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Teaching Tomorrow’s Conservation Leaders: Six Lessons from Aldo Leopold

This is a condensed version of the 20th Paul F-Brandwein Lecture that Curt Meine delivered in March in Chicago, at the 2015 meeting of the National Science Teachers Association.  The Brandwein Lecture is sponsored by the Paul F-Brandwein Institute, which is “dedicated to the education of all learners in recognition of their interdependence with nature and responsibility for sustaining a healthful and healing environment.”  The Aldo Leopold Foundation thanks the Brandwein Institute for allowing us to share this lecture with our readers.  We encourage you to learn more about the Brandwein Institute’s programs at  Links to the full-length version of Curt’s lecture and accompanying slides are available at

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We live in what some are referring to as “the Age of Consequences.” We all know the long list of problems, from climate change, biodiversity loss, and degraded soils and waters, to emerging diseases, compromised food systems, and growing inequality.

Systems thinkers refer to these as wicked problems: problems difficult to solve definitively due to complex interdependencies, conflicting value systems and worldviews, incomplete data and high uncertainty, and a daunting array of cultural, economic, and political constraints. To solve such problems, the solutions to one problem must all contribute to solving the other, related problems. To arrive at such solutions, we need new ways of thinking, and hence of learning and teaching. And we need new kinds of leadership. This is what Aldo Leopold understood when he was addressing and seeking solutions to wicked problems long before we had a convenient 21st-century term for them.

When we examine Leopold’s own work as an educator, we find several core lessons that he brought to the task of teaching tomorrow’s leaders.

Lesson 1: The cultivation of curiosity and perception.


We begin with what I think we all know and appreciate: it all starts with the fire of curiosity. Keep that flame lit, and the rest takes care of itself; neglect it, or allow it to sputter out, and it becomes a long hard slog back to engagement. Aldo Leopold saw natural history and ecological science not as the domain of the professional researcher, but as the pathway to wonderment, open to all. And he saw such a perspective as fortification for the future.

This is fundamental as we aim to open students’ eyes without weighing them down with all the problems of the world.   “Prudence never kindled a fire in the human heart, “Leopold wrote in 1939. “I have no hope for conservation born of fear. The 4-H boy who becomes curious about why red pines need more acid than white is closer to conservation than he who writes a prize easy on the dangers of timber famine.” Perception is a key word in the Leopold lexicon, the key to ecological insight. Yet he was quick to say that advanced training in ecology was not a requirement. “On the contrary,” he wrote, “the Ph.D. may become as callous as an undertaker to the mysteries at which he officiates. Like all real treasures of the mind, perception can be split into infinitely small fractions without losing its quality. The weeds in a city lot convey the same lesson as the redwoods.”

It is hard to imagine true leadership that is not marked by native inquisitiveness and perception. When we block our view, we close ourselves to needs, connections, and possibilities. When we open our eyes to a living world suffused with mystery, beauty, and diversity, we prepare ourselves to live well with it, and within it.

Lesson 2: The value of direct, personal, tangible experience.


For Leopold, it was not enough to know the lessons of weeds and redwoods intellectually. For those lessons to lodge, they had to be experienced personally and directly. Book-learning and classroom lectures have their necessary place, but perhaps we need to say it openly: places have their place! Education divorced from the reality of places would sever the connection between abstract knowledge and living systems—and, worse yet, between ideology and consequence.

Leopold bemoaned “the eviction of outdoor studies from the schools” and the fact that “the living animal is virtually omitted from the present system of zoological education.” Our digital devices, growing more powerful with every new product roll-out, increasingly rule our lives and mediate our experiences. They are, for all their power, just tools; depending on how they are used, they can dull or enrich our experience. No doubt, they do both. But what endures is the imprint on our consciousness of the personal.

We recognize authenticity when we feel it, and see it, and hear it. It is that very personal truth, informing judgment and guiding our visions, that we recognize as a core attribute of leadership—and that, when it is lacking, leaves us vulnerable to manipulation and myopia.

Lesson 3: The capacity for critical thinking and independent judgment.


David Orr has noted, “Leopold is most interesting to us as an educator not because he wrote long complex tomes on educational theory, but rather because he was a consummate student of the land who could change his mind as the evidence warranted.” In a key 1947 address, “The Ecological Conscience,” Leopold suggested that such a conscience “is an affair of the mind as well as the heart. It implies a capacity to study and learn, as well as to emote about the problems of conservation.”

Leopold was one who always kept his mind and heart in close communion. He recognized the special role of science in the lifelong conversation we have with ourselves and with each other. “Science,” he wrote “contributes moral as well as material blessings to the world. Its great moral contribution is objectivity, or the scientific point of view. This means doubting everything except facts; it means hewing to the facts, let the chips fall where they may.”   He was one to challenge even his own most cherished values and beliefs—to test them, to reaffirm them, to change them if need be. The best known instance of this was the evolution of his attitude toward predators, described with poetic intensity in his famous essay “Thinking Like a Mountain.” “Only the mountain has lived long enough,” he wrote “to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.” But we could aspire to think like mountains: to consider complex, evolving, long-term, large-scale phenomena, at the intersection of self-interest and the common good.

In a world of wicked problems, such perspective is essential to effective leadership.

Lesson 4: The need to connect and integrate fields of knowledge.


Wicked problems persist because we fail to see connections and relationships. Leadership in addressing such problems requires that we see, understand, and honor such connections—between people, between humans and nature, and between fields of knowledge. Aldo Leopold was a connector, an integrator, and exemplary interdisciplinarian.

There are certain themes in Leopold’s work that require no explanation, just recitation. And so: “Perhaps the most important [purpose in education]s is to teach the student how to put the sciences together in order to use them. All the sciences and arts are taught as if they were separate. They are separate only in the classroom. Step out on the campus and they are immediately fused. Land ecology is putting the sciences and arts together for the purpose of understanding our environment.

Leopold called for “a reversal of specialization; instead of learning more and more about less and less, we must learn more and more about the whole biotic landscape.” He asked that science inform not just our intelligence, but our vision: to help us think expansively and imagine generously.

We have all seen , in recent years, increased attention given to the importance of the STEM disciplines. But we have also seen something of a counter-trend, as attention has also been given to sustainability as a coordinating and connecting concept across disciplines. Leadership, now as in Leopold’s day, entails not just technical expertise, but the capacity to see and understand connections.

Lesson 5: The need to communicate.


For Aldo Leopold, conservation science was not work undertaken by isolated researchers apart from people or from public responsibilities. The findings of science were not to be shared just with other researchers, or even with students. Leadership in science and conservation entailed a responsibility to communicate. He wrote: “No ‘language’ adequate for portraying the land mechanism exists in any science or art, save only ecology. A language is imperative, for if we are to guide land-use we must talk sense to farmer and economist, pioneer and poet, stockman and philosopher, lumberjack and geographer, engineer and historian.”

And so he did. The essays that came together in A Sand County Almanac were born of the need to share his scientific insights with students, fellow scientists, fellow citizens, landowners, resource managers, economists, philosophers, and policy-makers. This reflected the culture of the institution that Leopold called home in these years: the University of Wisconsin. Its institutional creed—the Wisconsin Idea—demanded that knowledge be pursued not just for its own sake, but in service to the public interest. This in turn revealed the tight connection that Leopold saw between science and citizenship. “The citizen conservationist,” he wrote in these years, “needs an understanding of wildlife ecology… to enable him to function as a critic of sound policy.”

It seems hardly worth mentioning that we live in a time when the function of science in our democracy is being challenged, in ways that many of us find so unsettling. Let us not be shy about saying it: in a democracy, scientific literacy is essential to informed citizenship. It is not all that we need, but without it, we are unable “to function as [critics] of sound policy.”

Lesson 6: Keeping the vital link: science and ethics.


The same critical perspective and healthy skepticism that Leopold brought to his work in science he also employed in his thinking about science. Few have been so eloquent in defending the role of the sciences and articulating their value to the human condition, to our growth as individuals, and to a well functioning democracy and sustainable economy. But few could be as blunt as Leopold in pointing out the limitations of science and the dangers of science unmoored from ethics. He was especially concerned about the prospects for a world in which science and technology served short-term, merely material needs and interests. He wrote, in 1941, “If science cannot lead us to wisdom as well as power, it is surely no science at all.”


The fullest expression of his concern came in “The Land Ethic.” Deeply grounded in the sciences, Leopold’s statement of the land ethic nonetheless highlighted the difference between “man the conqueror versus man the biotic citizen; science the sharpener of his sword versus science the searchlight on his universe; land the slave and the servant versus land the collective organism.” His science was not only connected to his ethical sensibility; it framed it and fed it: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man, nor for us to reap from it the esthetic harvest it is capable, under science, of contributing to culture.”

Leopold understood well that no one individual can presume to “write” an ethic. An ethic evolve[s], he observed, “in the minds of a thinking community.”

Lessons for Leadership

If there is a single lesson from Leopold’s work that I hope we can share with our students in the Age of Consequences, it is this: that they, regardless of background and belief system, with whatever talents and experience and wisdom they bring, can and must take an active part in forging this ethic; that in doing so they become leaders in the thinking community and active agents of their own future, and the future of our shared place. It is our job to give them the tools and confidence to do so, and to encourage them in the literal sense: to instill courage.

I have condensed Leopold’s approach to education, science, and leadership down to these several themes, but I don’t want to leave the impression that this list is exclusive. I think it is best to let Leopold speak for himself on one last point that we should always bring to our own teaching: the utter joy of learning. In a contemplation of “the role of wildlife in a liberal education,” he wrote that such education entails “not merely a dilute dosage of technical education. It calls for somewhat different teaching materials and sometimes even different teachers. The objective is to teach the student to see the land, to understand what he sees, and to enjoy what he understands.”

AL and studentsWho would not have appreciated a professor who paused halfway through the semester to say: “Once you learn to read the land, I have no fear of what you will do to it, or with it. And I know many pleasant things it will do to you.” If we are fortunate, we might have had such a teacher in our lives. If our students are fortunate, we can at least occasionally be such a teacher to them. And if our world is fortunate, our students will infuse such joy, and curiosity, and critical thinking into their lives, their places, and their citizenship. They will have become leaders without even realizing it.