The Greatest Challenge of Our Time

In one of my favorite passages from A Sand County Almanac Aldo Leopold describes his aspirations for his children.

I have congenital hunting fever and three sons. As little tots, they spent their time playing with my decoys and scouring vacant lots with wooden guns. I hope to leave them good health, an education, and possibly even a competence. But what are they going to do with these if there are no more deer in the hills, and no more quail in the coverts? No more snipe whistling in the meadow, no more piping of widgeons and chattering of teal as darkness covers the marsh; no more whistling of swift wings when the morning star pales in the east? And when the dawn-wind stirs through the ancient cottonwoods, and the gray light steals down from the hills over the old river sliding softly past its wide brown sandbars – what if there be no more goose music?

Those words pluck at my heart strings. I hear a father laying out his responsibilities as a parent: keep the kids safe; make sure they get a good education; and help them learn to survive and thrive in the world. I also hear concern. It seems for Leopold, Nature was essential to living. And a healthy planet was essential for Nature. In other words, to take care of the kids, we must take care of the Earth.

Leopold Family (Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation)

Leopold Family (Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation)

Nearly 70 years have passed since Leopold penned those words. As a father I too share similar hopes and dreams. I love Logan and Audrey more than anything. My dream is for them to live healthy, fulfilling lives – as well as their children, their children’s children and so forth. Like Leopold I believe Nature and a healthy planet are essential for present and future generations. Given emerging scientific evidence, I fear our hopes may not come true.

Many geologists agree humans have changed the Earth so much that it’s in a new geological epoch dubbed the Anthropocene (Steffen et al. 2007). In our time human activities are dominating ecosystems with rippling consequences of global soil loss, mass extinction, climate change, and others. Many people including scientists and economists with the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy believe these problems stem from our consumer culture. What causes or supports that culture? There are many. Perhaps it starts with governments and politicians encouraging economic growth. They believe economic growth is the only path forward. A path built upon growing consumption and waste production (Czech 2013).

Federal Reserve Board

Federal Reserve Board

The problem is Earth’s resources are finite. Like a bank account can’t support deficit spending forever the planet can’t support economic growth forever either. It’s a fact. Current production and consumption of energy and minerals (for our bodies and machines) directly and indirectly creates a suite of problems from loss of habitat to pollution to disorganizing the land community through introduction of exotic species and loss of species diversity (Steffen 2011). Essentially as humanity’s ecological footprint grows the planet’s ability to sustain us and Nature diminishes.

As I shared previously, experts at the Global Footprint Network, report that if every human on the planet lived the lifestyle of the average American, humanity would need four Earths’ worth of biocapacity each year (McLellan et al. 2014). This unsustainable consumption and wasting will stop eventually. It seems obvious that if we don’t change – if we don’t adapt – future generations of people and wildlife are in trouble. So really the question is do we want to manage for a better outcome?

In 1920, Aldo Leopold urged others to, “respect [Earth] collectively not only as a useful servant but as a living being, vastly less alive than ourselves in degree, but vastly greater than ourselves in time and space.” (Newton 2006) In A Sand County Almanac he would later suggest man not view himself as “conqueror of the land community but plain member and citizen of it.” The pivotal message from the book was the need for humanity to adopt a land ethic – a moral compass to guide us toward a sustainable relationship with our home. Today many use a more encompassing term – the Earth ethic.

Has his idea caught our attention? Today it’s clear Leopold was an innovator. The solution he presented created awareness, triggering a shift in modern society’s relationship with Nature – a needed social adaptation. But in the beginning his bright idea didn’t seem so bright to many – saving trees, saving soil, valuing predators, leaving areas roadless, living simply, and so on. In line with the Diffusion of Innovation theory (Rogers 1962), Leopold’s great idea had few early adopters. Published in 1949, sales of A Sand County Almanac didn’t really take off until the 1960s (Lane 2007).

Diffusion of Innovation (Courtesy of

Depiction of the Diffusion of Innovation (Courtesy of

One of the early adopters of Leopold’s theory was Jay “Ding” Darling. As depicted in an excellent documentary, America’s Darling, he was a champion for an Earth ethic in his own unique way. Unlike most of Leopold’s early followers, Darling was a nationally-celebrated character and held the highest position of authority in the Bureau of Biological Survey (later the US Fish and Wildlife Service). In political cartoons throughout his life, Darling called the nation’s attention to the destruction of Nature. In the 1930s, as the head of the Biological Survey he pushed hard for funds and legislation to restore and protect Nature, even if he had to go against the most powerful figure in the country. In a 1935 note to his boss, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he wrote:

The six million we got from Congress and which you think is enough, is mostly going to buy Okefenokee, the ranches on the winter elk range in Jackson Hole….I need $4,000,000 for duck lands this year and the same bill which gave us the $6,000,000 specifically state that at your discretion you could allocate from the $4,800,000,000 money for migratory waterfowl restoration. We did a good job last year. Why cut us off now? (Lendt 1989)

Another early adopter was former Biological Survey biologist Olaus Murie. As an ecologist he latched on to many of Leopold’s ideas particularly the notion of a guiding ethic. In a 1954 address to members of The Wildlife Society, he had the courage to challenge his peers, stating:

We are not only dealing with animals and plants and soil and water. We are dealing with people as well. Whether we like it or not, we find ourselves in the midst of a struggle. Thoughtful people are trying to understand our place in Nature, trying to build a proper social fabric, groping for a code of ethics toward each other and toward nature….As members of our profession we have a responsibility to contribute to the highest thinking in this field…..We need to look up from our technical study at times and look at the horizon (Journal of Wildlife Management 1954).

Rachel Carson, another Service scientist, was also an early adopter of Leopold’s philosophy. As we know now, she summoned the courage to publicly turn up the heat on politicians and the public when it came to questions of economic growth versus Nature. In a 1952 letter to the editor of the Washington Post she ripped into the new Eisenhower administration for replacing well-qualified agency directors with politicians who had no scientific training, stating:

For many years public-spirited citizens throughout the country have been working for the conservation of the natural resource, realizing their vital importance to the Nation. Apparently their hard-won progress is to be wiped out, as a politically minded Administration returns us to the dark ages of unrestrained exploitation and destruction. It is one of the ironies of our time that, while concentrating on the defense of our country against enemies from within, we should be so heedless of those who would destroy it from within (Lear 1998).

Rachel Carson (Courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Rachel Carson (Courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Long ago Leopold introduced modern society to an idea. He described humanity’s greatest and most enduring challenge as living “on a piece of land without spoiling it,” in ways that enrich its “capacity for self-renewal” or, in other words, its health. Looking ahead, he wrote, “The direction is clear, and the first step is to throw your weight around on matters of right and wrong in land-use. Cease being intimidated by the argument that a right action is impossible because it does not yield maximum profits” (Flader 1992). Clearly Leopold foresaw a huge problem if people didn’t change their relationship with the planet.

Today we have scientific evidence validating what he anticipated. The Anthropocene is likely the greatest challenge of our time (Steffen 2011). Solutions are available but the majority are not ready. If so, our governments and politicians would adopt limits to economic growth via a steady state economy. With such an approach we would use social and political mechanisms to make sure we’re not consuming resources faster than they can be produced. We’d reduce, reuse and recycle. We’d make sure we’re not depositing wastes faster than the planet can absorb them (Czech 2013). We’d live not as cave people but within our ecological means.

But social adaptation stands between us and the solutions. Are we mentally ready to adopt a steady state economy and the changes in lifestyle it will require? Are we ready to engage others and mobilize them to do the same? Actually it doesn’t matter if we’re ready. We have no choice but to lead. Leadership theory now recognizes solutions to complex problems are found through our interactions with each other. This new approach, grounded in neuroscience and organizational theory, abandons the long-held belief that we depend upon one person or “leader” to solve the problem (Lichenstein 2006). In short, we can’t wait for one charismatic person to lead the global community to an Earth ethic. We have to do this.

Logan and Audrey in Sequoia National Park

Logan and Audrey absorb the Nature preserved in Sequoia National Park

I believe we have reason to be hopeful. Adoption of an Earth ethic is likely in the stage of what Everett Rogers defined as the “early majority.” Millions of copies of the Almanac have been sold and it’s been printed in 12 different languages. By now it’s likely millions have adopted an Earth ethic. Recycling, reusing, and reducing our ecological footprint is becoming the norm. CEOs now speak of environmental sustainability (Harvard Business Review 2014). Ecological limits to economic growth is now taught in major universities like University of California, University of Oregon, Virginia Tech and Oslo University College. Adoption of an Earth ethic is growing. But how long before we reach the “tipping point” and can we afford the current pace?

In a prescient 1962 commencement address at Scripps College, Rachel Carson concluded:

Your generation must come to terms with the environment. Your generation must face realities instead of taking refuge in ignorance and evasion of truth. Yours is a grave and a sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery – not of nature, but of itself. Therein lies our hope and our destiny. ‘In today already walks tomorrow.’ (Scripps College Bulletin 1962)

Our kids need a healthy planet. Nature needs a healthy planet. And don’t forget we need a healthy planet too. So what are we doing about it? Are we “walking” in tomorrow? Would Rachel Carson be proud of us?

If we don’t lead, maybe everything will be OK. Maybe the Earth ethic will continue to grow. Maybe social adaptation will continue at a pace quick enough. But what if doesn’t? Can you imagine the costs and the conflicts? We already see the enormous sums of money spent in attempts to clean our air, restore land and fight for water. Imagine how badly it might get with a couple billion more people on the planet.

Yes, the challenge of our time is big and scary. But we have reason to be optimistic. Our understanding of human behaviors, economies and the planet is growing by leaps and bounds. With increasing access to information, I sense humans are adapting to new ideas and information at a faster rate than ever before. There is little doubt we’re in an amazing period of time.

I’m positive we will reach the Earth ethic tipping point before it’s too late. In upcoming posts I’ll describe ways experts suggest we close the gap between our aspirations and the current reality. I’ll share their suggestions on steps we can take together to speed up adoption of an Earth ethic. Steps developed and honed through the study of human behavior. To do so you, me and everyone else in the Nature profession will have to exhibit adaptive leadership.

Thank you for following along. If something here resonates please share it with others and start your own conversation. You might also make a reservation on your calendar in the next month to watch this TEDx presentation about the Anthropocene;  estimate your ecological footprint; watch this extremely popular TEDx presentation and learn more about the Diffusion of Innovation; or rent a copy of Green Fire, a documentary about Aldo Leopold or the film America’s Darling.

Note: I’d like to thank Drs. Brian Czech and Julianne Warren for exploring these thoughts with me over the past year. Certain phrases within this post originally appeared in a poster we presented in April 2014 to the Alaska Chapter of The Wildlife Society: Throwing Our Weight Around – Advancing a Steady State Economy for Earth Health.


About cognizantfox

Cognizantfox has served his country over twenty-five years doing the unselfish, noble work of conserving America's natural heritage.
This entry was posted in Adaptive Leadership, Aldo Leopold, Anthropocene, Conservation, Ding Darling, Innovation, Leadership, Olaus Murie, Rachel Carson, Steady State Economy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Greatest Challenge of Our Time

  1. Deborah says:

    Thanks Jimmy, still trying in many tiny ways, but consumerism is my toughest obstacle to overcome. Downsizing and age are working in my favor. :o)

    • cognizantfox says:

      Deborah – thank you for weighing in so honestly. We are “wired” to consume. Perhaps the first step is acknowledging the conflict between our aspirations and our current reality.

  2. Willy says:

    Thanks, Jimmy… well written.

  3. Noah says:

    Really nice post, Jimmy—thanks for taking the time to aggregate so many ideas and quotes. And for sharing your original ideas, too. By now, many within our circles are aware of the challenges. But of course a conversation about realistic solutions is always the hard part. For me, the idea of politicians and businesspeople promoting the idea of perpetual economic growth isn’t the root problem. All the issues of needing more food, fuel, fiber, space, jobs and higher living standards (i.e., economic growth) can be traced back to human population numbers. I know this isn’t a new idea. But for me it’s the root cause and so none of the other stuff can be adequately dealt with as long as global human population keeps growing so rapidly. Of course, each of those people deserves a life of abundant food, adequate shelter and clothing, and even modern conveniences if they so choose. Look forward to your future posts on how more people can adopt an Earth ethic!

    • cognizantfox says:

      Noah – thank you for contributing. You are the top commenter on this blog and you consistently cause me to stroke my chin. 🙂

      We may be in agreement or disagreement. I’m not sure. I interpret your comment in a way that suggests the number of humans correlates with the Anthropocene or in other words the more people on the planet the worse the problem.

      For me the correlation is consumption or positive global footprint (wastes exceeding sustainable production) drives the Anthropocene. The hope is the largest consumer nations (typically developed) decrease their footprint while the developing nations avoid the developed nations’ mistakes.

      Perhaps there is a sweet spot and the Global Footprint Network is working hard on articulating what that looks like. I can tell you it doesn’t look like the United Arab Emirates and it doesn’t look like Nepal.

      Hope this makes sense!

  4. JenKLeopold says:

    Jimmy, excellent post. I particularly love how the quotes from Olaus Murie and Rachel Carson point out that we as humans need to work together as a community to solve these tough challenges with respect, kindness, and consideration. Thanks for these inspiring thoughts and your great work!

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