A Good That Transcends: How US Culture Undermines Environmental Reform

A Good That Transcends: How US Culture Undermines Environmental Reform

by Eric T. Freyfogle


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Since the birth of the modern environmental movement in the 1970s, the United States has witnessed dramatic shifts in social equality, ecological viewpoints, and environmental policy. With these changes has also come an increased popular resistance to environmental reform, but, as Eric T. Freyfogle reveals in this book, that resistance has far deeper roots. Calling upon key environmental voices from the past and present—including Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, David Orr, and even Pope Francis in his Encyclical—and exploring core concepts like wilderness and the tragedy of the commons, A Good That Transcends not only unearths the causes of our embedded culture of resistance, but also offers a path forward to true, lasting environmental initiatives.

A lawyer by training, with expertise in property rights, Freyfogle uses his legal knowledge to demonstrate that bad land use practices are rooted in the way in which we see the natural world, value it, and understand our place within it. While social and economic factors are important components of our current predicament, it is our culture, he shows, that is driving the reform crisis—and in the face of accelerating environmental change, a change in culture is vital. Drawing upon a diverse array of disciplines from history and philosophy to the life sciences, economics, and literature, Freyfogle seeks better ways for humans to live in nature, helping us to rethink our relationship with the land and craft a new conservation ethic. By confronting our ongoing resistance to reform as well as pointing the way toward a common good, A Good That Transcends enables us to see how we might rise above institutional and cultural challenges, look at environmental problems, appreciate their severity, and both support and participate in reform.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226326115
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/27/2017
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Eric T. Freyfogle is professor and the Maybelle Leland Swanlund Endowed Chair in the College of Law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he is also affiliated with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences. He is the author of numerous books, including Agrarianism and the Good Society: Land, Culture, Conflict, and Hope and Why Conservation Is Failing and How It Can Regain Ground.

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A Good That Transcends

How US Culture Undermines Environmental Reform

By Eric T. Freyfogle

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-32625-2


Leopold's Last Talk

The career of conservationist Aldo Leopold took an important turn in the 1920s when he moved from the American Southwest with its expansive public lands to central Wisconsin, a region of fragmented land parcels mostly in private hands. The arid Southwest was more ecologically sensitive than Wisconsin and its scars of human land abuse were more vivid. Yet Wisconsin too was a place where, to the trained eye, humans were failing at what Leopold termed "the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it." The challenge in Wisconsin, as Leopold saw things, was to find mechanisms to compel, induce, or cajole private landowners to use their lands more conservatively, in ways that kept the lands fertile and productive for generations. For the next quarter century — until his death in 1948 — Leopold searched for ways to meet that challenge, in the process digging more deeply into the human plight in nature than any American before him, and perhaps since.

In his many writings Leopold probed all aspects of that broad cultural and ecological movement then known as conservation, paying special attention to the sagging plight of private farms and farm landscapes. Particularly over his last decade he also delivered numerous conservation talks to varied audiences, a handful of them published (then or later), the vast majority not. So diligent was Leopold in retaining notes and manuscripts that we can reconstruct the main elements of some 100 of his talks from this period, when he spoke with greatest understanding and authority. Leopold is best remembered for his literary gem, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, a flowing, complex inquiry into the human role in nature, ecologically and philosophically. In important ways, though, Leopold's mature conservation thought is most readily grasped by studying his oral presentations. It was in his talks that Leopold cut to the chase, reducing the complexity and ambiguity, curtailing his illustrations, and presenting his claims most directly.

By studying the records of these many talks it is possible to distill what might be termed Leopold's last conservation talk: not a specific talk given on a particular day to a particular audience but, even better, a talk constructed from shared elements of many talks, a generic conservation talk that expressed the points the mature Leopold deemed most vital. What were the messages that he emphasized, again and again, when he spoke to people about conservation? What were his key "take-home" points?

Over four decades of study and reflection Leopold came to understand how and why people misused land and what needed to change for them to behave better. His message was at once radical and conservative. And even as it built upon the best science, the message he offered chiefly had to do with human perceptions, cultural values, and the social institutions and practices built upon them. Leopold is much cited today, yet his message as often popularized is greatly muted, to a claim that he mostly proposed trial-and-error land management or that we simply "be nice to nature." His true message had a much sharper bite, and it went well beyond criticizing specific land-use ills.

Leopold was an intellect of considerable depth as well as breadth. Slowly, carefully, he rested his conservation basics and scientific understandings on a well-considered reassessment of how humans fit into nature and how they might best understand and embrace their ecological plight. In the end, after decades of practice, study, and reflection, Leopold called Americans to make profound changes to the nation's longstanding traditions of individual autonomy and economic liberty and, indeed, even to main components and dualities of Enlightenment thought. Only change at such fundamental levels, Leopold reluctantly concluded, could allow human life to flourish. Only by becoming different and better in our understandings, ethics, and aesthetics, only by accepting a more humble status and undergoing (as he put it in 1941) a "face-about in land philosophy," could we flourish while sustaining other life forms and processes. "Thus we started to move a straw," he explained to fellow wildlife professionals in a 1940 talk, "and end up with the job of moving a mountain."

Leopold was critical of the conservation of his day, particularly conservation education that was, he contended, a "milk and water" affair, far too timid and unimaginative to prompt fundamental change. Alive today, he might well say the same about the fragmented, technical, narrowly focused work of the contemporary environmental movement. It similarly fails to identify the root causes of land abuse in human nature and culture. Failing to see them, failing to dig that deeply, the movement lacks a strategy that inspires hope.

The Talk

The conservation community of Leopold's era, from about 1900 to the period after World War II, aspired above all to redress the specific resource challenges identified at the turn of the prior century, the problems of declining flows of those parts of nature — those natural resources — that humans used directly. Since the late colonial era croplands had declined in natural fertility and without inputs produced lower yields. Game populations were sliding down while fishers and whalers journeyed ever further to find their prey. Timber clearcutting appeared to threaten flows of wood products; industrial processes and human wastes tainted water supplies. Agriculture, it seemed, could expand only by draining rivers and drawing down aquifers. Dust storms in semi-arid lands — and even normal rainfall on hillsides — almost inevitably reduced valuable topsoil into unwanted sediment, clogging rivers and reservoirs. The typical fear-driven solutions of the era sought to manage resource flows more scientifically. Yet problems remained, particularly as steps to conserve one resource clashed with measures taken to protect and produce others. Meanwhile, attentive observers recognized that active efforts to enhance annual flows of specific natural resources came at great cost both to the countless wild species that were simply in the way and to the ecological processes and natural beauties that they sustained. Underlying and justifying this scientific, resource-conservation effort were key assumptions about human powers and science, about the moral primacy of human life, and about the economic and political importance of individual autonomy.

This was the intellectual and moral environment in which Leopold came of age, rose through the institutional (Forest Service) and professional ranks, and gained prominence as a forester, game manager, wilderness advocate, and penetrating writer. It was also the cultural milieu that Leopold confronted when late in life he reached out to varied audiences to talk about the nation's conservation needs. However consciously, his audience members assumed that moral value resided largely if not entirely in the human species and that humans were best understood as more or less independent, autonomous beings. Similarly, nature for them existed largely as a warehouse of raw materials and seemed created precisely for that purpose. Guided by human cleverness, science and industry supplied the tools for extraction and manipulation, solving problems as they arose. Landscapes were divided among political jurisdictions and, in most of the country, into clearly bounded land parcels, privately owned and managed. The rights of private landowners were substantial and somehow grounded in the constitution and individual rights. Limits on their land-use options were legitimate only when private actions caused visible, immediate harm to neighbors or the surrounding community.

By his mature years, Leopold came to believe that this entire constellation of perceptions and values lay at the root of America's environmental plight. Bad land use was intertwined with these cultural components, and it would end only if and when American culture changed directions. Thus, as Leopold rose to address his audiences his central, ambitious aim was to push American culture in a new, healthier direction. He did so by emphasizing, above all, four central messages about the land as a community of life, the proper or healthy functioning of that community, the prudence and virtue of embracing community (or land) health as an overall conservation goal, and the extraordinary challenge humans faced in pursuing that goal.

The land as community. Leopold's first hope in his standard conservation talk, logically if not always temporally, was to push his audience to think in new ways about land and the human place in the land. Land was not simply a warehouse or flow of resources that humans needed in order to live. To the contrary, the land — understood as not just soils and rocks but water, plants, animals, and people — was a highly integrated, interdependent functioning system upon which all life depended for survival, human life included. "Before I even begin," Leopold explained to one audience, "I must ask you to think of land and everything on it (soil, water, forests, birds, mammals, wildflowers, crops, livestock, farmers) not as separate things, but as parts — organs — of a body. That body I call the land (or if we want a fancy term, the biota)." This land was the "most complex" of all organisms, he told a campus group in May of 1941. "No one dreamed a hundred years ago that metal, air, petroleum, and electricity could coordinate as an engine," Leopold explained in 1939. "Few realize today that soil, water, plants, and animals are an engine, subject, like any other, to derangement," a "biological engine" that had to be used not just with skill but with enthusiasm and affection. As he wrote on a 3×5 lecture notecard prepared around 1942: "Land: soils, water, plants, animals."

Leopold frequently used various metaphors to explain this view of nature. A common one, particularly when talking about ethics and perceptions, was to speak of land as a community, a term that skirted some of the imprecisions of describing it as either an organism or a mechanism. The land was a community, and humans were as integrated with its other components as any other living creature. As Leopold would famously put it in his Sand County Almanac, "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to use. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect." His land ethic, he explained, in effect changed "the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it." "Who is the land?" he asked rhetorically in 1942. "We are, but no less the meanest flower that blows. Land ecology discards at the outset the fallacious notion that the wild community is one thing, the human community another."

Regrettably, Leopold lamented, this understanding of land was simply not widely understood. "We have taught science for a century," he complained, "without implanting in the mind of youth the concept of community with the land." Conservation simply could not succeed until people saw the land in this new way. There was "only one way out of this confusion": "For the average citizen to have a wider appreciation of land, a more critical understanding of it, especially his own land." The underlying educational challenge, he understood, was a huge one. "We find that we cannot produce much to shoot," Leopold said to the Wildlife Society, "until the landowner changes his way of using land, and he in turn cannot change his ways until his teachers, bankers, customers, editors, governors, and trespassers change their ideas about what land is for. To change ideas about what land is for is to change ideas about what anything is for."

A community can be more or less healthy. Leopold spent years of study and reflection attempting to learn how the land community functioned and how people might best evaluate the quality or condition of their lands. The key perceptual step was to see that land was not simply a collection of constituent parts, however complex. To the contrary, land's components were sufficiently interdependent that failings in one part of the land community could undercut the productivity of other parts. Leopold addressed this issue in a talk to wildlife professionals in 1939 as he surveyed the intellectual gains of the past decade. "The greatest single gain since 1930 lies, I think, in the growth of detail in the idea that resources are interdependent. We knew then that you can't have healthy fish in sick waters. We knew something of the interdependence of animals and forests. But the idea of sick soils undermining the health of the whole organic structure had not been born." He continued the theme in 1947 when summing up a major wildlife conference: "This Conference has reaffirmed, through half a dozen speakers, the basic interdependence of soil, water, crops, forests, wildlife, and people. We conservationists have heard this before, but let no man forget that the average American has not heard it yet." "Conservation is usually thought of as dealing with the supply of resources," Leopold stated in 1944. "This 'famine concept' is inadequate, for a deficit in the supply in any given resource does not necessarily denote lack of health, while a failure of function [arising from disorganization of the land] always does, no matter how ample the supply."

It was a substantial, long-term struggle for scientist Leopold to gain a sense of what it meant for a land community to possess health. Starting in 1935 he began listing what he termed the main signs of land sickness or pathology. "Regarding society and land collectively as an organism," he announced in 1935, "that organism has suddenly developed pathological symptoms, i.e., self-accelerating rather than self-compensating departures from normal functioning." It was only years later that Leopold was willing to convert his evidence of land sickness into a positive, albeit generalized, definition of land health. One expression of it came in a 1944 manuscript first published in 1991:

The land consists of soil, water, plants, and animals, but health is more than a sufficiency of these components. It is a state of vigorous self-renewal in each of them, and in all collectively. Such a collective functioning of interdependent parts of the maintenance of the whole is characteristic of an organism. In this sense land is an organism, and conservation deals with its functional integrity, or health.

One of Leopold's fullest expressions of land health appeared in a draft document prepared not long before he died, perhaps intended as the text for a major address he was slated to give as outgoing president of the Ecological Society of America, some months after his premature death. The symptoms of disorganization, or land sickness, are well known. They include abnormal erosion, abnormal intensity of floods, decline of yields in crops and forests, decline of carrying capacity in pastures and ranges, outbreak of some species as pests and the disappearance of others without visible cause, a general tendency toward the shortening of species lists and of food chains, and a world-wide dominance of plant and animal weeds.

In talk after talk, Leopold stressed that the land's functioning as a community could be more or less sound, more or less healthy, and that its productivity and thus capacity to sustain life was based on that health. Leopold lacked full confidence in his own understanding of land health — far more work was needed — and encouraged others to join in his quest to make sense of it. Indeed, he was sometimes prone to present the norm as a question: "What is land-health?" Yet he knew well enough the major symptoms of sickness, and he possessed plentiful evidence that sick lands were less able to sustain human communities.

Land health as the conservation goal. The first two points that Leopold presented in his standard talk — that land was a community and that the community could be more or less healthy — led directly to his third point: the health of the land should be the aim of all conservation efforts. This normative claim, Leopold knew, ran counter to the accepted wisdom of the age, which focused on sustained flows of discrete resources. "The basic fallacy in this kind of 'conservation' is that it seeks to conserve one resource by destroying another," Leopold told a garden club in 1947. "These 'conservationists' are unable to see the land as a whole. They are unable to think in terms of community rather than group welfare, and in terms of the long as well as the short view."

Again and again Leopold repeated his complaint against the conservation ideology of his day. "We have hundreds of conservation organizations, each promoting some special resource, often at the expense of another," he lamented in 1939. "None sees land as a whole."


Excerpted from A Good That Transcends by Eric T. Freyfogle. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 Leopold's Last Talk 8

2 The Love of Wendell Berry 36

3 Impressionism and David Orr 61

4 The Cosmos and Pope Francis 86

5 Taking Property Seriously 112

6 Wilderness and Culture 135

7 Naming the Tragedy 154

Conclusion / Thinking, Talking, and Culture 175

Acknowledgments 193

Notes 195

Selected Bibliography 211

Index 217

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