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The Land Ethic at the Landfill

—Research Study Seeking Interviews with Leopold’s Thinking Community–You!

© 2019 by Henry St. Maurice

In the realm of ideas, a trail from the Shack to the landfill is long and complex. As Leopold (1923) foresaw early in his career as a manager and scholar of nature,

We will accomplish conservation when we, as a nation, scorn waste, pollution, and unproductiveness as something damaging, not only to the individual reputation of the water, but to the self-respect of the craft and the society of which he is a member.  (p. 568).

Waste is a result of almost everything we do. Participants in this research project will be used to collect data on awareness of Leopold’s Land Ethic and attitudes toward and practices of solid-waste management.

Solid waste, as defined by the US Environmental Protection Agency, is any garbage or refuse, sludge from a wastewater treatment plant, water supply treatment plant, or air pollution control facility and other discarded material, resulting from industrial, commercial, mining, and agricultural operations, and from community activities. Nearly everything we do leaves behind some kind of waste.”

This project will pose questions based on Leopold’s land ethic to explore attitudes toward and practices solid-waste management. In particular, how does Leopold’s land ethic fit within a global society that depends on production, distribution, consumption, and disposal of resources by billions of persons?

As Rathje & Murphy (2010) concluded, There are no ways of dealing with garbage that haven’t been familiar, in essence, for thousands of years, although as the species has advanced, people have introduced refinements. The basic methods of garbage disposal are four: dumping it, burning it, turning it into something that can be useful (recycling) and minimizing the volume of material goods – future garbage – that comes into existence in the first place (this last is known technically in the garbage field as ‘source reduction’). Any civilization of any complexity has used all four procedures simultaneously to one degree or another (p. 33).

That goal of conservation in terms of “waste, pollution, and unproductiveness” may be closer in some respects than when those words were published, but in the county where Leopold accomplished much work to promote conservation, waste poses greater dilemmas than ever. As populations increase and consumer goods are produced in ever-greater quantities, landfills are approaching maximum capacity and recycling rates remain well below sustainable levels. Waste is a growing burden on the land and on our social conscience. As Leopold (1949) wrote, “On the back forty we still slip two steps backward for each forward stride … The problem we face is the extension of the social conscience to land” (pp. 175-177). In short, both our land and conscience are weighed and found wanting whether the problem is that of single-use source materials, litter by a roadside, trash in a truck, reusable products prematurely discarded, or recyclable materials wasted.

The purpose of this project is to explore contemporary discourses and practices of solid-waste management, following a trail that Aldo Leopold began to blaze in his classic work of environmental ethics.

Invitation to Participate in a Research Study

This qualitative-research project intends to explore contemporary views and opinions about solid-waste management, following a trail that Aldo Leopold began to blaze in his classic work of environmental ethics. The results will undoubtedly increase knowledge, views and opinions of environmental educators and solid-waste managers.

We are Stacy Gray, Perry Cook, Henry St. Maurice, and Cindy Solinsky, educators at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. We invite you to provide information for research on opinions and practices of managing solid waste. In this study, participants will be asked to share their perceptions in a short survey of ten items and an optional interview of no more than one hour. Interviews may be recorded on devices that are password-protected. Survey participants will have access to aggregated survey data. Interview participants will receive transcripts of their interviews to which they may make such changes as they choose.

All risks in this study are considered to be minimal.  In this study, the participation is voluntary. Participants have the right to withdraw from interviews at any time without penalty or prejudice. Withdrawn participants’ data will not be used in any form.

If you respond to this invitation, you will be presented with a consent form for your signature and will be offered a copy.

There are no direct benefits to participants (i.e., no rewards, no compensation, etc.). To ensure confidentiality, participants will be described only by random numbers (e.g., Participant 123, Participant 456) instead of titles or names. Except as published, data will be securely deleted seven years after the project is complete.

If you have any questions about this invitation, contact the principal investigator, Henry St. Maurice at 920-318-0037 or hstmauri@uwsp.edu.


Sign up to participate in the study here.



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Callicott, J. (1989). In defense of the Land Ethic: Essays in environmental philosophy. SUNY Press.

Chalmers, H. Cinquetti, S., & de Carvalho.  (2007). Teaching and learning about solid waste: Aspects of content knowledge. Environmental Education Research, 13(5), 565-577, https://doi.org/10.1080/13504620701712449

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Leopold, E. (2016). Stories from the Leopold shack: Sand County revisited. Oxford University Press.

Meine, C. (2004). The once and future land ethic. In Correction lines (ch. 10). Island Press.

Hickman, R. & Eldrege, R. (2016) A brief history of solid waste management in the U.S. during the past 50 years. Forester Media. http://bit.ly/2PZatJX

Rathje, J. & Murphy, C. (2001). Rubbish! The archaeology of garbage. University of Arizona Press.

Seacat, J. (2018, October 8). Community support for recycling pays off. Scientific American, 319(4)

University of Michigan. (2018). Municipal solid waste factsheet, Pub. No. CSS04-15. University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems. http://bit.ly/2Q1POVz

Ziming, C. & Rathje, W. (eds.) (2012). Encyclopedia of consumption and waste. SAGE.