Our Oldest Task

In 1938 the father of Nature conservation, Aldo Leopold, put his finger on a problem I’d like to discuss with you today. He wrote: “Our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides, but they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history – to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”

Since Leopold’s warning 80 years have gone by and human population has almost tripled. And millions around the world are joining folks like you and me in consuming more and more and more stuff. Experts are alarmed. They say our growing appetite for land, water and minerals threatens not just Nature but us and our peace and prosperity.

Take for instance our smart phones. There are more of these on the planet today than people. A typical device may contain over 60 different types of Earth metals. The extraction,  manufacturing and transportation of these metals for just one iPhone is estimated to crisscross the planet a half a million miles – polluting air and water, destroying farm land, and fueling conflict and death in developing nations. Once in our hands charging them emits megatons of carbon into the atmosphere each year. And if we toss them into the trash later we create another set of problems.

shipping lanes

Traffic of just 11% of over 30,000 merchant ships sailing in 2005 (Credit: NOAA)

At the global scale participants of the recent 2017 World Economic Forum suggest the most likely risks to humanity aren’t from cyber crime, chemical warfare or other things we might fear. But from a sick planet. Our home. Our grocery store. Our water well.

So how do all 7 billion of us – soon to be 9 billion – live on this planet without spoiling it? Without spoiling our chances to survive and thrive? Well, the good news is Aldo Leopold was right. We are clever. We can grow food without soil. We can engineer animal and plant DNA. We can even fly around the world on solar-power wings.

Why then are we failing our oldest task? I don’t believe it’s because we don’t have the technology. I believe it’s because we don’t use our brains and just adapt. Instead we continue to pursue unlimited economic growth on a finite planet. We choose not to reduce the footprint of our lifestyle. We choose not to buy less, eat less, or travel less. But we could. We could live on this planet without spoiling it. We could live, not as cave people, but as sustainable people.

I believe we can solve this problem because we are clever. Not only can we innovate and solve complex problems. But just as importantly we’re learning how our greatest tool – the human brain, works too. Emerging research in this field gives me hope. I believe we can learn to make sustainable choices. We can choose to be healthier and happier while protecting the planet. And we can get others to join us too. What I’ve learned isn’t rocket science. It’s much easier than that. Using what we know about our brains we can do two very, very important things: manage ourselves and skillfully engage others.

Science has shown we aren’t wired well for the challenge before us. We evolved to respond to here and now, in-your-face kind of threats like lions, tigers and bears not invisible threats that slowly turn into dangerous things like cancer, obesity or even climate change.

cat attack

Sabertooth cat chases an early human (Credit: Maurico Anton, Artist)

That’s why we arm ourselves against the slightest risks like an airplane crash or terrorist attack but just can’t seem to grasp the dangers of inhaling smoke, eating too much sugar or burning fossil fuels. Ironically we resist making the very changes we need.

So how do we overcome such resistance? First, we own it. We own the fact that we react to far off, invisible threats with indifference. Faced with what seems a distant problem we dwell on any costs that might come with change while ignoring possible benefits. Convinced losses will outweigh gains we stick with the status quo usually until its too late.

This loss aversion bias has kept me from making important changes in my life. But like others I’ve found that if I can stop and mentally get up into the bleachers and look down and see the whole field of life it’s a game-changer. This perspective helps us see distant seemingly invisible threats are real and dangerous. With our brains liberated we can respond logically.

So how do we skillfully engage others? How do we move the community forward? To build this capacity I suggest three things we can all do on a daily basis: appeal to emotions, show respect, and show rewards.

“To build this capacity…appeal to emotions, show respect, and show rewards.”

When engaging others remember emotions trump facts. Let go of the notion that facts alone change a person’s mind. Studies show countering someone with facts may even backfire. Instead find ways to connect with someone or something the person cares about. For me it’s seeing friends and loved ones devastated by obesity. It’s going back to the forests of my youth and finding only stumps, cattle and an empty stream.


Stream in Wayne County, Missouri

Second. Show respect. Don’t strive to be heard, strive to listen. When you find yourself angry when responding to someone’s email or Facebook post stop and imagine he or she’s in the room with you. When we engage respectfully we can touch on tough topics with most anyone. And we leave the door open for future conversations.

Last and perhaps most important. Show the rewards of sustainable living. Show you’re happy, healthy, and debt-free. Help others see a life of less is so much more. Your life, like the life of Buddha, Gandhi, Jesus or others can be a model. And remember, research has shown that people trust people that practice what they preach.

I’ve made a number of changes in my life recently. And I follow in the footsteps of many, many others. I believe if we’re smart, if we use our tools and our brains, we’ll finish our oldest task. We’ll live on this planet without spoiling it. It won’t be easy. But it’s our task. And it’s a duty we owe not just ourselves but future generations.

(Note: this post is script that guided a TEDx presentation I delivered on April 9th 2017.)



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, Leadership, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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