Researchers and other intellectuals, including artists, began to recognize the local impacts of environmental degradation around the turn of the 19th century in the United States and Europe. For scientists, powers of observation were based on empiricism and the scientific method that were honed during the Enlightenment. Artists and intellectuals observed natural beauty and captured it in the painting, music, and literature of the Romantic period. Romanticism emerged along with the Industrial Revolution, which was a practical expression of technical knowledge garnered during the Enlightenment.
Romanticism was, in part, a reaction to industrialization's impact on nature and was a precursor of the conservation movement. Transcendentalism, as one facet of Romanticism, stirred a persistent place-based heritage that fostered nature-inspired artistic endeavors and a heightened sense of spiritualism. These efforts, in turn, led to the preservation of wild areas based on the intrinsic value of nature and the land. This view helped widen the possibilities for the conservation movement and fit well with Muir's later efforts to preserve pristine landscapes in the United States.
Romanticists played a vital role in launching the conservation movement on multiple fronts. They were uniquely capable of communicating the beauties of nature and were sensitive to environmental changes in their communities. While many Romanticists worked to reconcile industrial changes on the landscape, others reacted negatively, noting the environmental damage and seeking ways to preserve the rural countryside and its lifestyle. Even as they reveled in the glories of nature, many noted soil erosion, the loss of wildlife, dirtier air, and changes in streams and lakes. Their observations about local environmental decline found support in scientific observations. By the 1820s, for example, scientists were developing a rudimentary understanding of carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. By about 1850, researchers were documenting acid precipitation around English industrial cities, a climate change brought on by coal-burning for factories and homes.
Perhaps the most significant work to bridge Romanticism and conservation as a physical and biological science and a social science came from Aldo Leopold, a forester, writer, astute observer of nature and human activities, teacher, and internationally-known conservationist and ecologist. Leopold's contribution to conservation comes from his conceptualization of healthy land and its relationship to human communities. Leopold did not separate the land from human activities. Rather, he extended the definition of community to include not only the places where people reside and interact with each other, but also the surrounding ecology in the landscape. Leopold added a rich component to conservation by giving it an ethical basis.
His land ethic puts environmental considerations at the front of community decision-making, demanding consideration for soil, water, air, and other living creatures. Natural resources are for human use, but the surrounding ecology has intrinsic worth that is vital to the immediate quality of life and long-run community sustainability. Leopold's land ethic moved the conservation movement toward increased consciousness of the relationship of humans to the larger environment. His Sand County Almanac stands as a conservation classic, linking the wonder of nature with human activity, and, more importantly, human responsibility for taking care of the environment as an integral component of community. Leopold's thinking opens the way for an ethical systems approach to conserving the environment.
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