Aldo Leopold said that a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. When I was a young teacher in the 1970s, I thought that we were beginning to take seriously this notion of a “biotic community”—nature alive, not simply matter in motion; a community of life and living of which human beings are not outsiders, but dependent insiders. I remember the first Earth Day; I remember talking with my students and colleagues about the limits of growth, steady state, sustainability, the ecological conscience. And I remember exploring the argument that we could not relate properly to the biotic community without at the same time relating rightly to the social and political community. Living rightly in a biotic landscape, as Leopold would have us do, and living rightly in a moral commonwealth were inseparable. Ecological sanity and social justice go hand in hand.
Then, in approximately 1980, we as a people went to sleep morally, politically, imaginatively. We are just now waking up. It is time to get back to work; it is time to rejoin the conversation. The natural realities, constraints, and limits we were beginning to grasp thirty years ago have not gone away. No, on the contrary, they have become more pressing, and we have even less justification now for ignoring them, thanks to the scientific work that has been done in the interval. To be sure, many social and legal reformers have worked hard and successfully to ameliorate some of the worst pollution and degradation that assaults the integrity and stability of nature alive. Yet it has not been enough. What our reawakened conversation must be about is a redistribution of power and a transformation in the priority of our values.
In his recent book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World, Gus Speth speaks of “a new consciousness that gives priority to nonmaterialistic lives and to our relationships to one another and to the natural world.” The question of consciousness is moral and spiritual, to be sure, but it is also very practical and action-oriented. It goes in tandem with what Speth calls “the search for a new and vital democratic politics” and the question “whether a popular movement that can drive real change is being born.”
With similar discernment, in a new book to be published soon, Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy, Peter G. Brown and Geoffrey Garver argue that “The global economy today is overwhelming the ability of the earth to maintain life’s abundance. We are getting something terribly wrong. At this critical time in history, we need to reorient ourselves in how we relate to each other and to the earth’s wonders through the economy. We need a new mass movement that bears witness to a right way of living on our finite, life-giving planet.”
The Center for Humans and Nature was founded by Strachan Donnelley in 2002–2003 to rekindle and to contribute a substantive philosophical dimension to this kind of transformative, change-nurturing conversation. We need new ways of seeing, feeling, and thinking if we are to achieve right relationships with the conditions that make living and life possible, and if we are to reclaim our not yet fully realized democratic heritage as citizens rather than as “subjects” or, the contemporary equivalent, “consumers.” Today we begin Minding Nature as one additional forum for this conversation.
I use the term “forum” advisedly. It is a space of civic imagination and reasoned, deliberative argument. Minding Nature will be an articulation of ecological democratic citizenship and of the way such citizens should engage with one another. The voice of democratic citizenship is not dogmatic. It is a voice inspired by seriousness of purpose and openness to other perspectives and to new facts. It is a voice that speaks with urgency, yet is mindful of the complexity we face and of the fallibility to which we are prone.
Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles and no intellectual slouch in his own right, formed a circle of some of the most outstanding thinkers of his day, who referred to themselves as “the Lunar Men.” In their discussions and in the forum they created for themselves, they engaged in what the elder Darwin referred to as “philosophical laughter.” This is exacting thought applied to the most serious and crucial of problems, but done in the spirit of camaraderie, mutual respect, care, and joy.
In the pages of Minding Nature over the coming months and years, we hope to see Lunar men and women at work, and we hope to achieve, at least from time to time, true philosophical laughter. Strachan Donnelley, who is memorialized at the conclusion of this issue, would have liked that phrase. It is to his memory and his legacy that Minding Nature is dedicated.