In Search of Lost Meaning, With No Time to Lose

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I recently had the pleasure of attending a showing of Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time in Chicago. In the discussion period following the film, someone asked a pertinent and important question about why the film does not stress the problem of climate change. Now, climate change is mentioned in the movie, to be sure, but Green Fire is clearly not a reprise of An Inconvenient Truth. My colleague Curt Meine ably addressed the question and opened our eyes to the host of very complex judgments that go into the making of a documentary film that tries to interconnect—much like a Leopoldian biotic community—the biographical, the historical, and the contemporary world of ethics, politics, and policy.

Reflecting on this afterward, my jet back to New York trailing its carbon stream, I recalled how the film explained that when Leopold referred to “the land” he meant the term quite broadly. It refers not simply to the soil, but also to the water, animals, and plants. The land is a whole system of interconnections and interdependencies between organisms and inorganic chemicals; it is cycles and processes that make life possible and the web of life flourish and evolve. In short, “the land” is a synecdoche (a figure of speech in which the part stands for the whole) in the writings of Leopold, who was as careful and deliberate a rhetorician as he was a scientist. I also remembered one of the people interviewed in the film saying that what Leopold called the “land ethic” was really an “earth ethic.”

Just so. The land ethic is a earth ethic, a biospheric ethic, an ecological consciousness and conscience, an ethic of care and responsibility. It is more exacting and turns our attention in different directions than the predominant ethical frameworks now discussed in mainstream social and policy debates. These are frameworks such as utilitarianism, in which human welfare and utility are the exclusive touchstone, and contractarianism, in which our obligations are created by agreements we have willfully and autonomously entered into, not duties we have inherited or responsibilities generated by the limits of nature or the vulnerability of webs of life.

The land ethic recognizes a moral inheritance beyond informed consent. Its reach is broad, and it operates across many different scales and domains—from the local farmer’s market and composting in one’s backyard to regional conservation efforts, like Leopold’s own project in the Coon Valley of Wisconsin, to political economy on a national and an international scale.

So, yes, climate change is pertinent, as is biodiversity loss, depletion of soil, water, and forest, and other concerns of contemporary conservation, many of which Leopold foresaw, some of which he did not. Many of the causes of GHG pollution and human-instigated alterations in the geophysical thermodynamics of the atmosphere and the oceans may be said to arise from a failure to take the land ethic seriously. This is not in essence a personal or a private failure; fundamentally it is an institutional and a “political” failure. When I say political failure here, I do not simply mean the current paralysis of governance and the inability of our leaders to achieve reasonable conservation and environmental policy in a timely fashion, even when it comes to something as monumental as climate change or biodiversity loss. Rather I am thinking of our present widespread failure of political imagination: that is, our utter inability to comprehend and attend to the cooperative pursuit of the common good in the service of our moral self-realization as human beings.

In Green Fire, Leopold is quoted as saying that he is interested primarily in two things: the relationship between people and the land, and the relationship among people. Conservation and social science; the land ethic and a social ethic—I gather that he did not see these inquiries as truly separate, nor did he see the moral domain as bifurcated and destined to tragic divisions and trade-offs. Therefore, crucial to the land ethic is not only science and ecology—natural reality, as it were—but also history and culture, what we might call the reality of meaning. If the land ethic is to lead to conservation, preservation, and sustainable living, it must include the task of recovery and remembering from the past, as well as emancipatory imagination aspiring toward the future. It must recover the foundations and lineaments of a lost sense of the political and reinvigorate a currently suppressed motivation to act as responsible steward-citizens.

The articles in this issue of Minding Nature are quite diverse, but they are tied together by the following perception: One of the greatest challenges facing us—from the point of view of the land ethic, and from the point of view of the survival of even a minimally decent society—is the recovery and refashioning of purposive meaning. This must be done in the face of a worldview which for three centuries at least has been systematically drained and desiccated of such meaning. It must be done in order to motivate us ethically and politically in constructive governance. And it must be done quickly because the clock of natural reality is ticking, and it is approaching midnight.

Buddy Huffaker begins by putting his finger on one of the most interesting aspects of a film like Green Fire—what does it take today to reach people, by which I mean not just exposure to people’s eyes (the kind of thing data on audiences can tell you) but also the transformation of people’s hearts? A similar question stands behind Paul Waldau’s perceptive discussion of one fault line within the community of people who are at least closer than many to the ambit of the land ethic. He invites us to think through the terms on which such tension can be resolved. Perhaps this is a test case for other types of controversy that surely lie ahead.

Alexandre Poisson and Qi Feng Lin, both students at McGill University and both connected to ongoing research projects at the Center for Humans and Nature, each take on the very complex task of understanding the philosophical and spiritual dimensions of the lost meaning that our science, ecology, economics, and policy need to recapture. Both essays are deeply informed by the history of ideas and cultures. Poisson sees connections between Whitehead’s process philosophy and contemporary ecological economics. Qi Feng Lin focuses on Leopold and a more connected sense of humans and nature that one finds in the worldview and culture of many Native American peoples. These two young scholars are following a course charted in the work of Strachan Donnelley, the founding president of the Center. These articles might well be read together with his essay, “Minding Nature, Minding Ourselves,” which appeared posthumously in MN 2.1 (April 2009).

Rounding out this issue is a reflection and review essay by Dana Beach. His close personal involvement and professional leadership in the land conservation movement in South Carolina over many years gives him a valuable perspective on the second documentary film on the Center’s list of top Oscar nominees this year, Common Ground: South Carolina’s ACE Basin. Beach tells a story of remarkable people and a significant achievement. This story, which is also the focus of the film, is a tale of the land ethic in action and a refreshing dispatch from the front lines of hope.

  • Bruce Jennings

    Bruce Jennings is Senior Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature where he engages in research, writing, public speaking, and consulting. He is the editor of the Center’s journal, Minding Nature.
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