Conference Paper

Aldo Leopold in Albuquerque: The Land Ethic in an Urban Context

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Scholars who are interested in the theme of "lives, places, stories" are likely well aware of American forester, ecologist, and writer Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) and his land ethic: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Historians and environmentalists have generally written about the land ethic in terms of conservation and wilderness. For example, the Aldo Leopold wilderness area in New Mexico's Gila National Forest is named after Leopold to honor his efforts to promote wilderness areas. More recently, however, historians and other scholars have begun to question the very term “wilderness” and to study the implications of the idea that our very conceptions of what is and is not “nature” are influenced by the social context in which we live. This poster heeds William Cronon's admonishment that environmental historians and environmentalists study urban as well as “wild” places, and asks whether and how Leopold's land ethic might be applied in an urban context. Using maps, photographs, and primary source documents written by Leopold himself during his brief tenure (1918-1919) as Secretary for Albuquerque's Chamber of Commerce, this poster explores the environmental and civic issues faced by Leopold, while contextualizing those issues both before and after Leopold's time in Albuquerque. Leopold advocated passionately for the need for a centralized water conservation district, and the establishment of a civic center and civic identity, and city parks bordering the Rio Grande (which runs through the middle of the city). These same issues continue to swirl in public discourse today. At the heart of these debates are tensions between the individual accrual of private property and various notions of the public good. In his capacity as Chamber of Commerce Secretary, Leopold asserted that (what he called) “public spiritedness” was the way to resolve these tensions; however, just a few years later he publicly excoriated Albuquerque's boosters for being short-sightedly profit-driven, suggesting some of the difficulties involved in balancing private rights with the public good. Can a “land ethic” be applied to American cities? What about cities that exist in places too high, dry or otherwise environmentally unsuitable for large-scale sustainable living? What about cities with multicultural populations who may have vastly different ideas about the relationship between humans and the natural world? This poster draws on one of the “saints” of modern U.S. environmental and ecological thought to examine these questions while shedding new light on the environmental history of a city that is simultaneously firmly situated in the Sunbelt and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

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