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A Certain Harmony, a Definitive Hope

Simmons B. Buntin reviews A Conservationist Manifesto by Scott Russell Sanders

A Conservationist Manifesto, by Scott Russell SandersIn his preface to A Conservationist Manifesto (Indiana University Press), Scott Russell Sanders writes, “As an antidote to this culture of consumption, extravagance, and waste that dominates America today, we need to imagine a culture of conservation.” A Conservationist Manifesto is about that imagining, a book that sets out to map “the practical, ecological, and ethical grounds for a conservation ethic” by arguing—in a series of 15 eloquently linked essays—that the practice of conservation is both a personal and a public virtue, that the fate of our built and natural communities, in all their integrated constructs, ultimately comes down to each of us, and to all of us.

It is impossible to consider a “conservation ethic” without drawing a parallel to Aldo Leopold and his classic, A Sand County Almanac (and essays on conservation from Round River). And let me say from the get-go that A Conservationist Manifesto is as necessary, beautifully written, and important as A Sand County Almanac. It may not be as groundbreaking as Leopold’s collection of essays, perhaps, but it is just as essential.

The single (but not overwhelming) criticism I’ve read of Manifesto is that its content is not fundamentally new. But Sanders is not after the fundamentally new in a literary context. Rather, he’s after a fundamental shift in the way we—that is, predominantly Americans—coexist on the planet. It is about speaking to readers as more than mere consumers, which is often how we act, but as conservationists. “The book does not set out to reinvent ecology, conservation, or the land ethic,” he told me recently. “It sets out to articulate those fundamental ideas and values in fresh ways, not only for the audience that is already concerned about the state of the planet, but for the larger audience that is either oblivious of or hostile to such thinking.” Sanders’ book is a finely crafted manifesto for getting from here to there, as Leopold’s classic is a manifesto for understanding the earth and so subscribing to a land ethic.

“Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land,” writes Leopold in Round River. “By land is meant all of the things on, over, or in the earth. Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left.” How, then, can we create and sustain an ethic of harmony with the land?

“By building arks,” replies Sanders in his first essay. “The question,” he says, “is not whether we should use the earth, but to what degree and to what end.” Like Leopold, Sanders understands that harmony is a delicate yet critical balance between humans and the land, between the land and our machines—technical, emotional, and otherwise. We cannot pretend that humans are not a part of nature, nor can we assign absolute dominion over nature to humans.

The religious reference is deliberate, and also given Sanders’ oft-moderate, sometimes-evangelical audience, important. Much of A Conservationist Manifesto, in fact, seems aimed directly at conservative Christians—the parallels of “conservative” and “conservationist” duly noted and further explored in the book.

Which brings us back to the ark: its symbolic gathering and restoring. In an age of growing despair, Sanders’ important body of community- and place-based nonfiction provides hope, and A Conservationist Manifesto likewise delivers: “Building an ark when the floodwaters are rising is not an act of despair; it’s an act of hope. To build an ark is to create a space within which life in its abundance may continue.”

Hope can be a fleeting bird, but perhaps no one knows that feathery species better than Sanders, whose Hunting for Hope itself is a manifesto for our time of global environmental threats, especially for parents and teachers. But hope itself is not enough. Working toward a more environmentally equitable future will take work, from each of us. And it won’t be easy, as substantial change rarely is.

Near the end of A Conservationist Manifesto—following a series of essays that ebb and flow, as luring and refreshing as lapping water over a cool morning beach—Sanders presents his 40-point manifesto, a culmination not just of the book’s previous essays, and not even of Sanders’ life spent in writing about and researching place-based community, but of a call for a more responsible existence with the land from before the days of Henry David Thoreau. It begins, “The work of conservation is inspired by wonder, gratitude, reason, and love,” and ends, echoing Leopold, “Conservation arises from the perennial human desire to dwell in harmony with our neighbors—those that creep and fly, those that swim and soar, those that sway on roots, as well as those that walk about on two legs.”

There and in between is a grounded philosophy of hope that blooms with Sanders’ welcome wisdom. For example, No. 31: “We cannot all be native to the places where we live, yet we can all aspire to become true inhabitants. Becoming an inhabitant means paying close attention to one’s home ground, learning its ways and its needs, and taking responsibility for its welfare.”

But what about that segment of society that doesn’t believe in hope? Or, more fairly, doesn’t believe that global climate change, the rapid rate of global species extinction, worldwide poverty and starvation, and the rapid loss of indigenous cultures and languages much matter? How do we get a book like this into their hands, and how do we get them to read it?

Those are the questions I had in my mind before a recent family reunion, when I would be visiting with my conservative father, brothers, and cousin. All evangelical Christian, or close to it, all staunchly Republican, and most career-fed through the military, these are not the like-minded liberal environmentalists I usually run with! Which is not to say we do not get along; we just don’t talk politics.

Because I had just finished reading A Conservationist Manifesto two days before the reunion, it occurred to me that I should purchase four copies of the book for my conservative family members.  I had hopes both of helping them understand my perspective—I nodded my head in agreement with Manifesto so much I felt like a bobblehead doll—and, more importantly, in guiding them toward their own conservation ethic and harmony with the land.

So I called my local independent bookshop. “No, haven’t heard of that one but we can order it,” the owner said. That was the response echoed across every bookstore in Tucson, from the university bookstore to the large chain stores like Barnes & Noble. Not one bookseller in Tucson had A Conservationist Manifesto in stock.

I was blown away. Scott Russell Sanders’ latest book not in stock?! How could this be?

So I asked Scott, who I met just over a year ago at the Wildbranch Writing Workshop in Vermont. “I’m not surprised,” he said as we gathered for lunch in Prescott, Arizona. He was in town for an Aldo Leopold conference, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to drive north a couple hours to visit him.

Not surprised? I thought it was a downright crime. “The book has not received the reception I was hoping for,” he said, noting that it had so far been included in only a few reviews, even in the environmental literature.

Certainly Manifesto’s lack of exposure isn’t due to the quality of writing. But, in a way, it is due to its content, for the book is about the necessary change from consumer to conservationist. In our consumer-based society, that’s a tall order, apparently. The challenge, of course, lies beyond one of marketing (i.e., How can we market this book to conservative evangelicals who otherwise aren’t interested? Or: If I give the book to my father and brothers and cousin, will they read it?). The challenge is one, it seems, of changing ideologies, and that’s no small task for a singularly important book like A Conservationist Manifesto or for a whole segment of society that strongly believes in the need for change, and is willing to work for it.

Change is an issue that many environmental advocates contemplate regularly. Hawk & Handsaw editor Kathryn Miles, who recently published an essay by Scott Russell Sanders in the new series subtitled The Journal of Creative Sustainability, tuned me into an audience segmentation analysis titled Global Warming’s Six Americas 2009 when I mentioned my conservation with Scott.

The comprehensive report published by the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University identifies and analyzes “six unique audiences within the American public that each respond to [the] issue [of global climate change] in a different way. It is based upon an extensive nationally representative survey of American adults conducted in the fall of 2008.”

The groups, identified in the graphic below, range from “Alarmed” to “Dismissive.” It notes that “the American public does not respond to climate change with a single voice—there are many different groups that each respond to this issue in different ways. Constructively engaging each of these groups in climate change solutions will therefore require tailored approaches.”

Figure 1: Proportion of the U.S. adult population in the Six Americas

So, how do we communicate to the 40 percent of the American population that is “Disengaged,” “Doubtful,” and “Dismissive,” the latter into which my father, brothers, and cousin most likely fall? The analysis of Global Warming’s Six Americas 2009 provides some insight but, of course, no definitive answers. The analysis of “Trust in Information Sources,” for example, reports that those considered “Doubtful” are most likely to trust their own family and friends (63 percent, though only nine percent strongly trust them) and scientists (61 percent, but only five percent strongly trust them). Political representatives of their own party follow; in this case, John McCain was trusted by 46 percent of the Doubters, whereas Al Gore (87 percent) and Barack Obama (86 percent) were strongly distrusted—as were the mainstream news media (84 percent) and environmental groups (78 percent) as sources of information about global warming.

The Dismissive are an even more paradoxical bunch, many believing they are very well informed and simply choosing not to believe in global warming. According to the analysis, “The Dismissive strongly distrust most sources of information on global warming.” They most trust family and friends (67 percent, 14 percent strongly trusted, though another 14 percent strongly distrusting family and friends). And they distrust Gore, Obama, mainstream media, and environmental organizations even more strongly than the Doubters.

One conclusion must be that confronting this segment through the mainstream media, elected Democrats, and environmental organizations may in fact work against the message. Family and friends make the biggest difference; that and FOX News, Bill O’Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh. Given my odds, it looks like I better send those books, after all—even if I do fall into the “strongly distrusted” family member role. Maybe my status can change for the better?

Keep the faith, says Sanders; hope must prevail. He concludes A Conservationist Manifesto with the essay-letter titled “For the Children.” In it, he writes:

Because of the way my generation and those that preceded us have acted, Earth has already suffered worrisome losses—forests cut down, swamps drained, topsoil washed away, animals and plants driven to extinction, clean rivers turned foul, the very atmosphere unsettled. I can’t write you this letter without acknowledging these losses, for I wish to be honest with you about my fears as well as my hopes. But I must also tell you that I believe we can change our ways, we can choose to do less harm, we can take better care of the soils and waters and air, we can make more room for all the creatures who breathe. And we are far more likely to do so if we think about the many children who will come after us, as I think about you.

And ultimately, it seems, that must be the approach: thinking about the children who come after us, beginning with those around us, with our own children and the children of our place—regardless of ideology. Sanders’ Manifesto—encouraging people to get out and know their place, to foster an ecological education for their children, to promote understanding and hope, to be respectful of our natural and cultural graces—resounds with harmony. And balance is sorely what we need.

He reminds us in the lovely essay “Stillness” that balance is a constant and deliberate pursuit: “This everyday realm is deep and vast and subtle enough for me; I wish to live here with full awareness. There are wonders enough in rivers and hills, in libraries and laboratories and museums, in alphabets and birds, to reward a lifetime of seeking.”

Reward your lifetime of seeking by reading A Conservationist Manifesto, then sharing it with your children, your neighbor, your dismissive brother or cousin. Then we may all find a certain harmony, a definitive hope.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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A Conservationist Manifesto

By Scott Russell Sanders

   Indiana University Press
   238 pages
   ISBN 978-0-253-22080-6


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