A Conservationist Manifesto

A Conservationist Manifesto

by Scott Russell Sanders

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As an antidote to the destructive culture of consumption dominating American life today, Scott Russell Sanders calls for a culture of conservation that allows us to savor and preserve the world, instead of devouring it. How might we shift to a more durable and responsible way of life? What changes in values and behavior will be required? Ranging geographically from


As an antidote to the destructive culture of consumption dominating American life today, Scott Russell Sanders calls for a culture of conservation that allows us to savor and preserve the world, instead of devouring it. How might we shift to a more durable and responsible way of life? What changes in values and behavior will be required? Ranging geographically from southern Indiana to the Boundary Waters Wilderness and culturally from the Bible to billboards, Sanders extends the visions of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Rachel Carson to our own day. A Conservationist Manifesto shows the crucial relevance of a conservation ethic at a time of mounting concern about global climate change, depletion of natural resources, extinction of species, and the economic inequities between rich and poor nations. The important message of this powerful book is that conservation is not simply a personal virtue but a public one.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In these predictable but frequently insightful essays, Sanders (Writing from the Center) muses on how to care for the Earth, local communities and future generations. He condemns the mainstream "American way of life" as an "infantile dream of endless consumption, endless novelty, and endless play" and, calling for a "dream worthy of grownups," explores ways to realize this dream, such as his own decision to stay put in one place and discover that his ambition was not to "make a good career but to make a good life" and remain attentive to nature and the present moment. Sanders offers a 40-point "Conservationist Manifesto," which, in its thoroughness, thoughtfulness and inclusion of environmental justice issues would serve the environmentalist community well. But the most original and intriguing ideas in this book are Sanders's thoughts about words and their meanings, as when he suggests that for a season we make explicit the meaning of "consumers" by replacing it with "devourers," or that wilderness is a Sabbath of space rather than time, and we need both kinds of Sabbath "because Earth could use a respite from our demands." (Apr.)

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From the Publisher
"This is a beautiful, right-minded, and reinforcing book for all who would be conservationists.... Scott Sanders gives us one of the most graceful tellings of our plight, with many examples of people protecting or restoring what counts.... We've never been more keenly in need of his loving manual for conserving what he calls 'the basic grammar of life.'" —Orion Magazine


"In this beautifully poetic set of meditations on conservation, Sanders issues a clarion call for reversing society’s present path of ecological devastation and offers reflections on ways that individuals and society might provide better stewardship of the earth now and for future generations to come.... [His] eloquent book is a must-read for anyone committed to taking care of the natural world and passing it along to future generations." —ForeWord

Spirituality & Practice

"[Sanders] writes beautiful prose and never fails to stir our souls and imaginations.... In this awesome new book... Sanders outlines the practical, ecological, and ethical grounds for a conservation ethic." —Spirituality & Practice

Orion Magazine

"This is a beautiful, right-minded, and reinforcing book for all who would be conservationists.... Scott Sanders gives us one of the most graceful tellings of our plight, with many examples of people protecting or restoring what counts.... We've never been more keenly in need of his loving manual for conserving what he calls 'the basic grammar of life.'" —Orion Magazine

Indiana Living Green

"Sanders' style is full of the imagery and poetic prose of Aldo Leopold, the philosophic wanderings of Henry David Thoreau, and includes Wendell Berry’s vital sense of place. A Conservationist Manifesto is sure to find its way on those treasured lists of must reads." —Indiana Living Green

Englewood Review of Books

"A Conservationist Manifesto is a rich book and like a rich wine or rich dessert, it is meant to be savored. Sanders sees beyond the mass destruction of consumerism and prophetically calls us to the redemptive work of conserving creation and connecting deeply with our neighbors and the places in which we live." —Englewood Review of Books


"In a world that focuses relentlessly on consumer culture, it's refreshing to read Scott Russell Sanders's plea for 'a new vision of the good life' in A Conservationist Manifesto." —Audubon

The Bloomsbury Review

"There are others writing about sustaining the planet and ourselves who should be read.... But there is something more to A Conservanist Manifesto. Sanders wirtes on a literary level that places him with Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Wallace Stegner, Annie Dillard, and Wendell Berry—to name a few." —The Bloomsbury Review

Abstracts of Public Administration

"As an antidote to the destructive culture of consumption dominating American life today, this book calls for a culture of conservation that allows us to savor and preserve the world instead of devouring it.... [Its] main message is that conservation is not simply a personal virtue but a public one." —Abstracts of Public Administration, Development, and Environment

Wes Jackson

"A seasoned professor and writer of fiction and non-fiction has given us the benefit of his journey in the worlds of literature, natural history, and religious philosophy. But A Conservationist Manifesto is more than that. Scott Russell Sanders's elegant writing reminds us once again that it is above all, through style that power defers to reason." —Wes Jackson, President, The Land Institute

Will Rogers

"Sanders’s A Conservationist Manifesto is a book to be savored—for its language, its stories, its sense of place, and for how it reminds us of the profound relationships with nature and each other that can inspire us to change how we live on this planet.... A must read for all of us who are wrestling with the future of conservation and searching for how to express the values that will take us to a greener and more sustainable future" —Will Rogers, President, The Trust for Public Land

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Read an Excerpt

A Conservationist Manifesto

By Scott Russell Sanders

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2009 Scott Russell Sanders
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35313-9


Building Arks

* * *

In muggy July, police showed up at dawn with bullhorns, bulldozers, chainsaws, and guns to force a band of protesters out of a fifty-acre wood in my hometown of Bloomington, Indiana. The sheriff and his deputies and the state police were upholding a ruling by the county council, which gave an Indianapolis developer the right to turn these woods into an apartment complex. The protesters were upholding the right of the woods to remain a woods, one of the last parcels of big trees left within the noose of roads that encircles our city. A few protesters had lived for months up in the trees on makeshift platforms, while local people took turns bringing them food and drink. The tree-sitters were arrested along with a number of their supporters, sixteen in all, and they are now awaiting trial. As I write these lines, the trees are falling, and a private security firm guards the perimeter of the vanishing woods.

The police had the law on their side, of course, but they also had the banks, building contractors, realtors, truck drivers, merchants, utility companies, fast-food vendors, city newspaper, and countless other boosters that stood to make money from the development. The protesters set against that power their unarmed bodies and their unfashionable convictions. They believe there are values more important than money. They believe that red oaks and red foxes and all the creatures of the woods deserve a home. They believe that a civilized community must show restraint by leaving some land alone, to remind us of the wild world on which our lives depend and to keep us humble and sane.

Similar conflicts are being played out from coast to coast, in more or less dramatic fashion, over the fate of more or fewer acres. By and large the boosters are winning. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that we are losing 2.2 million acres of open space to development each year, including farms, forests, wetlands, and prairies. I will return to my own local struggle later on, but first I need to place it within a larger frame. So bear with me. I must begin by speaking of the trouble we're in before I can say how we might get out of it.

* * *

It's plain that Earth cannot support for much longer the extravagant way of life so common in rich countries, nor can it support the spreading of that extravagance to poor countries. Sooner or later we'll burn up all the cheap oil, we'll pump the aquifers dry, we'll cut down the last big trees, we'll fish the oceans bare, we'll plow up the last arable land, and taint the last clean air. The life of endless consumption is devastating to the planet and bound to fail. The question is not whether it will fail but when, and how the end of our spree will come—by careful preparation, or by catastrophe.

Knowing all this, how should a person act? We might shrug off the knowledge, pretend we can go on building vast houses, driving enormous cars, shopping around the clock, wiping out other species, fouling the atmosphere, polluting water, and squandering soil forever and ever. We might admit the gravity of our situation, while counting on scientists and engineers to come up with a technical fix. We might place our faith in the free market, believing it will somehow furnish a second, unspoiled Earth for our use, once the price is right. We might concede that neither economics nor technology will enable us to pursue infinite growth on a finite globe, and so decide to live it up while we can, leaving future generations to figure out how to survive on a ransacked planet. Or we might seek to live more lightly, reducing our demands on Earth, devising or recovering simple, elegant, durable practices that could serve our descendants long after the current binge of consumption has withered away.

The first four responses to Earth's limits are by far the most visible. Many people refuse to see the abundant signs that the fabric of life is fraying. They simply deny that there is any reason for concern, and the more the evidence piles up, the louder their denials. Others believe in technology, trusting that genetic engineering, fuel cells, molecular machines, missile shields, or some other stratagem will spare us from having to curtail our numbers or our desires. Others trust in the magic of the market to overcome limits, as if the mechanism that got us into this dead-end way of life will somehow get us out, if only we will apply it more fervently. Still others, and perhaps the majority, know that we are living on borrowed time, that Earth's reserves are running out, and yet they go on gobbling up toys and sensations anyway. They don't apologize for their gluttony, and they don't lie awake nights pondering where it might lead.

By comparison, those who strive to live more simply are harder to see. They don't crowd the malls or the fast food shops. Occasionally they make news by defending trees from bulldozers, but they rarely show up on talk shows, on the covers of magazines, on ballots, or on business pages. Instead, largely invisible except to one another, they go about learning the skills and mastering the tools necessary for meeting basic human needs. They grow food. They build shelters. They make clothes. They draw energy from sun and wind and wood. They get by with fewer possessions, and learn to repair the ones they have. They create much of their own entertainment, with homemade art, music, and stories. They derive pleasure from good work, human company, and the perennial show that nature puts on. So far as possible, they rear their children away from television and advertising. They buy as little as they can from the global economy, and instead they support local economies based on cooperation, barter, and sharing. They protect and restore woods, prairies, and swamps, making room for wildness.

I think of these people as builders of arks, for their ways and works are vessels designed to preserve from extinction not merely our fellow creatures, as on Noah's legendary ark, but also the wisdom necessary for dwelling in a place generation after generation without diminishing either the place or the planet. In their efforts to conserve skillful means and wild lands, they point the way beyond the rising flood to a new and durable civilization.

* * *

The flood I have in mind is partly the literal rise in sea level from global warming, but more generally it is the cumulative effect of our assault on Earth. Each year we manufacture and spew over the globe millions of tons of toxic chemicals. Some of these chemicals have thinned the ozone layer, exposing all organisms to higher doses of ultraviolet radiation. The smoke from our power plants and exhaust from our engines produce acid rain, which kills forests and freshwater lakes. By trawling the seas with mammoth ships, we have depleted most of the world's fisheries, some of them beyond the point of recovery. Pollution from rivers has created dead zones in the oceans, such as the one at the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico. By irrigating crops, we have saturated millions of acres of land with salt, rendering it sterile. Through the use of heavy machinery in farming, we have lost much of our topsoil to erosion, and through the application of poisons we have reduced the fertility of the soil that remains. Through the clearing of forests, especially near the equator, we have enlarged the reach of deserts. By draining wetlands, paving fields, and moving plants and animals from continent to continent, we are driving to extinction countless other species, our impact rivaling the great cataclysm that snuffed out the dinosaurs some sixty-five million years ago.

Clearly, it's high time to build arks. Scientists have estimated that by the end of this century, if we carry on with current rates of habitat destruction, more than half of all the species now alive will have perished. This havoc is powered by the swelling number of human beings, multiplied by our increasing rates of consumption. For humankind to reach a population of a billion took hundreds of thousands of years, from the beginnings of our species to 1830. A second billion was added in just a hundred years, by 1930. A third billion was added in the next thirty years, a fourth in fifteen years, a fifth in eleven years. Our population is now approaching seven billion and growing by about ninety million per year, and some demographers expect it to reach between nine and eleven billion by the middle of this century. If you draw a graph of these numbers, you will produce what mathematicians call an exponential curve, one heading nearly straight up. Such growth cannot be sustained indefinitely, since it points toward infinity. Either by design or by disaster, the curve will peak, and human population will begin to decline. Already, the amount of fossil energy, fresh water, arable land, and food available per person is declining. As a consequence, the number of people suffering from malnutrition today is greater than the number of people alive a century ago.

So when I say that we are facing a worldwide flood, I am referring not only to the waves that will lap higher and higher on the shores of our continents as the icecaps melt, but also to the rising tide of human beings, the rising toll of chaos and misery, and the wholesale erasure of our fellow creatures.

* * *

The forest that the tree-sitters were trying to save is called Brown's Woods, after the local businessman who owned it. The owner, who is by all accounts a decent as well as a prosperous man, could have sold or even donated the woods to a land trust or the city of Bloomington, but he stood to make a tidy sum by selling it to the Indianapolis developer, so that is what he did. Landowners here and elsewhere make such decisions every day, usually without any public notice. Judging from remarks in the newspaper, Mr. Brown was clearly chagrined that such a fuss had been made about his sale of the woods for an apartment complex. No doubt he was sincere in declaring his relief that no one had been hurt during the arrests.

But of course people have been hurt, if you take into account the effects of losing those woods to concrete and brick, the increased traffic and pollution from the residents of the 208 new apartments, the greater crowding in parks and schools. The protesters hoped that moral and ecological arguments might prevail over economic ones. They spoke at meetings; they gave interviews to reporters; they held rallies. Out in Brown's Woods, they wove a web of yarn among the big trees, to symbolize the interrelationship of all life, and they laced the web with flowers. When the sheriff's crew showed up, however, the bulldozers tore through the yarn, crushed the flowers, brushed aside all the arguments. The heavy machinery was on loan from the Indianapolis developer. And a good thing, said the sheriff, because it would have cost his department a bundle to rent so much equipment. The developer could write off the cost as a business expense.

The arguments for turning Brown's Woods into the Canterbury House Apartments are familiar: people need somewhere to live; people need jobs; investors deserve a return on their capital; the city must grow. We can always think of reasons for subduing land to our desires.

Whatever the arguments, the upshot is that the felling of Brown's Woods has diminished our common wealth, and those who live here after us will inherit a grimmer, grimier place. We are not the only ones hurt. The hawks, the coyotes, the toads and salamanders, the spicebush butterflies and orb-weaver spiders will all have to leave, if they can outrun the bulldozers and chainsaws, and if they can find another refuge anywhere near the sprawling city. The red oaks and shagbark hickories have no such chance, nor do the dogwoods and dogtooth violets, the bloodroot and chanterelles. These neighbors have no say over the future of the neighborhood. They write no checks, cast no votes. They have no voice in how we use the land—unless some of us speak up for them, as the tree-sitters have tried to do.

* * *

You will recall that God sends the biblical flood in punishment for human corruption, sparing only the upright Noah, Noah's family, and a breeding pair of "every living thing" (Genesis 6:19; this and subsequent biblical quotations from the Revised Standard Version). God instructs Noah to build an ark and take refuge there along with a male and female of each species. Then come forty days and forty nights of rain. "And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, birds, cattle, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm upon the earth, and every man; everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life" (7:21–22). You might wonder why all the crows and crickets and other innocent breathers must drown for sins committed by humans, but the Bible does not say.

When the skies clear, Noah sends forth a raven and then a dove to search for dry land. The raven never returns; the dove comes back empty-billed on its first flight, returns bearing an olive leaf on the second flight, and after the third flight does not return at all. Reassured, Noah and his fellow passengers drift to shore and step onto solid earth. Pleased by Noah's obedience, God vows, "I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease" (8:21–22). It's a beautiful promise, one that softens considerably the image of the tyrant who sent the flood.

But the promise has a dark side, from which we are still suffering. For God says to Noah, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything" (Genesis 9:1–3). The passage may be read as merely stating the plain truth: all beasts do live in dread of us, because we are clever enough to displace, capture, or kill every other species. Understood in this light, God's charge to Noah may be taken as a warning not to abuse our power. But the same words may also be read—and, in fact, have often been read—as justifying our utter dominion over nature. If every animal and plant was created to serve our needs, if everything has been given into our hands, then we may use the earth as we see fit. Read in this way, the passage becomes a license to loot the planet.

While such a reading might appeal to the most reckless of developers, it is firmly contradicted by the rest of Noah's story. A few verses later, we find a third variation on the promise, one that clearly limits our dominion. "Behold," God tells Noah, "I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth" (9:9–11). The God who speaks here sounds chastened, as if regretting the slaughter of so many innocent beings. This God is the creator and protector of crickets and crows, rattlesnakes and rotifers. This God cherishes all creatures, whether or not they go about on two legs, and by implication Noah is being told to cherish them as well.

The lesson we draw from the biblical flood depends on which of these rival traditions we embrace. One tradition blesses humans alone, conveying the whole of Earth to our use; the other blesses all creatures alike, granting to each species its own right to survive and flourish. The first view instructs us to fill the earth with our kind and to impose our will on all living things; the second instructs us to honor our fellow creatures, to show restraint in our uses of the earth, and to take our place modestly in the household of nature.


Excerpted from A Conservationist Manifesto by Scott Russell Sanders. Copyright © 2009 Scott Russell Sanders. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Scott Russell Sanders, Distinguished Professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington, is the author of 20 books of fiction and nonfiction, including Writing from the Center (IUP, 1995), Hunting for Hope, and A Private History of Awe. Sanders is winner of the Lannan Literary Award, John Burroughs Essay Award for Natural History, AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction, and the 2009 Mark Twain Award. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

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