Aldo Leopold, Jon Stewart, and the evolution of our ecological consciousness

23 Jun

Aldo Leopold, known as a great ecologist and visionary thinker, was also forecaster of great things to come for human society.  Decades ago, in one of his essays in A Sand County Almanac, he wrote of “The Land Ethic”.  It was something of a hopeful premonition.  For, writing back in the 1940’s, Leopold did not believe we had yet achieved an ethical sensibility about the human’s membership in the greater ecological community.  But, he flattered us with the suggestion that development of such an ethic was within our potential; and, even an imminent step in our social evolution.  After all, we’d developed moral standards for interactions between individuals, then norms of conduct between individuals and community.  Leopold thought it only logical that we next develop feelings of right and wrong concerning human’s interactions with the land;  “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”

Well, what better way to judge the evolutionary position of a society, than through the progress of its popular culture?  Oh dear.  Perhaps Leopold would second guess his prophecy of our grand potential if he could see us now – bill boards, plastic crap, reality TV!  Well, while undertaking my own favorite pop culture indulgence, I was struck by an interview I saw on the Daily Show.  Recently Jon Stewart spoke with EPA administrator Lisa P Jackson.  Amidst congressional cries to slash EPA funding, and claims that they represent government over-reach at its most frightening, one could certainly doubt that we’ve developed much of collective consciousness of our responsibility for land stewardship.

Perhaps the public, or our leaders in congress, just don’t know any better?  Perhaps education is simply lacking to explain the importance of critical environmental protections like the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act.  Really?  Come on, let’s give some credit to common sense and common knowledge.  We all know we can’t breathe soot or drink poison.  But is it sufficient to educate the people on the facts?  In his time Leopold pondered, if educationdefines no right or wrong, assigns no obligation, calls for no sacrifice, implies no change in the current philosophy of values…urges only enlightened self-interest. Just how far will such education take us?”  In the present day Stewart and Jackson had an amusing chat about prevailing values and facts:

  • LPJ:   Every once in a while . . . .we have to remind the American people that environmentalism isn’t a spectator sport, you actually have to stand up and demand that we be vigilant in protecting our air and water.
  • JS:  The argument always seems to be that the EPA cannot do that without killing business or killing jobs . . . . is there a happy medium?  Can we not die, but also they live?
  • LPJ:  We can have a strong economy and a strong and healthy environment.  [She goes on to describe evidence that the economy and environment can thrive together.]
  • JS:  Now, is this scientific evidence?  Because I find that those types of facts are very unpersuasive.
  • LPJ:  [chuckles] Unpersuasive? What would persuade you?
  • JS:  [shrugs] A feeling?    [Crowd laughs, LPJ laughs.  It’s funny because it’s true.]

Silly as he may be, Stewart highlights an important point – facts, particularly facts that strain our value system, are unpersuasive.  We are given all sorts of facts about conservation – tropical deforestation, industrial pollution,  carbon footprints! We may even believe most of the facts.  But so what?  We may know facts, but we tend to act according to our values.  As long as we value convenience over conservation we’ll continue to prioritize paper goods, factories and vehicles over personal sacrifices for conservation.  In fact we’ll go to absurd lengths to find technological solutions to environmental problems just to avoid a little day-to-day inconvenience (see June’s 1st reading group topic).

As Leopold points out, education and facts alone are not enough, “No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions…A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land.”

In a society where environmental protections are seen as a mere thorn in the side of economic progress, where personal interest seems to always trump personal responsibility, it seems awfully hard to argue that we’ve evolved terribly far toward any sort of land ethic.  Even here in Wisconsin, Leopold’s own stomping grounds, our DNR is relaxing permitting procedures to focus on “customer service” rather than ecological protection.  Leopold might have hoped for more.  Though his warning still rings true, “Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, a intense consciousness of land.”

The shack where Leopold spent much of his time studying nature and contemplating conservation.

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2 Responses to “Aldo Leopold, Jon Stewart, and the evolution of our ecological consciousness”

  1. Mark Rickenbach June 28, 2011 at 1:41 pm #

    Excellent post. This might be good to include in class next semester.

    • coocoo-cachoo June 28, 2011 at 8:00 pm #

      Thanks! Always a fan of more Daily Show in the classroom! 😉

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