Sigurd Olsen - Insights for Today and Tomorrow


Sigurd Olsen - Insights for Today and Tomorrow

Guest blog post written by David J. Backes. David is an emeritus professor who taught at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. He loved teaching but is a writer at heart. He is the author of A Wilderness Within, the national award-winning biography of famous naturalist, author, and environmental leader Sigurd F. Olsen. Dave has dedicated his life to environmental education in word and deed; as a writer, one finds him in a little writing room at his home in southeast Wisconsin or soaking up inspiration along the shore of Lake Michigan.

As the elderly man stepped up to the stage slowly, carefully, his head shaking from a neurological condition, the crowd at the Alvord Theater rose as one and gave a thunderous ovation. It was October 20, 1972, and the man who was about to dedicate the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute was none other than Sigurd Olson himself. An icon of the wilderness preservation movement as well as one of the century’s best-loved nature writers, Sigurd Olson was one of those people who listen more than they speak, and whose words are always worth hearing.

As his biographer, I’d say his continuing relevance comes from his way of putting into words the emotions so many of us feel when we are outdoors in places we love. Wonder. Awareness. Aliveness. Connectedness. But he’s especially important for our times and the decades ahead because of his ability to find and convey hope. And his keynote speech fifty years ago in Ashland, Wisconsin, at Northland College’s Alvord Theater, can help us face the major issues of our time.

And let’s face it, the problems confronting us are massive in scope and frightening to think about. When Sigurd spoke in October 1972 the world held 3.8 billion people; now there are 8 billion. This means we have half the non-renewable resources available per person that we had fifty years ago. The global fertility rate has declined to just slightly over replacement level, but because of tremendous success in combating infant mortality and poverty, more people are living long enough to produce children. The UN projects the global population to peak later this century at around 10 billion before slowly starting to fall.

This means, of course, that we will at the very least need 25 percent more food and fresh water for all these people, distributed in the right places. But the growing climate crisis makes this unlikely. Places already struggling with drought will have an even worse drought. Places with plenty of rainfall will get more crop-damaging extreme rainfall. The glaciers on which hundreds of millions depend for fresh water will shrink and disappear. Our Pentagon expects future civil unrest and even war over these basic life necessities.

When Sigurd gave his talk in 1972, our situation wasn’t yet so urgent, but he was quite clear that we faced a turning point in human history. He summarized it like this: 

"Something seems lost, and we are like a people who have no sense of direction or purpose. We flounder and wonder where to turn. Our population has multiplied, enormous cities have grown and we are plagued with great problems of social and environmental significance. Instead of the new and verdant land, in our headlong rush to conquer it and use its resources, we find we have polluted air, soil, and water to the point where scientists warn there can be no return if we continue, with the land of our beloved America becoming unfit for all life, including that of mankind."

He spent some time on the details, and some of what he said sounds very familiar to us today. For example, he said the scientists presenting the frightening evidence of environmental destruction often were ignored or even ridiculed. He said humankind “has become a geological force” in our impact on the land. This was long before the idea became coined “the Anthropocene.” And that night fifty years ago he even warned that increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would cause a climate crisis.

Half a century has passed and our situation is grimmer, but if Sigurd were alive he would still give us ways of looking at the problems that would give us reasons for hope. It’s important to recognize right off the bat that this is not naïve optimism. 

Sigurd’s way, as he showed that night in October 1972, was to face the problem head-on and even admit the possibility of disaster. Genuine hope is always grounded in reality, not wishful thinking. I like David Orr’s definition: “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.”

For Sigurd, part of what helps us roll up our sleeves is understanding history and seeing how humans have gotten through major changes in the past. He devoted much of his speech that night to several key turning points in human history: the development of agriculture, followed by the growth of cities, and, finally, the invention of the steam engine that marked the start of the industrial era. We take these for granted today, but each of these developments launched massive changes in how humans lived and their ideas about what made for a good life. And in the case of the industrial revolution, the power to transform the earth to suit human desires grew much faster than our understanding of the biophysical systems on which all life depends. So much so, in fact, that in the industrialized nations there was not only an ecological crisis but a spiritual one as well, for we have built a system that separates us from the rest of nature and therefore makes it harder to even know ourselves.

While Sigurd was realistic about the potential for catastrophe if we don’t change, he focused on the positive reasons for change. He went on to describe a number of current examples from around the country of people taking action to protect the environment, and he said: “Affluence and industrial expansion are being weighed against further degradation of living conditions, beauty against ugliness, silence against noise and clamor, open space against crowding, natural rhythms against speed and tension…fullness and richness of living against boredom and synthetic enjoyments.”

So far, then, Sigurd has given us three key lessons: 1) face reality head-on; 2) gain context, understanding, and inspiration from history; and 3) focus on positive reasons for change, instead of the negative. 

What kind of world do you want to live in?

Advocate the changes that will get us there, instead of focusing on change simply as a way to avoid disaster.

Sigurd described the future as a frontier, and the challenges we face as an opportunity. “A nation without a frontier is stagnant,” he said, “without life or spirit.” If you look at it Sigurd’s way, then even the frightening problems we confront today contain within them not only catastrophe but positive opportunity as well. As Sigurd put it in his speech, our frontier is different from the one our ancestors faced. He said, “This is one of thought and basic philosophy, a complete reversal of old attitudes toward the earth and its resources that might, if we have wisdom and conviction, open the door to a truly golden era, not only for the people of this continent but for the entire world.”

Will we make the right decisions to avoid the dire scenarios of climate breakdown and resolve the other major problems we face? Sigurd said in his speech, “Radical changes never take place swiftly; they go through endless years of trial and error, slow abandonment of once cherished ideas.” And he gave a number of brief examples of positive developments that he took as signs that perhaps people were beginning to take to heart some of the changes necessary for a healthy relationship with the land.

Today, too, there are positive developments that are easy to miss when there is so much bad news. Around the world, a couple of million organizations are working for the kinds of positive changes we need. These are mostly small, unheralded groups working at local and regional levels with passion, creativity, and determination. Never underestimate the power of small numbers of strongly committed people. We often speak of tipping points in terms of danger, such as the consequences of methane release from Arctic permafrost. But there are positive tipping points, too. For example, in 1787 a dozen people determined to end the slave trade got together in London and began their campaign. At first, they were mocked and ridiculed, and later they were treated as dangerous radicals, but they never wavered and in a matter of decades they brought slavery to an end almost everywhere.

The thing about tipping points is that we’re not very good at seeing them when they happen. It’s only later, when scholars pore over the historical evidence, that we discover the spark that made inevitable what once seemed impossible. And so in the midst of these disturbing times, when the future looks dark, it is quite possible that the spark has been lit and we’re not even aware of it. We might even be a part of it, and not be aware, just as I’m sure the dozen people meeting in that London in 1787 had no idea that their widely ridiculed program to end the slave trade would in a matter of decades spread like wildfire across the world.

We need people who will pass on to the future the seeds of a better way of life. We need right now, and the world will desperately need in the wake of catastrophe, people of hope—hope with its sleeves rolled up, people who won’t give up. We need people who can still find beauty in the land, awe, and wonder, people who know what it means to be alive, and people who embrace simplicity, silence, and solitude. 

Sigurd spoke of these values that night in 1972. He said, “We know our basic human needs, that man is part of nature and cannot survive unless he becomes once more an integral part of it, that his hunger and discontent is a longing for the old simplicities and satisfactions, that we are in truth children of the earth. We understand what Henry Beston means when he says that man is whole when in tune with wind, stars, hills, and the universe itself, and that wholeness is being one with the rhythms of the earth. It is wholeness we are seeking, the feel of the earth and natural rhythms forgotten in our busy lives. Are not the intangible values of a life closer to nature and its rewards what we are actually searching for and missing?”

That is the fourth and final lesson from Sigurd’s speech fifty years ago, as well as from all his works: the centrality of what he called “the intangible values,” or “the spiritual values.”

If we do successfully face our crises, it will be because enough of us rediscovered the joys of a life lived in full awareness of our interconnectedness with all creation. This awareness comes from deep listening—listening “with inward ears,” as Sigurd put it.

And that requires periods of silence and solitude in close contact with nature. Without this, he believed, we can’t fully understand ourselves, let alone the world we inhabit. This was at the heart of his determination to protect wild places. We need them to be who we are.

This concept of listening with inward ears is so important that I have made it the theme of my first novel. It’s called “Listening Point,” partly because half a dozen of the key scenes take place at Sigurd Olson’s property bearing that name, but also because learning to listen deeply is key to building a healthy society once again out of the ruins of this one.

One of the things that excited me about this project was having the opportunity to focus not on Sigurd Olson, but on someone affected by Sigurd Olson. That’s how his legacy and philosophy and value will be shaped in the decades and centuries ahead: by people whose own unique backgrounds intersect with his writings to create something new. As Sigurd himself told me long ago, everyone sees the world in at least some unique ways, no matter how much their worldview and creativity may borrow from those who have gone before.

Here's the plot in a nutshell: As the climate crisis fuels mass migration and social unrest in the 2060s, Andrew Hochevar, a young priest in northern Minnesota, has a mysterious, powerful encounter one hot August day at Sigurd Olson’s Listening Point. The experience upends his traditional understanding of God, the Church, and his own calling. It also propels him along a spiritual journey that brings healing to the sick, puts him at odds with his bishop, and threatens a growing movement of white nationalists.

It’s a fast-paced story about the importance of “listening with inward ears,” as Sigurd Olson put it. This young priest has one of those mystical moments Sigurd called “flashes of insight.” It throws his life into turmoil. To whom will he listen? To whom will he be obedient? Those questions apply to each of us today in a special way, as members of the last generation that can effectively limit how much future generations will suffer from the growing climate crisis.

We as a species face a major decision, one we’ve been putting off for a long time. Fifty years ago Sigurd Olson described it like this:

"We are at last beginning to understand what is at stake. It is more than wilderness, more than beauty or peace of mind; it is the survival of the civilization we have built and perhaps the survival of man…. If we can use our enormous knowledge with the technology it has produced to work toward the preservation of the earth instead of its destruction, if we can change our priorities, achieve balance and understanding in our roles as human beings in a complex world, the coming era can well be that of a richer civilization, not its end."

Each of us has a unique combination of talents, experience, education, and passion, and when we develop and integrate them, we become our true selves. The world often tries to persuade us to live according to the expectations of others; what the world needs is for us to become our true selves and make the difference that only we can make. It doesn’t have to be something that the world looks upon as important or a success.

The world needs an infinite number of positive contributions, and works of love from people who know where they stand and why. This is why I write my books.

For others, this is what makes them volunteer in their community, work for a nonprofit organization, create a new organization, run for public office, or throw themselves wholeheartedly into any of a million other worthwhile pursuits.

What are you passionate about? What are your greatest talents? How can you combine these, along with your experience and education, to live according to your innermost values and in your own way serve the world? Maybe the day will come when historians look back on our times and see the evidence showing that so many people learned to listen deeply, following the longings of their heart rather than the dictates of society, that humankind crossed a tipping point crucial to helping the world step back from the brink of catastrophe. 

No matter how bad things might look, you can never know all the potential ways the future might unfold. Hope means embracing this uncertainty and using your passion and gifts as best you can, to give the kind of world you want a better chance. You can be part of that generational tipping point in history if you live in hope and keep your sleeves rolled up.