One hundred years ago, a great American conservationist began a job in the Southwest as a ranger with the U.S. Forest Service. Over the course of an influential career, Aldo Leopold advocated a variety of conservation methods, including wilderness protection, sustainable agriculture, wildlife research, ecological restoration, environmental education, land health, erosion control and watershed management. But perhaps most important, he advocated a land ethic.
Each of these concepts continues to resonate, perhaps more than ever as the challenges of the 21st century grow more complicated and pressing. But it was Leopold's emphasis on conserving whole systems -- soil, water, plants, animals and people -- that is crucial today. The health of the entire system, he argued, is dependent on its indivisibility. The force that knits it all together is the land ethic, a moral obligation we willingly assume to protect the soil, water, plants, animals and people living together as one community.
After Leopold's death in 1948, however, the idea of a whole system seemed to break into fragments, beset by a rising tide of industrialization and materialism. Fortunately, a scattered but determined effort is now under way to knit the whole back together, and it's beginning where it matters most –– on the ground. Leopold's call for a land ethic is the root of the "new agrarianism," a diverse suite of ideas and practices based on the bedrock belief that genuine health and wealth depends on the land's fertility.
In Latin, agrarius means "pertaining to land." This resurgent movement includes a dynamic intermixing of ranchers, farmers, conservationists, scientists and others who aim to create an economy that works in harmony with nature. The approach starts with producing food locally while caring about the health of the land; it extends to rehabilitating watersheds, restoring riparian habitat, raising cattle without damaging the land, encouraging biodiversity and protecting open space.
The spiritual mentor of this hopeful effort is, of course, Leopold, who asked us to feel "the soil between our toes." That means the same today as it did decades ago: We human beings need an intimate understanding of how the land actually works. As Leopold said, we need to develop a sense of individual responsibility for the health of the land.
"Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal," he wrote, and "conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity." In other words, the new agrarianism is ecological, blending scientific understanding of land health with local knowledge. One of its goals is to build resilience, the ability to handle shock and change -- an excellent idea for the 21st century.
Agrarianism is also economic. Unlike environmentalism, which never developed an economic program to go along with its goals of land preservation and human health, agrarianism is a practical retort to industrialism. It confronts our profit-first economy, the source of most environmental ills, and thereby gives the average American an alternative to participating in an unsustainable model of endless growth. And it is more than theoretical, as evidenced by the many examples of good stewardship across the nation.
Third, the new agrarianism walks the talk of a land ethic. It encompasses a concern for soil, plants, animals and people, striving for a harmonious balance among all.
"There is only one soil, one flora, one fauna, and one people, and hence only one conservation problem," Leopold wrote in his wonderful book, A Sand County Almanac. "Economic and esthetic land uses can and must be integrated, usually on the same acre."
Perhaps just as important, the new agrarianism sparks joy. It requires care and affection and love and laughter to succeed, including affection for one another. Although it is difficult to quantify how big this movement is today, it is easy to explain why agrarianism is on the rise: We are all agrarians now. We have to be: Our health depends on what we choose to eat and where we obtain our food, how we produce our energy and how we choose to use it, where our water comes from and who benefits from sustainable practices. All of these concerns are rooted in the land.
As we edge deeper into the challenges of the 21st century, the issues of resilience, coexistence, food and hope could not be more important.
Courtney White is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the executive director of the Quivira Coalition, which hosts its 8th annual conference Nov. 4-6 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The theme is "Living Leopold."