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2019 ISSRM Theme: Sustainability and the Land Ethic in the Anthropocene: ‘A Thinking Community’ Explores Critical Issues in Leopold’s Backyard

The conference theme is “Sustainability and the Land Ethic in the Anthropocene.” We subtitle the theme as, “‘A Thinking Community’ Explores Critical Issues in Leopold’s Backyard”, including what a land ethic means in the anthropocene. We envision a focus on big ideas and innovative approaches to understanding and addressing the myriad issues for society and natural resources that have emerged from the new geological epoch we have created. As most ISSRM attendees will no doubt be aware, the anthropocene is marked by the decisive role humans now play in shaping the state, dynamics, and future of Earth and its complex ecological and social systems. Among other indicators, scientists argue that anthropogenic processes now account for more sediment transport than natural processes, such as erosion from rivers, and humans have measurably altered the composition of the atmosphere, oceans, and soils, as well as the cycles associated with carbon, nitrogen, and other elements.

The more than seven billion people currently residing on the planet breathe a chemically altered atmosphere of our own making, and are witness to the spread of oceanic dead zones that result from our practices. From a sociological standpoint, the adjective “anthropogenic,” referring to something produced by humans, is insufficient. It is not simply the presence of billions of Homo sapiens, which has altered the Earth’s systems; rather, it is the way people interact with the Earth’s systems—our social processes.

While he was trained in forestry and ecology, Aldo Leopold remains so influential because he—like many from Native American and Eastern philosophical traditions before and after him—understood the interconnections between social and natural processes; according to him, land is not merely soil, but a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals, including Homo sapiens. He pointed to the many dangers of change occurring in parts of the fountain, which cause imbalances in the system and consequences for its interdependent members. His direct work concluded with his untimely death more than six decades ago and while he would likely be disappointed, he would perhaps not be surprised to learn that all these years later, much of our species has still failed to understand these basic concepts nor altered their patterns accordingly. He noted, “We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive” and to be “intelligent tinkerers” that attempt to understand and preserve every cog and wheel as we do. A modern legacy of his big ideas include the notion that a land ethic will emerge from a common belief that healing our earth is key to healing our relationships with each other, and healing our relationships with each other is key to healing our earth. Both must happen simultaneously, because community and conservation, collective understanding and collective action, go hand in hand.

ISSRM attendees can visit Wisconsin’s “sand counties”—the location of his most famous work that lie to the west of Oshkosh—and learn directly from Aldo Leopold Foundation, which works to preserve and enhance the legacy of Leopold’s land ethic. Attendees can do so in a setting that embodies not pristine wilderness nor overly idealistic visions of sustainable living, but a university and wider community engaged with the realities of the anthropocene and attempting to develop a collective ecological conscience in this regard as they exist in the transition between a heavily industrial, largely homogeneous, Human Exemptionalism Paradigm-oriented local society to an increasingly diverse one that is making progress towards using the New Ecological Paradigm (NEP) as a guide for living, which the Menominee people continue to do after more than 10,000 years in Wisconsin. Our partners from Menominee’s Sustainable Development Institute will facilitate our exploration of indigenous perspectives and practices in several exciting ways.

ISSRM ’19 will be a conference that takes advantage of this rich context through keynote talks, panels, field trips, organized sessions, and other engaging and just plain fun activities.