Sustainability: Don’t sit this one out

Community is even more important than stewardship when it comes to environmentalism.

You might expect that the biblical principle spurring environmental action is stewardship. Several Wisconsinite environmentalists, however, suggest that community is even more important. 

Aldo Leopold is justly famous for his work in the Coon Valley restoration project. The valley had been settled – “wheated to death” – and virtually ruined in 70 years of European-style farming. There were other factors besides the nation’s desire for wheat. There was the great drought of the 1930s. There was the climate of North America, marked by violent storms, quite different from the more moderate climates of Europe from which settling farmers came. 

But no matter. Erosion and soil degradation wrecked Coon Valley. Trout brooks became seasonal mud-streams and gullies formed everywhere. As Renae Anderson comments: “It took only 70 years, from the time of the first infusion of white settlers to the early 1930s, for traditional farming methods to reduce the land around Coon Creek from pristine to the brink of agricultural uselessness. It took nearly 70 [more] years to revive Coon Creek, as measured by the barometer of native brook trout, and it is still on the mend.”

The restoration of Coon Valley is remarkable not because it was a one-person solution by Aldo Leopold; it was successful because, despite some initial reticence, farmers and landholders joined together with scientists and government agencies to implement a plan which was larger than any one person’s property. 

As Leopold would say, “All ethics so far . . . rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. . . . The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals.”

Including “the land” in community may sound at first like some sort of neo-paganism or pantheism. However, staring Christians in the face is the rainbow, symbol of delayed judgment and continuing grace. God himself includes all living things in the community to which he voluntarily binds himself. 

Land ethic by-laws

In a world in which individual advancement and economic considerations seem to have dominance, we need examples of how to living in community with each other, the land and our Creator. One example can be found in the Town of Dunn plan. Dunn Township, near Madison, Wisconsin, was facing the pressures of suburban development. Some wanted a continuance of rural life but also needed money for retirement. Others knew of the need for housing in a growing population.

Into this situation stepped Calvin De Witt, a university professor, who joined the local government and helped the local people develop their own plan for how land should be used. This was done through articulation of values, through wide consultation, studies and consensus building. It was done by community. The result was that a township on the edge of a small metropolitan area managed to meet social needs, economic needs and the needs of the “land” through thoughtful, considerate and stewardly action. You can read about this remarkable project here. This link will show you the nuts-and-bolts of how things work in a community that has a land-ethic. 

In a jurisdiction with an Agricultural Land Reserve, for example, the Town of Dunn has come up with a “voluntary farmland protection method that compensates landowners for inhibiting future development on their land.” Neither socialist nor capitalist, it is a community-based program that considers the needs of people and environment, today and in the future. 

Calvin De Witt speaks about the development of the Town of Dunn ethic in Song of a Scientist. He says, “We have come to understand that the integrity of both landscape and community is worthy of our wholehearted service.” 

In what is sometimes called the public arena, a community in Wisconsin has been largely successful in building a community plan based upon beliefs like these: “that we do not ultimately own the land; that we must live in harmony with the land and its life; that we should respect and love our neighbour; that we should celebrate and provide for the fruitfulness of creation; and that we should refrain from relentlessly pressing ourselves or our environment.” 

In an age of pipelines, mountain-top mining and economic gods, it is encouraging to read of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Calvin De Witt and the good folk of the Town of Dunn, Dane County, Wisconsin. 

A cloud of witnesses is speaking: will we allow ourselves to be discipled? 


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