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.