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
I trust you have enjoyed this tour through the writings of Abbey, Carson, and Leopold as much as I have enjoyed acting as your guide. In this last chapter I hope to convince you of the merit in my argument that Abbey, Carson, and Leopold are without doubt the most influential environmental writers of the 20th Century. Together they constitute the environmental movement’s arborvitae, the bark, the sapwood, and the heartwood of that philosophical tree of life that informs us as we enter the 21st century. Their words influenced environmental policy to an extent unmatched by any others, though they sprouted numerous fruit-bearing branches.
Abbey, Carson, and Leopold were influenced by their time and place at least as much as they influenced the future. They were each self-aware actors intent upon modifying the environment while simultaneously living fully within it. They perceived the instant karma of Manifest Destiny, and worked to correct its course. Indeed, each was fully conscious of making history, that is to say, re-writing the future as they depicted the present.
Like any movement, the 20th Century environmental movement is based on the myths — the stories, histories, and legends — that compel its followers to enact its ideals. Abbey, Carson, and Leopold are the triune godhead of that movement. Edward Abbey’s fictionalized reporting on the environmental deeds taking place in his beloved desert inspired environmental actions across the nation and around the globe. He echoed Walt Whitman’s famous exhortation to “Resist much, obey little,” as in this address recorded by Dave Foreman, founder of Earth First!:
Speaking toward the future, Abbey offered this advice: “Oppose. Oppose the destruction of our homeland by these alien forces from Houston, Tokyo, Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and the Pentagon. And if opposition is not enough, we must resist. And if resistance is not enough, then subvert.”
Abbey supplied the environmental movement with the deeds it needed to take back the wilderness and keep it like it was!
Rachel Carson’s words became the law of the land, the literal gospel of environmentalism in America. In the wake of her writing came pesticide regulations that forever changed the way chemicals would be perceived and used. A large and powerful agency of the federal government, the Environmental Protection Agency, would be created for the purpose of enforcing these new laws.
And at the core of it all, Aldo Leopold’s thoughts formed the basis of the ecology movement of the latter half of the century. That Homo sapiens should consider and adopt an ethic, a code of right relationships, toward the soil, water, plants, and animals that make up the planet Earth was previously unheard of. That we should honor metavalues such as integrity, aesthetic quality, and stability, the very truth, beauty, and goodness of a planetary community was nothing less than environmental revelation. Leopold’s Escudilla becomes our Mount Sinai, his thoughts at once simple and profound: concrete on the surface yet abstract to the extent we are able to follow.
“A culture can be no stronger than its strongest myths,” as we recall the words of James P. Carse. Abbey, Carson, and Leopold gave us myths strong enough to compel and sustain a culture of ecological awareness that changed the direction of the world. In doing so, our mythmakers became mythic heroes themselves. Indeed, it has become difficult to distinguish the apostle from the gospel, the writer from the writings.
We identify so strongly with these authors because they wrote directly to each of us in words we could understand at our own level of comprehension. Where we lacked the vocabulary necessary to understand them, they patiently taught us the words we would need to know. Abbey, Carson, and Leopold knew full well that influencing the next step in evolution would require more than a reasonable argument; they would have to reach us through the vividness of a universal statement at once penetrating and simple in application. We are entranced by the unfailing charm of their prose.
All of which has led to a veritable, and verifiable, paradigm shift in environmental awareness. This can be quantified by innumerable references to their work in the current literature. It seems nearly every book that has anything to do with the environment references Aldo Leopold, while many, many books will also refer to Rachel Carson or Edward Abbey, depending upon the focus of the book, scientific or philosophical. This paradigm shift is best qualified by the blossoming of intellectual movements that have founded themselves on the work of Abbey, Carson, and Leopold.
Possibly the most erudite of these movements is the relational, total-field perspective of environmental philosopher Arne Naess’ deep ecology. Bill Devall and George Sessions, teachers of sociology and philosophy, elaborated on Naess’ thesis, stating that “Deep ecology goes beyond a limited piecemeal shallow approach to environmental problems and attempts to articulate a comprehensive religious and philosophical worldview.” They speak of self-realization and biocentric equality within this paradigm. They list eight basic principles of deep ecology — sound statements in which we may adhere as members of the church of metaphysical ecology. Unfortunately their principles strike our jaded ears as commandments that limit our freedom of action, quite unlike the liberating maxims of Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, and Aldo Leopold.
Academe responded enthusiastically to the seats left vacant by Abbey, Carson, and Leopold, creating an entirely new field of study in environmental philosophy per se. Academicians quickly realized they had an extant literature, resurrecting Thoreau and Whitman from the anthologies of 19th Century American literary works, while rescuing John Muir from the confines of the Sierra Club. Annie L. Booth describes environmental philosophy and its offspring, environmental ethics, as “an exploration of the cosmos and humanity’s relationship to it.” Of course, that is what all of philosophy aspires to, but environmental philosophy informs us from an ecological foundation built on Thoreau, Whitman, and Muir, encouraged by Abbey, Carson, and Leopold. One professor of environmental philosophy, Joseph R. des Jardins, has stated well the philosophical choice we make each day:
Humans cannot help but be shaped and created by their social history. But this can occur in two ways. Humans can go through life being created by and in turn creating their social world without fully recognizing this reality, or they can be fully conscious of and responsible for this history.
Abbey, Carson, and Leopold were thus fully conscious, and demand of us a careful reading of their work. As Thoreau admonished, “Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”
Who, then, will be the most influential environmental writers of the next century, the 21st century? Chances are they are now living among us, and they will most assuredly be informed by Abbey, Carson, and Leopold. The unimaginable paradigm shift they will provoke will lead their readers, their critics, and their followers into realms of thought into which we can barely glimpse — we do not even possess the vocabulary at this time to speak of their visions. They will succeed because of their careful attention to defining that vocabulary for us. They will succeed because of their tremendous ability to write, to paint pictures of their visions in words.
Even so, we must begin preparing for the writings of the next generation even as they prepare to write them. The key to implementing a land ethic is ecological literacy, the ability to think and communicate in ecological terms. When we have attained the requisite level of ecological awareness, a land ethic will follow.
- Bishop, J., Jr. 1994. Epitaph For A Desert Anarchist: The Life And Legacy Of Edward Abbey
- Callicott, J. B. 1989. In Defense of the Land Ethic: Essays in Environmental Philosophy (Suny Series in Philosophy and Bio Logy)
- Coggins, G. C., et al. 1993. Federal Public Land and Resources Law
- Crawford, B. V., et al. 1945. An outline-history of American literature, (College outline series)
- des Jardins, J. R. 1993. Environmental Ethics: An Introduction to Environmental Philosophy
- Faragher, J. M., ed. 1998. The American Heritage Encyclopedia of American History
- Findling, J. E. and Thackeray, F. W., eds. 1996. Events That Changed America in the Twentieth Century (The Greenwood Press “Events That Changed America” Series)
- Light, A. and Smith, J. M. 1997. Space, Place, and Environmental Ethics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
- Sterba, J. P. 1995. Earth Ethics: Environmental Ethics, Animal Rights and Practical Applications
- Thoreau, H. D. 1995. Walden; Or, Life in the Woods (Dover Thrift Editions)
- Valente, C. M. and Valente, W. D. 1995. Introduction to Environmental Law and Policy : Protecting the Environment Through Law
- Vig, N. J. and Kraft, M. E. 1994. Environmental Policy in the 1990s: Towards a New Agenda
Categories: This Land -- Abbey, Carson, and Leopold