Aldo Leopold was a forester in New Mexico in the early part of the 20th century. As fate would have it, he was hired to rid the nearby mountains and hills of bears and wolves that sometimes preyed on local livestock. One day, he mortally wounded a female wolf while on the side of a mountain. As he reached the old wolf, he saw the dying moments of “a fierce gray fire” in her eyes. It moved him intensely. “I knew then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes… something known only to her and to the mountain.”
That experience changed his life. He devoted himself as a scientist and author to ecology and the preservation of the environment. His thoughts were encapsulated in his famous book, “A Sand County Almanac,” published shortly after his death in 1949. He espoused the notion that we should “think like a mountain.” He believed we needed to recognize not just our own needs and those of fellow human beings but also the needs of the entire natural world. His idea is that we need to be aware of the broader implications of our actions. “Conservation,” he asserted, “is a state of harmony between men and the land.” In his essays, he asserts that men who need trophies of dead animals on their wall have a false need to proclaim their power over nature and miss the whole point of life. The best trophy we could ever have, according to Leopold, is the experience of the wilderness itself.
Aldo Leopold was not the first person who suggested that we need to respect other living creatures and that we are inextricably connected to nature. In 1660, one of my favorite philosophers, Benedictus Spinoza, posited that all animals have mentalities and their bodies and minds “are part of God.” In his most famous work, “Ethics” (1677), he writes that God is in the world and that the world is God. His unique form of pantheism, if believed, required a respect for all living things. Animals were not here for our amusement or use, but rather as reflections of God Himself and therefore not to be harmed.
Spinoza’s pantheism reminds me of the deer of Nara, Japan. Legend has it that thousands of years ago, a prophet entered the town riding a sacred white deer. As a result, dear are now a protected species in Nara. When I visited the park, I was amazed to see deer crossing the streets, being fed, and tamely approaching people for affection and food. In ancient times, if you killed deer there you would be buried alive, in stones, with the deer carcass.
Similarly, if you happen to visit Bermuda, take a boat over to the neighboring “Pig Beach” or “Pig Island.” There, pigs roam free and are protected. They will approach you and respond to your every gesture. They are affectionate, intelligent, inquisitive and emotive. It is impossible to spend any time there and still feel the same way about ordering pork chops at your local restaurant.
In 1960, the British scientist, James Lovelock, created the Gaia hypothesis, which suggested that every living organism interacts with its inorganic surroundings on earth to form “a synergistic and self-regulating system.” Threatening this very balanced and complex system is, according to Lovelock, man-made global warming. Just two years later, American biologist, Rachel Carson, released her trailblazing book, “Silent Spring,” which outlined the dangers of pesticides on our environment.
Also following in Leopold’s footsteps was philosopher Arne Naess (1912-2009). He proposed what he called a “deep ecology,” where we see ourselves as part of the whole biosphere. Don’t be detached from the world, he cautions, “we must find our place in nature by acknowledging the intrinsic value of all elements of the world we inhabit.” In his groundbreaking book, “Ecology, Society, and Lifestyle” (1974), Naess promotes the idea of the “ecological self,” which entails the attachment of our sense of self-awareness to our relationship to a “larger community of all living things.”
In 1975, Australian philosopher Peter Singer, took Naess and Leopold a step further in his famous book, “Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals.” Singer contends that, in suffering, animals are our equals, “animals, or at least those who are conscious and capable of suffering or enjoying their lives, are not things for us to use in whatever way we find convenient.”
Eight years later, a North Carolina state professor, Tom Regan, released his book, “The Case for Animal Rights.” In it, he rejects the long-held hypothesis of Immanuel Kant that rights can only be ascribed to beings who are capable of complex reasoning (humans). Regan astutely points out that we routinely ascribe inherent rights to humans who are not rational, including infants and the severely mentally impaired. Kant was wrong, he affirms, in not understanding that the crucial attribute we all have in common is not rationality but rather the fact that each of us has a life that matters to us. His point is that our life matters to us regardless of whether it matters to anyone else. If this is true, then we logically must give value to life, both human and non-human. All of us have the right to not be treated as a means to an end. The cruelty and pain we subject animals to is therefore both illogical and inexcusable. The same year his book came out, he and his wife founded the Culture and Animals Foundation, dedicated to fostering the growth of positive concern for animals.
The true essence of the “deep ecology” movement can be gleaned from the works of the famous author Robert Roshi. He was able to combine ecology with the ancient teachings of the Buddhist philosopher Dogen in a series of wonderful books. For me this quote sums it all up, “When one thinks like a mountain one also thinks like a black bear, so that honey dribbles down your fur as you catch the bus to work.”