|Aldo Leopold (credit)|
During the last decade of his life, Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) delivered more than 100 conservation talks to various popular, professional, and student audiences. In them, he set forth plainly the central elements of his conservation thought. By studying the extensive archival records of these talks one sees clearly the core elements of Leopold’s mature thinking, which centered not on specific land-use practices (good or bad), but instead on what he saw as deep flaws in American culture. Leopold’s sharp cultural criticism — more clear in these talks than in his lyrical, muted classic, A Sand County Almanac — called into question not just liberal individualism but central elements of Enlightenment-era thought. This essay distills the messages that Leopold repeatedly presented during his final years. It clarifies the messages by situating Leopold’s thought within long-running philosophic discussions on the nature of life, the limits on human knowledge, standards of truth, and the origins of value. For Leopold, conservation could succeed only if it challenged prevailing cultural understandings and pressed for specific, radical change. The now-stymied environmental movement has never taken that advice to heart.