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Leading with Values

Lessons from the Land Ethic Leaders Program

People tend to shy away from talking about their values, and certainly from talking about other people’s values. Maybe it is because values are considered dangerous territory, like religion or politics. Maybe it is because they are considered too “squishy” to be included in the conversation next to “hard” science. But understanding our own and others’ values is critical to conservation work because values dictate how we behave and the types of messages we respond to. In short, they are the prism through which we see the world.

Aldo Leopold’s idea of a land ethic is ultimately a reprioritization of values, or as he phrased it, a set of guidelines “tell[ing] the company how to get back in step.”  His basic premise is that the health of the land should be at least as important as many of the other things our society values. Discussing our values, weighing them against each other, and reconciling the inconsistencies of our actions with those values is hard work at an individual level. Doing it at the societal level, as Leopold particularly pressed us to do, is even harder.notes from a participant read "land ethic"

The values we hold play an important role in our actions and decisions. Yet, too often values are omitted from the discussion of conservation topics. We are so focused on how we can solve problems that we seldom talk about what it is that makes us care. We assume we all have the same reasons for wanting to address climate change or save an endangered species from extinction. As it turns out, we don’t. We have highly individual motivations that may differ subtly or greatly.

Values operate on two levels—our individual values, which are formed by our experiences and dictate how we act and react, and our collective or communal values. Our collective values help us as a society judge a right action from a wrong action, set our priorities, and structure our communities. The two are not unrelated. Our individual values are informed by what society deems right, while our collective values or norms represent something close to an average of our individual values. They shift in tandem.  To create real and lasting change in how we behave toward our human and nonhuman neighbors, we need to be talking about both.

It seems obvious in retrospect, but it was enlightening for me to discover that not everyone who finds resonance in Leopold’s land ethic thinks the same way I do. As we have conducted the Land Ethic Leaders workshops, I have become aware of this again and again. Our differences enrich the conversation. And despite them, we can almost always find some common ground.

Empowering Leaders for the Land Ethic

In the fall of 2009, my colleagues and I began to hash out ideas for a program we wanted to call Land Ethic Leaders.  Our premise was this: People need to think and talk more about values in order for conservation to succeed.  When they begin to consider and connect to their values for nature, their actions and decisions will begin to shift to match those values.  Community was also a key idea for us. Talking together about what matters to people individually allows us to also examine our collective values.  Successful conservation efforts often seem to arise from a community of people with shared values working together, and we wanted that communal effort to be at the root of our program.

Land Ethic Leaders discussing in a circle outdoors.

A group of Land Ethic Leaders gathers in a circle to discuss their reflections.

The Land Ethic Leaders workshop is two days long with roughly twenty participants and two facilitators. It includes several outdoor observation activities, a conservation-based service project, and a series of reflective discussions about conservation values led first by the facilitators and then by participants. Much of the workshop is participant-driven, and we emphasize a level playing field for all participants so that each feels comfortable being a part of the dialogue that emerges—professors with PhDs and high school students, for example, are equal participants in all discussions. Over the course of the two days, participants weave reflective discussions together with observation activities and service projects to create more meaningful and contemplative experiences.

The aim is to empower people to begin a conversation about the idea of a land ethic in their own community. We ask that they leave with a plan for at least one event or activity using what they learned sometime during the next year, encouraging them to work together or with groups they already know and to be creative and tailor their events meet the needs of their audiences. Each in their own way, these graduates are truly stepping up as leaders of Leopold’s land ethic idea.

Leopold Memorial Site Redbuds

Our July 2015 Land Ethic Leader graduates pose with “Starker,” the newly planted Redbud tree at the Leopold Memorial Site.

At the end of A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold writes, “I have purposely presented the land ethic as a product of social evolution because nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘written’… it evolve[s] in the minds of a thinking community … [and the] evolution never stops.” My hope is that the Land Ethic Leaders program provides a stage on which that evolution may take place.

Editor’s note: To date, over 1,500 people have attended one of the 61 Land Ethic Leaders workshops we have held in Wisconsin and adapted for partners across the country.


Join us for one of our upcoming Land Ethic Leaders workshops in June or August!

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