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Director’s Corner: Nature and the Environmental Movement: Human Values in Action

By April 20, 2014August 4th, 2020No Comments
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty
of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

~Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac


“The components of the natural world are myriad but they constitute a single
living system.  There is no escape from our interdependence with nature;
we are woven into the closest relationship with the Earth…. We must respect,
preserve, and love its manifold expression if we hope to survive.” 

~Bernard Campbell, Human Ecology

“All of us have a God in us, and that God is the spirit that unites all life,
everything that is on this planet.  It must be this voice that is telling me
to do something, and I am sure it’s the same voice that is speaking to
everybody on the planet – at least everybody who seems to be concerned
about the fate of the world, the fate of this planet.”

~Wangari Maathai, In Context


As we work our way around the Sustainability Compass of Nature, Economy, Society, and Wellbeing, April is the perfect month to settle on Nature given that April 22nd is Earth Day.

The modern environmental movement took off on April 22nd, 1970, the first Earth Day.  It was the largest public demonstration in American history, with some 20 million people participating in local events around the country.  It was a people’s movement that had been growing for almost a decade, driven by growing recognition of the wanton destruction of nature and virtually unregulated discharge of pollution to the air, land, and water, both having serious implications for humankind.

In my view these are the two major, values-based drivers of the environmental movement:

  • A deep appreciation for the natural world: its beauty, complexity, and diversity, and its right to exist in its completeness; its spectacular ability to generate the conditions that enable life to flourish; its sacredness and profound spiritual value.
  • A deep appreciation and concern for humankind and individual wellbeing:environmental degradation impoverishes us and threatens humanity in ways we do not fully understand and appreciate.

These values, the deep appreciation of nature and wilderness as a source of life, inspiration, and beauty, and our obligations to take responsibility for the way we use and treat the natural world, are universal, and have been around for a long time.  Here in the United States, these values are as old as our nation and throughout our history they have been expressed with insight and eloquence by a constellation of people who today would be considered environmentalists.

Here is a brief retrospective of just a few of the people who have played a role in creating the conservation and environmental movement, much of which comes from Dreamers & Defenders, American Conservationists, by Douglas H. Strong.

Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862
Thoreau lived for two years at Walden Pond, deeply appreciated nature, and criticized humans for destroying it.  He thought nature brings out the best in people and enables them to move closer to the Divine Being, that nature reflects spiritual truths, and wilderness enriches us with inspiration and beauty.

Frederick Law Olmsted, 1822-1901
Olmsted laid the groundwork for city planning and landscape architecture in the United States.  He designed Central Park (imagine New York City without it).  He had a strong sense of social justice and urged government to protect scenic areas from becoming private estates – a trend at the time – to preserve them as natural history and to ensure access by rich and poor alike.  He saw the parks, parkways, campuses, etc. that he designed as vehicles for social transformation, landscapes that nurtured people’s sense of beauty, order, and respect for others.  His son, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., designed Auburn’s campus in 1929.

George Perkins Marsh, 1801-1882
His greatest contribution came from his understanding of ecology.  In 1863 he published Man and Nature, a book which has been called the “fountainhead of the conservation movement.”  His book explained the link between human activity (as done then and for the most part now, in an unenlightened way) and environmental degradation.  He observed “When the forest is gone, the great reservoir of moisture stored up in its vegetable mould is evaporated, and returns only in deluges of rain to wash away the parched dust into which that mould has been converted.” What he described can be observed in almost every corner of the planet to this day.  His message remains unmistakable: the welfare of every generation depends on how earlier generations have treated the soil, water, plants, and animals.

John Muir, 1838-1914
Muir spent a lot of time trekking in the natural world, in particular the Sierra Nevada. He spent much of his life writing and working for the preservation of wilderness, and especially the plight of Yosemite Valley, which he called God’s cathedral.  He wrote about the values of wilderness: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”  Where Gifford Pinchot measured the value of natural resources in economic and practical terms, Muir argued that wilderness, recreational use, and scenic beauty also constitute a legitimate use of land.  (I’m with Muir!)

Theodore Roosevelt, 1858-1919
T.R.’s conservation legacy is unmatched.  He created 4 National Game Preserves, 5 National Parks, 7 Conservation Conferences, 18 National Monuments, 24 Reclamation Projects, 51 Federal Bird Reservations, 150 National Forests, totaling 230 million acres.  In 1908 he said “In the past we have admitted the right of the individual to injure the future of the Republic for his own present profit.  The time has come for a change.  As a people we have the right and the duty… to protect ourselves and our children against the wasteful development of our natural resources.”  In 1912 he wrote “All the great natural resources which are vital to the welfare of the whole people should be kept either in the hands or under the control of the whole people.”

Aldo Leopold, 1887-1949
Leopold’s major objective in his writing and teaching was to make people aware that they belonged to a community composed of soil, water, plants, and animals – that they belonged to the land; that people are not apart from, but a part of, nature.  To him (and I think his view holds the key to a livable future) the future of conservation and perhaps of the human race depends on the adoption of a new attitude of respect and responsibility for the biosphere, what he termed a land ethic:  “A land ethic then reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land (the biosphere).”

Rachel Carson, 1907-1964
When she died of cancer, Senator Abraham Ribicoff stated: “This gentle lady, more than any other person of her time, aroused people everywhere to be concerned with one of the most significant problems of mid-20th century life – man’s contamination of his environment.”  As early as 1945 she was concerned about the effects of the pesticideDDT but she could not interest a publisher.  Finally in 1962 she published one of the most impactful and important books ever written, Silent Spring, which The New York Times described it as a “moral call to arms.”  Two responses to the book were typical:  Anthropologist Loren Eiseley said the book was a “devastating, heavily documented, relentless attack upon human carelessness, greed, and irresponsibility.”  Others from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the chemical industry, and agribusiness called the book“unfair, one-sided, and hysterically overemphatic…emotional and inaccurate.”  (Sounds a lot like attacks on climate science.)  From Silent Spring, Ms. Carson gets the last word:“We still talk in terms of ‘conquest’ – whether it be of the insect world or of the mysterious world of space.  We still have not become mature enough to see ourselves as a very tiny part of a vast and incredible universe, a universe that is distinguished above all else by a mysterious and wonderful unity that we flout at our peril.”

The legacy of these and many other great Americans is carried on today by countless famous and not so famous people in the United States and around the world who share their values, values that thrive at the core of what it means to be human.  People like Jane Goodall, E.O. Wilson, Bill McKibben, Vandana Shiva, Bill McDonough, Paul Hawken, Maude Barlow, Fritjof Capra, Janine Benyus, David Suzuki, Annie Leonard, Herman Daly….

And right here at Auburn University, and in the greater Auburn community, and around our state are many, many, people of similar intellect, passion, action, and commitment.

Membership-based environmental organizations too, some started by people mentioned here, are working to preserve our biosphere for all its value to humans and all life on Earth.  Paul Hawken writes in his magnificent book Blessed Unrest that there are literally millions of organized groups around the world working to restore and protect the natural world and human wellbeing.

From international organizations like World Wildlife Fund and the Jane Goodall Instituteand WaterKeeper Alliance, to national organizations like Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation and, to regional organizations like Chesapeake Bay Foundation andSouthern Environmental Law Center, to local organizations like the Alabama Rivers Alliance and Alabama Water Watch and Save our Saugahatchee, there are many ways to engage with others in the all-important effort to restore and protect our planet.

By all science-based accounts, in spite of all that has been accomplished, we have lost much ground since the first Earth Day.  From where I stand what will reverse this trend is two things: the development of an ethically informed “ecological conscience” of responsibility for the biosphere that Aldo Leopold wrote about, and organized citizen activism that results in laws, policies, and behaviors that respect the laws of nature, serve the common good, and recognize humans are part of, not apart from, all life on this planet.

Once the concept of environmentalism is grasped, it lasts.  Ray Anderson quotes former Interface associate Paul Paydos: “I have never known an ex-environmentalist.  Once you get it, you cannot unget it.”  Speaking of the environmental and broader sustainability movement, Ray wrote: “The movement is like a ratchet; it only moves in one direction.  There’s every reason for hope in that observation.”

There is great meaning in being part of this centuries-old and growing movement to restore our planet and improve human wellbeing, and in celebrating Earth Day every day.


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