Today marks the 150th birthday of Gifford Pinchot, former Pennsylvania governor and first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Famed as a Progressive Era politician, Pinchot was also a teacher with a missionary’s zeal for natural resource protection. In books, articles, public talks, and lectures at the Yale Forest School his family founded, Pinchot strove to instill an ethical approach to managing forests, wildlife, soils, waters, minerals, and fossil fuels—an effort he came to call conservation.
Environmental educators today frame concerns differently, focusing more often on sustaining ecosystems and protecting human health than on natural resource management. But the need for a guiding ethic is widely recognized, especially among advocates for Aldo Leopold’s legacy. A key insight of Pinchot’s could clarify the values behind our work and catalyze a needed and significant shift in climate change education.
An ever-practical idealist, Pinchot respected the utilitarian credo that moral choices be determined by the greatest good for the greatest number. But a flash of insight—on horseback in 1907—revealed to him a missing element in that calculation: time. For a nation to thrive indefinitely, he foresaw, its resources must be protected permanently. Pinchot recast the classic utilitarian ethic so that conservation decisions would be guided by “the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.”
By the end of Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, Pinchot’s idea had helped propel the protection of 2.3 million acres of national parks, forests, and monuments. But by the 1930s, Aldo Leopold (Yale Forest School Class of 1909 and an early hire within Pinchot’s Forest Service) despaired over the state of conservation education. In “Illinois Bus Ride,” he laments that farmers trained to focus on bottom lines fail to notice quack-grass replacing wild prairies, or topsoil, eons in the making, sliding toward the sea. Hyper-vigilance for current profits means blindness toward more lasting values, argued Leopold. “Just who is solvent?,” he asks. “For how long?”
Today, such blindness may encompass the global climate. A March 2015 Yale Project on Climate Communication report finds only 11% of Americans report feeling “very worried,” and 74% say they “rarely” or “never” discuss climate change with family or friends. Another telling Yale report reveals only a minority (38%) of Americans believes people today are being harmed, while a majority (65%) perceives warming as a threat to future human generations.
Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert contends that humans evolved to avoid imminent risks, however improbable, more effectively than distant perils. “Humans are very good at getting out of the way of a speeding baseball,” Gilbert says. But, “We don’t respond to long-term threats with nearly as much vigor and venom as we do clear and present danger.”
Gilbert, however, offers hope to environmental educators. His research shows that people can learn to think and even act responsibly toward the future, as when we floss to prevent cavities or stockpile funds for retirement. But can we find ways to nurture concern about climate over the long run?
A century ago, Pinchot trained foresters to collect longitudinal data on tree growth and forest composition, then project observed patterns decades into the future. Successful practitioners developed an acute understanding of relationships between trees, soil, moisture, and light over time—Pinchot called this effect seeing with the “forester’s eye.”
Leopold’s students too learned how land changes over decades, centuries, and millennia. Classroom lectures might introduce concepts such as succession, but tactile, personal experiences outdoors etched the lessons into memory. And on every fieldtrip, the Professor probed student perception of clues in their surroundings. Charles Bradley later compared Leopold with Socrates for using questions to stimulate thinking and imagination. The method brought each field or forest alive, and connected each student with place, not just in the present but in a meaningful past and a future full of portent.
Today’s environmental educators understand connections—as between deforestation and dwindling carbon sinks—that Pinchot’s and Leopold’s generations did not. But these icons of the 20th Century conservation can lead us in the 21st. Their successes as educators show we can ignite a sense of connection to Planet Earth—past, present, and future—that makes responsible climate action a moral imperative. Our tools may be somewhat different going forward—apps, for example, instead of notebooks to identify tree species and record phenology data in the field, or web-based citizen science projects that invite crowds to investigate plant and animal responses to climate over time. Like Pinchot and Leopold, we should use the tools that work for our students to enhance conceptual understanding and stimulate personal connections to the ancient processes being explored.
But it may be that for us, as for our predecessors, stories produce the most enduring connections. In an article for National Geographic, Pinchot answered conservation critics by crafting a fable, likening North America to a family farm. “On the way in which we decide to handle this great possession,” wrote Pinchot in 1908, “hangs the welfare of those who come after us.” In “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Leopold dramatizes how our transient desires—for resources, recreation, or control—may undermine timeless systems. Every creature shudders at its predator’s cry, Leopold said, “But only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the cry of the wolf.”
We may deploy digital storytelling apps to do it, but environmental educators can use Pinchot’s and Leopold’s abiding ideas and approaches to develop individual and community values—and actions—that respect our permanent, shared need for a livable world.