Aldo Leopold: The 1930s, Limits of State-directed Conservatiion

This blog has been quiet for a while, once again. There are a few reasons for this. One is that I have been burdened with completing my upcoming book, due out in a few months. A second reason is for the past two months I took a job to make some extra cash. That accomplished, I quit in hopes of sustaining a few other projects and working as much as possible on my Philip K. Dick project and some articles related to Taiwanese history. Freed from my temporary status as wage slave, I can return with full energies to educating myself.

I left off with Aldo Leopold’s writings from the 1910s and 1920s. Now we come to his writings of the 1930s. It is during this period that Leopold settled permanently in Wisconsin and began teaching at the University of Wisconsin, but before that he worked briefly in some of the New Deal-era conservation programs.

In Aldo Leopold’s textbook Game Management (1933) we find “thinking like a state” is really at the heart of conservation. Such state centrism takes the problem of sustaining the right population of “wild game for recreational use” and sees it as essentially a problem of managing different variables (predators, forests, number of hunters). An interesting of his discussion on game management is that he connects it to agriculture, saying that the line between farming and management is not so wide. However, more profoundly, he notices that game management has been a part of civilization since the beginning of agriculture. Agricultural societies did not only seek to tame a small number of crops and animals for their use, they almost immediately took steps to ensure a steady population of wild game for hunting. Rules established by the Hebrews, the Romans, the Mongols, and Tutor England differed greatly but they had in common a fear that the people, if not limited, will overuse the commons. The tools they had were not so different than the tools available in Leopold’s generation: faith in defense of game through private ownership, game farming followed by release into the wild, cover control to make hunting easier, and punishments for individuals over harvesting the commons.

gm

The anti-statist critique could sound something like this: If the state manages wildlife, it ceases to be wild and becomes an extension of cultivation at best. At worst, it becomes sterile and machinelike, like the farmed forests that produce wood for paper mills but fail to sustain an eco-system. Leopold predicts this critique. “There are still those who shy at this prospect of a man-made game crop as at something artificial and therefore repugnant. This attitude shows good taste but poor insight. Every head of wild life still alive in this country is already artificialized, in that its existence is conditioned by economic forces. Game management propose that their impact shall not remain wholly fortuitous.” (315—316) Leopold, writing Game Management confesses to the end of the wilderness.

One thing I appreciate about reading Leopold is this total honesty about the human abolition of nature and the catastrophic consequences of it. Although he often took on the role as an agent of the state, advocating a host of policies to help manage wildlife, he knew that the state was ultimately doomed to failure and that civilization often runs counter to our basic human desires. While civilizations struggle to create sustainable systems (political, economy, social), they are always doomed to failure. This is a basic lesson of history It is interesting that around the same time that Leopold is writing this down in “The Conservation Ethic,” Arnold Toynbee was working on his massive theory of history, which brought home the idea that civilizations are always doomed to collapse. How then, is conservation (itself a form of management of the commons) possible without taking on all the other values of “civilization.” These include: the idea that nature should be conquered and that this is a benefit for humans and that a good

life comes from increasing consumer goods and technology. In this, Leopold provides a bit of prefigurative politics, within the structure of the state. Yes, the lesson of history is that civilization seems incapable of interacting with nature ethically, but conservation at least provides a space to workout, experiment with alternatives. This is his position in a short essay “The Arboretum and the University,” where he suggests that the university arboretum is a testing ground to experiment in a new definition of civilization as one working with nature. “If civilization consists of cooperation with plants, animals, soil and men, then a university which attempts to define that cooperation must have, for the use of its faculty and students, places which show what the land was, what it is, and what it ought to be.” (353) It may sound slightly naïve given the deep challenges we face, but is this not the essence of prefigurative politics: Our effort to create spaces where the future we desire is worked out. Leopold may have been too willing to work with fully despicable institutions to affect his ideal, but he is hardly the worst person to do so.

leopold Leopold lived at a time of dramatic changes in the power of the state over society and over nature. The New Deal made possible the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and other laws that would profoundly shape the relationship between Americans and their environment. This is not to suggest that unregulated capitalism did much better by the land. The Dust Bowl was caused by reckless misuse of land and overproduction in the West. The Agricultural Adjustment Act helped solve that ecological problem. The massive engineering projects, like the hydroelectric power projects of the Tennessee Valley Authority are more troubling, because they did seem to continue what Leopold warned about: the attitude that civilization and progress require the conquest of the land. “We end, I think, at what might be called the standard paradox of the twentieth century: 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.” (410) This is from his 1938 essay “Engineering and Conservation.” I wonder if it is at this point that he starts to grow more ambivalent about the role of the state institutions as being the agent of prefiguring.

Leopold's shack

Leopold’s shack

The following year, he came out with an essay “The Farmer as Conservationist,” where is proposes a more vernacular option. There is a practical aspect to looking at the farmer as an alternative agent. It is not so much that farmers have some sort of cosmic, spiritual encounter with the land through their work, but rather that they—through vernacular practices—can break free of some of the economism that makes some of the state-initiated plans so devastating. Some projects that may not provide immediate returns, but help conservation can be identified by people closer to the land. The central question for Leopold in this essay is: “Can a farmer afford to devote land to fencerows for a patch of ladyslippers, a remnant of prairie, or just scenery?” (429) He holds out hope that this is possible in America because of the large amounts of available land. Whether possible or not, the move toward conservation requires the destruction of the logic of crass economism. Thankfully, Leopold reminds us, America is founded on a struggle for independence. “We Americans have so far escaped regimentation by our own ideas? I doubt if there exists today a more complete regimentation of the human mind than that accomplished by our self-imposed doctrine of ruthless utilitarianism. The saving grace of democracy is that we fastened this yoke to our own necks, and we can cast it off when we want to, without severing the neck. Conservation is perhaps one of the many squirming which foreshadow this act of self-liberation.” (430)

Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac” (1949): Part One, The Almanac

I first encountered A Sand County Almanac when I was in high school biology. At the time I suppose I thought that the teacher (I forgot his name) was just wasting time reading selections from Aldo Leopold book to use, but in hindsight I wonder if I should have appreciated his generosity in sharing Leopold’s words with us. In any case, I did not appreciate it at the time.  There is nothing I can do about my ignorance and the lack of curiosity I had as a teenage. I wonder if I went to high school in any place except Wisconsin, would my teacher have had the same relationship to Leopold? (The growth of importance of the text is certainly ending whatever provincial character it had.)  I can say, living now in Taiwan, at the time of year that I miss my home state most of all, reading Leopold’s little book is a joyous experience.  While living in Taiwan, I suspended by Library of America subscription, but I did make a point of having this recent publication shipped here. Published in 2013, the LOA collection of Leopold’s writings is a wonderful contribution to the series.

coverFor those who have not read A Sand County Almanac, I can only urge that they pick it up. It only takes a couple hours to read through the first section, the almanac proper. It is a series of vignettes from his life on a rather unproductive farm in Sauk county Wisconsin. The vignettes are arranged throughout the year, starting with “January Thaw” and ending with “65290” (about chickadee’s winter survival). Each month has at least one story, some have several. This is followed by a broader set of essays set in other parts of Wisconsin or in other states but like the almanac are autobiographical and tell complex stories of ecological systems through his own experiences. The first part are some of his more formal essays on conservation, including “The Land Ethic.”

almanac

Leopold always combines a serious scientific approach while casting doubt on the human ability to understand the minds, perspectives, and lives of the animals he writes about. Much of the power of the work comes from his subtle celebration of the diversity and otherness of the natural world. The reader sees this in his attempt to explain the inexplicable survival of chickadee 65290, banded by Leopold as part of his local conservation work. Falling short of learning very much, the banding experience gave Leopold a chance to just enjoy being in awe of the otherness of the chickadee, and in particular this small life. “I know so little about birds that I can only speculate on why 65290 survived his fellows. Was he more clever in dodging his enemies? What enemies? A chickadee is almost too small to have any. That whimsical fellow called Evolution, having enlarged the dinosaur until he tripped over his own toes, tried shrinking the chickadee until he was just too big to be snapped up by flycatchers as an insect, and just too little to be pursued by hawks and owls as meat. Then he regarded his handiwork and laughed. Everyone laughs at so small a bundle of large enthusiasms.” (81–82) Even in the small locale of his farm and surrounding forests, there was so much unknown about the plants and animals. One need not travel far to find radical otherness.  Take for instance his discussion of the evening “sky dance,” put on by the woodcocks. “I owned my farm for two years before learning that the sky dance is to be seen over my woods every evening in April and May. Since we discovered it, my family and I have been reluctant to miss even a single performance… It is fortunate, perhaps, that no matter how intently one studies the hundred little dramas of the woods and meadows, one can never learn all of the salient facts about any one of them. ” (29)

A second thing that struck me while reading these vignettes was the deep sense of natural history. He reminds us that with every human act on nature we are intruding (and often ending) creatures with experiences deep into the past, making us neophytes at best. Most clearly laid out in “Good Oak” about the cutting down of an aged oak tree. With each pull of the saw blade, he goes deeper and deeper into that history, reversing (if only in his mind) the damage done to the Wisconsin landscape. ” The mental journey ends with the birth of the oak tree in the 1860s, “when thousands died to settle the question: Is the man-man community lightly to be dismembered? They settled it, but they did not see, nor do we yet see, that the same question applies to the man-land community.” (15) Later, he writes: “It is an irony of history that the great powers should have discovered the unity of nations at Cairo in 1942. The geese of the world have had that notion for a longer time, and each March they stake their lives on its essential truth.” (20)

Another message, and one that is particularly important. is that we need the land in order to be free and creative. On one level, we learn about agency from observing the land and its residents. They are not simply following evolutionary programming but are engaging with their world. In one chapter Leopold describes himself as a landowner with tenants, but his sovereignty is completely contingent on the acquiesce of the animals.  Bottom-up political systems had always been there, it just had to be observed.  But I will say more on these radical political conclusions of A Sand County Almanac in the following posts.

leopoldWith a book like A Sand County Almanac, I find it useful to just enjoy the beautiful prose and the profoundly simple prose, which can carry such significant ideas. I wish people could speak so clearly.

 

Lafcadio Hearn, “Chita” (1889)

In the age of ecology and our current environmental problematic it is impossible to read lines like this without imagining Lafcadio Heran as prophetic.  “How often she herself had wondered–wondered at the multiform changes of each swell as it came in — transformation of tint, of shape, of motion, that seemed to betoken a life infinitely more subtle than the strange cold life of lizards and of fishes, — and sinister, and spectral.  Then they all appeared to move in order, — according to one law of impulse: — each had its own voice, yet all sang one and the same everlasting song.   Vaguely, as she watched them and listened to them, there cam to her the idea of a unity of will in their motion, a unity of menace in their utterance–the idea of one monstrous and complex life!  The sea lived: it could crawl backward and forward; it could speak! — it only feigned deafness and sightlessness for some malevolent end.  Thenceforth she feared to find herself along with it.” (130)  The ocean as a malevolent and destructive force that easily overpowers humanity and its feeble designs is the major theme of Chita, Hearn’s novel considering the impact of a Louisiana hurricane.  The handful of humans who populate the novel are largely passive in the face of nature’s devastation.  It is not so much revenge, as we might find in 21st retellings of such stories, shaped by concerns about climate change and the human impact on nature.  Instead, nature is closer to the Lovercraftian gods, indifferent to human concerns with a purpose and consciousness of its own.

chita

The story begins with a long description of the lands and waters of the lower Mississippi, from New Orleans to “the islands.”  This description takes up around 1/5 of the short novel.  We immediately realize that the author is not concerns with humanity.  As the description unfolds we are introduced to the hurricane.  The human impact on the islands is limited.  “There are no telegraph lines, no telephones.” (88) Humans resort to hope and the divine for they have no technology that can salvage their homes, boats, and lives.

As we learn more of the human world, we discover that it is deeply divided by class.  A “great hall” is hosting a dance of “pleasure-seekers” when the hurricane hits.  Of course, nature respects no class boundaries and the dance hall party is broken up with the same indifference as is the homes of the impoverished locals.  It does however create an equalization of status that the poor scavengers can take advantage of.  “And swift in the wakr of gull and frigate-bird the Wreckers come, the Spoilers of the dead, — savages skimmers of the sea, — hurricane-riders wont to spread their canvas-pionions in the face of storm; Sicilian and Carsican outlaws, Manila-men from the marshes, deserters from many navies, Lascars, marooners, refugees of the hundred nationalities, — fishers and shrimpers by name, smugglers by opportunity. . . There is plunder for all — birds and men.” (95-96)  Hearn seems to lump these working poor into the same category as nature, indifferent and moving in with the same consciousness as scavanger birds, but we know better.  Nature may not be capable of consciousness of revenge, but the exploited and embittered underclass certainly are.  When the facade of civilization breaks down and equalizers power, so that those with a piece of paper declaring their wealth, and therefore power over others, find that that paper has no more worth than any other ink stained parchment, the revenge will be had.

One rich character, assumed lost on the storm, returns to find that he was forgotten with little pomp or concern.  Hearn writes: “Seldom, indeed, does it happen taht a man in the prime of youth, in the possession of wealth, habituated to comforts and elegance of life, discovers in one brief week how minute his true relation to the human aggregate, — how insignificant his part as one living atom of the social organism.” (117)  We cannot help but notice that this parallels the fate of all the humans in the delta, discovering that they are insignificant in the face of Nature.

The plot from this point focuses on the discovery, by a young religious woman named Carmen, of a young orphan who is given the name Conchita (Chita).  There is a moment of triumph over the indifferent Nature when Chita learns to overcome her fear of the water and takes up the skill of swimming.  Through this the ocean goes from being something to fear to something that gives life.  Chita becomes the means for Hearn to carry the story in a circular fashion back to the pristine state before the hurricane.  “Thou primordial Sea, the awfulness of whose antiquity hath stricken all mythology dumb; — thou most wrinkled living Sea, the millions of whose years outnumber even the multitude of thy hoary motions; — thou omniform and most mysterious Sea, mother of the monsters and the gods, — whence thine eternal youth?  Still do thy waters hold the infinite thrill of that Spirit which brooded above their face in the Beginning! — still is thy quickening breath an elixir unto them that flee to thee for life.”   (133)

Nature is not done with the characters.  In the final pages of this short novel we learn of an epidemic disease racing through the delta.  We are left with the same feeling of helplessness that we started with.  Hearn ends the novel with Carmen calling out for aid from God.

I have quoted extensively from Chita because the novel really should be read as an literary experience rather than for its plot.  The argument, is summarized in the books epigraph by Emerson “But Nature whistled with all her winds, Did as she pleased, and went her way.” (73)  We could read it as a warning or as a rebuff to the late 19th century optimism in human progress.  Hearn sets the novel in a place where the major gains of the 19th century were not evident, but yet some of its greatest sins (slavery and inequality) were deeply rooted.

Philip K. Dick, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (1968): Dick’s Environmental Vision

I suppose I am one of those people who thinks that what is best about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is missing from the subsequent film Blade Runner.  The film does take one one of Dick’s themes from the novel, the nature of artificial intelligence, but does so in an inverted way.  While in the novel, the androids are schizoids, the film plays with the idea of their humanity.  It strikes me that perhaps the film should have been based on We Can Build You, which does experiment with the idea that androids could be more capable of empathy and human feeling than some human characters.  Interestingly, the film holds true to the failure of androids to pass the “empathy test” but still wants us to sympathize with them.  But for the most part, I am not interested in fooling around with this conflict.  Enough has been blogged and written about this theme in both the book and the film.  I will focus on a few other themes, most importantly the environmental problematic as defined by Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  It proves to be the most clear description of his environmental pessimism, a question that is often there in other works but easy to miss as it is not emphasized.

androids1 androids2

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the earth is depopulated due to World War Terminus and the ecological catastrophe is left behind.  The vast majority of humans have emigrated to outer colonies.  Most of Earth’s animal life has been destroyed and that which remains has been denaturalized and transformed into commodities.  Late capitalism is doing this aggressively now, without a war.  The totality of the devastation is apparent from the depopulation.  That animal populations have not benefited from the near extinction of humanity on Earth suggests that humans created permanent, unrepairable damage.  We do not need a war to envision a future death of the natural world.  In the novel, a catalog lists the prices of animals (including many prices for animals that are not in stock due to low populations).    What at first might seem to be a simple function of the supply and demand curve, is the logical consequence of capitalist expansion and a foreshadowing of things we see now.  Despite the total death of nature, people sustain a very intimate and emotional relationship with animals.  Animals are not merely a status symbol due to their high cost.  People long to have animals in their life, and no matter what their social status, some animal life is in reach.  For the rich, ostriches, owls, and horses.  For the poor, crickets, frogs, and cats.  Our hero, Rick Deckard wants a real, live sheep to replace his electric one.  A sheep seems to be a good investment for a middle class family.

Sentiment does cross over to status climbing, but the sentimental attachment to animals is richly expressed throughout this very emotional novel.  Deckard and his wife wake up in the first chapter in total misery.  To get through the day, most people use a mood organ, which injects chemical cocktails to create in people an artificial mood.  Often, it is necessary to get through the day in a bleak, artificial and devastated city.  The lack of nature is certainly a part of people’s perpetual moodiness.  Deckard desires a real animal to replace his electric one, not merely because he worries about how the neighbors look at him.  He misses animals.   When he purchased a goat, his android lover later kills the goat, devastating Deckard.  He is later crushed when he finds a frog in the mud and learns it is electric.  The “empathy test”, used to determine if the test-taker is an android or not relies mostly on questions about human abuse of animals.  The very idea of leather shoes or eating meat – even crustaceans – is supposed to bring to people an empathetic response, something androids are incapable of.  By this logic the rampant misuse or animals as food, clothing, entertainment, and science experiments transforms us into psychopathic monsters.

“Kipple” is the name J. R. Isidore gives the the expanding realm of death that surrounds humans.  More than simple garbage, “kipple” is the the expansive equivalent of nature.  While nature will tend to expand organically into new areas, “kipple” expansion is seemingly organic and uncontrollable able well.  Its essential difference is that it is dead things, dead labor, dead capital, wasted goods.  Even the remaining people on Earth have been “kipplized,” lacking a natural context for their life, living artificial emotions, unable to reproduce themselves due to extensive nuclear fallout.  “No one can win against kipple, except temporarily and maybe in one spot, like in my apartment I’ve sort of created a stasis between the pressure of kipple and nonkipple, for the time being. But eventually I’ll die or go away, and then the kipple will again take over. It’s a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.”  Isidore, in this quote, sees kipple as a form of entropy, when in fact it is a an expanding realm of the dead that inexorably includes the remaining humans.

Kipple

Kipple

In the realm of the religious, the divide between empathy and nature contrasts with the logical consequences of consumerism.  If there is any optimism in this book, it is in the fact that the dominant religious remains quite human and the stale, consumerist fails to take off.  The major religion is Mercerism.  It is first explored in the short story, “The Little Black Box.”  In this religion, people experienced the suffering of Wilber Mercer as he climbs a hill in a natural setting (I think it was a mountain).  Everyone holding onto the handle bars of a black empathy box will feel the suffering of Mercer.  Mercer shares with the rest of humanity a deep appreciation for the natural world and a longing for connection to animals.  It is a shared experience, representing a declining space for real humanity.  In contrast, the second shared experience “Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friend” is the kipple of television.  The show argues against Mercerism and encourages the incorporation of androids into human life.  For if humans are mere consumers, why not include the androids who can perform that function just as well.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a devastating and powerfully emotional novel.  This may account for its popularity as much as the success of the film Blade Runner.  It is certainly touching on the environmental consequences of mass consumer culture and late capitalism’s war on nature.  Dick is reminding us that we will not likely miss nature until we have finished destroying it.  Nature will be dead and gone but it will be us who suffer its absence.