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Spirituality & Practice (April 2009)

By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

A Conservationist Manifesto
Scott Russell Sanders
Indiana University Press 04/09 Paperback $19.95
ISBN: 9780253220806

Scott Russell Sanders is one of our favorite writers. He writes beautiful prose and never fails to stir our souls and imaginations. He is the Distinguished Professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington and the author of 20 books of fiction and nonfiction, including Hunting for Hope and A Private History of Awe.

In this awesome new book (to use a term popular with youth today but also one of deep import), Sanders outlines the practical, ecological, and ethical grounds for a conservation ethic. We have ruined the planet, and there are signs everywhere of its distress: the global climate changes, the destruction of forests, the extinction of species, the looming shortages of water, and the spread of famine and disease. Sanders suggests that we change our habits and behavior by moving from the "culture of consumption, extravagance, and waste that dominates America today" to a culture based on conservation.

He looks to the philosophy of Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, and others for inspiration. He remembers the frugal habits of the Depression and wartime rationing. And he salutes the simple lifestyles of the early Native Americans and the Quakers. He sees this renewal of conservation not merely as a personal virtue but as a public one — "an expression of our regard for our neighbors, for this marvelous planet, and for future generations."

The conservation ethic lives in the efforts of people Sanders calls "ark builders" who are doing what they can to save the planet — organic farmers, solar designers, tree huggers, backyard gardeners, food co-ops, and those creating land trusts. The glorification of private wealth has led to the suffering of many people today who are unemployed and others who are worried about their future. Sanders prefers the term "common wealth" which comes when individuals band together in partnerships with others and in mutual support of the natural world. One way of doing the latter is to ground language once again in the Earth. For example, he probes the word resource and comes up with: "A re-source is something that rises anew, like grass in a meadow or water in a spring." We also need to pay attention to the narratives which rule our lives; he wants us to get rid of the Warehouse Story and substitute the Wilderness Story.

Sanders has written elsewhere about the dynamics and spirituality of deeply appreciating the place where we live. In a section of the book called "Caring for Home Ground," he calls for a renewed devotion to local places and muses on the vitality of his hometown, Bloomington, Indiana. In the name of sanity, Sanders wants each of us to launch our own experiments in simplicity: "Living in such a way, we will promote ecological health by reducing the demands we make on the planet."

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