Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Life and work
Aldo Leopold was born in Burlington, Iowa. He grew up in contact with the outdoors – the fields, trees, meadows, creeks, and rivers. His writing is notable for its simple directness. His portrayals of various natural environments he had moved through, or had known for many years, displayed impressive intimacy with what exists and happens in nature. He seemed to know a landscape the way an audiophile knows his sound system and music collection, or the way a mother knows the bodies and personalities of her young children.
Leopold attended Yale University School of Forestry. He received his Master's degree in Forestry in 1909. Leopold developed an appreciation for nature in terms of ecology, beauty, and mystery, as well as in terms of a source of resources. Thereafter, his professional life encompassed forestry, ecology, and writing.
Leopold served for 19 years in the U.S. Forest Service, working in the American Southwest (New Mexico and Arizona) until he was transferred in 1924 to the Forest Products Lab in Madison, Wisconsin. In 1928 he left the Forest Service and started doing independent contract work. He mostly did wildlife and game surveys throughout the U.S.
In 1933 he was appointed Professor of Game Management in the Agricultural Economics Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He taught there until his death.
An advocate for the preservation of wildlife and wilderness areas, he became a founder of the Wilderness Society in 1935. Leopold wrote A Sand County Almanac, which has been read by millions and has informed and spurred the environmental movement and a widespread interest in ecology as a science. By the same token, the Wilderness Society and Leopold’s work in it were important precursors to the environmental movement that coalesced around the time of the first Earth Day.
Leopold offered frank criticism of the harm he believed was frequently done to natural systems (such as land) out of a sense of a culture or society's sovereign ownership over the land base – eclipsing any sense of a community of life to which we humans belong. He felt that the security and prosperity resulting from “mechanization” now gives people the time to reflect on the preciousness of nature and to learn more about what happens there.
His popular writing is a combination of natural history, scene painting with words, and philosophy. A Sand County Almanac is perhaps best known for the following quote concerning ecological ethics: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community."
In "The Land Ethic," a chapter of A Sand County Almanac, Leopold delves into conservation in "The Ecological Conscience" section. He wrote: "Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land."
As it seemed to Leopold, curriculum-content guidelines current at the time he was writing (late 1940s) boiled down to: obey the law, vote right, join some organizations and practice what conservation is profitable on your own land; the government will do the rest. He was critical of this "formula." To him, it appeared to serve self-interest but it did not address ethical questions.
With the hopes of addressing ethical issues as well as educational challenges, Leopold put forward an example in the issue of Wisconsin's southwestern topsoil slipping seaward. In 1933 the public offered assistance to farmers who adopted remedial practices for five years, which was widely accepted. Once the five-year period was completed, the farmers only continued practices that offered economic gain for themselves, disregarding practices which were profitable for the community. In response, the Wisconsin Legislature passed the Soil Conservation District Law in 1937 that allowed farmers to write rules for land use themselves. Even with the additional incentives of free technical service and the availability of specialized machinery for loan, rules that would benefit the community continued to be ignored as no rules were written. A small amount of progress did occur, but not enough to address the pertinent problems.
Leopold's classic identified the need for education as necessary prior to rules being written and supported by the community. Leopold noted that, interestingly enough, various community obligations other than land-use ethics rose above economic self-interest and did indeed gain community support. This fact brought him to the conclusion that obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land. At the time he was writing, he believed that, without benefit of philosophy and religion, conservation had been minimized.
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