Completed shortly before his death in 1948, University of Wisconsin forestry professor Aldo Leopold grants his readers the supreme privilege of seein...moreCompleted shortly before his death in 1948, University of Wisconsin forestry professor Aldo Leopold grants his readers the supreme privilege of seeing nature through the original ecologist's eyes. Leopold was probably not the first to use the term "ecologist", nor the first to be be so branded; surely he was the first to deserve it. Though it may appear a quaint historical piece at first glance, its message is no less potent and relevant in the 21st century: nature, the land, deserves full respect and love without regard to traditional economics. Without this, effort at conservation will be a vain half-measure at best.
Sand County Almanac is a series of short pieces, organized in three primary units: A Sand County Almanac, Sketches Here and There, and The Upshot. Each is filled with a beautiful prose showing an easy command of the English language and yet also displaying enough humility to remain accessible to all. Along with scientific precision Leopold brings evocative imagery and an emotion at times ironic, but never overly so.
The Almanac teaches us how to really see nature — how to understand a thing for what it is instead of what it is not. Thus the Leopold-educated, confronted with a marshy backwater, is no longer prone to see it as a lost opportunity for development. Rather, she will encounter a unique habitat, developed over geologic time into a home for beautiful pasque flowers, graceful cranes, and playful muskrats. Through a web of consumption — passing energy up through the soil to the plants, herbivores, carnivores, and back to the soil — the marsh sustains itself with only slow changes over time. Without the right mix of players, the biota is liable to collapse to a less sustainable, less organized, and less diverse state; in other words, it will devolve into a field of corn.
In the Sketches, we get a portrait of Leopold's development as a young man and as a forester. Reading the Sketches, one feels a great sense of loss for all that humanity has done to its environs, for all that humanity unintentionally — and unfeelingly— has destroyed. And yet it is clear that he continues to respect the best elements of humanity:
"To love what was is a new thing under the sun, unknown to most people and to all pigeons. To see America as history, to conceive of destiny as a becoming, to smell a hickory tree through the still lapse of ages — all these things are possible for us, and to achieve them takes only the free sky, and the will to ply our wings. In these things, and not in Mr. Bush's bombs and Mr. DuPont's nylons, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts."
We find that he is no Luddite. He does not shun civilization or the amenities of life. Its just that he believes in moderation, and convincingly shows that what most of us take for moderation remains overindulgence. What I think he laments most in mankind is the lack of a sense of connection to the land.
This theme of connection is more thoroughly explored in the final unit, The Upshot. These four essays take both a more philosophic and political bent (though by no means partisan). The crowning jewel of the book is "The Land Ethic." He wishes us to see the land not as merely dirt, trees and water, but as a complex regenerative system that is beautiful and deserving of respect in its own right. My guess is that this is the most influential paragraph of the entire work:
"The 'key-log' which must be moved to release the evolutionary process for an ethic is simply this: quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. 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."
Incidentally, within "The Land Ethic" one can find the seeds of Gaia theory, Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel theories, and a clear understanding of the systems and complexity theories that were only beginning to emerge within the scientific community.
The Almanac is a masterwork. It breathes the rarefied air of non-fiction elevated to the point of literature. Any education system that wishes to impart to its students an ability to know and understand nature (the goal of science) should require reading at least a selection. Any citizen who wishes to play a positive role in the future development of her city, region, nation ought to partake of Leopold's genius. This is a work that will stand the test of time. If one day a child, hearing of its fame, should read the Almanac and wonder at its hallowed status in light of what he perceives as commonplace observations, then shall we know that the Land Ethic has truly taken hold.
For a sample of Leopold's writing, I recommend Thinking Like a Mountain, the first piece I ever read from him. From the Sketches, it expresses both a magnificent sense of the order in nature, along with Leopold's wistfulness about mankind's present role in the greater ecosystem. Also available online is The Land Ethic itself. (less)
In The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems, Fritjof Capra attempts to present a synthesis of systems models as a new (and i...moreIn The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems, Fritjof Capra attempts to present a synthesis of systems models as a new (and improved) way of looking at life. While scientists will often speak of paradigm shifts within a field -- for instance from Newtonian to relativistic physics, or Lamarckian evolution to the Darwinian kind -- it is rare that they attempt to link these individual shifts to a wider movement. It is probably rarer still that they attempt to create the overarching paradigm, as opposed to simply documenting it.
Capra begins by acknowledging the countless problems plaguing humanity today. Taking a deep ecological approach, he sees the problems of hunger, climate change, education, conflict, and so on as being integrated and systemic. If humanity understands the magnitude of these calamities, then it is clear that we are not currently capable of dealing with them. Capra's belief is that we must refocus the way we look at the world -- we must put on green-tinted glasses with a worldview rooted in sustainability. He speaks of the need to understand the interdependence of humanity and nature; he speaks of shifting from self-assertion to integration, from power to balance, and from hierarchies to networks.
One of the delightful aspects of Capra's writing is that he leaves room for you to connect many of the dots, yet weaves key concepts in repeated mantras. If you don't quite see the connection, he'll make it clear in a reference somewhere in the next chapter. Thus it is as he steps away from the normative social science for most of the book, wrapping things up nicely at the end.
In parts two and three he describes systems thinking and key systems theories. Of systems thinking in general Capra writes, "[the] essential properties of an organism... are properties of the whole, which none of the parts have," and, " systems cannot be understood by analysis."
Four criteria of systems thinking are laid out:
1) holistic, systemic properties emerge as "organizing relations of the parts" 2) different properties emerge at each "level" of a system 3) knowledge as a network, not an edifice 4) must explicitly describe epistemology
Dr. Capra, a particle physicist by training, has a true gift for translating abstract scientific concepts into intelligible English. This gift is used well in describing an array of theories and showing the similarities of worldview that they imply. Of traditional physics he speaks little, only alluding to ideas drawn out in full in The Tao of Physics. In fact, his work now revolves around the idea of life being at the center of our quest for knowledge, instead of pure structure. Theories so richly described include cybernetics, dissipative structures and mathematical complexity (chaos), laser theory, hypercycles, autopoeisis, Gaia theory, and symbiogenesis.
Much of the synthesis throughout and following these theories grows from the work of Humberto Maturela and Francisco Varela (the Santiago theory of cognition). As he moves from the primarily physical theories into the realm of humanity, he focuses on the place of consciousness, rational and intuitive knowledge, and language in the human condition as we know it.
I find the Web of Life to be an engaging, educational, coherent, and most important of all, extremely relevant view of the world in which we presently find ourselves. It is an important addition to the field of knowledge, and I hope that it may affect some shift in both the filters we see the world through and the policies we create in their context.(less)
E.O. Wilson, one of America's foremost scientists and secular humanists, has penned a moving appeal for religionist and scientist alike to set aside their differences and focus together on preserving Earth's biological diversity for the benefit of today's and future generations (which, in the case of many bacteria and insects, will also begin and end today). In a beautiful prose reminiscent – no doubt intentionally – of Aldo Leopold, Wilson moves directly to share his sense of awe in the face of nature, and the plain facts about what science has discovered about the state of our planet's biodiversity. He also writes of what we do not yet know: of the countless species yet identified, the relationships amongst them yet unrecognized, and the increasing need for citizen and scientist alike to pursue this knowledge.
As one long convinced of the scientific facts of humanity's destructiveness, and of the terrible tragedy this represents, I did not need Wilson's persuading. But I am convinced that he has taken the right approach, the right tone. He proceeds with respect. He does not water down, but does write in a language far simpler than many intellectual popular science books (such as his own difficult-to-read Consilience). He mixes fact with anecdote to keep the reader engaged.
If this formula does not succeed in engaging the drive to dialogue for both parties, then the biophillic may have lost one of their last hopes for a grand compromise. Of course they can always take the inside route – go religious, work that angle as apparently Bishop Spong does.
One of the unstated currents of The Creation is the sense of nearly-mystical ecstasy that can be found in the presence of nature. This is also a hallmark of Leopold's writing, and of the aforementioned Bishop Spong's. Set aside the "rational" arguments for cooperation between science and religion, and think on this description of the "charismatic experience" of religion, from Moojan Momen's The Phenomenon of Religion (p94):
"This experience makes those involved feel that a gift has been bestowed upon them. This gift may include a feeling of being in a 'wider life than that of this world's selfish interests,' a sense of being in continuity with the powers of the universe, and a sense of elation and joy as the sense of self and attachment to this world is abandoned. There is an inner equilibrium and calm. It has been described as the experience of saintliness."
This is the ecstasy, or going out of self, that so many religious writers emphasize. Working in a garden, hiking through the less-tamed natural areas, or gazing into a microscope at the diverse fauna of our own saliva, we can step out of our human shell, detached from our human games and "worldly" desires for a moment, feeling a sense of reverence, awe, and oneness in the presence of such diverse forms of life. Anecdote shows this; research proves it: people experiencing greater biodiversity are happier, are better able to overcome life's vicissitudes.
Wilson's common ground is thus not built solely on the unifying element of respect for and stewardship of the natural environment. There is also the commonality, at least in their morally highest representations, of religion and science both working to improve the livelihoods and the satisfaction of living beings, both working to ease our suffering and uplift our joy. Yes, much of "religion" is about the ease of suffering via a satisfying after-life, but every world religion also contains the strong call to compassion and charity in the here-and-know.
Science, as reviewed by Wilson, increasingly is showing a link between achievement of these aims and human exposure to diverse elements and forms of life. Thus if we wish to improve the common weal, we must preserve the biodiversity remaining on Earth, and even work to reverse the destruction we have already caused. And the time is now – we cannot afford to wait while we solve one or many of the Earth's and humanity's many challenges. This too Wilson makes abundantly clear. We are on the edge of a precipice, and it will take our combined efforts to push us back into stability.
This is one of the most profound secular works I have ever read, and I cannot recommend it more highly. Some critics have labeled it condescending; I saw it as frank and straight-forward. If you have the means, please read The Creation, and then find ways to strengthen your commitment to the well-being of your fellow creatures on this God-given Earth.
Love God Heal Earth is a compilation of essays, from leaders of 11 religions and denominations, that delve into the religious call for a transition to...moreLove God Heal Earth is a compilation of essays, from leaders of 11 religions and denominations, that delve into the religious call for a transition to a sustainable way of life. While not devoid of science, this book presents a deeply spiritual, personal, and hopeful message that moves beyond the intellectual reality of global climate change. In other words, it is a powerful complement to the grim facts of An Inconvenient Truth.
Rev. Bingham assembled the author list from among her contacts in the network of state-level Interfaith Power and Light organizations, of which her California group was the first (and her Regeneration Project is the "umbrella"). These authors are all active in promoting a lower impact way of life, in teaching about climate change, and in encouraging an ethic of "creation care." They come from diverse backgrounds, representing Buddhism, Christianity (in multiple forms), Islam, Judaism, and Unitarianism. But their diversity is more than just religious. One of the most striking aspects to this book is seeing how these authors navigated from the traditional cares of their communities, which tend to see conservation as at best someone else's job, into the field of creation care.
In that regard, I was particularly inspired by Rev. Dr. Gerald Durley, pastor of the Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta. He describes how his passion for racial justice in America was suddenly transformed into an awareness of ecological impacts on communities – an awareness of eco-justice. "The light is on and it must continue to shine in all of our lives, to let us see that most living things are being harmed because we are not aware nor globally concerned about what it will take to save the environment," Rev. Durley writes. My copy of the book is riddled with little pink sticky notes. His chapter has none, because there was nothing I wanted to single out. It is an entire essay I will return to often.
Those sticky notes mark out dozens of resources, ideas, and inspiring passages. These will be of great help to anyone wishing to engage in religiously-motivated action for the betterment of the planet. That action might be in the form of political activism, or of intra-denominational or ecumenical eco-theology. You will find inspiration here. If you find yourself wanting to change more than just light bulbs (although that is a good start), you will find inspiration. If your wish is to envision a life less-mired in materialism, or one that steps boldly beyond the critics on left (anti-religion) and right (anti-environmentalism), then you too will find a muse.
In closing this review, I share a passage from the Rev. Jim Deming, United Church of Christ, Nashville, TN (p 49), which leaves me with a feeling of realism, but also of hope.
"There will be times of backsliding and confession, but there will also be times of grace and insight that are God's reward for doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God. Let us humbly invite our neighbor and walk humbly to the future together."
Review of Love God Heal Earth: 21 Leading Religious Voices Speak Out on Our Sacred Duty to Protect the Environment, by Rev. Canon Sally G. Bingham et al. Published in 2009 by St. Lynn's Press, Pittsburgh, PA. No goods or services were received in return for this review.(less)