Aldo Leopold… the Original Gangsta

By 8th May 2021 October 31st, 2021 Creative Practice

By Bron Taylor, FL
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I found this Powerpoint online whilst looking for resources. It’s a good introductory snapshot of some of the key contextual ideas behind our approach to nature. Bron Taylor is a professor of religion and nature at the University of Florida and according to some is the leading scholar on the overlap between spirituality and environmentalism. He wrote Dark Green Religion, which suggests that nature-worship / sacred ecology / Gaia or biocentric spirituality is an important contemporary religious movement.

Key points/points of personal interest:

Anti-nature, anthropocentric tendencies in Western religion and philosophies

  • the domination of nature (e.g. Genesis – ‘fill the earth and subdue it’),
    – the rejection of animism and pantheism (that all things have spirit, or are divine, and so deserve reverence),
  • the contrast between the cursed Wilderness and the Holy Promised lands of pastoral, agricultural and city landscapes (ie. the sacred is beyond the world – Earth is devalued in favour of heaven)
  • Rene Descartes believed humans are superior to animals/nature as we have minds and they don’t
  • the objectification of nature as a key to science and ‘progress’ Francis Bacon promoted a view of nature as machine, and (like women and slaves) should be bound into the service of men

Individualism (people, animals, plants) vs Holism – whose interests count? Whose interests must we consider?

Individualism – who has moral standing?

  • Humans (anthropocentrism)
  • Sentient animals (Jeremy Bentham, Peter Singer)
  • Living entities that have ‘interests’ (WM Blackstone, Joel Feinberg 1974, Christopher Stone 1972/4, Tom Regan)
  • Individualism critiques: How can pleasure/suffering be measured? Where is the boundary of animal rights? Why base moral standing on human traits? How can we determine, and who decides, what the ‘interests’ of a living thing are? Where’s the basis for prioritising concern for endangered species?

Holism – the whole is greater than its parts

  • biocentrism = life-centered ethics
  • ecocentrism = ecosystem-centered ethics
  • Deep Ecology = identification and kinship ethics
  • Holism critiques: Individuals get hurt when you ignore them in favour of wholes, eco-facism!

Aldo Leopold (1887 – 1948)

  • best known for his ideas on ‘land ethic’, expanding the definition of community to include not only humans but all other parts of the Earth as well; soils, waters, plants and animals, or what he called ‘the land’. The land is one organism, alive. Uses the simple premise ‘that the individual is a member of a community with interdependent parts’.
  • ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community’.
  • Leopold argued ethics can and should evolve, and in doing so, they naturally change our aesthetics and emotions. The evolution of ethics mean new self-imposed limitations of freedom of action.
  • He promoted humility and feelings of ‘kinship’ with non-human organisms, humility naturally flowing from an evolutionary/ecological worldview
  • ecological complexity, interconnection and mutual dependence; it’s all a ‘never ending circuit’ and so its parts both compete and cooperate with each other. The competitions are as much a part of the inner workings as the cooperations – you can regulate them (cautiously) but not abolish them.
  • We might not understand the value of every single thing, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value there, or that we should discard it. ‘To keep every cog in the wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering’. Every part is good.
  • “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on the land is quite invisible to the layman” (1966 [1949]). God, I feel I understand that!
  • Argued that Abrahamic religions are an obstacle to a Land Ethic
  • “We abuse land because we regard is as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect”

James Lovelock

  • Gaia theory (1979) – the biosphere should be scientifically understood as a self-regulating organism that maintains the condition necessary for the survival of Earth’s diverse species.
  • Not intended as an ethical framework, but biospehere-centric ethics have been deducted from it; that people ought not to degrade and imperil this wonderful system upon which all life – including ours – depends.

Very interesting points there. I knew some bits, but I’ve discovered that I really, really love Leopold! The Land Ethic makes absolute sense to me, and I feel is an intention and practice already emerging in my work. I think that last statement of “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect” is, in many ways, what I’ve been trying to do with my art making practice so far; bringing an awareness to, and sense of belonging, to the land. Roots was an example of trying to get people to creatively reflect on their own relationship and ‘kinship’ with the Earth. I think I want to dive deeper into my own sense of kinship, and share that story with others to help them do the same. Leopold… what an OG!

I’m following what my heart and intuition says a lot of the time, and reading around environmental philosophy really helps articulate what it is that I’m circling. This is really helpful.

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