Aldo Leopold and the History of Environmental Ideas

By guest contributor Daniel Rinn

Aldo-LeopoldThere seems to be a dualism at work in the way intellectual historians think about the history of environmental thought. The history of environmental ethics is presented as a continuous conflict between two competing systems, anthropocentrism and ecocentrism — the former suggesting the environment only enters ethical judgements on the basis of its use-value for humans and the latter suggesting that all non-human life (and the environment generally) has inherent value. As Peter Hay has argued, the evolution of environmental ethics in the US has been unsteady, with explosive growth in this field in the 1960’s and 1970’s fueled by the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. Carson’s important book encouraged ethicists to consider the role of the environment in questions about justice.

The rise of environmental ethics as a field in philosophy since the publication of Silent Spring is significant for it has shaped the history of ideas. Much of the new environmentalism, whether of academic philosophers or activists in general, has focused on the anthropocentric/ecocentric debate. As a result, historians have read this basic dualism back into the past, placing thinkers like John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and Aldo Leopold in one camp or another. This anthropocentric/ecocentric understanding of American environmental thought appears in the influential work of Roderick Nash and Donald Worster.

Nash’s books, Wilderness and the American Mind (1967) and The Rights of Nature (1989) show the slow development of an intellectual revolution in the United States. Nash argues that the history of environmental thought has been defined by a slow transition from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism. Early Americans closely tied wilderness to wildness, evil, and the dangerous, unpredictable characteristics of human action. Pioneers viewed wilderness as an obstacle to civilization, something to be conquered in westward expansion. As the frontier closed, it became evident, and distressing to some, that wilderness could permanently disappear. Writers like Muir celebrated nature and raised questions about the inherent value of the environment.

Muir’s ideas received a lot of attention during the Hetch Hetchy debate in the early twentieth century — an event that revealed the fissures in American ideas about environmental ethics. On one side, Gifford Pinchot and others supported building a dam in the Hetch Hetchy valley of Yosemite National Park, a project that would provide water for the population of San Francisco. On the other side of the debate stood Muir and a growing “wilderness cult.” For Nash, Hetch Hetchy inspired a national debate and is evidence of the slow transition from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism among environmentalists. Such a response would have been impossible during the pioneer stage of American history, when the environment was viewed as an impediment to civilization — building a dam in these circumstances would have been clear evidence of progress (as it was for Gifford Pinchot).

This central tension regarding civilization and wilderness would encourage the development of an ecological consciousness among a growing number of theorists in the 20th century, among them Aldo Leopold. Leopold’s training as a scientist and forester taught him to approach wilderness from the perspective of management for human use. However, his outlook also appeared to bring together both the logic of the scientist as well as the aesthetic sensibility of the romantic. He assembled a powerful defense of the case for preservation at a time when many Americans were becoming more receptive to the ecological impulse. At times, it even appeared as though he wanted to articulate something akin to the Gaia hypothesis, which holds that the natural world was a super-organism of which humans were merely a small part. According to Nash, there is a lack of clarity regarding Leopold’s justification for his environmental ethics. Did the environment have rights which entailed human responsibilities? Or was preservation built strictly on a human-centered view of the aesthetic pleasures the natural world could afford? In other words, was Leopold’s an anthropocentric or ecocentric environmental vision?

A similar tension appears in the work of Donald Worster whose Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (1977) suggests environmental thought has been caught between the two poles of arcadian and imperial ecology. Stepping outside the US, he begins with Gilbert White, a figure whose conflicting accounts of ecology illustrate the division between two competing views of the environment. White embodied the ideal of the arcadian scientist, a researcher who lived in deep appreciation of the natural environment. White’s writings catalogue life in Selborne, a pastoral dream that was free of the disruptions of industrialization that would later rock England. His work served as a source of inspiration for a later generation of nature essayists such as John Burroughs and John Muir. These writers wanted to formulate an arcadian science that would build on the idea of holism—a belief that the natural world was integrated and indivisible.

Worster regards Francis Bacon as a key example of the imperial variety of ecology. Departing from the humility of the arcadian ecologist, Bacon’s scientist relied on a crass instrumentalism, actively manipulating the natural environment. The purpose of scientific work was to dominate and control nature. The imperial view of Bacon surfaced in the work of Swedish botanist Linnaeus. Worster writes, “According to Linnaeus, man must vigorously pursue his assigned work of utilizing his fellow species to his own advantage. This responsibility must extend to eliminating the undesirables and multiplying those that are useful to him” (36).

The tension between arcadian and imperial ecology would continue to shape environmental thought well into the 20th century. Similar to Nash, Worster argues that Aldo Leopold was caught in an uncertain position between imperial and arcadian ecology. Using Leopold as an example of a larger trend in American intellectual history, Worster charts his transition from a Progressive Era-style instrumentalism to an arcadian form of ecology. Leopold would finally articulate a rights-based justification for protecting all members of the ecosystem.

Both Nash and Worster frame the history of American environmental ideas in a narrative about the competing aims of anthropocentrism and ecocentrism. Under this rubric, Aldo Leopold plays a transitional role in their accounts. For both historians, Leopold’s thought is laden with tension between anthropocentrism and ecocentrism; his intellectual trajectory seems to mark a larger change in environmental ethics as ideas move from a form of utilitarianism to an early ecological outlook. It might be more helpful, however, to step away from these categories and consider how a figure like Leopold simply explodes this binary. Leopold was neither anthropocentric nor ecocentric. His thought was indeed murky, but this is not evidence of a tension between two radically different environmental ethics.

Leopold was consistently concerned with the biotic community, with how humans interact with the non-human world. Although he seemed to hold both an instrumentalist and Gaia-like view of nature, this does not mean his thought was conflicted. His form of instrumentalism did not suggest that the environment served instrumental functions, nor did he believe the human was indistinguishable from the non-human world. Instead he believed we can never predict how our actions will change circumstances in the long run, we will never be able to fully map the relationships that tie us to the natural world, but this does not mean we should not try. Leopold was an instrumentalist in a unique sense, believing humans should always attempt to solve specific problems by testing potential solutions and always maintaining a critical view of how we conceptualize nature. He argued that we will never have a full grasp of the ways the human and non-human worlds are deeply entangled. Accordingly, he wrote in A Sand County Almanac (1949), “We shall never achieve harmony with land, any more than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive” (210). Leopold’s thought, perhaps, maps a different tradition in American environmental thought that historians have failed to understand.

Daniel Rinn is a PhD student at the University of Rochester. His research interests include the history of American environmental thought as well as pragmatism. His most recent work has focused on Liberty Hyde Bailey, exploring the philosophical affinities between his ideas and those of the classical pragmatists.

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