For Whom Are We Saving the Land?

Peter Sauer was a member of Orion’s editorial board from 1991 until his death in 2009. Orion, from its beginning, has endeavored to expand our definition of “nature” and to challenge the idea that the “environmental movement” should be—or can be—separate from any other social-justice effort. But it was Peter more than any other person who deepened Orion’s thinking in this area, and his columns and essays in Orion were unlike anything that was being written at the time. I thought about him when I came across a 1999 letter from Peter to someone who had written to him about a new land conservation organization he was founding. Here is a section of it:

I am impressed with your undertaking…. I have two comments based on the material in your letter and in the intro. The first is, I think, a source of optimism and the second is cautionary.

Optimistic: I think that the social issues of the day—decaying social fabric, et al—are issues because people’s expectations are changed—higher and different now. The social fabric has changed less than people’s expectations. Disempowerment has actually decreased. More groups are less disempowered than ever before in our history. So, when you ask, “for whom are we saving the land,” you are addressing a question that is on lots of peoples’ minds, and a powerful tool for change.

Cautionary: You write: “Generations ago, caring for the land went hand-in-hand with caring for one’s community and being in service to a larger world…” and that “conservation can re-ignite great American values….” What generation was that? America began as a colony, gained its national independence, but has never stopped colonizing itself. I don’t think there was ever a moment in American political or cultural history when caring for the land went hand-in-hand with caring for community and the larger world, and I don’t think that the goal you are after can be achieved by describing it as a value system that used to exist and needs only to be re-ignited. Doing so merely encourages people to be comfortable with the value systems the culture, their families, the schools, and the media have taught them. The value system you are describing will grow out of the question “for whom are we saving the land,” only when people recognize that the question implies a cultural/social/economic/political evolution that has not happened as yet. To avoid facing this, Americans have been rewriting their history to justify the present for three hundred years; doing so is an essential part of the culture, doing so is at the core of what it means to be a patriotic American. The value system you are describing flies in the face of what the culture knows as the whole constellation of old colonial habits that come wrapped in the flag of patriotism. Maybe the strongest allies we have to help put conservation on a different more holistic track are the millions of Americans who no longer vote.

Peter’s article The Monarch Versus the Global Empire expands on many of these themes, and his article Reinhabiting Environmentalism, one of the most important essays that Orion has published, is available in The Future of Nature, an anthology of the best writing from Orion’s first 25 years.