Green Fire: documentary on Aldo Leopold

The documentary Green Fire has won a number of awards for its account of Aldo Leopold’s life and work. And it is going to be showing on some public television stations, the details of which are in the above link.

Here is a a bit about the project, also from the website:

“The Green Fire Story

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949

The impact of his own gunshot from a rimrock in Arizona changed Aldo Leopold’s own thinking, leading to the key insight that was the culmination of his life’s work: a responsibility for its health. Join us as we trace Leopold’s personal journey and follow the threads that connect to his legacy today.

The Green Fire Film Project

Green Fire was produced in partnership between the Aldo Leopold Foundation, the Center for Humans and Nature, and the US Forest Service. The film provocatively examines Leopold’s thinking, renewing his idea of a land ethic for a population facing 21st century ecological challenges. Leopold’s biographer, conservation biologist Dr. Curt Meine, serves as the film’s on-screen guide.

Green Fire describes the formation of Leopold’s idea, exploring how it changed one man and later permeated through all arenas of conservation. The film draws on Leopold’s life and experiences to provide context and validity, then explores the deep impact of his thinking on conservation projects around the world today. Through these examples, the film challenges viewers to contemplate their own relationship with the land community.

The high-definition film will utilize photographs, correspondence, manuscripts and other archival documents from the voluminous Aldo Leopold Archives as well as historical film and contemporary full-color footage on location, including landscapes that influenced Leopold and that he in turn influenced.

The film also features commentary and insight from some of today’s most recognized and credible scholars and conservation leaders, including: three of Aldo Leopold’s children—Nina, Carl, and Estella, Leopold scholars, noted environmental writers, scientists, humanities experts, public policy leaders, business leaders,; and leaders of non-profit groups inspired by Leopold.”

Environmentalism 2.0(12, 13…) and nature v. nature

Slate published an article recently by Keith Kloor on the “battle over nature” in mainstream environmentalism. It starts out from a now well-rehearsed departure point: Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s declaration that environmentalism is dead.

Since then, as Bryan G. Norton so nicely put it, environmentalists are at best mourning a movement past. As the opening gambit of one of his major works states, the obits have been written. Of course, Norton doesn’t think this is exactly right. For him, what is dead is a particular version of environmentalism, one pitched between the preservationist (i.e. hands-off nature) view anchored in John Muir and the conservationist (i.e. use nature wisely) view anchored in Gifford Pinchot. Norton’s view is that it is this version of environmentalism that is dead.

So what comes next?

According to the Slate article, environmentalism 2.0 is the new battle for nature where the remaining preservationists are confronted by pragmatic modernists. If those are the two options, it looks to me like conservationism in a new outfit. And not, as Norton would have it, a new environmentalism characterized by a thorough-going pragmatism – which is a philosophic view where the test of truth is what prevails in the long run and in which experimental policies drive assessments of how to relate to nested and complex social and ecological systems. It is a philosophy, for Norton, of adaptive management.

But if this is so, of what interest is “nature” in the Slate article?

As I’ve noted here before, following some of Tim Morton’s work, working without nature is the way to go. But it is not quite accurate to say that we can do ecology without nature, as Morton asks us to do. I’m not interested in emphasizing differences, but my view is that ecology is entangled with nature. And that it will be so for the foreseeable future. Which is to say, even if we think that the concept, worldview, or proposition of “nature” is outdated, wrongheaded, or empty, it remains the case that the social and ecological systems we inhabit have been actively shaped by it for quite some time. So while we need philosophic work on doing ecology without nature, we also need a practical philosophy for an ecology entangled with it. We need something like transition ecology.

Back to Slate. It seems fairly clear that most of our existing environmental policies and institutional structures took shape at a time when environmentalism was alive and kicking, and when “nature” figured as the backdrop for plays of human drama; let’s say, mid to late 20th century. Putting things in this context clarifies where the Slate article goes off track: it is that environmental folk are already worried that regulations and institutions are too lax, yet they cannot admit that the kind of institutions we now have are inadequate. So on the one hand they want better regulations, but they have a poor foundation to build on. They have built their house on the sandy land (which, yes, is intended both as biblical metaphor and aimed at an interpretation of Leopold where he fits neatly into the preservationist’s building).

And this is where the Slate article gets it wrong in its idea that environmentalism 2.0 is right, or even a palpably new option suitable for 2012, 2013 or 2xxx. Or for any time in the Anthropocene for that matter. The mistake is that it pits failed preservationist ideas against an amplified and globally extended anthropocentrism, cloaked in the idea of ecosystem services (i.e. that the entirety of Earth Systems can be valued in terms of human well-being). And this is not a moral anthropocentrism (in some versions, yes, but that is not my point) but a social, scientific and technological one; where all that counts as the “world” is what befits our current and contingent understanding of our relationships with complex systems. But this is not a new foundation; this is building an ever teetering edifice.

And when you paint a wall white and decide its too bright, you don’t put on a new coat. You change colors.



Holmes Rolston III on Aldo Leopold’s “Thinking Like a Mountain” Story

In “A Sand County Almanac” Aldo Leopold recounts his experience of shooting a wolf in his famous essay, “Thinking like a Mountain.” But was it an actual event or was it a picture of his change in thinking? Since that essay was one of the first ones I ever read in my first environmental ethics class, I was interested when the International Society for Environmental Ethics linked to Holmes Rolston III’s short writing on the topic and mentioned a letter found in 2009 which is thought to confirm it. You can find Holmes Rolston III’s reflections here (pdf).

Leopold panel at American Society for Envr. History

Just received confirmation for a panel on Aldo Leopold at the ASEH meeting in Toronto next April. I’m looking forward to it. Here is my title and abstract:

Leopold’s classification of things: ecology, nominalism and obligation(s)

Aldo Leopold argued for an extension of moral consideration to the entire community of things that comprise ecological systems: collectively, the land. Foregrounding the extension of ethics to this collectivity, however, was a shift that required reordering ethical obligations, and human participants to them, in ecological terms. This paper explores the re-ordering of humans as a different kind of thing—Leopold’s movement of humans from ‘masters’ to ‘plain members’ of ecological systems—which opens up ecological understandings of relationships among things more generally. It finds that Leopold anticipates critiques of modernity made by later social theorists, such as Bruno Latour, and the recent turn towards the ontology of things. But does Leopold offer an alternate path out of modernity? This is the key question of this paper. Investigating this question is taken along two paths. The first considers whether Leopold held to a version of nominalism regarding how things are classified. It queries whether he perhaps even held a type of dynamic nominalism where classification systems ‘loop-back’ to affect what are considered to be concrete possibilities for governing ecological systems at a given time and place. The second considers how Leopold grounds, in an interactive way, what kind of ethical and political duties are extended to what kinds of things. It concludes by considering how Leopold trades on collectivities of things—the land—and the notion of community through which he augurs for an extension of ethics.