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What Would Aldo Leopold Do?

What would Leopold do in the Age of the Anthropocene? It’s a fair question for any person concerned with the future. After all, the man and his wise counsel are increasingly revered not only in the United States of America but around the world. He was innovative, passionate, and persuasive.

Aldo Leopold speaks at the Wisconsin Conservation Congress in 1942. Photo courtesy Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Aldo Leopold speaks at the Wisconsin Conservation Congress in 1942. As an invited speaker, he was trying to explain the need to remove does as a means of controlling deer on an overpopulated range. Photo courtesy Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Leopold’s impact on how humans relate to the Earth is, in my opinion, a signature event in the history of humanity. If he were alive today I bet he would be doing many great things to advance a land ethic. And who doesn’t see the need for such an ethic today?

Currently we Americans are consuming more of the Earth than is sustainable. People in developing countries aren’t far behind in their pursuit to enjoy the comforts we’ve enjoyed for decades. Climate change is the recognized universal symbol of the problem. Yet, experts are documenting  more anthropogenic-driven changes endangering the planet’s biological, chemical and geological cycles.

Faced with such huge problems it is natural to search for a technical fix, but such thoughts are only a fool’s hope. Leopold recognized long ago the overall solution would come through an unwritten moral code that compels us to keep, conserve and restore the health of our planet. He recognized an ethic cannot be written by one person if it is to be embraced by all. He realized people with the problem have to be part of the solution, and correctly understood social change develops in the minds of a thinking community.

Aldo discusses plans for the Riley game cooperative with farmers in 1935.

Aldo Leopold regularly rolled up his sleeves and went out to talk with landowners face to face. Here he is discussing plans for the Riley game cooperative with farmers in 1935.

So what would Aldo Leopold do were he alive today? Perhaps he would ask us to continue the conversation – to work with others to enlarge the thinking community until our societies treat the land and its inhabitants not just as useful servants. What does that work look like? Can we do what he did?

I believe we need to lead others through tough conversations about the Anthropocene and possible solutions. In adopting a land ethic, many people will realize the need to shed a part of their cultural DNA – the cultural norms of a society with an unsustainable ecological footprint. Helping others through this change (and mentally surviving it ourselves) will require lots of interactions and development of strong relationships with many others. That work, done well, is known today as adaptive leadership.

History helps to ground us and, if we are willing, can set us in the right direction in our journey. In his interactions did Leopold exhibit the behaviors of an adaptive leader? What might leading a land ethic look like if we practiced adaptive leadership? In search of an answer to those questions, in 2014 Leopold scholars Drs. Curt Meine and Julianne Warren joined me for a discussion of Leopold’s life and work through the lens of adaptive leadership in a Webinar sponsored by the Management Assistance Team, a program of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

In that conversation I learned that Leopold was more than a great writer. He was a fairly good practitioner of adaptive leadership before it had a name. With no training, he intuitively knew he had to diagnose the attitudes and values of others before he could mobilize them. He recognized his own attitudes and values and that he might need to adapt. Lastly he survived and thrived through the emotional challenges that confronted him along the way.

Aldo Leopold writing at the Shack

Aldo Leopold writing at the Shack.

In addition to understanding adaptive leadership, I encourage people to check out the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s excellent two-day Land Ethic Leaders workshop designed to “equip participants with tools to both introduce Leopold’s land ethic to a wider audience and also to deepen understanding and engagement through dialog about the meaning and value of conservation.”

Leopold helps millions of us think about our relationship with the Earth. We would do well to follow his lead and reach even more people. I wish you courage, energy and humility as you begin or continue land ethic conversations with your friends and family – in the Age of the Anthropocene nothing could be more important.

  • Susan Feathers

    Thank you Jimmy. I love the idea of adaptive leadership; yes, Leopold knew how to do that, but he grew in that knowledge over time and with experience. His marriage to Estella, and her deep roots in Spanish culture, I believe might have been a key influence in this developing understanding of people. I am sorry to miss you poster and your presentation, unable to make the conference this year. Thank you for this thoughtful blog post and your work.

    • cognizantfox

      Susan – thank you for reading, reflecting, and responding. I believe you are likely right – that Aldo Leopold’s relationships with Estella’s family opened his mind to different values, attitudes and biases regarding land use. I will not attend the conference either so together we can wish our friends good times and revolutionary thinking!