The past two months I have been reading and rereading many of the works of America’s great conservationists and philosophers, even returning to read the biographies of our early founders, especially Ben Franklin. For example, in the early part of the 1900s Teddy Roosevelt posed to the nation that how we conserve and also use land was the most important domestic issue before Americans of the era. Aldo Leopold, the most outstanding of America’s modern conservationist, and a forester by profession, concluded that the central dilemma for humans was how to live on a piece of land without destroying its capacity to support them.
In 2012 that dilemma encompasses not just America but the whole of the planet as our numbers approach 9 billion and the impacts of resource depletion have made earth’s ecosystems less resilient. Food stocks are dwindling.
I like to read the early novels and essays from the founding of the West, satisfying my hunger to know what was lost before I was born – the deep topsoil from which crops flourished, uncut forests and communities of life within them that are simply unimaginable in our day and time. The unraveling of the continent’s great natural resources through our desire to work the land as we see fit, and to make the greatest profit possible (American ideals of personal freedom) required an ethic that did not exist in most people’s minds until Roosevelt and Leopold began to question those ideals in light of the responsibility to protect the nation’s “seed corn” for future generations.
The two American minds exist together: the pioneer mind, free to act on what he owns and the communal mind which is concerned with whether its welfare is enhanced or diminished by individual actions, and for the generations coming who wish the same generous portion of opportunities. This push me-pull you consciousness is ever-present in the American psyche to this day and I believe is the basis of the heated political arguments in Washington about who will lead the country.
The problem has always been that we do not have the values incorporated in our Constitution that are required to make fair and healthy decisions about land, resources, and people’s well-being. The pursuit of happiness has been grossly misunderstood by modern America. To John Adams and other founders, it meant the freedom to pursue an education, to develop the life of the mind.
For all the national emphasis on science literacy and scientific research, we are sorely in need of an education about how to live as members of an ecological community. That knowledge is perceived to “knock up against” our cherished value of personal freedom. Yet if we dig just a little deeper into our relationship with land, we would readily understand that there is no freedom in wanton destruction of nature for short-term profit because the result is utter ruination and a life not worth living! The Dust Bowl is our own nation’s living example.
The key is to create sane conversations that use the wisdom of the greats like Roosevelt and Leopold, who were not against use of resources for human benefit, but who realized a new set of principles are necessary when making decisions that challenge one or the other perspectives.
Leopold’s Land Ethic is simple: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” (Sand County Almanac, The Land Ethic) Of course the complexity of this kind of thinking requires the ability to consider the complex nature of our individual and collective relationships with the land community. It requires what Leopold eventually called The Ecological Conscience—a way of thinking and being that is whole: intellectual and intuitive, economic and esthetic, personal and communal.
We’ve been using one American mind almost exclusively. This can be seen most recently in our rush to exploit national coal and oil reserves that has resulted in sanctioning of violent technologies (mountain top removal and fracking) that leave lands barren, water poisoned, animals and plants destroyed and communities impoverished for the future. Both parties in Washington have supported these new ventures.
We are using the old way of thinking in our fear and uncertainty, never drawing the connection between the economic downturn and the dwindling natural capital on which all our wealth depends.
2 thoughts on “The Two American Minds”
Such a well stated concern. If only we could get people to take their hands away from their ears and eyes. I fear it will take continuing catastrophes.
Carole, I wonder about how far removed from the “outside” we have become, and wonder if a revolution of sorts might occur is we declared a national day without television and computers and conducted family, church, or neighborhood meetings with guided questions: What do we really need as a nation, city, neighborhood, family, individual? I think we might be really surprised that we DO have an internal compass that points in the right direction but we are so distracted from listening – maybe centuries of not listening – that it is functionally disconnected from our psyches. We need to get back to that compass that comes with each baby at birth….