By Richard Telford
In his landmark 1949 book A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, Aldo Leopold called for a land ethic that “changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” Each year, practicing such an ethic, which I will broaden here and term a conservation ethic, grows more challenging as both the benefits—real and perceived—and the harmful by-products of not practicing such an ethic multiply. These harmful by-products manifest themselves most plainly and directly in their environmental cost, but there are social and spiritual costs as well. As we advance in technological terms, these costs grow increasingly difficult to navigate and, for many, even to see at all. Leopold noted in 1949, “It was simpler, for example, to define the anti-social uses of sticks and stones in the days of the mastodons than of bullets and billboards in the age of motors.”
Now, the “age of motors” seems remote and simple compared to our present age of information, powered by cadmium, selenium, and other heavy metals, an information age in which the quest for knowledge is so often overshadowed by the pursuit of hollow adulation and illusory self-worth. In Leopold’s era, the natural world was threatened by a pervasive public near-ignorance of the full scope of destruction we could levy through our progress. In the present age, when such knowledge is so readily and immediately available to us, the threat lies instead in its being drowned by a cascade of largely vacuous social media utterances that foster isolation and indifference. It lies as well in the widespread American corporate campaign to link consumption to self-worth and to obfuscate both the environmental and social costs of that campaign. It is not hyperbole to say that we need a conservation ethic now more than ever. Arguably, such a claim will be equally valid in each of the eras to follow ours; thus, we must foster such an ethic not just in ourselves but in our youngest generation.
In order to achieve its desired effects—which I will drastically simplify here as environmental, social, and spiritual sustainability—a conservation ethic must ultimately be practiced with consistency along all scales: individual, local, societal, global. Each scale is laden with challenges, and, to navigate these, we must avoid setting end targets that are too measured, too inflexible. A sustainable conservation ethic cannot be an all or nothing proposition. Instead, it requires us to continuously reevaluate its truths, to compromise when necessary, and, perhaps most importantly, to value questions more than answers. There are few simple answers in the practice of a meaningful conservation ethic. Such an ethic must evolve, and we must evolve with it and be committed to doing so for the long haul.
No conservation ethic can take root in society as a whole without doing so first in the individual. As much as it might seem counterintuitive when we reflect on the scope of the world’s problems, environmental and otherwise, it is at the individual scale that we can do the greatest good. Our actions can, by example and through direct interaction with others, multiply outward. As an environmental journalist, I consider the effect of a Rachel Carson or an Aldo Leopold, and I am encouraged. These are exceptional examples of the power of action at the individual scale, of course, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that all of our conservation ethic-driven actions have the power to influence friends, children, colleagues, even passersby. There is a real danger in losing sight of the power of our daily acts. There is likewise a danger in holding ourselves to such a high conservation ethic standard that we wallow in our inevitable failures to meet that standard. It is not easy to be a conservationist in a society that lauds and demands consumption beyond our own and the planet’s means. It is not easy to be a conservationist when one of our fundamental, instinctual drives is to protect our individual interests and those of the people closest to us. It is inevitable that, having developed a conservation ethic, we will violate it with some regularity. Arguably, the more developed our conservation ethic is, the more our violation of it becomes a conscious act. Such an ethic requires both commitment and compromise, both self-criticism and self-forgiveness.
The conundrum of a conservation ethic on the individual scale is aptly illustrated by American naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale in an August 2, 1959 journal entry he recorded shortly after his move to Trail Wood in Hampton, Connecticut. He writes of destroying a large white-faced hornet nest in a tree less than fifty feet from the 1806 farmhouse he would later make famous in his 1974 book A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm. Teale notes in his journal that “white-faced hornets are large, numerous and not mild-dispositioned like the Polistes,” and so he concocted an elaborate plan to set the nest afire and let it drop to a steel garbage can below. This was the same Edwin Way Teale who had published in 1943 The Golden Throng, a 208-page text in which he wrote with wonder about the extraordinary society of honeybees. In in his 1937 book Grassroot Jungles, Teale had noted that the wasps, which include hornets, “with the ants and the bees […] form a triumvirate which demonstrates the wonders of instinct.” Teale’s anguish over his destruction of the nest is clear in the following passage from the entry:
“So at 9:25 P.M. the life of this insect city ended. The catastrophe was sudden and complete. I had done what had to be done. I had done it with split-second timing and complete success. Yet I went to bed uneasy in my mind. For I had demonstrated that fiendish side of the human mind that, as much as benevolence and kindness, if not more, accounts for Man’s position as Lord of the Earth. And I was not proud of it.”
This summer, I discovered a ground nest of yellow jackets (Vespula maculifrons) in the north corner of our garden and, like Teale fifty-five years ago, I will dig it up this winter and dispose of it in our woods, filling in the ground cavity to dissuade a new nest in spring. It is a not a task I relish, for, like Teale, I am decidedly on the side of life, but I have a vivid boyhood memory of a neighbor boy, David Cohen, stepping in a similar nest deep in the woods behind my childhood home. I recall clearly his leaps and screams, his mother hosing him down with a garden hose, the yellow jackets that poured out of his untied canvas Keds. As a father of three small children, the fate of a nest inches form the footpath to our backyard, and any such nest too close to the paths of our daily life, is self-evident. At times our conservation ethic must yield to other needs, and it is at these times that I am reminded of Aldous Huxley’s foreword to the 1946 reissue of his seminal 1932 novel Brave New World. In that foreword, Huxley asserts, “Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment.” He further admonishes the reader that “Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.” As noted earlier, a conservation ethic at times requires self-forgiveness to avert a greater, crippling sense of defeat. Here lies the difference between a conservation ethic that is sustainable and one that is not.
Nonetheless, self-interest, in all of its magnifications along all of its scales, is the greatest challenge to the conservation of the natural world. Just as we must strive for environmental sustainability in the sum total of our daily actions and interactions, so too must we seek a sustainable conservation ethic. It is impractical to expect that our self-interests will or even should always yield to environmental considerations. What is realistic, productive, and sustainable is to develop the expectation that we will defer to the greater environmental good when possible and, when we cannot, we will at least moderate our actions to minimize their negative effects. Living in a rural area with negligible public transportation, I cannot elect not to drive my car, but I can moderate my use of it. The challenge of such an approach is building the capacity to separate need from want, a capacity that is severely undervalued in our consumption-driven culture. There is no greater friend to the natural world than a severe economic downturn that arrests unfettered development and runaway consumption. Such times can and should offer us opportunities for reflection, reflection that must extend beyond environmental considerations alone. According to a 2013 study published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approximately 3.9 million American households with children “were unable at times during the year to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children.” During the same year, Forbes reported an average National Basketball Association player salary of $5.15 million. These numbers should give us pause. As a society, what do we value? What do we prioritize?
While the contrasting statistics above speak primarily to the skewed valuation system that permeates our society, they also have considerable environmental implications. Food insecurity, for example, which the USDA study defines as “lack[ing] enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members,” inevitably drives those affected by it to purchase low-cost, low-nutrition, unsustainably harvested and manufactured foods, often from big box retailers. These same retailers flood the market with a vast array of low-cost, low-quality, short-lived “durable goods” that pour into American landfills at unprecedented rates. We see over and over again the staggering long-term environmental and social cost of the two-dollar Walmart T-shirt that simply cannot, in real and sustainable terms, cost two dollars. The salary-inflated network of professional sports organizations likewise leaves in its wake a terrible environmental cost. Consider the refuse production, energy consumption, and food waste in one arena during the course of one sporting event. Consider as well the vast array of memorabilia produced and sold in this context. How much of it is produced with an eye on sustainability? How much of it is destined for a speedy trip to the local or regional landfill? Thus, we cannot separate a conservation ethic from the larger ethics systems that govern our behavior in society, nor should we.
Returning again to Leopold’s call for humankind to shift from conqueror of the natural world to plain member and citizen, I must likewise return to the fact that this is not a simple proposition, or even a fully realizable one. Our capacity to reason and our drive to improve our lives renders impossible our taking a role of equal citizenship. For better or worse, we are, as Teale notes above, the Lords of the Earth, in so much as we possess an unparalleled capacity to irreversibly alter it through our disproportionate consumption of its finite resources. This imbalanced relationship will persist short of a catastrophic event, natural or anthropogenic, that annihilates the human race. Thus, it is more pragmatic, and therefore sustainable, to aim instead for a role of benevolent citizenship framed and guided by a developed conservation ethic. This is an attainable goal toward which we can and must strive while tempering our expectations to accept the inevitable periodic failures both of ourselves and the greater society to meet it. While at times this failure will simply result from our choosing what is convenient over what is sustainable, this is not always the case. Two brief examples follow to illustrate this distinction.
As I have written about in a previous Ecotone Exchange essay, we heat our 1770 northeastern Connecticut farmhouse exclusively with two wood-burning stoves. Wood-burning as a primary heat source both challenges and reinforces a conservation ethic. Done properly, burning wood in an EPA-certified stove or insert can yield 85-90% efficiency, and wood is one of a handful of truly renewable energy sources. Furthermore, the argument is often posited that wood is a carbon-neutral energy source, as the carbon released in burning would be released over time anyway. I would like to put my full faith into this last argument, but even a quick review of scientific literature shows it to be an oversimplification, and, in the world of complex environmental issues, oversimplifications have a way of imploding. Even if one accepts the carbon-neutral argument for responsible wood-burning, there is nonetheless the nagging question of particulate matter pollution, a serious issue both for its environmental effects and the public health concerns it raises.
Particulate matter pollution is a necessary by-product of using wood as fuel, regardless of efficiency improvements. It is the excessive emission of this particulate matter that has made the primitive but popular phase one outdoor wood furnaces the subject of increasing public concern and anger. By design, these units convert wood to heat through smolder-burning at less than 200 degrees Fahrenheit and thus can belch particulate-loaded smoke that can travel for miles. This has led many states and municipalities to ban their use outright and has also led the EPA to introduce stricter efficiency standards on newly manufactured units. By contrast, an EPA-certified in-home woodstove typically burns at 400 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing for a nearly smokeless burn at optimum temperature as off-gasses are burned in-stove rather than emitted through the chimney. Still, even wood burned efficiently produces four times more particulate matter than home heating oil and twenty times more particulate matter than natural gas. Additionally, short of a return to the exclusive use of the axe and bucking saw, the harvesting and transport of fuel wood likewise produces carbon and other emissions. Each heating season, I once again contemplate and struggle with the environmental consequences of our woodstove use, and I affirm once again that we are, I believe, right in our actions, though not without a cost. I contemplate the finite supply of fossil fuels, which correspondingly demands increasingly invasive and irreversibly destructive means of extraction. I contemplate the piping of tar sands oil through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that, regardless of the assurances of lobbyists and scientists-for-hire, will inevitably suffer a catastrophic break with equally catastrophic ecological effects. I contemplate the deleterious process of fracking and its poisoning of groundwater. I contemplate the extraction of undersea oil by deep-water drilling and the steep environmental cost of getting that oil refined and transported to my home. These and other factors lead me to decide that locally harvested and responsibly burned wood in a region that is 78% forested produces a lesser net negative result, and I am reminded once again that a conservation ethic fosters and demands an ongoing process of evaluation and reevaluation, a process that is driven more by questions than it is by answers.
For my second example, I turn to the ubiquitous wooly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella). In early December of this year, we noticed a wooly bear inching across the front room floor of our old farmhouse. Due to the house’s fieldstone foundation and 244 years’ worth of unseen field mouse passageways among the old timbers, wildlife has a way of finding its way in. My six-year-old daughter’s immediate response was to declare it her pet. Normally, we allow nothing wild to be kept captive in our house, and we have worked hard to foster in our children the idea that nature should be observed and appreciated with as low an impact as possible. I waivered, however, in the case of the wooly bear. I put my daughter down to sleep with the assurance that I would decide by morning what we would do with it. With a quick online search, I found hundreds of sites touting the ease of hatching wooly bears into Isabella Tiger Moths in captivity. This particular specimen, if released outside, would either promptly hibernate or die trying to do so. In the end, I took an oversized Ball canning jar, poked some holes in the lid, and created a simple habitat suitable for hibernation. In doing so, I violated a cardinal tenet of my own conservation ethic, but I likewise seized a valuable opportunity for my children to watch and appreciate firsthand this magical transformation. How can we hope to foster a conservation ethic in our children without providing them such interactions?
Environmental educators bringing children into the field face a daunting challenge in a time when the world is experiencing an unprecedented loss of biodiversity due largely to anthropogenic causes. It is, of course, vital that we foster a leave-no-trace mindset in the children we educate, a mindset that may in the future guide their personal and professional lives. However, many of us with a deep love of the natural world will readily trace that connection to the unfettered explorations of childhood, an inherently destructive process at times, intended or not, but an infinitely enriching one as well. I have written about this duality in my own childhood elsewhere on The Ecotone Exchange. While we may cringe at the thought of dragging a seining net across a pond bottom and laying it out on the shore edge for examination, there is no better way for a child to see at once the complex benthic world hidden beneath the water’s surface. If we are going to engage children with the natural world in meaningful ways, such compromise, and the discomfort that comes with it, is necessary. This compromise must be guided by a cost-benefit analysis of sorts, and the questions that drive that deliberation will rarely yield easy answers. As noted earlier, a conservation ethic has never been, nor will it ever be, an all or nothing proposition.
In the end, a conservation ethic is necessarily subject to evolution, responding both to personal growth in the individual and change in the society. The latter kind of change simultaneously alters the environmental paradigm and the appropriate response to that evolved paradigm. In simple terms, a conservation ethic has the power to give our daily lives greater deliberateness and meaning. It offers a potent antidote to the sense of futility we inevitably feel when confronted by the consumerism and greed and ignorance that imperil the natural world. As we work to develop a sustainable conservation ethic, we must seek questions as much as we seek answers—not in a way that paralyzes us and makes us put up our hands but in a way that empowers us to envision and bring to fruition significant changes in our resource use on all scales and in our broader treatment of the natural world on the whole. I can see no other workable course.
The Author wishes to thank the staff of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut, where the papers of Edwin Way Teale, including his private journals kept at Trail Wood, are permanently housed and generously made available to the public.