Featured Author: Aldo Leopold

Aldo LeopoldEcology was the great emergent science of the 20th century, and its central insight was that everything is connected. Aldo Leopold (1887–1948) is often described as the father of environmental ethics, and his “land ethic” is a landmark in American philosophical thought. But the idea that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community” is as much a pragmatic insight as an ethical one, and it grew from a lifetime out in the natural world. After a rural midwestern childhood he went to Yale’s Forestry School and then entered the infant U.S. Forest Service, both institutions under the sway of Gifford Pinchot’s forthright utilitarianism.

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Much of his early career was spent in the desert Southwest, and it was there that he began to develop the principles that made him the founder of wildlife management in the United States. His 1933 textbook Game Management is still in print—and so, of course, is his classic account, in “Thinking Like a Mountain,” of the day he changed his mind about killing wolves, the key Damascus Road story of American environmental conversion. In 1924, he helped to preserve the Gila Wilderness, part of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest; in 1935 he joined Bob Marshall, Benton MacKaye, and others in founding The Wilderness Society.

He was moving beyond Pinchot—or perhaps synthesizing the warring impulses of Pinchot and his old adversary John Muir—when he decided that effective conservation required truly wild lands as a baseline. But his vision went well beyond wilderness. In many ways his “land ethic” offered an early attempt to ground environmentalism in every action and decision. It was his words in A Sand County Almanac (1949) that would provide his greatest legacy: the explicit recognition that the human community needed to extend its boundaries to include “soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” He died fighting a brush fire near his Sand County shack.

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