This Radical Old Thing Called the Land Ethic

Day 15 Blog Post

Aldo Leopold was an early 20th century American author, scientist, ecologist, forester, and probably one of the most well-known environmentalists. Leopold was influential in the development of the modern environmental ethics, for having developed his own “land ethic,” and in the movement of wilderness conservation. He held what was for his time a radical view that emphasized biodiversity and ecological health. His journey as one of the leading environmentalists of our time started when he was assigned to hunt predators like wolves and bears because of their cost to agriculture in New Mexico. He noticed that this was wrong to kill certain species within the food chain because of human dependance upon their agronomically motivated destruction, and that our attitude toward the land is in dire need of change.

Aldo Leopold viewed ethics ecologically as a “limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence,” and philosophically as a “differentiation of social from antisocial conduct.” In realizing that our relationship to land in this country is strictly economic –  entailing privileges and not obligations to it – we can see where man’s pursuit of a fatter wallet will take him if he continues on this road of ecological destruction. The conservation movement was taking root during Leopold’s time, and as the first semblances of some kind of state of harmony between western man and land, he regarded it “as the embryo of the affirmation that the despoliation of land is not only inexpedient but wrong.”

Aldo saw ethics as such: “All ethics rest upon the premise that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts” and that “the land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soil, water, plants, or animals – collectively, the land.” He points out the misconception that although as Americans we have this idea that we love our land, value it, and cherish it as the sustenance we obtain from it for our livelihood in a country built upon the “American dream,” we are obliviously incorrect. Just what and whom do we love?

“Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter downriver. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communicates without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species.”

He proposes that “a land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence…in a natural state.” And he warned that at this time of America’s booming growth, the people’s assurance that the land would “drip milk and honey” into the mouths of whomever used its endless bounty was inverse to the degree of the people’s education about the land. The problem is with our socialization. Back then, people were brought up under the notion of this “milk and honey” idea that proved to be only a short lived fantasy. Farmers were taught to do only what saves his soil, because his soil makes him money. Leopold criticized that man was too timid and too anxious for quick success to realize the true magnitude of his artificial obligations to the dollar.

Further, what’s funny about our “appreciation” for this bounty of endless land (up until the Pacific Ocean) is that we couldn’t acknowledge the role the land played in probably most human successes. Throughout our continued human struggle and preoccupied with human affairs, Leopold asks us to recognize that not all of our triumphs, in the multitude of wars that have been waged and structural and economic endeavors that we remember as beacons of human ingenuity, we all made possible or (in our great failures) impossible by our correct relationship with the land. The horrible 1930’s dustbowl is one relevant case.

The land ethic relies on the guidance of the land pyramid as a model for ecosystems. It shows the distribution of quantities of different species in the various trophic levels all balanced in a system that has evolved to be highly organized. In a most basic description, it’s broken down into the two groups: the autotrophic organisms are the plants at the bottom, sustaining themselves from the sun’s energy, and the heterotrophic organisms that derive their energy from eating other living things.

Energy moves up through the pyramid, from the sun to the autotrophic flora, from them to the heterotrophic herbivores, and from them to the carnivores and omnivores in a delicate cyclical system.

As Leopold saw it, land is not merely soil but a “fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.” The world-wide disorganization in land use would be similar to a disease, a human plague, upon the sore earth; and depending on the flexibility of the ecosystem affected, it will recover, but will will yield reduced levels of complexity (biodiversity) and carrying capacities of life in its wake. Leopold suggested that if the “private land owner were ecologically minded, he would be proud to be the custodian of a land that adds biodiversity and beauty to his farm.” And since Leopold thought it impossible for government to handle all land management, he saw the only visible remedy to be ethical obligation on the part of the private land owner. What more can be done to foster this sense of belonging and obligation to the land? Leopold said we can only be ethical to something we see, feel, love, understand, or otherwise have faith in. The most practical and hopeful is education. Teaching kids from an early age to respect the land and to garner appreciation for everything outside has been effective, at least for me I like to think, in forming a generation of ecologically minded people.

All ethical theories have a principle at their base from which they make their case. The primary principle for Aldo Leopold’s land ethic was respect for the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. We need to stop seeing ourselves as “conqueror” and more as “citizen and member” of the land community. He believes the conservation movement was “paved with good intentions,” but would prove futile because it is devoid of a critical understanding of the land. He makes a good case in claiming that “the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, not toward, an intense consciousness of the land.” We must stop looking at the land as just “the space between cities on which crops grow,” for this is something that has been within our environmental psychology since the creepings of urban and suburban sprawl. The land ethic’s criterion of moral standing as being a member of the land community leaves virtually nothing as a resource to be pillaged for arbitrary economic needs. Some may find this as a little too restrictive, or even “eco-fascist.” But it’s this level of necessity that we must acknowledge in order to start making the right choices.

An application of Leopold’s land ethic in its entirety may not be the complete answer, but its the exact direction we need to start looking toward to get anything important accomplished.

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Money or Leaves, Which is Greener?

Day 13 Blog Post

In today’s day and age the need for sustainable environmental policy is invaluable. The problem is we need to agree on a political, and thus value, method that encompasses the widest range of interests, while also being reasonable to the ecological conditions that we face. What this means is that some toes will get stepped on.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment assessed the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being. From 2001 to 2005, the MA involved the work of more than 1,360 experts worldwide. Their findings provide a state-of-the-art scientific appraisal of the condition and trends in the world’s ecosystems and the services they provide, as well as the scientific basis for action to conserve and use them sustainably.The MA planed to use valuation as a tool that enhances the ability of decison-makers to evaluate trade-offs between alternative ecosystem management regimes and courses of social actions that alter the use of ecosystems and the services they provide. This usually requires assessing the change in the mix of services provided by an ecosystem resulting from a given change in its management.

The importance or “value” of ecosystems is viewed and expressed differently by different disciplines, cultural conceptions, philosophical views, and schools of thought. There are four major frameworks for evaluating ecosystem goods and services.

One is ecological value, which is based on what the natural sciences tell us and takes an anthropocentrically neutral stance. Ecosystems have value because they maintain life on earth and the services needed to satisfy human material and nonmaterial needs. A source of value has been articulated by natural scientists in reference to casual relationships between parts of a system, for example “the value of a particular tree species to control erosion or the value of one species to the survival of another species or of an entire ecosystem.” Globally, different ecosystems and their species play different roles in the maintenance of essential life support processes, such as energy conversion (photosynthesis in plants to give us oxygen), biogeochemical cycling (nitrogen fixation for planting and agriculture), and evolution (we’re here because of it). Indicators of ecological value are species diversity, rarity, ecosystem integrity (health), and resilience. This makes ecological valuation probably the easiest form of valuation because all these things can be empirically studied, measured, and proven.

The economic utility-based value is a form of economic anthropocentrism that looks to quantify nature, and thinks that knowing how to treat nature will be easier if we put a price on it. It is entirely utilitarian in theory and is based on the fact that human beings derive utility from ecosystem services either directly or indirectly. Two aspects are stressed. One, such a utilitarian approach bases its notion of value on attempts to measure the specific usefulness that individual members of society derive from a given service, and then aggregates across all individuals, usually weighing them all equally. The other is that utility cannot be measured directly, and therefore looks to measure all services in conveniently well recognized monetary terms. Motivations for our use of the economic valuation of ecosystems is to assess the overall contribution of ecosystems to social and economic well-being, to understand how and why economic actors use ecosystems the way they do,  and to assess the relative impact of alternative actions so as to help guide decision-making.

The problem is that many ecosystem services, like enjoying forests, boating on the seas, and climbing mountains, are not traded, and hence their values are not captured in the conventional system of national accounts as part of total income. These tend to be underpriced or not priced at all, leading to the inefficient and often unsustainable use of resources. This is why the utilitarian says valuation can help establish ecosystem values that allow correction of a country’s national accounts, also known as “greening;” and thus help reveal policy and institutional failures and benefits, as well as creating markets or improving incentives. But the Millennium Assessment plans to use valuation primarily for the rationale of assessing the impacts (gains and losses) of alternative ecosystem management regimes. The concept of total economic value (TEV) is used here to refer to the value of ecosystem goods and services that are used by humans for consumption or production. The TEV is separated into use and non-use values. The use value we derive economically is composed of direct use values (consumptive uses like harvesting food products, timber for fuel or construction and nonconsumptive uses like recreational and cultural amenities like watersports) and indirect use values, which would be inputs for production of final goods and services, like water, soil nutrients, and pollination, and other services like water purifications. There are also option values, which posit that many ecosystems services when not being used still hold value for preserving the option to use such services in the future, and so provisioning and regulation ensue. Then there are the non-use values, also known as existence value or conservation value. Although the utilitarian paradigm has no notion of intrinsic value, humans do ascribe value to knowing that a resource exists, even if they never use that resource, and many people do believe that ecosystems have intrinsic value. This is where there is partial overlap between the valuations. However, quantifying the biophysical relationships of the ecosystem is never simple and requires quantifying a chain of causality, which then requires collaboration between experts of various fields.

There is the sociocultural value of nature, which makes up a large gray area that mixes culturally anthropocentric values with non-anthropocentric values. It is important to realize that ecosystems are valued outside of their contribution to human well-being. It’s also important to keep in mind that some ecosystems are closely associated with historical, national, ethical, religious, and spiritual values. Think of the ethical importance of the rain forests of South America, the misty mountains of China, the bald-headed eagle of America. These things provide cultural services in their collective welfare of their societies. Even though the mentioned examples all serve anthropocentric ends (people are the ones who care about these things), it can be said that these ecosystems, landforms, and animals are also important in themselves – and that’s where the gray area between utilitarian and intrinsic value exists. It is proposed that the valuation of ecological goods and services should therefore result from a process of open public deliberation, and not from the aggregation of separately measured individual preferences, creating a deliberative or “group” contingent valuation process and uses hypothetical models and payment vehicles. However, I personally think that education on the importance of the ecosystems would be necessary before such heavy decision-making is put in the public’s hands. Regardless of whom the ecosystems in question are important to, these principles demonstrate how anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric values toward the environment are both important and mandate its protection.

And then there’s the intrinsic value of nature, which is non-anthropocentric and uses moral extentionism to see non-human beings and entities as valuable in their own right. The notion of nature’s intrinsic value is familiar to many of humanity’s oldest religions and cultures, but not so familiar to our modern rational choice society, which is based largely on economic valuation. It can be seen in the indigenous North and South American, African, and Australian cultural world views as well as in major religions of older European peoples, Middle East, and Asia. In some Native American worldviews, humans are on equal footing with animals and plants, born from the Mother Earth and Father Sky – we are related to these other aspects of nature and thus we all have intrinsic value. The presence of the Brahman – the essential oneness of all being that exists at the core of all natural things – is an example of the intrinsic value of nature in Hinduism. The moral imperative of ahimsa or “non-injury” that the Buddhist tradition extends to all living things is another example of intrinsic value expressed in these cultures.

It is important for decision-makers to assess empirically the actual ecosystem-oriented values – intrinsic, sociocultural, and ecological, as well as utilitarian – of those affected by ecosystem-oriented policy and decision. It’s interesting to note the two main traditions of modern secular ethics in western culture are counter opposites of each other. Utilitarianism, whose principle is the aggregate “happiness” or greater balance of pleasure over pain, and Kantianism, whose principle is to further the ends of humanity, but to also keep in mind that anything that is beyond a price has dignity. Being that human rights are principled on dignity and intrinsic value, many non-anthropocentric ethical theorists have adopted the intrinsic value paradigm. The principles of the differing worldviews, traditions, and religions are the cruxes of where they oppose each other. Aldo Leopold, creator of the land ethic, thought that everything deserving of human “love and respect” has intrinsic value, especially “biotic communities.” In Judeo-Christian thinking, people have intrinsic value on the principle that they were created in god’s image, and this perception of the difference between us (humans) and them (wilderness) is what has caused all of our cultural conceptions to date, as well as attributing the highest amount of intrinsic value to human life.

In modern democratic societies, we ascribe value through the parliament or legislature. It is only relatively recently that we started to ascribe intrinsic value to nature. The U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973 gave absolute legal protection to listed endangered species, thereby giving them dignity comparable to the dignity that is accorded human life. Another bit of progress in undoing our tradition of selfish speciesism is the safe minimum standard (SMS), which is the economic equivalent of socially recognizing intrinsic value and subsequent protection. The SMS approach starts with a presumption that “the maintenance of the healthy functioning of any ecosystem is a positive good.” The rule is to maintain the ecosystem unless the opportunity costs of doing so are “intolerably high,” requiring burden of proof. The quantitative threshold to which the opportunity cost must rise to warrant violating the SMS is left as an open empirical question, allowing for the ever-beneficial furthering of scientific exploration and knowledge about the environments in which we inhabit so that we may intelligently protect everything in them.

Thoughts? The Millennium Assessment focuses heavily on the economic valuation of ecosystem goods and services, and probably because we inhabit a world where that’s the paradigm we’re in. It claims the purpose of economic valuation is to make the disparate services provided by ecosystems comparable to each other, using a common metric. But this is very difficult both conceptually and empirically. In the end, it’s great that considerable thought is going into the protection of ecosystem goods and services, for whatever justification, and if we can bring about a better looking planet from all of this thought and regulation, then perhaps we’ll realize what justification reigns supreme.

It’s the Environment, Stupid

Day 5 Blog Post

First off, I would like to share a post I saw on the “Freshly Pressed” page and arbitrarily clicked on because it looked interesting and relevant. It has everything to do with this week’s lesson and probably sums up all the concerns more briefly than I’m about to attempt, so take a look.

There’s a test that calculates your own ecological footprint by answering questions about your lifestyle choices, and it’s interesting – possibly scary – to see what your own personal effect on the planet is. My result was that it would take 4.1 earths to support us if everyone lived the same lifestyle that I do (I’m convinced it’s all the food). This was a little disconcerting, as an environmental policy major I like to pride myself on my extra awareness and consequently my educated lifestyle choices. But while taking the test you’ll realize that a lot more goes into being green than just recycling cans and using refillable water bottles. It’s our entire infrastructure that needs revamping. The way we get from point A to point B, if we’re not using our own two feet, has an impact; our food selections from the grocery store to fast food have an impact; and pretty much anything we pay money to use or obtain has an impact. And this is where economics becomes an integral part of environmental thought. It’s our dollar votes that encourage poor practices from huge polluting corporations, but it’s the same dollar that – if spent wisely – can promote green practices as well. Fight fire with fire by giving business to environmentally conscious companies, and the laws of economics will cause the “bad” businesses to compete by becoming green themselves. This coupled with tighter regulation seems to be working, but it’s not enough. Awareness in the population is key.

Turning over to more environmentally conscious lifestyle choices may require an extra dollar, but only good can come of it. Conservation biologist O. E. Wilson coined the term “biophilia,” which is the hypothesis that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and all living systems that transcends all cultures, or as Willson describes, “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.” You’ve felt this any time you enjoyed a walk through a park, took a break from your desk work to look out your window, or felt your own special bond with your pet. It’s no coincidence that gardening is the #1 hobby in America, or that after the 9/11 attacks, NYC parks reported record breaking numbers of visitors. It’s been found that people with apartments overlooking some sort of greenery report feeling healthier and happier in their lives than those who’s apartment windows show concrete or brick (and with socioeconomic statuses factored in). Science has also found that exposure to natural environments for more than 20 minutes allows people to recover from fatigue, boosts white blood cell counts, and reduces the stress hormone cortisol. It’s also been found that immersing oneself in a natural environment is effective therapy for depression, helps keep the blood glucose levels of diabetics balanced, and that kids with ADD function better in green environments. It all goes back to the central theme that we as a species evolved with nature and are an integral part of it. More proof that our economy forces our indoor culture to be increasingly backward.

Since reading economics is basically the same as reading Chinese to me, I really enjoyed the youtube video “Story of Stuff.” The woman explains the entire materials economy and makes it really simple to understand. And, of course, whenever you watch a youtube video of something you really like or support, you can’t avoid reading the back-and-forth argumentative comments between the drek of society (thankfully there weren’t comments about religion or Hitler on this one). But the contentious comments only point to one thing: she speaks the truth and the truth scares people. And people should be scared. The way we’re living now is just not going to work forever. Like she says, “you cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely.” It just doesn’t work. Remember the golden motto, “everything is connected”? The double whammy is that we live in a culture of creature comforts. We like to make quick fixes for every ailing thing that could happen to us: pills for every little pain, new technology to make chopping that onion take less than the two minutes it takes with a simple knife. It’s ridiculous. We’re so used to hearing people whine about having the luxury of unsustainable conveniences: “I just like knowing that I have the option of buying water bottles if I want to.” There’s no doubt that we’re enjoying the highest standard of living in human history, but it comes at a price. It’s these convenient comforts that have made us not only soft but self-destructive.

EDIT: I was recently outraged while reading for another class. There was a man named Victor Lebow who was a top government economist who after WWII pretty much invented the American consumer culture. Here are his own words from the Spring 1955 issue of Journal of Retailing:

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats- his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.”

It’s chilling to imagine that the very tangled webs of culture, politics, and economics that we now find ourselves at a loss in mediating through for a better present and future were all set into motion with one huge and completely deliberate push by this one man.

In 2005 the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was conducted under the United Nations to determine the effects our actions have on the planet, and it had revealed some distressing information. There were four findings:

  1. Human tampering of ecosystems to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber, and fuel results in substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on earth. And we know that diversity is necessary for continuity of life.
  2. Changes to ecosystems contribute to net gains in human well-being and economic development, but at growing costs resulting in degradation of many ecosystem services, increased risk of non-linear changes, and exacerbation of poverty. And unless addressed, these problems will diminish the benefits for future generations.
  3. The degradation of ecosystem services could grow significantly worse during the first half of this century; and the direct drivers of ecosystem change are habit change, overexploitation of species and natural entities, introduction of invasive alien species, pollution, and climate change. All human-caused of course.
  4. Reversing the degradation of ecosystems while meeting increasing demands for the services can be partially met under some scenarios that would involve significant changes in policies. Also, options do exist to conserve and enhance ecosystem services in ways that do reduce negative trade off and produce positive synergies with other ecosystem services.

Basically what this all means is that we’ve been seriously toying with the environment for the purpose of maintaining a first world lifestyle, and that there are ways we can try to reverse the damage and live in a more harmonious, truly human relationship to the earth.

We’ve been living in this old dream of an ideal lifestyle that prioritizes our ability to acquire whatever thing we want without thinking twice about how it got into our hands. But the lie was hidden from us the whole time, and we lived in ignorant bliss until we started noticing a difference in our neck of the earth. There’s a new dream we should all embrace. This “new dream” should be one that emphasizes community, ecological sustainability, and celebration of non-material values.

Hopefully we can grow up and wizen up as a nation to take on our problems and tackle them with blatant sincerity and enthusiasm. We’d be a race of fools to choose anything else.