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A Sand County Almanac’s Enduring Legacy by Darrell E. Napton


A Sand County Almanac has influenced the nation, my view of the world, and my students. Aldo Leopold critiqued modern life and found it wanting in his 1949 book A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There. He concluded that we need a new way to look at humanity’s relationship with the Earth, because science, ethics, and modern capitalism had led to environmental degradation and human alienation from the environment. Modern capitalism encouraged people to focus upon growth and material possessions but ignored sustainability, quality of life, and ethical responsibility. Leopold said that the cause of the destruction was a focus upon economic goods and privileges without obligations. Leopold asks how people can develop the ethical responsibility to live wholesome lives sustainably on the Earth.

The Book and the Man

Aldo Leopold grew up at the end of the 19th century when the Age of Exploration was ending and the modern era was emerging. He spent his life observing nature when the idea that the natural world has limits was emerging. This was also when the U.S. began to focus on convenience and material goods as pillars of modern life. Leopold observed that modern industrial ways of using the land and environment were not sustainable. He questioned those methods and provided new answers to the old question of what should be the relationship of people to the Earth.

Aldo Leopold was a renaissance man and a professional wildlife ecologist, forester, professor, and writer. A Sand County Almanac is a collection of essays about the American land, how Americans were abusing it, and how a changed relationship with the land could improve the quality of life. The book is a tapestry of science, ethics, poetry, philosophy, and conservation.

Leopold’s Ideas and Influence

Leopold's ideas provided much of the philosophical foundation of the Environmental Movement and for many of the environmental laws that were passed during the 1960s and 1970s. He stated that people are part of nature and that we have relationships with other species that must be guided by new ethical ideas. All ethics include responsibility. Because of humanity's great numbers, insatiable material demands, and scientific prowess, we have a responsibility to protect and nurture other species; if we permit the destruction of nature, we will be next, because science demonstrates that human life is dependent upon the environment.

Leopold has influenced my views by providing an understandable, logical framework for thinking about the natural world and society's relationship with it. Leopold's writing is always fresh, and each time I read “The Land Ethic,” Leopold's classic final essay, it reads like he wrote it yesterday. Every reading provides new ideas and insights. Eventually the margins of my copy became too filled to write additional thoughts, and I had to start recording them in a separate journal.

Leopold has influenced students by showing them a new way to see the world. He demonstrated that science, ethics, religion, poetry, philosophy, and conservation can complement and support each other and should all be used to understand the world. Leopold critiqued the common land-grant university focus upon reductionism and shows students how a holistic approach can better protect the environment and lead to an improved quality of life.

Leopold also confronts students and professors when he asks what it means to be educated. He concluded that only a scholar can understand what the environment is trying to convey to people, but Leopold’s definition of scholar is surprising because it does not necessarily include higher education and challenges us to approach education by focusing upon humility, geography and history, values and the meaning of humanity, and holistic views of the Earth.

Sustainability and a New Ethics

Leopold thought that a sustainable relationship with the Earth should begin where we live, because people who do not understand their community will be unable to understand the wider world. To put this idea in context, everyone needs food, clean water, and energy. People who think that food comes from the store, water from the faucet, and heat from the furnace are ignorant of and alienated from the environment that supports them.

Leopold concluded that for people to live sustainably we must acknowledge limits and develop a new set of ethics that embraces humanity's reliance upon and interdependence with the natural environment. Ethics guide relationships with others. Who are the others? Leopold traced the evolution of ethics and found that each expansion of ethics enlarged the community and the potential human quality of life. Leopold concluded that it is time to enlarge ethics to include the natural word, because it is the right thing to do and humanity's future depends upon it.


Darrell E. Napton is a Professor of Geography at South Dakota State University