Last year on Earth Day, I expressed some thoughts on environmental conservationism (in another forum). I thought I would just share them here—slightly modified—to give some inspiration and to motivate more thoughts on the topic of Stoicism and the environment.
Reading Ch. 8 of Being Better (2021) prompted me to return to a really inspiring author on the matter of environmental ethics, Aldo Leopold. He wasn’t an academic philosopher—just an outdoor enthusiast and conservationist.
In the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, he called on politicians and other citizens to not just pass laws but to actually change their worldview in a significant way. They must change the way they personally view and interact with the environment by realizing they are in an interdependent relationship with it. It takes a lot of work to internalize this fact! He proposed a new ethics to encapsulate a new set of values and commitments (called the “land ethic“). Over time, he thought that an internal change would occur—we would develop an ‘ecological conscience’ such that we would truly want to conserve resources and preserve our home.
Here are a few important passages from the end of Aldo Leopold’s famous essay “The Land Ethic,” originally published in his book The Sand County Almanac (1949):
“It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense. . .
“Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land. Your true modern is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets. He has no vital relation to it; to him it is the space between cities on which crops grow. Turn him loose for a day on the land, and if the spot does not happen to be a golf links or a ‘scenic’ area, he is bored stiff. . .
“The ‘key-log’ which must be moved to release the evolutionary process for an ethic is simply this: quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. 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“
In addition to the policies and legislation, what we really need is a collective change in consciousness. We must all start internalizing the fact that we are in an interdependent relationship with the environment around us and live according to that fact.
I think Stoic philosophy is well suited to help people do this. Marcus Aurelius often expresses the sentiment best:
The soul of a man harms itself, first and foremost, when it becomes (as far as it can) a separate growth, a sort of tumour on the universe: because to resent anything that happens is to separate oneself in revolt from Nature, which holds in collective embrace the particular natures of all other things.Meditations 2.16 (trans. Hammond)
You are not separate from nature—you are not a tumor or a parasite that can take and take without giving back. If you think and behave like that, you are doing harm to your soul and can never actualize your full potential as a human being. So, instead, think and behave as a steward of the earth, a citizen of the earth—no, a part of the earth. That would be better in line with reality. Visualize what that should look like for you, and start manifesting it.