Leopold’s Land Ethic (Blog 7)

Aldo Leopold is one of the few humans whose interaction with nature in their childhood led to a determination to preserve and educate others on its intrinsic value. The impact that Leopold left on the developing field of Environmental Ethics is paramount. In his book, A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold describes the evolutionary process through which an ecological ethic will evolve. He states that it is a three-step process and because the first two steps are already complete, although I still do not fully understand what those first two steps are, an extension of ethics related to humans and the environment is logically the next step in this evolutionary process. However, it appears that humans are stuck in a land-relation that is rooted in economic gain; we take all of the privileges but none of the responsibility or obligations in preserving that land from which we are taking gains. Leopold also gives a few concepts to describe how ethics, the environment and humans interact. In the Community Concept, he places instincts and ethics toe-to-toe in a way that they balance each other to create a sustainable environment (in the community sense). In this concept, “the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in the community, but his ethics prompt him also to cooperate.”[1] It is important for Aldo Leopold to establish the environment’s role in this community and for this purpose he extends the definition and boundaries of the community to include collectively the lands that make up the environment. This idea and inclusion into the world community is central to Leopold’s land ethics.

earth community quote- Leopold

Going back to Leopold’s stance that humans currently live in such a way that “the land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations,”[2] this is a discussion that we have had numerous times in our class and each time our class seems to be divided on whether or not we can proceed within this economic context and still work to protect the environment or if we have to abandon it completely. I think it is clear that Aldo Leopold would say that we need to move on and abandon this economic and greedy lens through which we view the environment in order to reach an environmental based ethic that would actually allow for us to interact with nature so that we are no longer conquerors of the land-community but rather citizens of it. I find it hard to imagine a world like this because we are so far from it. I agree with Aldo Leopold that we are going to have to prioritize and figure out a way to incorporate everything from the soil to the plants and animals in to our definition of community and realize that they are not there just for us to reap the benefits without taking on any responsibility for the repercussions of our actions. In reality, I don’t see humans, as a species, being able to move beyond this strict economic land-relation any time soon. However, I do believe it to be our eventual and essential direction in order to protect the planet. The only question is, will the change come fast enough for it to be effective in reversing the damage already done? This leads me to another interesting and highly debated point that Leopold made about the ability and capacity of science to understand all the workings of the environment. In reference to his claim that humans are trying to control what they do not understand and scientists acknowledging their limits, Aldo Leopold states, “ the biotic mechanism is so complex that its workings may never be fully understood.”[3] This leads to an interesting question that was brought up in my Environmental Policy class, how can we or should we act definitively when the science upon which the action is based is never definitive, there is always a chance that it could be wrong. Most of the students tried to tackle the trade offs that would come with acting as opposed to not acting inmission

terms of what we ought and ought not to do. Though in my policy class we were pushed not to think in terms of what ought to be done, I find it nearly impossible to remove the logic and the policy decisions from the ethical question. Only in the context of how Leopold sees humans and their land-relation does it make any sense that there is a possibility of separating them. All of this ties in to our current role of land conquerors in this earth community. We have the power to say what is valuable and what is worthless. In the case of the Alaskan wolves, we find the moose and caribou to be more valuable and because the wolves are predators of these valuable game, we deem the wolves to be worthless and allow them to be killed in ways that are inhumane and uncontrolled. In a wider context, we place value on luxury and muscle cars, large mansions with sprawling manicured lands and so many other material items. But these are the things that are killing our environment, not always directly, but the economic mindset that placed these goals over protecting the planet. Aldo Leopold is quoted saying, “of what avail is forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map.”[4] This really hit home for me. A few days ago I was having a discussion about the environment with my mother and she tried to tell me how I didn’t understand that people had worked hard for their money and should be able to spend it however they chose (referring to the aforementioned material items). She argued that what scientists and conservationists are asking for isn’t just a small change in mindset but rather an expensive change, people who even have the money to invest in installing solar panels don’t live long enough to reap any of the returns. This is the classic argument of the Kentucky farmer, if the reward isn’t immediate or if I never personally see the benefit then I’m not going to do it. But what good is all of the luxury, the cars, the houses, the money and the freedom if we or our children or our grandchildren don’t have clean air to breath, clean water to drink or any natural foods to eat?

Question: Would Leopold be considered to have a Stewardship of Earth Wisdom world view?

[1]Donald VanDeVeer and Christine Pierce, The Environmental Ethics & Policy Book (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomas Learning, 2003), 216.

[2] VanDeVeer and Pierce, Environmental Ethics, 216.

[3] Ibid.

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aldo_Leopold


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