Over the course of an influential career, Aldo Leopold advocated a variety of conservation methods, including wilderness protection, sustainable agriculture, wildlife research, ecological restoration, environmental education, land health, erosion control and watershed management. But perhaps most important, he advocated a land ethic...a moral obligation we willingly assume to protect the soil, water, plants, animals and people living together as one community.
(A) scattered but determined effort is now under way to knit the (land ethic) back together, and it's beginning where it matters most –– on the ground. Leopold's call for a land ethic is the root of the "new agrarianism," a diverse suite of ideas and practices based on the bedrock belief that genuine health and wealth depends on the land's fertility.
This resurgent movement includes a dynamic intermixing of ranchers, farmers, conservationists, scientists and others who aim to create an economy that works in harmony with nature. The approach starts with producing food locally while caring about the health of the land; it extends to rehabilitating watersheds, restoring riparian habitat, raising cattle without damaging the land, encouraging biodiversity and protecting open space.
The spiritual mentor of this hopeful effort is, of course, Leopold, who asked us to feel "the soil between our toes." That means the same today as it did decades ago: We human beings need an intimate understanding of how the land actually works. As Leopold said, we need to develop a sense of individual responsibility for the health of the land.
"Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal," he wrote, and "conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity." In other words, the new agrarianism is ecological, blending scientific understanding of land health with local knowledge. One of its goals is to build resilience, the ability to handle shock and change -- an excellent idea for the 21st century.
Little did Leopold know just how important resilience would become to conserving his favorite wild places in the 21st century. It is now the core of humanity's adaptation strategies for minimizing the impacts of climate change on our ecosystems and communities.
Were he to revisit many of his favorite haunts today, Leopold would probably be dumbstruck by how much they've changed -- from the presence of spiny weed species, to the influence of rising CO2 levels and temperatures on the distribution of plants and animals, to the disappearance of some of his favorite native species and formerly perennial streams. Clearly, his thinking on sustainable land use remains as relevant as ever, both to how we treat the land and how we view our relationship to it.
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