"This is a book about nature and culture", Eric T. Freyfogle writes, "about our place and plight on earth, and the nagging challenges we face in living on it in ways that might endure". Challenges, he says, we are clearly failing to meet. Harking back to a key phrase from the essays of eminent American conservationist Aldo Leopold, Our Oldest Task spins together lessons from history and philosophy, the life sciences and politics, economics and cultural studies in a personal, erudite quest to understand how we might live on – and in accord with – the land.
Passionate and pragmatic, extraordinarily well read and eloquent, Freyfogle details a host of forces that have produced our self-defeating ethos of human exceptionalism. It is this outlook, he argues, not a lack of scientific knowledge or inadequate technology, that is the primary cause of our ecological predicament. Seeking to comprehend both the multifaceted complexity of contemporary environmental problems and the zeitgeist as it unfolds, Freyfogle explores such diverse topics as morality, the nature of reality (and the reality of nature), animal welfare, social justice movements, and market politics. The result is a learned and inspiring rallying cry to achieve balance, a call to use our knowledge to more accurately identify the dividing line between living in and on the world and destruction. "To use nature", Freyfogle writes, "but not to abuse it".
"How we reconcile the paradox of the existential natural resource and wildlife crises we face – including the emerging sixth extinction – at a time when humans are less connected with nature than at any time in recorded history will determine our trajectory for centuries. While most writing on these topics jumps directly into scientific findings and policy prescriptions, Freyfogle astutely challenges us to first understand how our culture and values have exacerbated our ecological crises and limit our ability to develop enduring solutions. Our Oldest Task rightly asserts that the only way that we, as a people, can restore what Aldo Leopold called 'the harmony between men and land' is to recognize our interdependence upon each other and nature – and then rebuild the land ethic necessary to catalyze collective action at a scale that matches the magnitude of our natural resource crises."
– Collin O'Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation
"Freyfogle has become a valuable contributor to a broad discourse about environmental challenges that is deep-probing, historically informed, and wise in prescriptions. In this important book, he pushes us one step further into understanding how and why we have so many environmental problems and what their 'solution' will require in the largest cultural sense. Clearly and logically organized, written without jargon but also without oversimplification, Our Oldest Task provides an important critique of American and other modern cultures and of the environmental movement within those cultures. In a way, Freyfogle wants to modernize conservatism, giving it more ecological sensitivity and making it less hierarchical in outlook, as well as emphasize communitarian values that would replace the dominant individualistic ethos of the past 200 years. His call for more substantial philosophical reflection is much needed."
– Donald Worster, University of Kansas, author of A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir
"Our Oldest Task is clearly our most urgent task. This book is an incisive critique of modern Western individualism as an adequate basis for environmental ethics and cultural reform. Freyfogle argues persuasively for an integrated community of life ethics that provides a long-term perspective for ecological health and well-being. This is a unique and valuable book and deserves to be read widely."
– Mary Evelyn Tucker, Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology
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Eric T. Freyfogle is the Maybelle Leland Swanlund Endowed Chair and professor of law emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he is also long associated with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences. He is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, A Good That Transcends: How US Culture Undermines Environmental Reform, also published by the University of Chicago Press.