Our modern consciousness and world view is derived from the Enlightenment period in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe. The Enlightenment movement and the resulting developments in Europe at that time reorganized society into distinct, interacting spheres: liberal governance based on reason and the interests of the people; capitalist economics as profit-oriented incentives and a market mechanism for meeting human needs and satisfying desires; and science as the primary mode of explaining and understanding the physical environment, and as the foundation of all rational knowledge.
The Enlightenment mentality represents a particular type of epistemology. It is instructive to contrast it with the understandings of knowing and nature found in pre-modern and non-Western culture, and in particular with the indigenous cultures of North America. The world views of these cultures tend to be characterized by a seamless, more unified, and supportive mode of living, or “lifeway,” which integrates the human and the natural. In recent times, the writings of Aldo Leopold reflect his desire to incorporate values and ethics into environmental decision-making, which have been dominated by rational, linear thinking. In this article the world view of the Enlightenment and Native American culture will be highlighted as a background to his thought and will concentrate on his views concerning how humans should approach the natural environment with great care and respect.
Western Enlightenment Thought
The Enlightenment movement reoriented life in western Europe by emphasizing individualism and instrumental rationality. However, the movement inherited the world view of the Judeo-Christian tradition, in which Man has dominion over nature. This world view removed any inhibitions to exploiting nature and, coupled with rational thought, led to a modern science and technology that is, as Lynn White, Jr., puts it, “distinctively occidental.”
The philosophical foundation of Western science was laid by Francis Bacon and René Descartes, among others. Descartes’ philosophy established an influential dichotomy between matter and spirit, body and mind, and human being and the being of the rest of nature. This laid the groundwork for scientists to adopt an external relationship to their objects of knowledge—to study, with a detached, removed perspective, nature as objects. Descartes felt that by pursuing science—what he called “practical philosophy”—and applying it assiduously, humans can render themselves the “masters and possessors of nature.” This view was anticipated and shared by Francis Bacon, who wrote that the “end of our foundation [for scientific research] is the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.” It was not enough to know and to explore—Man had to conquer and subdue nature.
The groundbreaking work of Newton on the laws of gravity and motion—which was viewed as a seemingly complete and universal description of nature until Einstein’s work on relativity in the twentieth century—added weight to the argument of Descartes and Bacon that laws exist in nature that are available for people to discover, and that the discovery of these laws would be the basis for an unprecedented type of human control or power. While this rational, reductionist scientific approach led to technological advancement and the industrial revolution, it exalts reason in its narrowest sense, leaving out imagination, common sense, and a moral awareness. As William Blake puts it, the “reductive mental modes of Bacon and Newton have been ‘sheathd in dismal steel.’” Occidental science flourished as a reductive, mechanistic mode of thought with a focus on parts. Interest in the relationship between parts grew with the emergence of fields like ecology in the twentieth century.
One of the profound consequences of the Enlightenment movement, with its rational scientific inquiry and political-economic complex, is the diminished role of religions in modern society. As Joseph Campbell puts it, not only is there no hiding place for the gods from the searching telescope and microscope, but the kind of society that the gods once supported no longer exists. “The social unit in modern society,” Campbell wrote, “is not a carrier of religious content, but an economic-political organization.”
Native American Culture
The Native Americans in the United States represent a diverse group of indigenous cultures that have existed on the continent for thousands of years. At the heart of each native culture is a central, seamless, organizing orientation, a “lifeway.” In this seamless cosmology-cum-economy of Native Americans, demarcations between humans and their habitat are muted. Land, seen as ensouled and enchanted, is an extension of Native American thought and being; kinship is established with the land. The Native Americans have a broad, long-term view that is founded on an equally long experience with the landscape of North America. This is reflected in a metaphor used by the Tewa elders in New Mexico – pin peye obe, “look to the mountain.” This phrase reminds one to look at things as if one is looking out from the top of a mountain—to consider the long-term perspective in one’s interaction with the landscape.
The lifeway is a creative continuum which Cajete and Pueblo described as “indigenous education.” In this education, knowledge is viewed as wisdom. The individual learns about his place in family, tribe, and natural environment and grows increasingly aware of his consciousness, eventually attaining deep understanding, enlightenment, and wisdom. The lifeway facilitates a creative and profound transformation of the self in the individual to “being a complete man or woman in that place Indian people talk about.” Central to indigenous culture is the recognition that there is a knowing Center in all human beings that reflects the knowing Center of the land. Coming into contact with one’s inner Center is not always pleasant or easily attainable, and to assist the individual in his journey, a variety of ceremonies, rituals, and traditions are developed.
A study of science as an act of understanding and knowing the world among the Yupiaq tribe in southwestern Alaska sheds some light on the differences between indigenous and Western world view. The Yupiaq elders did not have a word for “science,” and when asked to define it, gave answers like “trying to know,” “trying to understand,” and “trying to grasp the origin.” Yupiaq science is not abstract and reductionistic; rather, it is based on observation of the natural world coupled with direct experimentation in the natural setting. Perhaps the type of Western science closest to Yupiaq science is the field of ecology, but it lacks spiritual dimension that is crucial to Yupiaq science. For the Yupiaq, knowledge of the universe is not only attained by observing the natural environment but also by observing one’s spirit. In Yupiaq culture, scientific knowledge is not segregated from or opposed to the ordinary experience and traditional knowledge transmitted orally from older to younger generations. Science is interspersed with art, storytelling, hunting, and craftsmanship.
But while the lifeway concept among the Yupiaq and in other Native American cultures represents a world view that is in spiritual balance with larger cosmological forces, and while science in these cultures is not set in opposition to other forms of knowing nature, this world view is not static or merely traditionalistic. No less than modern Western culture, the Native American world views are dynamically and creatively accommodating of ongoing environmental, social, economic, and political changes. The challenge is to find a middle path between the traditional mode of living and the modern way of life.
Aldo Leopold graduated from the Yale School of Forestry in 1909 and joined the Forest Service, which was set up just four years before. It did not take him long to realize that the job of a forester requires skills, knowledge, and judgment on issues outside of forestry. He noted that “every day foresters are rendering judgment on fire control, range management, watershed protection, erosion control, game and fish management, and recreation, the effects of which may be felt for centuries.” These effects are vital to the well-being of the forest and the nation, yet some of them were only beginning to be “baptized” as subjects for study.
Leopold was at the frontline of environmental decision-making during a time of immense human activity on the land. Forestry as a field of managing forests for timber yield could not be practiced without regard to the ecosystem of which the forests is a part. As a result, Leopold broadened his focus to also include a handful of interconnected fields: game management, wildlife ecology, and eventually land conservation. He saw that the landscape resulting from human action is a reflection of the human mind. “The landscape of any farm,” Leopold wrote,” is the owner’s portrait of himself.” Recognizing the indelible nature of human action on the landscape, Leopold felt that a conservationist “is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.” Faced with the multitude of interrelated conservation issues and the import of environmental decision on the land, Leopold realized the inadequacy of relying on a purely analytical, scientific approach and drew upon the full faculties of his mind. “Land ecology,” he wrote in 1942, “is putting the sciences and arts together for the purpose of understanding our environment.” Engaging in philosophical reflection and aesthetic considerations, he questioned the wisdom of human actions based on simple linear thinking, like the culling of wolves to promote deer populations for hunters. Like the Tewa elders, he beseeched us to “think like a mountain,” to consider our actions in the grand scheme of things. Leopold felt that humans are operating in the biotic community with insufficient knowledge of the long-term consequences of human actions and a lack of appreciation for life. The Enlightenment movement removed the sacred, spiritual dimension of the natural environment, and Leopold was trying to restore it. “In the long run,” he wrote in 1934, “we shall learn that there is no such thing as forestry, no such thing as game management. The only reality is an intelligent respect for, and adjustment to, the inherent tendency of land to produce life.”
The Enlightenment movement represents the emergence of modern man from ancient ignorance. It diminished the influence of religion, and in the increased secular space in modern life Man, being his own master, operated with fewer scruples. However, observing the devastating impact of human activity on the natural environment, one wonders whether Man knows how to wield the power in his hands; indeed, it is worth asking whether Man has attained mastery over himself.
In contrast, the world view in Native American culture emphasizes the journey of each individual to his or her knowing Center in order to attain knowledge and awareness of one’s place in society and in the cosmos. Similarly, Leopold sought to ground the actions of modern individual in ecological reality, and his writing of A Sand County Almanac can be seen as an attempt to develop our “perceptive faculty.& A common goal in Native American cultures and Leopold’s writing is, in the words of Mary Catherine Bateson, “how to know with one’s whole being.” The challenge for humans today, in the face of dire environmental problems, is to know and to respond with the full measure of our collective being.