexities, we can also come to have a better understanding of how we fit in and our responsibility to the environment. One step that I intend on taking is to read A Sand County Almanac, Leopold’s seminal work that has essentially become the Bible of the conservationist movement. As many individuals testified in the documentary film, this book helped them to think in new ways and live in new ways. One of the major ways in which we can become more eco-friendly is to recycle. You may recycle batteries in a battery bin, recycle old school papers that otherwise would be thrown into the garbage, recycle plastic bags and paper bags, and by taking steps such as this, we can slowly but steadily help to decrease the amount of pollution and landfill.

Another way we can help is by composting the food we would normally throw in the trash. We often speak of how Americans eat a lot of food, but we rarely talk about how much food we don’t eat. In the United States, we throw out about 40% of our food every year, and the amount of global food waste every year is more than enough to feed the nearly 1 billion hungry people in the world.1 This food usually ends up in landfills, which turns into methane gas. As such, composting food would take up less space in the landfills, and can often be food as fertilizer, because you are giving back to the earth. Yet another point about trash - if I started keeping a weekly log of every item of food I throw into the garbage, I can begin to notice the patterns, and by picking up on these patterns can begin to not only adjust my shopping habits, but use this information to figure out better ways to reuse or cut down on these products.

A few other things some may begin implementing in their lives is recycling old cell phones - which usually gone into landfills. Unfortunately, this introduces toxins into our atmosphere, which will contribute to global warming. However, there exist a good number of programs that allow you to recycle your cell phones, and some of these programs actually help out good causes simply by your donation.2 Two final ways that you could contribute is by recycling unwanted wire hangers and also not using the coffee stirrer. Since many wire hangers are made of steel, recycling programs do not generally accept them. As such, many dry cleaners would be worth looking into - accept these to reuse or recycle on their own.3 As for coffee stirrers, every year Americans “throw away 138 billion straws and stirrers. But skipping the stirrer doesn't mean drinking your coffee black. Simply put your sugar and cream in first, and then pour in the coffee, and it should be well mixed.”4

By being mindful and aware of how we influence the environment and how the environment influences us, we can continue to develop a land ethic. This land ethic can create a mentality of care-taking, of preservation and conservation. This mindfulness - which also may remind us of Buddhist practices of mindfulness and their concern for all beings - is what we need. This increasingly globalized world also continues to become, unfortunately, an increasingly apathetic and individualistic world. In order to break out of this, we need to find ways to contribute to the care of creation, such as those suggested: recycling various items, composting, and so forth. Leopold’s life work was the land ethic. Today, as the film points out, more than one million organizations are working on some aspect of conservation and restoration of the environment. The film concludes by saying that this is “a veritable green fire - Aldo Leopold’s living legacy. He said that the oldest task in human history is to live on a piece of land that is unspoiled. A land ethic is not meant to be doctrine, but a guiding light to find the way forward.” I pray that I can also find the green fire, and join in the grand community of life around me.

[1] 40 Unexpected Ways You Can Help the Environment Right Now
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.

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