Each of our actions is truly part of a set of interactions, caught up in a network of cause and effect. Sometimes we can enjoy the direct benefits of our decisions, but often the true consequences of our actions are hidden within the layers of the our complex society and global economy. No matter how obscure these connections become, our society depends upon the land—clean water, healthy soil, vibrant forests, and the countless cycles and forms of life that maintain these and other resources.
As a student of history, Aldo Leopold recognized that ethics had so far succeeded in dealing with the relations between individuals and the relations of the individual to society. As a student of both people and the land, Leopold recognized that what had not yet emerged was an ethic dealing with how the individual deals with a much larger community—including “soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” Leopold saw the land ethic as a product of social evolution, developing in the minds of a thinking community.
By laying bare the connections between people and land, the Leopold Center can play an important role in the ongoing development of the land ethic.
Connecting us to history
The Leopold Center’s construction continues a 70-year tradition of land stewardship at the Leopold Shack and Farm. In 1935, Leopold chose a worn out and abandoned farm for a family hunting camp. Rather than seeking better land some place else, Leopold proposed to rebuild what had been wasted by others.
Each spring at “the Shack,” Leopold and his family planted thousands of trees in order to conserve the soil, provide habitat for wildlife, and return beauty and wildness to the exhausted land. Spending weekends and school vacations at the Shack, the Leopolds worked and played hard; they were an extremely close family who enjoyed and respected each other and the land.
Leopold’s respect for the land motivated him and his family to plant thousands of trees on a farm ravaged by the Dust Bowl. Leopold did not live to see the trees mature, but those pines have yielded strong and beautiful building material—a harvest we owe to Leopold’s foresight, persistence and patience.
Protecting forests for future generations
In 2003, foresters determined that the Leopold pines were overcrowded and were suffering from competition; drought, disease, wind throw, or an insect outbreak could kill large numbers of them. A careful thinning of the smallest trees was recommended, in order to allow a slow but steady improvement in the health of the forest. The white pines could survive another 150 years or more, providing many future generations with a living connection to the life and work of Aldo Leopold.
An oak woodland on the Leopold Memorial Reserve was also harvested to help sustain the oaks, which are an important but dwindling part of the southern Wisconsin landscape. The harvest provided quantities of red maple, cherry, and oak, while taking steps to restore the oak woodland community. Larger gaps in the forest canopy will promote the growth of native understory plants that were suppressed by heavy shading. Opening the canopy will also allow land stewards to conduct more effective prescribed fires, returning an important natural cycle to the oak woodland community.
Both harvests met the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). FSC is a world-wide program that sets high standards to ensure forestry is practiced in an environmentally responsible, socially beneficial, and economically viable way. A forester from the Community Forestry Resource Center reviewed the harvest plan and conducted site visits during and after the logging, verifying that the activity protected the remaining trees and other vegetation, as well as soil, water quality, and wildlife.
By using small diameter trees in the round as trusses and other structural supports in the Leopold Center, we demonstrated a high value use for a typically low-value forest product. Wider use of these techniques can contribute to forest health by providing a market for trees from thinnings and other management—material that otherwise sells at a low price for firewood or pulp or is simply wasted.
These trees were planted on land that was considered a waste after the Dust Bowl, yet they produced an impressive volume of high-quality wood. Crafted into columns, beams and rafters, the trees now frame a beautiful space for discovering or exploring Aldo Leopold’s legacy. Displaying the beauty of many types of wood, including pine, cherry, and oak, the unique local materials provide an aesthetic touch not usually associated with green buildings.
Using locally-harvested wood also helps us achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification; LEED awards points for incorporating local materials in the building and using wood from FSC-certified sources.
The Global Paybacks of Energy Conservation
Flip on the light switch in Baraboo, Wisconsin. A coal-fired power plant on the east end of the Baraboo Range goes on rumbling, providing electricity for thousands of area homes and businesses. A pair of diesel-electric locomotives chug west, trailing a mile-long train of 100 empty coal cars, spent after just one day of burning coal at the plant. Near the train’s destination in the Powder River Basin of northeastern Wyoming, a handful of energy conglomerates eye more of the coal seams buried below the High Plains; home for now to ranchers, pronghorn, sage grouse, and other grassland inhabitants that thrive despite little rain and harsh seasons.
No matter which utility we belong to, and whether we are purchasing electricity or heating fuel, that product depends upon a vast network of transmission lines, power plants, railroads, and pipelines, with fossil fuels at its foundation. We are becoming more aware that flipping the light switch means we are burning fossil fuels and emitting carbon dioxide, which is an action with global consequences. But it is more difficult to realize that the light bulb and the gas furnace are extracting fossil fuels—they are among the catalysts for mining and drilling in more and more places across the American West, the Appalachians, the Gulf of Mexico, and Alaska.
Energy conservation can easily demonstrate cost savings and short- or long-term financial paybacks. Less obvious benefits to the community have not been documented as thoroughly, but using less energy would mean less stress on our few remaining wild places and many rural landscapes and communities, less danger of polluting fresh water and the oceans, as well as the atmosphere. These benefits will accrue to society and future generations in the form of healthier lands, which provide not only space for wild things but the foundation of prosperous and sustainable communities.
As the pace of society and levels of consumption continue to increase, we tend to be less able to participate in providing for ourselves, our family members, or other people in our communities. There is less time to cook dinner, share meals, or volunteer. These activities, once the function of family and community, are increasingly bought and sold.
In the 1940s, Leopold observed that trends in urban and industrial growth were moving people away from, rather than toward, “an intense consciousness of land.” This worried Leopold, because without a “vital relation” to land, how could we develop the sort of admiration, respect, and love that could support a more ethical relationship to land?
As our relations with both people and land become less personal and less participatory, we participate more and more in the world-girdling chains of commerce and industry. The less we are able to bring ethics to bear in personal and community relations, the greater the need to practice a “consumption ethic,” in order to ensure that the products and services we buy are not causing harm to faraway people and places. Yet what we know about the people and places connected to producing a specific product is often very little. The worries that keep us up at night include the impact of our actions on other people and the land, as well as the balance in our checkbook, yet these may be reconciled with changes in our lifestyles and different choices in the marketplace.
Using fewer resources is a fundamental step toward reconciling conservation and consumption. In finding ways to buy less, we reduce demand for raw materials and lower the rates of extraction and pollution, putting less pressure on the ecosystems that support our global economy.
Recently, the serious study of happiness has shown that for many of us in the developed world, increasing material wealth no longer equates with increasing happiness. Once income rises above the poverty level, the positive affects of more wealth dramatically lessens. The Center for the New American Dream has captured the spirit of this vital realization with the phrase, “More Fun, Less Stuff.”
Buying local not only cuts massive amounts of fossil fuels used in transporting goods but can also support good land use and bring the benefits of such relationships with land close to home.
By cutting out many middlemen, buying locally also means that more of the consumer dollar goes directly to land owners. Many rural farmers, ranchers and foresters have felt compelled to exploit their land in order to make a living in the increasingly competitive global market; with a local market, many landowners can make a living while integrating land stewardship with commodity production. Buying locally allows many landowners who were frustrated by globalization to enjoy the satisfaction of doing right by the land they love.
A “not in my backyard” attitude, when compounded with rising consumption levels, has pushed resource extraction and industrial development to other countries, where looser environmental and labor laws leave us with difficult questions to answer about how our lifestyles impact the ability of distant people to determine their own way of life, and to maintain significant cultural links to the land when they desire to.
Buying certified products allows us to support conservation in distant places when obtaining goods we cannot find close to home. For products from other states and overseas, it allows us to support good land use and healthy communities in places where we may not be able to support effective legislation against harming land. A trustworthy third party is critical to making these eco-labels work.
Learn More and Share
There are many good resources for learning about how and why to consume less. A key component of translating individual actions into meaningful change in our communities is sharing our knowledge, information, and ethic with others. Talking about ideas of consumption and conservation with others encourages a broader group of people to think about reducing their impact.
Learn more about how to make your home consume less:
Visit Architecture 2030's website for homeowners, click here.