“Green Fire – Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic For Our Time”

Aldo Leopold died of a heart attack while battling a fire on a neighbour’s property on April 21, 1948. He is one of those literary figures better known and much more influential in America than on this side of the Atlantic – like Henry Adams, or to a certain degree Emerson or Thoreau. I first came across him when reading about solastalgia  , which lead me to A Sand County Almanac and the concept of the Land Ethic:

“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.


I have remarked before on some of the aspects of Leopold’s work which might strike one as dated – for instance his unself-conscious engagement in hunting, not seen as implacably opposed to conservation as it often is now (in Britain especially) . But by and large, Leopold’s work is all too relevant. Indeed, as the disappearance of species accelerates rather than slows down in our supposedly green-conscious age, the rediscovery of the Land Ethic looms larger than ever as an imperative rather than a luxury.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/8669977″>Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user2926562″>Jeannine Richards</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>


Scott Walker, “Little Things (That Keep Us Together)”

Every so often a song floats into your consciousness from somewhere or other. I am not sure why, but yesterday Scott Walker’s driving, rhythmic “Little Things (That Keep Us Together)” from 1970’s “‘Til the Band Comes In” drifted back into my consciousness. Perhaps it was because I was travelling at the time, and the song is redolent of propulsive motion (and references Jumbo jets crashing), or perhaps its evocation of social collapse “while the war is going on” is relevant, because it is always relevant:

Of Scott Walker songs, it reminds me most of the pseudo-martial We Came Through, and like We Came Through is sounds initially a little dated but as the years have passed by has lasted better than many of Scott’s Brel covers, some of which strike me as histrionic and over-mannered now:


Dorothy L Sayers on Dante’s Inferno as a portrait of social collapse

From Introductory Dante Papers, Dorothy L Sayers:

That the Inferno is a picture of human society in a state of sin and corruption, everybody will readily agree. And since we are today fairly well convinced that society is in a bad way and not necessarily evolving in the direction of perfectibility, we find it easy enough to recognise the various stages by which the deep of corruption is reached. Futility; lack of a living faith; the drift into loose morality, greedy consumption, financial irresponsibility, and uncontrolled bad temper; a self-opinionated and obstinate individualism; violence, sterility, and lack of reverence for life and property including one’s own; the exploitation of sex, the debasing of language by advertisement and propaganda, the commercialising of religion, the pandering to superstition and the conditioning of people’s minds by mass-hysteria and ‘spell-binding’ of all kinds, venality and string-pulling in public affairs, hypocrisy, dishonesty in material things, intellectual dishonesty, the fomenting of discord (class against class, nation against nation) for what one can get out of it, the falsification and destruction of all the means of communication; the exploitation of the lowest and stupidest mass-emotions; treachery even to the fundamentals of kinship, country, the chosen friend, and the sworn allegiance: these are the all-too-recognisable stages that lead to the cold death of society and the extinguishing of all civilised relations.

Joseph Tainter: “People have to take responsibility for knowing and understanding the predicament we’re facing “

From this interview with Joseph Tainter:

And so individuals need to take responsibility for their own ignorance. As I said, our species did not evolve to think broadly in terms of time and space and if we’re going to maintain our way of life, people have to learn to do so. People have to take responsibility for knowing and understanding the predicament that we’re facing. I have argued over the last few years that we need to start teaching early school age children in K to 12 to think differently, to think broadly in terms of time and space – to think historically, to think long-term about the future, to think broadly about what’s going on in the world around us instead of the narrow way – the narrow, local way – that most people live and think. So I put responsibility on individuals to broaden their knowledge.

”the most sane fringe phenomena.”

The current New Yorker features a piece by Brooke Jarvis on the maybe-extinct, maybe-not Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine.

About fifteen years ago I had a cryptozoological phase, with occasional relapses. However, I can rarely get past the minimum viable population problem. Jarvis’ article is a witty and rather wise piece. The Tasmanian tiger’s continued existence is not that unlikely, and Jarvis cites the many examples of Lazarus species:

Tiger enthusiasts are quick to bring up Lazarus species—animals that were considered lost but then found—which in Australia include the mountain pygmy possum (known from fossils dating from the Pleistocene and long thought to be extinct, it was found in a ski lodge in 1966); the Adelaide pygmy blue-tongue skink (rediscovered in a snake’s stomach in 1992); and the bridled nailtail wallaby, which was resurrected in 1973, after a fence-builder read about its extinction in a magazine article and told researchers that he knew where some lived. In 2013, a photographer captured seventeen seconds of footage of the night parrot, whose continued existence had been rumored but unproven for almost a century. Sean Dooley, the editor of the magazine BirdLife, called the rediscovery “the bird-watching equivalent of finding Elvis flipping burgers in an outback roadhouse.” The parrots have since been found from one side of the continent to the other. Is it more foolish to chase what may be a figment, or to assume that our planet has no secrets left?

But there is also something to be said for the impatience expressed by Anna Povey here:

But some people erupted in frustration at the mention of the tiger. “We killed them off a hundred years ago and now, belatedly, we’re proud of the thylacine!” Anna Povey, who works in land conservation, nearly shouted. She wanted to know why the government fetishizes the tiger’s image when other animals, such as the eastern quoll—cute, fluffy, definitely alive, and definitely endangered—could still make use of the attention. I couldn’t help thinking of all the purported thylacine videos that are dismissed as “just” a quoll. “It does piss us off!” Povey said. “It’s about time to appreciate the things we have, Australia, my God! We still treat this place as if it was the time of the thylacines—as if it was a frontier and we can carry on taking over.”

Bob Brown, former leader of the Australian Greens, expands on this;

In the nineteen-seventies, Bob Brown, later a leader of the Australian Greens, a political party, spent two years as a member of a thylacine search team. He told me that although he’d like to think the fascination with thylacines is motivated by remorse and a desire for restitution, people’s guilt doesn’t seem to be reflected in the policies that they actually support. Logging and mining are major industries in Tasmania, and land clearing is rampant; even the forest where Naarding saw his tiger is gone. Throughout Australia, the dire extinction rate is expected to worsen. It is a problem of the human psyche, Brown said, that we seem to get interested in animals only as they slide toward oblivion

The whole thing is worth reading – it is a classic of a kind of New Yorker piece; erudite, witty, slightly detached but unexpectedly moving.

“A sort of oriental yearning for Nirvana” – Miklós Bánffy on doomed Hungarian geniuses


There is a famous anecdote told about Enrico Fermi, when he asked why there was as of yet no evidence of intelligent life from other planets despite the statistical likelihood of its existence, getting this reply from Leo Szilard “They are already among us, they just call themselves Hungarians” (edit – originally I thought the punchline was Fermi’s)

Reading Miklós Bánffy’s epic Transylvanian Trilogy is a slow, rich, rare pleasure, at risk of sounding too blurb-y. I have resisted posting any excerpts but will make an exception for this passage from “They Were Found Wanting” Balint Abady, the main protagonist, has just met Jopal, who in the first volume “They Were Weighed” is met having invented a flying machine – just after Santos-Dumont and the Wright Brothers. Jopal angrily refused Abady’s offer of help, and in this passage had just appeared as part of a delegation of charcoal burners at a development conference. Jopal has totally abjured technological and scientific work. In the passage that follows, Abady considers a whole host of Hungarian lost geniuses:

As Abady walked over to the restaurant he was thinking over what had happened to Jopal. How strange it was, the destiny of Hungarians! How many there were like Jopal, as full of talent as their greatest rivals in the world but who, once they had reached their goal, would give it all up as easily as it had been obtained. Such people would never fight for the recognition they deserved; it was as if they would soon lose all interest if everything didn’t go their way from the beginning, and that they had striven so far only to prove to themselves that they could do it if they wanted to, and not for worldly success. Several names at once occurred to him. There was Janos Bolyai, one of the outstanding men of his generation, who gave up everything at the age of twenty-one; Samu Teleki, who had explored so many hitherto unknown parts of Africa and discovered Lake Rudolf, but who never bothered himself to write about his travels; Miklos Absolon, who had been to Lhasa but who never spoke of his travels except obliquely and as humorous anecdotes. Then there was Pal Szinyei-Merse, the forerunner of the Impressionists, who gave up painting and did not touch his brushes for more than fifteen years; and, of course, Tamas Laczok, who earned fame in Algeria where he could have made history but who abandoned it all to return to Hungary and work on the railways as a simple engineer.

There seemed to be a sort of oriental yearning for Nirvana, a passivity as regards worldly success which led his compatriots to throw away their chances of achievement, abandon everything for which they had striven for years, sometimes justifying themselves with some transparent excuse of offence offered or treachery on the part of so-called friends, but more often offering no explanation at all. Perhaps it was the other side of the coin of national pride which led them to throw everything away as soon as they had proved to themselves that they could do it if they wished, as if the ability alone sufficed and the achievement counted for nothing. It was like an inherited weakness transmitted from generation to generation and, of course, it had been epitomized in Janos Aranyi’s epic poem about Miklos Toldi, who under appalling difficulties conquered all his country’s enemies in a few months and then retired to till his fields and was never seen again until extreme old age.

Most of the notables mentioned above are easily enough found on Wikipedia, with the exceptions of Miklos Absolon and Tamos Laczok; for the excellent reason they are characters in Bánffy’s epic tapestry. Laczok’s career in Algeria and subsequent humble worklife does echo the career of Amity Cadet’s father

“Carbon dioxide should be regarded the same way we view other waste products” – Klaus Lackner and changing minds on carbon

This Elizabeth Kolbert article from the New Yorker on carbon capture is a few months old, but still well worth reading. It is sobering to read how many of the more optimistic climate-change scenarios depend on a technology largely unproven. There is also the question of whether planning for a technological fix like this is a form of moral hazard, although the consensus of those quoted seems to be that while it probably is a moral hazard, it is one we can’t avoid.

One early passage, quoting Dr Klaus Lackner, caught my eye. It deals with a shift in how we view carbon and those who create carbon – less moralistic, more pragmatic. It reminded me, oddly enough, of the shift in how we view the planet and natural environment Peter Reason seeks to model in his ecological pilgrimages, or the shift in viewing the oceans as as resilient ecosystems (while fully aware of the threats) championed by the #OceanOptimism movement:

The way Lackner sees things, the key to avoiding “deep trouble” is thinking differently. “We need to change the paradigm,” he told me. Carbon dioxide should be regarded the same way we view other waste products, like sewage or garbage. We don’t expect people to stop producing waste. (“Rewarding people for going to the bathroom less would be nonsensical,” Lackner has observed.) At the same time, we don’t let them shit on the sidewalk or toss their empty yogurt containers into the street.

“If I were to tell you that the garbage I’m dumping in front of your house is twenty per cent less this year than it was last year, you would still think I’m doing something intolerable,” Lackner said.

One of the reasons we’ve made so little progress on climate change, he contends, is that the issue has acquired an ethical charge, which has polarized people. To the extent that emissions are seen as bad, emitters become guilty. “Such a moral stance makes virtually everyone a sinner, and makes hypocrites out of many who are concerned about climate change but still partake in the benefits of modernity,” he has written. Changing the paradigm, Lackner believes, will change the conversation. If CO2 is treated as just another form of waste, which has to be disposed of, then people can stop arguing about whether it’s a problem and finally start doing something.