Land Ethics and Environmental Citizenship (Blog 14)

The phrase environmental citizenship seems to take on a few different meaning depending on who is defining the term. The general encyclopedic definition is, “the idea that each of us is an integral part of a larger ecosystem and that our future depends on each of us embracing the challenge and acting responsibly and positively toward our environment.”[1] This definition leaves a lot of room for interpretation. For Aldo Leopold, this interpretation would include opening up our definition of community to include plants, soil and the land in general. His idea of a land ethics views humans as a plain citizen in the world community, with no rights to conquer or to attempt to manipulate nature in a way that he sees best for his needs. However, thinkers such as Sagoff, Dobson and Norton all seem to revert back to a more anthropocentric or human centered approach to environmental citizenship. Their ethics seem to be guided by the idea of stewardship, which in the encyclopedic article is revealed to owe “its prominence in a large measure to the fact that dominion was misinterpreted as domination during translation into most European languages.”[2] The documentary on Aldo Leopold tells the story of his journey that led him to a  wolf 2life dedicated to the health of the environment and improving mankind’s relationship with it. The most influential moment for him was shooting a wolf and then watching the life or what he referred to as the “green fire” leave his eyes. This event shaped his creation of a land ethic and really kick started the environmental movement in a way that had not yet been experienced.

            I think what is most important about the idea of environmental citizenship is that its creation is said to be linked to environmental education. This is an idea that we have discussed many times, the role that children and future generations will play in environmental ethics and policy. The ideas presented in the case for the Children and Nature movement are fundamental to this idea of citizenship. I think that Aldo Leopold discovered his connection to nature at a very young age and was still young when he had his epiphany of thinking like a mountain. As humans, when acting in self interested ways, we normally act on what we think we know, which when it comes to the environment, turns out to be a pretty small amount. But Leopold’s cry for a land ethic and learning from nature by being just another citizen makes a great deal of sense. In thinking like a mountain he says, “I now suspect that just a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does the mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.”[3] We need to teach our children about the fragility of the environment. When the outcome of a certain environmental policy, for example controlling the population of wolves, differs from the expected outcome, it means that we acted only thinking in terms of human wants and desires without considering the total effects that the action would have on the environment. We need to be as wise as the mountain in understanding the complex relationships that exist in nature. We cannot be stewards if we don’t understand these relationships. Furthermore, I find something uniquely profound in the epiphany that Leopold whaleexperienced when he shot that wolf. For me, this symbolized that as much as we talk about biophilia and this fundamentally and innate desire to be with and to be connected to nature, I think for someone to truly care about cause they too have to come to some sort of profound realization such as the one Leopold himself experienced. I, for example, am not sitting in this environmental ethics class because I had nothing better to do with my time; there is a reason and a purpose for my being here and it’s related to the realization that occurred within myself a few years ago. It may sound silly, but a few years ago there was a popular show called “Whale Wars” which documented this renegade group who were chasing down a Japanese Whaling fleet that was breaking international law and harpooning whales in massive numbers under the guise of scientific research. From the first moment I saw what those ships did the whales I knew that I needed to make it a part of my life’s mission to be able to help those defenseless animals and my interest for all environmental areas of study has grown ever since. I know it may sound idealistic that everyone needs to, or should, or will have a moment of realization that will inspire them to act in a way that Leopold did but I think for any person trying to move beyond stewardship and towards an earth wisdom it would certainly aid the process.

Question: Is Aldo Leopold’s land ethics a form of stewardship or earth wisdom or does it lay somewhere in between?

[1], 323.

[2] Ibid, 324.

[3], 74.


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