What does Aldo Leopold mean to you?

by CB alum Andy Holdsworth (’06)

The Minneapolis premiere of the film, Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time, will be at the UMN Bell Museum of Natural History on Friday September 16th.  According to the flier, “this is the first full-length, high-definition documentary ever made about legendary conservationist Aldo Leopold. The film explores Leopold’s life and the ways his land ethic philosophy continues to be applied all over the world.”

As I was sending out the announcement for the MN Society for Conservation Biology Happy Hour before the film (please join us!), I wondered what does Leopold mean to different generations of conservation biologists and practitioners in Minnesota?  What does Leopold mean to conservation biologists with decades of experience?  What does he mean to conservation biology students?

I first read Leopold’s Sand County Almanac in my freshman year environmental studies class.  I was moved by it, though Leopold’s larger impact on me didn’t set in until after college.  While working for various conservation groups in southern Arizona, I was surrounded by conservationists steeped in Leopold’s land ethic and powerful writings.  From Arizona to Mexico, I was immersed in the biodiversity-rich landscape of the Southwest that had such a deep influence on Leopold. His legacy took hold in me.  When I came to Minnesota to start the UMN Conservation Biology program the sense of his legacy took on new meaning as I visited the “shack” and his land in Wisconsin.

Soon after sending out the announcement for the MN SCB Happy Hour, I got an enthusiastic response from many folks, including co-workers at MN DNR. Jim Manolis, a UMN ConsBio graduate and former Smith Fellow, said he was re-reading a Sand County Almanac in preparation for a Smith Fellows retreat at Leopold’s land in Wisconsin.  Another co-worker was also re-reading Leopold’s writings and was finding enduring lessons and relevance to state land management issues that we are grappling with at DNR.

What does Aldo Leopold and his legacy mean to you?  I welcome your thoughts here and hope you will join us at the MN Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology Happy Hour and the Bell Museum’s showing of Green Fire on September 16th!

About the author:  Andy Holdsworth is President of the Minnesota Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology and Science Policy Coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He can be reached at arholdsworth@gmail.com

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Balancing Our Loves of Earth and Stuff

by current MS student Brandon M. Breen

In a previous article I trumpeted love of earth as a powerful and underutilized conservation tool. I even went on to suggest, as Aldo Leopold and others have before me, that a dramatic increase in humanity’s fondness for nature may be critical to long-term conservation success.

My friend Patrick read the article and posed this interesting question: “How do you get people to love earth more than they love the stuff that destroys the earth?”

Good question. Patrick knew it was a good question, so he punctuated it with “It’s a biggie!”

Let’s try to answer it. To do so, we must figure out how to do two things: (1) increase humanity’s love of earth and (2) decrease their love of stuff.

There’s no surefire way to increase a person’s love of earth; after all, love can’t be forced. Nevertheless, few people can observe a moonrise from a remote camp, or spend a quiet morning at streamside, and not feel something open up inside. In other words, nature knows how to woo, but only to those within earshot of her wild tremolos. And few Americans qualify. Over 80% of us live in cities or suburbs. Electronic media dominate our leisure time. The first major obstacle, then, to the human-earth-love connection is a lack of familiarity; it is difficult to love an earth we do not know.

What can be done about this? In short, anything that introduces people to the natural world will help. The options are limited only by creativity, and include taking a child to a frog pond, jogging in the park, camping, planting acorns, making wildlife art (FYI you’ll be delighted to know the Turkey Vulture Society is now holding an Art Contest, see their website for details), etc. Conservationists, recognizing the need, are now working to bring nature to the city. Chicago, for instance, has an extensive system of greenways that connect people to butterflies and katydids. This is an excellent and necessary start.

The second major obstacle is that love of earth is not a dominant force in most cultural identities. I would argue the frontlines in the battle to preserve the diversity and mystery of the planet are cultural; the conservation fight is largely a war of ideas. Aldo Leopold succinctly stated, “There are those who can live without wild things, and those who cannot.” Conservation depends on the proficiency of the latter in communicating the benefits of a worldview that includes love of earth.

For me, life is simply more beautiful when I have access to wild places. The other day I was standing silently in a pine forest in eastern Wyoming. I was listening to the birds, mostly chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers. I saw a slim and grayish songbird, of medium size, alight on a pine top. I assumed it was a female Mountain Bluebird, a common bird for the area. But then it started singing a cheery, emphatic song of churrs and trills. I looked closer and it was the first Townsend’s Solitaire (a cousin of the American Robin) of the spring.

Nature does a lot for us. But right now I don’t want to talk about her provision of fresh air and water, her climate regulation, her diversity of foods and flavors. Instead, I’d like to draw attention to two of her “fuzzier” aspects. Nature enriches human experience by providing mystery and community. Ecological complexity is such that we will never fully understand it (especially because it is a moving target), and so, in nature, there will always be mystery. We have a choice to live in a world rich or poor in mystery. Secondly, we humans are one species among several million on planet earth; we are members of a fabulously diverse community. We have a choice to embrace or ignore this community. We have a choice to live among humans in a city, or among humans and species in a universe. Love of earth, to me, is simply a more beautiful way.

The second part of Patrick’s question touches upon one of the grand engines of the conservation problem, our love of the stuff that destroys the earth: the personal vehicles, big homes, disposable items, etc.

There are at least two significant hurdles to getting people to love their stuff a little less. First, many people do not see the connection between their consumption and the often hidden environmental degradation such consumption entails. Second, the advertising industry and American culture – in short, the messages we receive every day – glorify extravagance.

Luckily, these hurdles can be overcome. More and more of us, armed with knowledge of how American lifestyles are unsustainable, are beginning to recognize a need to reduce our impact. Additionally, science is showing that happiness – which Aristotle considered the supreme good – depends more on our pursuit of goals and relationships with others than on material wealth; Consider that Americans are twice as rich as they were fifty years ago, but no happier.

So where does the balance between earth love and stuff love lie? I’m not exactly sure, but we need more of the former and less of the latter. And steps in the right direction include getting out in nature (e.g. watch the joyful chickadees to see what the little guys are up to), adopting love of earth into our worldviews, and replacing the pursuit of material gain with the pursuit of the true and non-consumptive wellsprings of happiness (better relationships with loved ones, personal goals).

One of the hardest parts will be resisting the cultural and advertising messages we are blitzed with every day that tell us, erroneously, that everything is OK, and will likely be even better once we consume even more.

Remember, the fight for the planet is a war of ideas, and conservation ideas are grossly outnumbered.

About the author:

Brandon Breen is a Master’s student in the University of Minnesota Conservation Biology program. Brandon’s research investigates a human-wildlife conflict involving sheep farmers and turkey vultures in the Falkland Islands. Brandon recently returned to the United States following some work on Andean condors for Fundacion Condor in Ecuador, and is now completing his thesis on a ranch in Wyoming. Brandon is interested in getting more people “on board” for conservation.

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PLEASE NOTE: Opinion and perspective blogs do not necessarily represent the unanimous opinion of those affiliated with the Conservation Biology Program at the University of Minnesota. Rather, they are meant to broaden and elevate the educational and scientific discourse related to various topics in conservation biology.