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Living by a land ethic

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By Wyatt Smetzer

We live in a time that emanates confusion.

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We live in a time where stories from the middle east about decapitations are too normal. We live in a time where celebrities are more important than the planet that we live on. We live in a time where the only solution for death is more death, the only solution for feeding the planet is found in a lab, the only solution for climate change is convincing yourself it does not exist, the only solution for police brutality is listening to the least threatening side of the story, and the only solution for sexism is making sure that women don’t make enough money to gain a voice. We live in a time where it is hard to trust your fellow man.

How do I, a 15-year-old male that is growing up in Carbondale, Colorado, a person that has amazing educational opportunities, change these conditions?

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There are so many people out there in the world that have suffered through pain, suffered through poverty, suffered through racism, suffered through sexism. Yet, they do not have a voice loud enough to teach us about their suffering. How can I change the world for them?

An environmentalist that lived more than sixty years ago offered the answer to every problem that we have as a species and as a planet. He said that only way we can live together on our planet and with ourselves is to think like a mountain. A wolf protects the mountain from deer, so the mountain can feed the deer who then feed the wolves. If the earth is the mountain and we are the deer, then who are the wolves? Who protects us from the earth? It’s all about caring for the mountain that feeds you.

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A way to think like a mountain is to live by Aldo Leopold’s philosophical ethics and land ethics. After hunting wolves with his friends, Aldo had an epiphany that made his previous actions look elementary. Aldo discovered how to think like a mountain, but he needed a way to tell others how to think like a mountain. He came up with the idea of a land ethic.

Aldo explained, “An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom action in the struggle for existence. An ethic, philosophically is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct.”

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These are versions of the same request; we need to show up, realize that we live in nature, and extend our moral consideration to the whole biotic community. The fate of humankind and the planet are one and the same.

Ever since white men traveled across the Atlantic to North America we replaced a civilization that lived with a land ethic. But we thought of land as something apart from us, as if we came from another planet altogether.

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Chief Luther Standing Bear, while trying to put the difference between native Americans and white immigrants into words said, “For the Lakota there was no wilderness; since nature was not dangerous but hospitable; not forbidding but friendly, Lakota philosophy was healthy – free from fear and dogmatism.”

If native cultures before us lived by this land ethic, why don’t we? It could have been the industrial revolution that tore us apart from our mountain and turned us into crazed deer with an unfulfilling appetite for the earth’s natural resources.

Changing our lives to practice this ethic will not be easy, but if we do it together, you would be amazed by how quickly our mindset would change. In an extreme case, such as now, if we can not muster the will to be virtuous, shouldn’t living by a land ethic be mandated by a law? If it was a law it would obviously be just law, for it is a natural law, and all natural laws are aimed at the dignity and well being of humanity as well as for the benefit of all life on earth.

Living by a land ethic in the Roaring Fork valley seems to be a simple request, for most of us have gained an attachment to the incredible wilderness that surrounds this small mountain town. Preserving the land that we walk through to gain a clearer conscience has almost become second nature to us, but what about the people that live in the urban areas of the world, the places that aren’t surrounded by mountains but by concrete? How can we show them the importance of something that they have no emotional attachment to?

Martin Luther King, while being imprisoned in the Birmingham jail for protesting without a permit said, “A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of god. An unjust law is out of harmony with the moral law.”

We need to set an example for the rest of Colorado and maybe the nation. It start out with something simple, such as being conscious about what you can recycle. Then you could start a compost pile and eliminate some of the waste that will head to landfills. Take another step and start to ride public transportation or your own bike to work. Maybe go to town hall meetings and discuss the idea of getting all of Carbondale’s energy from a sustainable source. Call your senators and representatives and tell them your thoughts on climate change. Other towns and cities across the state of Colorado will recognize our impact and follow our lead to a sustainable, sensible future.

Living by a land ethic doesn’t have to be time consuming or difficult. Even simple everyday actions can make a difference. If you have enough time to plant a garden and ride your bike to work, then all the better. People will see your actions and follow them, creating a brighter future for my generation. One person can’t protect the world but if everyone comes together it is possible.

To be able to live in this time, we have to think in a certain mindset. We have to ‘think like a mountain’, as Aldo Leopold puts it. Our actions reflect our thoughts, so if we start ‘thinking like a mountain’, we will act on a land ethic.

For if we can’t live and act on a daily basis in ways of a land ethic, there will be nothing left to take from the mountain. Aldo Leopold put it simply “In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd  –  dead of it’s own too much.”

Wyatt Smetzer is a student at Colorado Rocky Mountain School.
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