Who’s a Better Role Model:
John Muir or Aldo Leopold?

From Environmental Research Bulletin
Nicole Ardoin and Jason Morris, Project Leaders

THE RESEARCH: Goralnik, L., & Nelson, M. P. (2011). Framing a philosophy of environmental action: Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and the importance of community. The Journal of Environmental Education, 42(3), 181–192.


In thinking about what motivates environmental behavior, the Michigan State University researchers who authored this paper acknowledge that the knowledge-attitudes-behavior link that so commonly guides environmental education programs often doesn’t work or is an overly simplistic representation. (What is commonly referred to as the knowledge-attitudes-behavior model rests on the assumption that knowledge about the environment spurs more positive attitudes, which in turn lead to more responsible environmental behavior.)

The authors of this paper argue that, before people can learn and care about a topic or issue, they must first be ethically engaged. They state that “the ethical framework we employ . . . assumes that students will neither care about nor retain the knowledge they gain unless they are first emotionally and ethically engaged by place, community, and content.” And, they argue, by focusing on developing an environmental ethic, educators can set students up for a lifetime of better choices, even as environmental issues and appropriate actions change.

But what kind of ethic is most appropriate? The authors compare the philosophies of John Muir and Aldo Leopold and argue that one is better than the other at spurring action.

John Muir, “the iconic leader of the preservation movement,” argued that the key to environmental preservation is in getting more people to see and experience wild places. Muir supported open immigration policies and road building as ways that more people could experience the places he wanted to protect. And he said, “If every citizen could take one walk through this reserve, there would be no more trouble about its care.” The authors believe this reflects the classic knowledge-attitudes-behavior model. If people experience the natural world, they’ll become emotionally attached and, as a result, work to preserve it.

But, the authors question “whether it is true that such exposure is a sufficient condition for environmental action. We question the assumption that all people, in spending time and learning about a place, will develop similar feelings of respect for that place.” The authors cite anecdotal evidence that each individual in a group who together experience a wild place do not each develop the same feelings of respect for the place, nor does each person agree on the actions that might best honor it. And the authors also cite empirical evidence that knowledge doesn’t lead to action. They point to a recent study that indicated that the more that people know about climate change, the less they seem to care about the issue.

Leopold, on the other hand, emphasizes people’s relationships to the land in his land ethic. The authors explain that “in Muir . . . the human is often looking in upon nature, not an integral participant within the larger community. Leopold’s philosophy of action, on the contrary, . . . includes humans as equal participants in a wider web of connection.”

Leopold argues that, over time, people’s social consciousness has widened. He gives as an example Odysseus, who hanged a dozen young slaves who he suspected had misbehaved. During Odysseus’s time, moral and ethical obligations simply didn’t extend to slaves. Today, obviously, the boundaries have changed. And Leopold argues that what’s needed now is another boundary shift that will also include the natural world within our sphere of moral obligations. The authors explain, “In effect, ecology serves to expand the previously perceived limits of our community, just as centuries of evolution expanded our human community to include all humans beyond Odysseus’s limited definition.”

The authors believe that the role of environmental educators, then, is “to educate for a changed perception of community” that includes the natural world. In conducting discussions, for example, they believe “we should talk about protecting ourselves, or our home, rather than brainstorming the ways we can work to protect or maintain our special places when we get ‘back to the real world.’” While the ultimate goal might be changing actions, the authors argue that the best path, and one that will lead to better choices over the long term, is in expanding moral boundaries.

THE BOTTOM LINE: John Muir and Aldo Leopold have inspired generations of people with concern about the environment. But the authors of this paper argue that Muir’s philosophy sets humans up as outside observers of nature. And Muir’s philosophy also rests on assumptions that nature experiences alone can be sufficiently powerful to move people to action. The researchers argue that this way of thinking is outdated in light of research that indicates that knowledge does not lead to action. The authors instead believe that environmental educators should embrace Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, helping extend students’ moral boundaries from human communities to include the natural world. This feeling of moral obligation to the wider natural communities to which we belong will guide a lifetime of environmental action.