Scott Russell Sanders is one of our favorite writers. He writes beautiful prose and never fails to stir our souls and imaginations. He is the Distinguished Professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington and the author of 20 books of fiction and nonfiction, including Hunting for Hope and A Private History of Awe.
In this awesome new book (to use a term popular with youth today but also one of deep import), Sanders outlines the practical, ecological, and ethical grounds for a conservation ethic. We have ruined the planet, and there are signs everywhere of its distress: the global climate changes, the destruction of forests, the extinction of species, the looming shortages of water, and the spread of famine and disease. Sanders suggests that we change our habits and behavior by moving from the "culture of consumption, extravagance, and waste that dominates America today" to a culture based on conservation.
He looks to the philosophy of Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, and others for inspiration. He remembers the frugal habits of the Depression and wartime rationing. And he salutes the simple lifestyles of the early Native Americans and the Quakers. He sees this renewal of conservation not merely as a personal virtue but as a public one "an expression of our regard for our neighbors, for this marvelous planet, and for future generations."
The conservation ethic lives in the efforts of people Sanders calls "ark builders" who are doing what they can to save the planet organic farmers, solar designers, tree huggers, backyard gardeners, food co-ops, and those creating land trusts. The glorification of private wealth has led to the suffering of many people today who are unemployed and others who are worried about their future. Sanders prefers the term "common wealth" which comes when individuals band together in partnerships with others and in mutual support of the natural world. One way of doing the latter is to ground language once again in the Earth. For example, he probes the word resource and comes up with: "A re-source is something that rises anew, like grass in a meadow or water in a spring." We also need to pay attention to the narratives which rule our lives; he wants us to get rid of the Warehouse Story and substitute the Wilderness Story.
Sanders has written elsewhere about the dynamics and spirituality of deeply appreciating the place where we live. In a section of the book called "Caring for Home Ground," he calls for a renewed devotion to local places and muses on the vitality of his hometown, Bloomington, Indiana. In the name of sanity, Sanders wants each of us to launch our own experiments in simplicity: "Living in such a way, we will promote ecological health by reducing the demands we make on the planet."
Sanders has always been a lover of wilderness areas. In one essay, he pays tribute to three of them in Indiana; in another, he ponders the significance of wilderness as a Sabbath for the land: "The Sabbath and the wilderness remind us of what is true everywhere and at all times, but which in our arrogance we keep forgetting that we did not make the earth, that we are guests here, that we are answerable to a reality deeper and older and more sacred than our own will."
We can choose to change our lives and to simplify our existence. Sanders recounts ways he and his wife have done so with the intention of doing less harm to the planet. The author ends the book with "A Conservationist Manifesto" a 40-part statement of ideas and principles. It is creative and comprehensive and enlightening. Here is one of its planks:
"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. We seek to make a good and lasting home. We strive for a way of life that our descendants will look back on with gratitude, a way of life that is worthy of our magnificent planet."