Is Leopold radical enough?

I'd welcome your thoughts on this question. Political theorists often criticize Leopold--or, more precisely, the set of ideas people have taken from Leopold (we might say the Leopoldian ideology) for not offering a good critique of the deep economic and political structures that determine land use decisions. They suggest that focusing on the choices of individual landowners will never result in sustainability, because those individuals are really at the mercy of large-scale forces that structure our choices in certain ways. They would argue that we need to critique industrial, consumer-oriented capitalism itself if we're going to make any headway.
And that critique will necessary lead to a more radical, confrontational political practice.

I don't entirely agree with this critique, but I do worry that we seem to put a lot of stock in individual ethics and in environmental education, which may reflect a desire to avoid politics. At some point, we need to wade into the messy world of political conflict and take on the people who have a deep stake in the status quo. Aldo Leopold the person may have done that--but the Leopoldian ideology doesn't seem to help us develop the critical perspective we need.

Unless I'm entirely wrong. Any thoughts?

context matters

Hi Folks:

Radicalism, like other social/environmental movements, has a contextual element to it. Did Leopold's words and deeds at the time(s) they were presented, denote a radical shift from prevailing thinking? One could argue yes they did. He likely didn't come across to his peers as a Paul Watson or Dave Foreman, but much of what he was expounding certainly challenged "business as usual" on a variety of fronts (social, ecological, political, economic, etc). He may not have been advocating for an extreme paradigmatic shift, but there appears to be many examples where he was "rocking the boat" of conventional conservation thinking and practice.

Cheers, Rick

Leopold's critique

Kimberly, I guess I'm not sure why the critics do not see Leopold "offering a good critique of the deep economic and political structures," when he says in a discussion of those very structures, "We have invented engines of unprecedented coarseness and power, and placed them freely in the hands of ignorant men" ("Conservation Economics," 1934). That seems pretty unambiguous, and I think more than a few people (I'd be one) would put him at the forefront of natural capitalism. No, it's not a point-by-point broadside like Lovins, Hawken, or Daly today, but isn't it the same "critique [of] industrial, consumer-oriented capitalism"? (AL's complaint of"industrial" economic and social structures is a common one, as in "Do we realize that industry, which has been our good servant, might make a poor master?"). I certainly don't see in AL a "desire to avoid politics," whether they're local or national. Sheesh, he tried to get a governor dethroned, he worked on environmental legislation, he organized land cooperatives, he suggested boycotting products made with child labor. Toward the end of his life he writes, "The direction is clear, and the first step is to throw your weight around on matters of right and wrong in land use" (his emphasis). Seems pretty political to me, Dan

Leopold's critique

Though Dan's points are well taken, I (like Kim) can't help being troubled by Leopold's insistence on private, individual land-values as the ultimate solution to land-use problems and other social ills. There's a quotation in one of his essays (can't remember which) where he talks about the core of the problem being the fact that the public ends up paying the costs of irresponsible private land-use. That is indeed a problem, and the very one that (presumably) political action is in a position to redress. So why the ongoing skepticism on Leopold's part concerning political solutions to land-use issues? For that matter, if (as Dan points out) he was so deeply involved in political activism himself, why do his writings, so far as I've read, universally rule out political activism as a legitimate source of action? It does seem to me that Leopold's distrust of "big government," forged during his early years and his experience with the New Deal, led him to conflate all political activism with a specific form that he found distasteful and unproductive.

Take What I Can

Josh, Kim's question was whether AL is "radical" enough. Today's "radical center" groups, who often embrace AL, suggest that question is not answered only through federal programs and typical political expressions. Is not the Quivira Coalition that Curt mentioned practicing a radical form of land management? Isn't their attempt to overturn factory farming, social disintegration, and economic disparity (that is, the political and corporate status quo) radical? Klein's disaster capitalism is playing out at the local level, which is what some of these grassroots organizations are responding to. Kinda radical. It's commonplace to dump on Leopold because he dismisses the New Deal and other large political solutions, and I'll not defend him, other than to say that according to his ultimate yardstick, land health, some of his criticism is understandable. I probably advocate big government as much as anyone in the room, so I may not agree with all of AL's solutions; but I'll take from him what I can get, and at its core his message remains caring, relevant, and useful (and, of course, still radical to many).

Radical Enough

I think we sometimes forget how quickly things moved after WWII, throughout the 50's and 60's and the I-me-mine 70's and the "Greed is good" 80's, and the deregulatory 90's. How far away from where AL was, or could have imagined. I don't think AL could possibly imagine the economic curve and the parallel environmental degradation of the last 60 years. I think that within HIS time he is "radical enough" but in our time, from my perspective, he is not. Radical enough would involve a fundamental change in our individualistic ethic. I see AL as working in small steps with a diverse range of constituents, speaking to each in terms he felt would be most effective. This creates the appearance of being contradictory at times, or of pulling his punches. But I think he had a keen sense of what he could do in each situation and he played his cards as he saw them dealt. I agree that we need to mine him for what is useful and address the circumstances WE face in our communities, but like him understand how far we can push in any given context to be maximally effective. But with Kim I agree that we need to "move the center" quite beyond what AL imagined in his time. (Although I would like to think he'd be willing to concur with such a need.)