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The Gazette: Lorain, Ohio, 25 August 2009

A different view of conservation

by John Gladden

Just to get my bearings, I looked the words up in a dictionary.

Conservationist: A person who advocates conservation, especially of natural resources.

Manifesto: A public declaration of intention.

Scott Russell Sanders’ new book, A Conservationist Manifesto (Indiana University Press, 2009) is a declaration of a man’s intent to live a life that honors life, rather than one based on unsustainable and unsatisfying consumption. In this collection of stories and essays, he shows us the beauty and the sensibility of the path he’s chosen.

Sanders is as inconspicuous as an author of 20 books could be. A professor of English at Indiana University and a Northeast Ohio native, he’s earned critical acclaim for his fiction and nonfiction, which has included the story collection Wilderness Plots and memoir A Private History of Awe. Among other prizes, he has received the 2009 Mark Twain Award for his work.

Equal parts commentary and fine nature writing, A Conservationist Manifesto takes a different view than former Vice President Dick Cheney, who in 2001 called conservation a sign of personal virtue, but not a sound basis for American energy policy.

That statement was not only belittling — putting conservation on the same level as making one’s bed in the morning — it was wrong.

Conservation has a decided impact, as we saw last summer when gas prices topped $4 per gallon. Motorists drove less and prices went down.

In the little town where I live, a new weekly farm market is thriving, as people see and taste the benefits of eating locally, instead of buying produce trucked from afar. This is happening all over America.

The federal government’s Cash for Clunkers program has car owners trading in bigger, older vehicles for more efficient models, providing a benefit to the environment and auto industry at the same time.

Much of this discipline is unintentional, a byproduct of the withered economy. Yet, it is a teachable moment, when our hearts and our pocketbooks may be open to the ideas Sanders has to share.

America has 5 percent of the world’s population, yet consumes 25 percent of the planet’s nonrenewable resources and generates 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

There is something not only morally suspect about our “Grab, Gulp and Go” culture — to quote an ad slogan — it is an unhappy way to live. Despite our penchant for toys and luxuries — from Hummers to iPods to McMansions — America’s consumption binge has led to more discontent than ever, measured in our rates of divorce, addiction and incarceration, not to mention the widening gulf between the haves and have-nots.

“What is being sold to us as the ‘American way of life’ is mostly a cheat and a lie,” Sanders writes. “It is an infantile dream of endless consumption, endless novelty, and endless play. It is bad for us and bad for the earth. … We need a dream worthy of grown-ups,” he continues, “one that values simplicity over novelty, conservation over consumption, harmony over competition, community over ego.”

Drawing on the biblical image of Noah’s ark, Sanders calls for a new generation of “arks” — inventions and collaborations that preserve the wisdom necessary for meeting our needs without despoiling the planet.

Where we live, the Medina County Park District is an ark. The Medina Summit Land Conservancy, the Medina Raptor Center, farm markets, your backyard garden, all are arks. We need more. And we need to recognize the whole planet, ultimately, is our ark.

Sanders re-examines roots of words that have been worn out, if not hijacked by the consumption culture, such as “wealth,” “economy” and the oxymoron “sustainable growth.”

“The sprawl of cities over the countryside and the spread of bellies over belts teach us that, beyond a certain point, expansion leads to misery, if not disaster,” says Sanders. “Nothing in nature expands forever. … The model that nature provides is not one of perpetual growth, as in a capitalist economy, but of perpetual re-growth.”

He asks: What if we replaced the familiar and benign word “consumer” with “devourer?” As in the Devourer Price Index, the Office of Devourer Affairs, the magazine Devourer Reports? Does that put our lifestyle in a different light?

In Amish and Iroquois traditions, decisions are preceded by a discussion of how a proposed action would impact the community and the future. What if we did that before we filled our car at the gas pump? Before we built a new house? Bought a bottle of water?

Sanders takes us along on his journey to find the “original Indiana” — surviving remnants of the ancient forest, prairie and wetlands that once covered the state. He calls wilderness a “Sabbath for the land.”

“Honoring the Sabbath means to leave a portion of time unexploited, to relinquish for a spell our moneymaking, our striving, our designs … both wilderness and Sabbath teach us humility and restraint,” he says.

The way of humility and restraint is not easy. Compared to consumerism, the simple life requires greater effort, courage, fidelity and imagination, he adds.

Sanders shares some of the decisions he and his wife, Ruth, have made over their 40-year marriage in an effort to maintain a simpler lifestyle.

They live in the same 1,250-square-foot Bloomington home they bought as newlyweds, resisting the temptation of trendier addresses. After all, the house is paid for, they can walk to work, and they value their relationships with their neighbors. Working around the 1920s-vintage house and climbing its steps as long as they are able is better than paying for artificial exercise in a gym.

They’ve replaced most of the lawn with native plants and made the house as energy efficient as possible. They buy food from local farm markets, supplemented by their own garden, and they don’t buy bottled water. By recycling, they generate only one can of trash every six to eight weeks.

These steps toward a more intentional approach to life and consumption have reduced their carbon footprint on the planet to half the American average.

Like Henry David Thoreau’s sojourn in Walden woods, like Scott Russell Sanders, we need to launch our own experiments in simplicity on our own little ponds. They may just ripple in wider circles to have an influence on others and on the Earth long after we are gone.

“A Conservationist Manifesto” offers plans for arks of all shapes and sizes. It’s time to start building.

Contact John Gladden at

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