Tuesday, 1 April 2014

In a world of wounds

In George Monbiot's latest post (click here), he writes:

To understand what is happening to the living planet, the great conservationist Aldo Leopold remarked, is to live “in a world of wounds … An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

In my ignorance, I have only vaguely heard of Aldo Leopold. I was intrigued to see from where this quote was taken. It comes from his book 'A Sand County Almanac' and was published in 1949. 

I had to read that date of publication again. 1949. The quote seems so fresh, so now. It only goes to prove that the realisation that our planet is not well because of the hand of man is not a modern phenomena. It's just that, in the intervening years since Mr. Leopold's observation, very few of those in a position to do so have done much to alleviate the planet's ailing health. 


Ali said...

Doesn't damage imply a move away from an ideal state? What is that state? Is it an idealised recent past? The planet has always changed. Some of that has had to do with living organisms, of which we are one. The fact that we continue to see our species as special (good or bad) is interesting. To me we are special only in terms of our self-interest in planet-husbandry. Plants changed the world drastically. It wasn't good or bad. It just was.

Steve Gale said...

Ali, that is one way of looking at it, from a fatalistic viewpoint. What makes 'our' changing of the planet different is that we are (were?) able to slow down or even reverse the damage that we are causing. Plants didn't have a conscious decision to make - they just 'were'.

Rob said...

I think the quote actually comes from Leopold's essay "A Land Ethic" which is often bundled together into "A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There". But I read it almost 10 years ago so I may be getting mixed up. As a teenager I found it very inspiring (coupled with reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane, they sent me off to have mini-adventures backpacking and roughing it in a few areas about the UK).

Leopold basically argues that we have systems of ethics regarding humans, animal welfare, property etc but not one for the fauna, flora, the air, the soil etc. He tries to recommend some ethic for this entity that was hitherto seen either as inconsequential or as common property - "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." Modern ecologists would almost certainly argue about the stability bit depending on how it's interpreted, and the beauty bit is very subjective but it is the integrity of the biota that's really important.

So in response to Ali's point, I think we have to accept we're sapient (which makes the difference), that we want to preserve ourselves and maximise our pleasure; and that we rely on the environment for survival. The situation of the ecologist is that he can see the damage being done to the latter - the loss of integrity - but no one is interested in doing anything about it if the cost of dealing with it includes some relative discomfort. I don't think there's an easy way to deal with this disconnect as it's very much a part of human nature but perhaps more widely instilling a "land ethic" would help.

Steve Gale said...

Thanks Rob. I have not read any of Leopold's work - maybe I should do. I found 'Into the Wild' a memorable, if sad read. Have you written about your mini-adventures that were partly inspired by it? And have you read Macfarlane's 'Old Ways' yet?