Scott Russell Sanders, a prolific author and teacher, speaks to conservationists about the power of conservation at the annual conference of the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts in Indianapolis.
Scott Russell Sanders, a prolific author and teacher, speaks to conservationists about the power of conservation at the annual conference of the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts in Indianapolis.

INDIANAPOLIS — In the eyes of some, a conservationist is someone who seeks to revert to farm practices that were used on the land 50 years ago, but conservationists know that’s not at all true.

Scott Russell Sanders, author of Wilderness Plots, and a member of a string band of the same name, shared his thoughts on conservation during the annual conference of the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts in Indianapolis.

During his talk, he touched on many of the ideas in A Conservationist Manifesto, one of more than 20 books he has written, including the benefits of living in a society that values conservation instead of consumerism.

Importantly, Sanders noted, conservationists can combine modern farm practices with many tried-and-true methods used on the land for decades, such as cover-cropping systems, designed to nurture soil health.

“I don’t need to persuade anyone to care about conservation, but how they do conservation matters,” he said. “Our culture as a whole is dead-set against conservation. It’s all about consumption, so we have to persuade children and young people that it matters that we protect the topsoil and protect our waterways.”

“As much progress as we have made, we still have a long way to go,” he added. “I’m all for farming, and a lot of the current methods being used are good, but there is much room for improvement in the way we farm and the crops we grow.”

A consequence of consumerism is generation of waste, Sanders said.

Many towns and cities in Indiana do not have a well-established recycling system, such as the one that exists in Bloomington, where Sanders taught at Indiana University for 38 years, leading to long-distance, high-transportation costs to truck waste to neighboring counties.

Any trash that ends up in streams eventually makes its way to the ocean, contributing to the pollution and water quality issues farmers and conservationists face there, Sanders noted.

“If we enforced the Clean Water Act, we wouldn’t be removing mountaintops for mining, but the coal industry is rich — 99 percent of electricity comes from coal, and Indiana ranks 49th in coal production, just above West Virginia,” he said.

Environmental catastrophes, including the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, which caused 5 million barrels of crude oil to spill into the ocean, destroying fisheries, tourism and wildlife in the area, are other problems caused by energy challenges and a disposable culture, Sanders noted. “We have gotten petroleum and natural gas from all the easily-accessible places — we are fracturing shale foundations to release natural gas, mining tar sands, and want to build a pipeline from Canada to Texas not to make the U.S. energy independent, but to refine and sell oil on the world market,” he said.

Sanders is offering an alternative view that he said is at the heart of conservation. His viewpoint challenges people to think of themselves as part of nature and to consider that the wellbeing of humans depends entirely on other creatures.

“The consumerist view is that Earth is a warehouse, a source of raw materials, and that we can use it as we please until there is nothing left,” he said. “The conservationist’s view is that Earth is our home, that we use it to survive, but that it is also where we live, so we don’t abuse it.”

Sanders said conservationists understand people are capable of restoring abused landscapes, and farmers also are taking the reins in developing new local food systems to counteract fast foodism, including the Slow Food Movement.

“I’m totally in sympathy with the Slow Food movement, the idea of eating at a slow pace,” he said. “The approach that treats food as fuel rather than something that’s humanly consumed.”

He said that one of the powerful aspects of conservationism is long-term thinking.

“I want Earth to be healthier seven generations from now,” he said. “We need to dramatically reduce the amount of materials taken out of the Earth. When we do that, we will also protect biodiversity. Healthy topsoil has trillions of organisms in it, so we need to protect fresh water, topsoil and biodiversity for better climate capacity.”

Sanders said the new farm bill, though it failed to pass, is less conservation-friendly and needs more emphasis on wildlife.

“We still are only one species of tens of millions of other species on Earth,” he said. “I respect the need and right of farmers to earn a living, but I wish there weren’t as much of a federal subsidy going to the five largest commodity crops. Small-scale fruit and vegetable crop production and organic production deserve funding, too.”

“Much of our wheat is being grown in areas that require irrigation, and the Ogallala Aquifer is pumping water much too fast,” he added. “We need less water-intensive and chemical-intensive farming going forward, and we need to give farmers incentives to conserve on the land.”

Sanders said that farmers can be avid conservationists and exuberant consumers.

“The choice is not between living wastefully or living an austere, Spartan lifestyle, but shifting away from farming and living unsustainably and learning to farm more sensibly and living in harmony with the community,” he said.