The respect for life, the affirmation of all life, is basic to the ecological conscience

June 24, 2018

When Pope Francis came to the US after Laudato Si’ to speak to the US Congress, he lifted up Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton as leaders for us to follow.  Thomas Merton wrote the following on Ecological Conscience… – mv

Do not depend on the hope of results.  When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no worth at all, if not perhaps, results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you will start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. 

Thomas Merton 

(The following is an excerpt from an article that appeared in the Catholic Worker, June 1968). 

Man is a creature of ambiguity. His salvation and his sanity depend on his ability to harmonize the deep conflicts in his thought, his emotions, his personal mythology. Honesty and authenticity do not depend on complete freedom from contradictions – such freedom is impossible – but on recognizing our self-contradictions, and not masking them with bad faith. The conflicts in individuals are not entirely of their own making. On the contrary, many of them are imposed, ready-made, by an ambivalent culture. This poses a very special problem, because he who accepts the ambiguities of his culture without protest and without criticism is rewarded with a sense of security and moral justification. A certain kind of unanimity satisfies our emotions, and easily substitutes for truth. We are content to think like the others, and in order to protect our common psychic security, we readily become blind to the contradictions – or even the lies – that we have all decided to accept as “plain truth.”

One of the more familiar ambiguities in the American mind operates in our frontier mythology, which has grown in power in proportion as we have ceased to be a frontier or even a rural people. The pioneer, the frontier culture hero, is a product of the wilderness. But at the same time he is a destroyer of the wilderness. His success as pioneer depends on his ability to fight the wilderness and win. Victory consists in reducing the wilderness to something else, a farm, a village, a road, a canal, a railway, a mine, a factory, a city – and finally an urban nation. A recent study of “Wilderness and the American Mind” by Roderick Nash (Yale University Press) is an important addition to an already significant body of literature about this subject. It traces the evolution of the wilderness idea from the first Puritan settlers via Henry David Thoreau and John Muir to the modern ecologists and preservationists – and to their opponents in big business and politics…

Now, one of the interesting things about this ambivalence toward nature is that it is rooted in our biblical, Judeo-Christian tradition. We might remark at once that it is neither genuinely biblical nor Jewish nor Christian. Roderick Nash is perhaps a little one-sided in his analysis here. But, a certain kind of Christian culture has certainly resulted in a Manichean (good versus evil) hostility towards created nature. This, of course, we all know well enough. (The word Manichean has become a cliché of reproof like communist or racist.) But the very ones who use the cliché most may be the ones who are still unknowingly tainted, on a deep level, an unconscious level. For there is a certain popular, superficial and one-sided “Christian worldliness” that is, in its hidden implications, profoundly destructive of nature and of “God’s creation” even while it claims to love and extol them…

Much of the stupendous ecological damage that has been done in the last fifty years is completely irreversible. Industry and the military, especially in America, are firmly set on policies which make further damage inevitable. There are plenty of people who are aware of the need for “something to be done,” but just consider the enormous struggle that has to be waged, for instance in eastern Kentucky, to keep mining interests from completing the ruin of an area that is already a ghastly monument to callous human greed. When a choice has to be made, it is almost invariably made in the way that is good for a quick return on somebody’s investment – and a permanent disaster for everybody else.

Aldo Leopold, a follower of John Muir and one of the greatest preservationists, understood that the erosion of American land was only part of a more drastic erosion of American freedom – of which it was a symptom. If “freedom” means purely and simply an uncontrolled power to make money in every possible way, regardless of consequences, then freedom becomes synonymous with ruthless, mindless and absolute exploitation. Such freedom is in fact nothing but the arbitrary tyranny of a wasteful and destructive process, glorified with big words that have lost their meaning.

Aldo Leopold brought into clear focus one of the most important moral discoveries of our time. This can be called the ecological conscience. The ecological conscience is centered in an awareness of man’s true place as a dependent member of the biotic community. Man must become fully aware of his dependence on a balance which he is not only free to destroy but which he has already begun to destroy. He must recognize his obligations toward the other members of that vital community. And incidentally, since he tends to destroy nature in his frantic efforts to exterminate other members of his own species, it would not hurt if he had a little more respect for human life too. The respect for life, the affirmation of all life, is basic to the ecological conscience.

The tragedy which has been revealed in the ecological shambles created by business and war is a tragedy of ambivalence, aggression and fear cloaked in virtuous ideas and justified by pseudo-Christian cliches. Our rather, a tragedy of pseudo-creativity deeply impregnated with hatred, megalomania and the need for domination. This is evident in the drama of the Vietnam War, cloaked as it is in the specious language of freedom and democracy. The psychological root of it is doubtless in the profound dehumanization and alienation of modern Western man, who has gradually come to mistake the artificial value of inert objects and abstractions (goods, money, property) for the power of life itself, and who is willing to place immediate profit above everything else. Money is more important, more alive than life, including the life and happiness of his closet and most intimate companions. This he can always justify by a legalist ethic or a casuistical formula of some sort, but his formulas themselves betray him and eventually lose even the meaning which has been arbitrarily forced upon them.

Aldo Leopold has defined the ecological conscience. Can such a conscience be formed and become really effective in America today? Is it likely to be? The ecological conscience is also essentially a peace-making conscience. A country that seems to be more and more oriented to permanent hot or cold war-making does not give much promise of developing either one. But perhaps the very character of the war in Vietnam – with crop poisoning, the defoliation of forest trees, the incineration of villages and their inhabitants with napalm – presents enough of a stark and critical example to remind us of this most urgent moral need. Catholic theology ought to take note of the ecological conscience and do it fast.

The Ecological Conscience
by Aldo Leopold 

The practice of conservation must spring from a conviction of what is ethically and esthetically right; as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right only when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the community, and the community includes soil, waters, fauna, and flora, as well as people.

It cannot be right, in the ecological sense, for a farmer to drain the last marsh, graze the last woods, or slash the last grove in his community, because in doing so he evicts a fauna, a flora, and a landscape whose membership in the community is older than his own, and is equally entitled to respect.

It cannot be right, in the ecological sense, for a farmer to channelize his creek or pasture his steep slopes, because in doing so, he passes flood trouble to his neighbors below, just as his neighbors above him have passed it to him. In cities we do not get rid of nuisances by throwing them across the fence onto the neighbor’s lawn, but in water-management we still do just that.

It cannot be right, in the ecological sense, for the deer hunter to maintain his sport by browsing out the forest, or for the bird-hunter to maintain his by decimating the hawks and owls, or for the fisherman to maintain his by decimating the herons, kingfishers, terns, and otters. Such tactics seek to achieve one kind of conservation by destroying another, and thus they subvert the integrity and stability of the community.

If we grant the premise that an ecological conscience is possible and needed, then its first tenet must be this: economic provocation is no longer a satisfactory excuse for unsocial land-use (or, to use somewhat stronger words, for ecological atrocities). This, however, is a negative statement. I would rather assert positively that decent land-use should be accorded social rewards proportionate to its social importance.

I have no illusions about the speed or the accuracy with which an ecological conscience can become functional. It has required 19 centuries to define decent man-to-man conduct and the process is only half done; it may take as long to evolve a code of decency for man-to-land conduct. In such matters, we should not worry too much about anything except the direction in which we travel. The direction is clear and the first step is to throw your weight around on matters of right and wrong in land-use. Cease being intimidated by the argument that a right action is impossible because it does not yield maximum profits, or that a wrong action is to be condoned because it pays.


On a land ethic, Leopold explained:

“The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”
“This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter down river. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

Aldo Leopold, the father of modern wildlife conservation, was born in Burlington, Iowa, worked for the US Forest Service in Arizona, and taught at the University of Wisconsin. This text from a 1947 speech reappeared in A Sand County Almanac, Leopold’s famous rumination on ecology and humankind. The speech text was reprinted the Nov./Dec. 1995 issue of International Wildlife (p. 58).


Ecological Conscience: The reflective and even spiritual capacities needed for human behavior to change its current course toward over development and ecological depletion ( Gatta, 2004 ).

Ubuntu: Ubuntu , a Nguni Bantu term from southern Africa, specifies giving what is good or truly needed, as an act of kindness ( Kubow & Liu, 2015 ). This term has continued to pave the foundation for civic life, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu highlights we belong to a greater whole (1999) and cannot exist in isolation (Tutu, 2008 AU23)

Cultivating an ecological conscience (a book review)

Excerpt from a book review (2010)

The liberal social movement of the sixties and the New Agrarians tended to be socially conservative with traditional Christian values. One might argue that because of this elemental difference, the two groups never fully connected. Looking back this seems a shame. Both groups had much to offer each other and to the conjoining of the environmental movement with American agriculture. To this day, sadly, environmentalist and farmers are still some distance apart.

The writing and work of farmer, agrarian, and philosopher Frederick L. Kirschenmann, however, provides some hope for bridging this gap. His recently published collection of essays, Cultivating an Ecological Conscience, with its clear concern for the part petroleum plays in modern agriculture, offers significant common ground for farmers and carbon-footprint conscious, twenty-first century environmentalists to agree upon. This alone would make Kirschenmann’s book important, but it also does such a thorough job of describing the current state of agriculture, it would be difficult to find a more comprehensive compilation of essays on the subject.

Kirschenmann is not as widely known as Wendell Berry or Wes Jackson, but he was and still is one of the essential voices of the New Agrarian movement.* Norman Wirzba’s inclusion of Cultivating an Ecological Conscience in his Culture of the Land: A Series in the New Agrarianism is testimony to this. The book’s thirty-seven essays track Kirschenmann’s writing from 1978 to the present and demonstrate an intimate knowledge of natural farming practices, a full understanding of the drawbacks to industrial agriculture, and, most importantly, a post-carbon vision for the future of agriculture. If you are not familiar with Kirschenmann or the New Agrarianism or its related agricultural philosophy, this collection is a good place to start.

In the mid-1970s, Fred Kirschenmann told a class of graduating seniors that education is like a baseball mitt. You might think mitts are to protect your hand and education is to help you get a good job, he said, but the true purpose of baseball mitts is to extend your reach so you can catch balls you would otherwise miss. Likewise, education helps you extend your imagination to catch opportunities otherwise beyond your grasp (see Kirschenmann’s essay in this volume, “What’s an Education For?”). Three decades later, Kirschenmann continues unveiling basic principles to help us grasp the challenges we face.

In the 1970s, energy shortages, hunger, poverty, and pollution appeared to be humankind’s main problems. It seemed we could solve them if we just deployed the right technologies. We now know these crises were early warnings of the human-induced, planetary-scale degradation of all life. Fundamentally, our predicament can be traced to the gradual shift in our self-image from being part of nature to being separate from and conquerors of the natural world. According to Kirschenmann, our fascination with technologies now distracts us from recognizing two important human shortcomings: our belief that we can solve problems without nature, and our habit of ignoring the consequences of our technologies in the complex natural world.

This volume of selected works spans his career, a career marked above all by a concern for ecological priorities and a conviction that people can and will make a difference if they understand the relevant issues and pertinent choices. Kirschenmann’s themes are grounded in his experience on his North Dakota farm, where he grappled with the sometimes harsh rhythms of nature and inherited his father’s legacy of independent thinking and deep appreciation for the value of healthy soil.

Kirschenmann grew up on his family’s farm in North Dakota. As a young man, he left the farm to attend the Hartford Theological Seminary and later received a PhD in Historical Theology at the University of Chicago in preparation for what appeared a budding academic career. Then, in 1977, concern for his father’s health and a growing interest in natural farming compelled Kirschenmann to return to his family’s 3000-acre farm to convert it to organic. In the time since, along with managing the family farm, he formed the North Plains Agricultural Society, was President of Farm Verified Organic for ten years, was on the board of the USDA’s Organic Standards, was a key figure in the Agriculture for the Middle Project, and in 2000 became the second director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, a position he held until 2005. Today he’s a farmer and a professor of religion and philosophy, serving as a Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center at Iowa State University. He is also a board member for the Food Alliance, Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area, the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, and the Nature Institute. Clearly, we are talking about a man who has been actively involved at the leading edge of agriculture for a good portion of his life.

Kirschenmann’s background in religion and philosophy are evident throughout this collection of essays. The word conscience in the book’s title underscores his specific interest in ethics. When applied to the environment, conscience, in Kirschenmann’s words, becomes “the awareness that all of the members of the biotic community of which we are a part are our ‘neighbors’ and that eternal qualities of life await us in those relationships.” The second part of this phrase is important because those eternal qualities of life are always there in Kirschenmann’s thoughts and put a deeper perspective on even the most mundane acts that he might be engaged. The book’s opening essay, “Theological Reflections while Castrating Calves,” is a perfect example, immediately introducing the reader to the breadth of Kirschenmann’s understanding and his deep compassion for the land, all life, and how they relate to his own beliefs. A passage from that first essay demonstrates this point:

“One Sunday morning, a year ago, my lawyer/wife and I were prevented from gong to church that day by requirements on the farm. We were riding across the prairie that morning, among our cattle, when my wife asked me where, if anyplace, I saw ‘god’ in our farm. I pointed to some Canadian thistles in the fence line and to the calves surrounding us and said, ‘in every thistle in our fields and every calf humping another calf in our pasture.’ I did not say this to be crude or disrespectful of her question but to convey the fact that in my theology, the divine always meets us in the flesh–all flesh–all relationships, not just our relationship with humans or relationships we like.”

This sets the tone for the rest of the essays. Throughout there is a pervading theological sentiment, generally understated, but still giving the sense of the sacred to the discussion, and adding a rather uplifting moral quality to caring for the planet and the full set of relationships life engenders.

While the essays dissect a wide spectrum of agricultural issues from the discussion of natural farming practices to an extended critique of biotechnology to the essentials of food and community on a planet with limited natural resources, the book as a whole seems to hinge on one absolutely critical philosophical question. Kirschenmann spells it out in an essay toward the end of the book, “Challenges Facing Philosophy,” when he asks rhetorically–who are we “as a species and how [do] our feeding habits affect the world in which we live?” This is a fundamental New Agrarian stance.** One can hardly imagine a more appropriate question for today when it seems to many that humans are overrunning the planet, rushing headlong through the planet’s natural resources, headed to an ecological collapse–which would, of course, take us with it. For Kirschenmann, this is a real scenario and is, presumably, the concern that impelled his return to his family’s farm in 1977 and the cultivation of his own ecological conscience.

A quote from the essay, “Expanding a Vision for Sustainable Agriculture,” focuses all Kirschenmann’s concerns for the future into a single task, to which the entire text of the book seems aimed:

The obvious task is to bring the human population into equilibrium with other species and then to design an agriculture that keeps the human population fed while maintaining that equilibrium. More importantly, agriculture may play a key role in unfurling the ecological revolution ahead.”

Cultivating an Ecological Conscience is an absolutely essential read for all those unfamiliar with the direction of cutting edge agriculture and a positively uplifting read for all those who are already there and seeking ways to connect environmental concepts with the production of food in the twenty-first century.


Cultivating Civic Generosity in Elementary Youth Across Glocal Cultures, Ecologies, and Generations, Laura B. Liu (Indiana University – Bloomington, USA), Source Title: Handbook of Research on Pedagogies and Cultural Considerations for Young English Language Learners, Copyright: © 2018 

This research explores cultivation of civic generosity in elementary youth as a cultural, ecological, generational practice developing global-local connections and enhanced by arts-based pedagogies, including reading, creating, and sharing children’s books. In this study, 2nd grade students across two public school contexts (rural middle-income and rural low-income) reflect on learning generosity from a grandparent/parent to create a children’s book presented in a public library. This study draws upon perspectives of participating elementary school teachers, administrators, and librarians to understand how the curricula and their partnerships enhanced student understanding, appreciation, and expression of generosity as a glocal civic practice.

Theoretical Framework

This research is framed by three pillars of theoretical thought: (1) glocalization as the interchange between the global and the local; (2) civic generosity as cultural, ecological, and generational; and (3) placemaking as a practice of making a space a home for diverse groups. This framework provides the foundation for exploring glocal civic generosity as a vital form of 21st century placemaking, and how arts-based pedagogical approaches enhance youth learning. A summary of the generosity curricula implemented across two 2nd grade classrooms in different contexts will follow a discussion of the three pillars of this theoretical framework.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Glocal Civic Generosity: Interchange between the global and the local that results in generosity across cultures, ecologies, and generations; often results in an important form of 21 st century placemaking involving arts-based educational approaches playing a civic connective role.

Generosus: A Greek term for generosity, with the connotation of giving from a position of abundance and nobility, often without expectation of receiving in return.

Glocal Placemaking: Glocal placemaking connects our youth with our broader world, while maintaining “appreciation for the particular place” where they live ( Noddings, 2013 , p. 85).

Glocalization: Dochakuka , or glocalization , first used in Japan in the field of business, is translated literally as land ( do ), arrive ( chaku ), and process of ( ka ) ( Dumitrescu & Vinerean, 2010 ). This term was popularized in the U.S. by University of Pittsburgh Professor Roland Robertson in the Harvard Business Review in the 1980s ( Dumitrescu & Vinerean, 2010 ), and refers to the co-presence of universalizing and particularizing tendencies (Khondker, 2004 AU21: The in-text citation "Khondker, 2004" is not in the reference list. Please correct the citation, add the reference to the list, or delete the citation. ).

Placemaking: Placemaking relates to the Greek term, philochoria , or love of place , and involves shaping a place to reflect its unique cultural and ecological aspects ( Noddings, 2013 ) particularly to bring about community renewal (Zelinka & Hardin, 2006 AU22: The in-text citation "Zelinka & Hardin, 2006" is not in the reference list. Please correct the citation, add the reference to the list, or delete the citation. ).

Ren (?): In ancient Confucian culture, ren (?), often translated as human benevolence , is composed of two Chinese characters: ren (?), human , and er ( ? ), two , to express that to be human is to be human together. Generosity is foundational for ren (?), with trustworthiness, deference , tolerance , and diligence ( Analects , 17:6, as cited in Yeo, 2008 , p. 379).

Shu (?): Shu (?), or generosity, emphasizes giving and receiving in Confucian heritage.

Ecological Conscience: The reflective and even spiritual capacities needed for human behavior to change its current course toward over development and ecological depletion ( Gatta, 2004 ).

Ubuntu: Ubuntu , a Nguni Bantu term from southern Africa, specifies giving what is good or truly needed, as an act of kindness ( Kubow & Liu, 2015 ). This term has continued to pave the foundation for civic life, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu highlights we belong to a greater whole (1999) and cannot exist in isolation (Tutu, 2008 AU23: The in-text citation "Tutu, 2008" is not in the reference list. Please correct the citation, add the reference to the list, or delete the citation. ).

Generosity: In ancient Greek society, generosus implies giving from a position of abundance and nobility, often without expectation of receiving in return. In Confucian heritage, shu (?) includes giving and receiving as key to generosity. Ubuntu , a Nguni Bantu term from southern Africa, specifies giving what is good or needed, as an act of kindness .