The Environmental Ethics of John Muir and Aldo Leopold

The Environmental Ethics of John Muir and Aldo Leopold

Nature’s object in making animals and plants might possibly be first of all the happiness of each one of them, not the creation of all for the happiness of one.” John Muir, quoted from Environmentalism: A Global History by Ramachandra Guha.

John Muir (Photo: America’s Library)

After reading part one of Ramachandra Guha’s Environmentalism: A Global History, I was struck by the question of what it exactly means to be environmentally ethical. Even renowned environmentalists, John Muir and Aldo Leopold possessed differing views on this, and yet, both of them shared the same end goal: the conservation and protection of nature (56). Muir, who was born in Dunbar, Scotland in 1838 moved to Wisconsin at a young age, and later made a name for himself as a writer and lecturer intent on discussing the need to protect the Western wilderness (50). Muir was in love American forests and every organism that walked in them because to him “The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge” (52). He wanted to protect the wildlife in the West from the power hungry grasp of capitalism and industry as he thought that forces such as these would destroy the environment as we know it, and clearly, he was spot on. However, Muir had an interesting take on how exactly to enforce this protection, “[He] thought the parks must be guarded by the military, […] Soldiers with guns might make sure that ‘not a single herd or cow be allowed to trample in the Yosemite garden,’ a garden ‘given to the state for a higher use than pasturage’” (57). For someone whose appreciation for nature was infinite, I found this series of beliefs rather hypocritical. Muir wanted so badly to protect the beauty of the Western wild that he willingly thought armed soldiers were the way to do it, and furthermore, his mention of cows and “hoofed locusts” (sheep) being among the ones nature needs to be protected from is just plain wrong (56-57). So although Muir is celebrated as being one of the most famed environmentalists of his time, I am not too sure I agree with his ethics when it comes to actually protecting the environment. Let the cows and sheep eat and exist in nature, it is just as much their home as it is ours.

Aldo Leopold (Photo: The Aldo Leopold Foundation)

In 1887, Aldo Leopold was born to a family of German immigrants, and much like Muir, he found he had a profound connection to nature from a very young age. Leopold devoted much of his life to the Forest Service, later becoming very active in creating The Wilderness society, “[…] an autonomous pressure group that embraced both a philosophical credo — an intelligent humility towards man’s place in nature — and a practical program, the setting aside for posterity of wild areas as yet untouched by mining, industry, logging, roads, and other such threats” (55). Leopold did not possess Muir’s “siege-like mentality”, instead Leopold was more concerned with “[…] human behavior outside the national parks” rather than in them” (57). Before Leopold, environmentalists like Muir were so intent on putting up walls around National Park sanctuaries that they seemed to overlook the fact that solely protecting national parks from “hoofed locusts” or whatever animal it may be, would not be enough to conserve the Earth’s natural beauty. Leopold recognized this, and came up with a new approach that no one had taken before,

Ecologically, he moved from the protection of species to the protection of habitats and on toward the protection of all forms of biological diversity. Socially, he recognized that wild areas could hardly be saved without a wider reorganization of the economy on ecological principles […]. Ethically, he hoped that an attitude of care and wonder towards nature would not be expressed only on occasional excursions into the wild, but come to be a part of the fabric of our daily lives, so that on weekdays, as much as weekends, we would come to tread gently on this earth. (57-58).

I think Leopold was doing our world a huge service when he branched away from traditional environmentalist thinking. It is because of him that people are able to be more aware of the impact that they are having on the environment and how they can make that impact a little less major. He also imparted his wisdom that it truly is every human’s responsibility to do their part when it comes to taking care of the natural world. With that being said, I don’t think being environmentally ethical is all too difficult to do, what is hard to accomplish is getting everyone on the same page. This issue is one of the biggest within the realm of environmental ethics because no matter how much people work to better our environmental awareness, there will always be people who do not share these same ethics, and therefore will not be doing their part to make planet Earth healthy again. Through the work of Aldo Leopold, it can be seen that people need to be willing to agree on what the most ethical approach is when it comes to the conservation and protection of our planet, and once we decide on this, we must make it our duty to exercise it in order to save the more than human world.


Featured Image Courtesy of: (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

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