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.

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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)

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Aldo Leopold, Writings from the 1910s and 1920s, Managing the Commons

In 1909, Aldo Leopold earned his Master of Science degree and begins work in the US Forest Service in the American southwest, then the Arizona and New Mexico territories. His first jobs there included leading forest survey teams. Around 1915 Leopold became involved in the game management. By 1920, Leopold is actively involved in forest erosion and other land questions in the region. Throughout the later half of the 1920s, Leopold moves around taking a position in Wisconsin at the Forest Products Laboratory of the US Forest Service. By 1930 he is well known among game management workers, is on the cusp of publishing his major textbook on the subject and being published nationally. His field journals also show that he travelled to wilderness areas in Canada and the Midwest during these years.

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There are few things we can say about Leopold’s early career from this summary. First, Leopold was closely tied to the Progressive-era conservation movement and its institutions, such as the US Forest Service. During the early twentieth century, the service became more focused on protected forests rather than its earlier role of measuring and doling out the government-owned forest resources. Another thing we notice is that Leopold moves toward his “land ethic” as early as 1930, which we see in his evolving interests. While first focused on the management of wildlife for human use (“game management”), he eventually began to see the land itself as fragile (his studies of erosion). By the later 1920s, although continuing his work on game management, started writing on the importance of protecting the wilderness.

Leopold was a state actor throughout these years as well. He responded to, and tried to shape, policy regulating forests. The most important question he grappled with the question of the commons. At least since Gerald Winstanley and the movement of the Diggers in 17th century England, the survival of the commons has been one of the most important questions facing revolutionary movements. As Peter Linebaugh argued in The Magna Carta Manifesto, the Charter of the Forest has been at least as important as the Magna Carta in ensuring our rights to the “common treasury.” It is not a betrayal of those rights to confess that the questions of the commons is vastly more complex now than it was in the time where it amounted to rights to hunt on the king’s land.

Apache National Forest: Leopold's workplace in the early 1920s.

Apache National Forest: Leopold’s workplace in the early 1920s.

I went through Leopold’s collected works from the 1910s and 1920s, consisting of essays, speeches, manuscripts, field journals and letters. We see that he was constantly concerned with the competing interests of different groups. Now while taking a deer or some firewood from the king’s land in medieval Britain did not have any impact on other people, Leopold was dealing with real competing interests in the national forests, between “game farmers” and “wild lifers,” and between humans and the wildlife itself. Leopold’s sentiment in this period seemed to be that these were not necessarily unbridgeable divides. The correct rules and the right policies are all that is necessary to prevent the overuse of one resources or preserve the wilderness for the use of all. The protection of access to all required some form of regulatory state. In a 1919 essay on this subject her wrote: “We can immediately draw one conclusion from the foregoing discussion of the proposed commercialization of game-meat and hunting privileges, and that is that to grant the wishes of the radical Game Farmers would be tantamount to adopting the European style of game management. A wide-open market, almost universal game farming, commercialized shooting privileges, and some incidental overflow shooting for the poor man – is this not the sum and substance of the European system? It is. And the European system of game management is undemocratic, unsocial, and therefore dangerous.” (202) Now, while the market seems to be dangerous to democratic access (which for Leopold includes sustaining access for even minority uses – such as wilderness hunting – not just the most popular use), he knows some broader understanding of market logic is necessary. If the state will protect some land for hunting, for instance, it will need to manage the wildlife populations there, according to some market logic. Ultimately, a state-regulated market is his stop-gap solution, because at least that would protect democracy and minority rights. This is all discussed again, with more foreboding, in “Goose Music,” a manuscript from 1922, in which Leopold predicts that majority recreations, like golf, will swallow up the wilderness from people who enjoy hunting and fishing. In another place, Leopold concedes a bit of seeing like a state when he argues that protecting wilderness is just another form of “land use.”

Superior National Forest, which Leopold visited in 1925.

Superior National Forest, which Leopold visited in 1925.

Does such “management” of forests, even if it means just keeping some places off limits, require a centralizing agency like the US Forest Service? This century has proven that the largest threats to the environment have come from external and relatively disinterested players. Carbon polluters in the global north who externalize the costs of climate change to the poor, corporations who strip-mine mountains for investors hundreds or thousands of miles away, or states committed to industrial development who destroy the lives of thousands for “development projects.” Centralized power may provide some force to conservation efforts, but it is more often much more damaging than a few too many hunters or tourists. I suspect local, vernacular control over resources might be better, but in even this area Leopold introduces an important, and very American problem: the booster spirit.

In an essay, “A Criticism of the Booster Spirit,” Leopold shows how indifferent local governments can be to their own environment during their quest for a loosely defined “prosperity.” The goal of boosterism is to attract capital, tourists, industries, and “growth” to your town using advertizing campaigns, speakers, favorable taxation policies, institutions and parks. While promoted by the local governments, it is almost always indifferent to the local needs (economic or ecological). “The booster is intensely provincial. A year ago he demanded a National Part for New Mexico. He did not know where or how, but he knew jolly well why: A National Park would be a tourist-getter of the first water, and tourists are to be desired above all things. They come, they see, they spend, and they are even known to come back.” (240) Leopold thought this was an American perversion, but the “booster spirit” is now global. In Taiwan, local “development” projects are often concerned with attracting Chinese tourists, conferences, or investment. Some are now calling for a free trade zone to compete with the recently-opened Shanghai free trade zone. Boosterism is interested only in the short-term, attracting this years tourists. What suffers, of course, is the local population, vernacular economies, and “sound economic reason.” As Leopold says, the booster, although provincial is completely oblivious to the land, the animals and the forests of the place they are promoting, unless they promote interest in the town.

I suppose the solution is not to focus first on the local or the national or the global causes to the systematic destruction of nature, but to move away from market-driven conceptions of nature.