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Leopold & Ethics, Important Context for Next Generation

I was a junior at Purdue University. It was 1991. The course was “Wildlife in America” taught by Dr. Fred Montague. The required resources were Wildlife in America by Peter Matthiessen, A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, and the course notes by Professor Montague.

Like so many others, I was introduced to A Sand County Almanac on a college campus, but I’m embarrassed to admit the book was my least favorite of the three resources. I loved Matthiessen’s vivid description of rare, threatened, and extinct species. In fact, the very same book still sits on my bookshelf at home. I also loved Professor Montague’s notes which included cartoons and artwork he had drawn and developed himself. Actually, what I liked most about A Sand County Almanac was that Professor Montague seemed to be a modern-day, living Aldo Leopold. He lived in the country, grew most of his own food, and he was intensely conscious of how his lifestyle impacted the region and even the planet.

The used paperback copy I purchased had an orange cover. The first edition by Oxford University Press was hardcover, but this edition, expanded and licensed to Ballantine in 1970, was paperback, meaning it was available at a more affordable price point, fortuitously coinciding with the first Earth Day. The timing positioned A Sand County Almanac as one of the most eloquent and insightful texts to be discovered by a world of readers beginning their own ecological awakening. And there it was, previously read and loved, on the bookshelf awaiting me, the next generation reader.

A Sand County Almanac, Land Ethics, Wildlife in America on shelf

What I do remember of the book during that first introduction was that my imagination and the first inkling of a commitment to conservation was sparked by Leopold’s philosophical essays. Near the end, in his essay ‘The Upshot,’ where he suggested that “only the very sympathetic reader will wish to wrestle with the philosophical questions” in this section, I began to do that very thing.

As an idealistic, young adult trying to make sense of the world – those philosophical questions gave me some substance to dig into and complemented the more practical and pragmatic courses I was taking as part of my landscape architecture program.

Fate or fortune? Five years after that class, I applied for a seasonal fellowship in ecological restoration at the Aldo Leopold Foundation. Twenty-eight years later, as the Executive Director of the foundation, I am writing this reflection as we embark on a new initiative: Building a Land Ethic for the Next Generation, intended to influence future generations’ development of a conservation ethic. After research and reflection, it is evident the critical intervention is to infuse and integrate ethical frameworks that value nature into university-level curricula and courses. Introducing and examining Leopold’s land ethic, just as relevant today as it was 30 years ago, or 70 years ago, is the first and foundational step.

This effort is informed by our recognition that, like myself, many people are introduced to Aldo Leopold and a land ethic through A Sand County Almanac on college campuses. This introduction occurs at an impressionable stage in their lives when they are considering their personal and professional future and shaping their definition and sense of wellbeing at the community level.

It was more than timely last year when two colleagues Dr. David Saltz and Dr. James Justus approached me about collaborating on a paper that would elevate the importance of philosophy in conservation science curricula. The leadership at the Leopold Foundation was already concerned about whether the conservation movement had enough awareness and training to understand and apply the complex ethical context of what has been referred to as “wicked” environmental challenges. It was indeed, perfect timing to work with David, a noted conservation biologist, and James, a noted environmental philosopher, on a paper to write up David’s survey of 50 graduate-level conservation biology programs (32 programs responded) offering degrees in conservation science to assess the prevalence of philosophy courses and ethics courses in particular.

Given the three of us agreed that:

“It seems indisputable that professional conservation scientists should not make decisions regarding the future well-being and existence of living things (and some nonliving) on this planet without thoroughly understanding the ethical ideas that should guide those decisions

The findings can only be described as disappointing and disconcerting. (Read the whole article here.)

Regarding the question:  Do you offer a course in Philosophy or Ethics of Conservation?  A large majority offered no course at all. Of those that offered no course, most felt a course should be offered.

ethics course offerings

The follow-up question was: If you do offer such a course, is it mandatory?

Only 2 of the programs require such a course, and one additional program felt it should require such a course.

Saltz, Justus, and I all agreed the intent of our paper was primarily to prompt the field to recognize the importance and need for courses and content in ethics and training in ethical decision making. Building from that effort, last year the Leopold Foundation launched a nationwide survey to further understand the landscape of ethics inclusion in environmental sciences and studies curricula across higher education … With over 300 faculty and staff responding, the survey findings and report are nearly finished.

Without sharing too much, stay tuned for the release of the full report next month, the findings support the need for greater inclusion and depth of ethics in the field.ethics in conservation

Over 90% of those surveyed believe the environmental science/studies field as broadly defined has a strong ethical context. In other words, there is a consensus that ethics is important content for future leaders! Still, over 75% believe their ethics coverage could be improved. Clearly there is an opportunity to do better!

If you work in higher education and participated in the survey, THANK YOU! And whether you participated in the survey or not, and whether you work in higher education or not, you can still help. We will begin a process to further understand what resources and materials would be most useful, affordable, and effective for faculty and students. Your insights, collaboration, encouragement, and support will all be critical ingredients if we are to prepare our future conservation leaders to navigate the ethical context of conservation issues present today and in the future.

In the meantime, we are genuinely excited and filled with hope for the future as the foundation begins Building a Land Ethic for the Next Generation!


Feature photo, top, courtesy of Columbia Admissions / CC by-SA 2.0.


Buddy’s ‘Sand County’ story took place on a college campus. What about yours? Please share your own ‘Sand County’ story during this 70th Anniversary year, so we can build out the many and varied ways A Sand County Almanac has, is, and will inform and inspire a conservation ethic.

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