Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic
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Article Topics: Ecology, Environmental and resource management, Environmental ethics, Environmental history, Environmental literature, art, music, Environmental philosophy and Forestry
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Last Updated: September 2, 2008
This article is part of the Aldo Leopold Collection.
Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac concludes with a stirring call to action in an essay titled "The Land Ethic." Many readers find this essay to be among the most compelling arguments for conservation ever presented.
As a student of history, Leopold understood that ethics guide individual people to cooperate with one another for the good of their families and communities. As a life-long student of the land, Leopold saw that communities include not just people but all elements of the natural world, including soils, waters, plants, and animals, "or collectively: the land."
Leopold lived and worked in a period of history when people were leaving farms, forests, and small rural towns and losing their direct connections to the land. He saw that treating the natural world with love and respect would be difficult unless people found ways to stay connected to the natural world.
Just as each person is asked to do their part in creating a just society, in this essay Leopold asks readers to see that they must play a part in protecting and preserving a healthy, productive, and beautiful planet. He calls on the reader to help create an "ecological conscience" -- a common sense of what is right and wrong when it comes to how we relate to land.
Leopold held no illusions that a statement such as "The Land Ethic" would preciptate a change in society overnight. In his concluding paragraphs, he stated, "I have purposely presented the land ethic as a product of social evolution because nothing so important as an ethic is ever 'written.'" Ethics, he argued, evolve "in the minds of a thinking community." A land ethic has evolved, and continues to evolve, through public debate about national parks, air and water pollution, endangered species,climate change, globalization, and sustainability.
Drafting "The Land Ethic"
Though Leopold was not formally trained in philosophy, he felt it was critical to address the ethical aspects of conservation and the human relationship to land--for himself, his fellow ecologists and conservationists, and for the general public. He addressed these topics in many essays, but as he refined the manuscript for A Sand County Almanac in the mid-to-late 1940s, prospective publishers called for an essay that would unite his philosophical arguments in a single piece.
Leopold biographer Curt Meine explored the development of Leopold's seminal essay in "Building 'The Land Ethic,'"concluding that Leopold assembled the essay specifically for A Sand County Almanac in July 1947, far along in the process of creating his manuscript. Leopold drew heavily from three earlier essays, uniting his central arguments and bolstering them with new material written specifically for "The Land Ethic" (these earlier essays are "The Conservation Ethic," 1933, "A Biotic View of Land," 1939, and "The Ecological Conscience," written in June of 1947; these essays are reprinted in The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays by Aldo Leopold). Leopold initially placed "The Land Ethic" as the introduction to the final section of his manuscript; Leopold scholar Dennis Ribbens notes that In posthumous rounds of editing, "The Land Ethic" was moved from the beginning of Section III of the manuscript to its climactic position at the conclusion to A Sand County Almanac.
"The Land Ethic" continues to be the subject of scholarly discourse and study in the fields of conservation and ethics. Philosophers in succeeding generations have grappled with Leopold's conclusions, producing many published works that anaylze, critique, bolster, revise, and extend Leopold's philosophical arguments for conservation. Environmental ethics that have evolved independently within other cultures have garnered particular attention. With Karen Warren's essay reprinted below, we offer just a sampling of the diverse scholarly work that has analyzed, critiqued, bolstered, and revised Leopold's philosophical arguments for conservation.
- "We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand , or otherwise have faith in."
-- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
- "That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land it to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics."
-- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
- ^ Callicott, J. Baird, ed., 1987. Companion to A Sand County Almanac. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison. ISBN: 0299112349.
The Philosophical Foundation of a New Land Ethic
This essay was written by Karen Warren, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, Macalester College, and was published originally by The Wilderness Society at its website. Portions of the essay are reproduced here with permission. For reuse, The Wilderness Society copyright provisions and permissions apply. Modifications to the original essay were made or approved by Dr. Warren.
What is the nature of our responsibility to the natural environment? When and on what grounds are humans obligated to preserve and protect wilderness? Are some theoretical approaches, policies and practices for understanding and resolving environmental issues more fruitful than others?
According to wildlife ecologist Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), a founding member of The Wilderness Society and arguably the first bona fide Western environmental ethicist, an “ecological interpretation of history” that recognizes humans as members of the larger ecological community is central to the development of a land ethic. Leopold writes, “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts . . . The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”
Nowhere is Leopold’s basic motivation for articulation of a harmonious human relationship with the land more clearly stated than in the foreword to his book, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, published posthumously in 1949. Leopold writes, “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.” Leopold goes on to describe his own essays in A Sand County Almanac as “the delights and dilemmas” of one who cannot live without “wild things”— individuals, populations and communities of deer, birds, trees, forests, rivers and even the nutrient cycles and energy flows that he recognized as essential to their survival.
Leopold’s Famous “Land Ethic”
Leopold’s land ethic is an ethic that makes “the land itself ”—and not just its instrumental, useful, utilitarian, efficient value to humans—valuable in its own right. Stated differently, “the land itself ” is deserving of human moral consideration (or, moral considerability). It does so by presuming four simple but fundamental and, at least at that time, radical truths.
First, humans are co-members of the ecological community. As Leopold writes:
- “All ethics so far revolved around a central premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. . . . The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land. . . . In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow members, and also respect for the community as such.”</dd>
This explicitly ecological interpretation of both human history and ethics is perhaps the most important contribution of Leopold’s land ethic, since it requires that we reconceive humans as ecological beings, and not merely rational self-interested pleasure or preference maximizers who occupy the public realm of politics and culture. Second, for Leopold, an ethical relationship to the land requires both head and heart, both rational and emotional intelligence. He writes that “we can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love or otherwise have faith in.” This is nowhere more important than in Leopold’s description of what is involved in adopting a land ethic. “The evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as well as an emotional process”; and, “It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land.”
Related to the second point, the third key insight Leopold articulates is that an ethical relationship to the land cannot exist without the development of an “ecological conscience.” He writes:
- “Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to the land. No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our mental emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions.”</dd>
For Leopold, fostering a land ethic is intimately interconnected with changing people’s “loyalties, affections, and convictions” to love and respect the land.
Lastly, Leopold articulated as moral maxim the ethical principle most often associated with him — his definition of a “land ethic.” It is the principle that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong if it tends otherwise.” Despite its consequentialist case (i.e., evaluating the rightness or wrongness solely in terms of the consequences of an act, kind of act or rule), this moral principle is not simply some ecological consequentialism. There are two basic reasons why it would be a misreading of Leopold’s “land ethic” to interpret it as simply extending traditional consequentialist concerns to ecological contexts. First, Leopold’s land ethic has a distinctively holistic cast: It emphasizes populations, communities, species and ecosystems as deserving of moral consideration. In fact, Leopold was the first scholar ever to suggest that such ecological “wholes” are “morally considerable.” Second, Leopold offers what he takes to be an equally pressing moral principle as constitutive of the land ethic—one ought to love and respect the land. Both “head and heart” are central to the land ethic.
The Legacy of Leopold’s Land Ethic: 10 Key Insights
The legacy of Aldo Leopold’s land ethic has yet to be fully explored, developed or even understood. That is primarily because the change in “head and heart” that Leopold posited as so central to fostering a land ethic has yet to gain full acceptance in environmental practice, policy and philosophy. Nonetheless, there are signs of its beginnings: There are clearly discernible respects in which Leopold’s land ethic has dramatically influenced various dimensions of the practices and perspectives of those most intimately involved with wilderness protection and preservation.
The remainder of this essay highlights ten key features of the legacy of Leopold’s Land Ethic. But these highlights cannot do justice to the power of Leopold’s ideas. For that one simply must read Leopold himself and enjoy the marvelous stories and drawings in A Sand County Almanac that shape and illustrate the philosophically, emotionally and spiritually rich ethical position that Leopold called, simply, “The Land Ethic.”
First, Leopold’s Land Ethic helped create the field now known as “environmental ethics” or, more generally, environmental philosophy. It is what philosophers call an ethic of the environment itself—one that makes “the land itself ” morally considerable—rather than merely an ethic concerning the environment. The latter makes human considerations regarding the land and land use central to environmental decision-making and practice, but does not go as far as to make the land itself deserving of human moral consideration.
Second, Leopold’s land ethic challenges us to rethink our notion of what it means to say something deserves our human moral consideration (is “morally considerable”). The historically favored criteria of moral considerability in the Western philosophical tradition restricts moral considerability to (some) humans on the grounds that only humans are capable of reason and rationality, use language, are rights-holders, duty-bearers, interest carriers or are endowed with a soul. By making the land itself morally considerable, Leopold challenges traditional Western conceptions of moral considerability — of what makes something deserving of moral consideration. And, for Leopold, “the land” was included in the realm of things deserving moral consideration.
As a related third point, Leopold’s land ethic challenges us to rethink what it is to be human. Once again, the historically favored position in the Western philosophical tradition is that humans are different from and superior to nonhuman animals and “nature” since humans are atomistic, individualistic, rational, self-interested pleasure or preference maximizers. This same tradition presupposes critical value dualisms, such as “culture versus nature” and “mind versus body,” according to which (some) humans were cultural, rational, “mental” beings whose very essence existed as separate from and morally superior to bodily, physical, nonrational, nonhuman animals and nature. Leopold’s land ethic challenges and repudiates this division.
Fourth, in place of the favored Western view of humans as unlike other animals and nature, Leopold posits the notion of human beings as essentially (and not merely accidentally) emotional, relational, ecological selves who are members of both human and ecological communities. This notion of humans as embedded in social and ecological communities forever challenges the time-honored distinction between humans and “the rest of nature.” No longer is it “obvious” that there is an essential difference between superior humans and inferior nonhuman animals and nature, an ontological divide between “culture” and “nature.”
Fifth, Leopold’s land ethic challenges us to rethink what counts as a morally relevant value in ethics, ethical decision-making, environmental policy and philosophy. No one before Leopold had ever defended the view that ecosystem integrity, diversity and beauty were morally relevant—perhaps deciding—values in human interactions with other humans, nonhuman animals or the natural environment. In doing so Leopold went far beyond traditional theories of ethics, ethical selves and ethical values: He made the “integrity, diversity, and beauty” of ecological communities, along with the requisite nutrient flows and energy cycles that are necessary for “land health” (or, the ability of the land to self renew), as themselves morally relevant values — ones which sometimes could and should trump traditional values of human self-interest, individual rights, human freedoms (or liberties) and economic efficiency.
This latter point deserves a bit more attention. Sometimes Leopold writes about the land by describing the characteristics of discrete individuals. This is the case when, for example, in A Sand County Almanac he writes about geese, skunk, warblers, cranes, tamaracks, deer, rabbits, prairie plants, marsh, river, fish, birch, oak and many others. Yet sometimes Leopold writes about “the land” as “a fountain of energy,” “the biotic pyramid,” and “food chains.” As such, for Leopold,
- “Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals. Food chains are the living channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil. The circuit is not closed; some energy is dissipated in decay, some is added by absorption from the air, some is stored in soils, peats, and long-lived forests; but it is a sustained circuit, like a slowly augmented revolving fund of life.”</dd>
For Leopold, ecosystems can be viewed correctly and alternatively as individuals and organisms or as energy flows or nutrient cycles. Whichever view of ecosystems is appropriate for a given context or particular analysis, Leopold’s main point remains in-tact: “There is value in any experience that reminds us of our dependency on the soil-plant-animal-man food chain, and of the fundamental organization of the biota.”
Sixth, Leopold’s land ethic challenges humans to rethink the role of emotion, care, love and empathy not only in ethics, ethical decision-making, and ethical policy, but also in what it means for humans to owe things to each other and the land. For Leopold, the development of an “ecological conscience”—necessary to the adoption of the land ethic—requires the development of emotional, experiential (e.g., hands-on) ecological literacy. Rational intelligence that is not exercised in concert with affectional or emotional intelligence is simply inadequate in ethics, environmental ethics and environmental decision-making.
Leopold makes this connection between what psychologists currently call “rational intelligence” and “emotional intelligence” when he writes, “No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions.” In this respect, Leopold’s view resonates with the contemporary view of many psychologists that one simply cannot reason morally, make moral decisions, or engage in moral practice without the exercise of “emotional intelligence” in harmony with “rational intelligence.”
A seventh legacy of Leopold’s Land Ethics has yet to be understood and appreciated. It challenges us to understand the relationships between ecological diversity and cultural diversity in the creation, maintenance and perpetuation of human and land health. Leopold explicitly links cultural diversity with biodiversity when he writes, “Wilderness was never a homogenous raw material. It was very diverse, and the resulting artifacts are very diverse. These differences in the end-product are known as cultures. The rich diversity of the world’s cultures reflects a corresponding diversity in the wilds that gave them birth.”
In this context. Leopold goes on to describe two impending changes: “One is the exhaustion of wilderness in the more habitable portions of the globe. The other is the world-wide hybridization of cultures through modern transport and industrialization.” Leopold laments the “exhaustion of wilderness” and “world-wide hybridization of cultures” as the destruction of both ecological and cultural diversity. For Leopold, the “wild roots” of cultures and the importance of our ecological heritage are part of our humanness and our human cultural heritage that should be recognized and preserved.
Leopold makes this interconnection between the preservation of biological diversity and cultural diversity explicit when he writes, “The culture of primitive [sic] peoples is often based on wildlife. Thus the plains Indian not only ate buffalo, but buffalo largely determined his architecture, dress, language, arts, and religion.” For Leopold, the value and loss of cultural diversity is intimately connected with the value and loss of biodiversity. “Land health” is intimately connected with both.
Eighth, Leopold’s land ethic makes forest and wilderness preservation necessary for any adequate ethic, environmental ethic or environmental policy. In this respect, he lived what he taught. In 1915 Leopold helped found game protective associations throughout the southwestern United States. In 1922 he submitted a formal proposal for administration of the Gila National Forest as a wilderness area, a designation it received by the U.S. Forest Service in 1924, and in 1923 he completed the Watershed Handbook. In 1935 he assisted in founding The Wilderness Society, with its goal of wilderness preservation, and in 1936 he helped establish a society of wildlife specialists, named the Wildlife Society. By 1938 he had begun a series of natural history articles for Wisconsin Agriculturalist and Farmer and, in 1939, became chairman of the Department of Wildlife Management at the University of Wisconsin. After nearly a decade of teaching, writing and serving on various commissions devoted to conservation and wilderness, Leopold died of a heart attack in 1948 while fighting a forest fire on a neighbor’s farm near “the shack” in Baraboo, Wisconsin—one year before publication of A Sand County Almanac.
The ninth legacy of Leopold’s land ethic is that he saw the valuable roles to be played by both the ecological scientist and the ordinary individual in the preservation of wilderness. Leopold claimed that ecological science “has wrought a change in the mental eye;” it has helped us see the beauty and “incredible intricacies of the plant and animal community.” But he also claims that one need not have a Ph.D. in ecology in order to “see” the value of wilderness:
- “On the contrary, the Ph.D. may become as callous as an undertaker to the mysteries at which he officiates. . . . The weeds in a city lot convey the same lesson as the redwoods; the farmer may see in his cow-pasture what may not be vouchsafed to the scientist adventuring the South Seas. Perception, in short, cannot be purchased with either learned degrees or dollars.”
Lastly, Leopold’s land ethic challenges us to rethink the relationships among ecology, ethics and economics. Leopold rejected the conception and practice of both traditional laissez-faire economics and ethics because neither made ecological awareness and sensitivity to ecological contexts central to their enterprises. He writes:
- “That man is, in fact, only a member of a biotic team is shown by an ecological interpretation of history. Many historical events, hitherto explained solely in terms of human enterprise [whether economic or ethical: insertion, mine], were actually biotic interactions between people and land. The characteristics of the land determined the facts quite as potently as the characteristics of the men who lived on it.”
Leopold’s discussion of the origins of bluegrass in Kentucky and the development of the landscape of the Southwest reinforce this point: These historical human and economic events are “biotic interactions” between people and land. It illustrates beautifully the importance, culturally and ecologically, of context—that what something is is partly a function of where it is.
Aldo Leopold’s “The Land Ethic” was a work years ahead of its time. It not only helped create and shape the development of the field of environmental ethics; it forever challenged some of the most fundamental assumptions of Western philosophical thought about the nature of humans, ethics and human relationships to the nonhuman world. Forever “new,” uncanny in its ability to inform and inspire generations of readers, scholars, activists, organizations and policy makers, Leopold’s “land ethic” continues to be a beacon for those who understand the need to foster an environmental ethic that protects and preserves wilderness for current and future generations of humans, nonhuman animals and ecological communities alike. In this respect, the legacy of Leopold’s “The Land Ethic” has just begun to be realized.
2.^ Aldo Leopold, “Foreword,” in A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), vii.
3.^ Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 20.4.^ Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 200.
5.^ Leopold, “Land Ethic,” in A Sand County Almanac, 225.
6.^ Leopold, “Land Ethic,” 223.
7.^ Leopold, “Land Ethic,” 209—10.
8.^ Leopold, “Land Ethic,” 224—225.
9.^ Leopold, “Land Ethic,” 216.
10.^ Leopold, “Wildlife in American Culture,” in A Sand County Almanac, 178.
11.^ See, for example, Daniel Goldman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (New York: Bantam Books, 1995). ISBN: 0553375067.
12.^ Leopold, “Land Ethic,” 209–10.
13.^ Leopold, “Wilderness,” in A Sand County Almanac, 188.
14.^ Leopold, “Wildlife in American Culture,” 177.
15.^ Leopold, “Wildlife in American Culture,” 177.
16.^ Leopold, “The Conservation Esthetic,” in A Sand County Almanac, 174.
17.^ Leopold, “Conservation Aesthetic,” 174.
18.^ Leopold, “The Land Ethic,” 205.