The Necessity of a Land Ethic

December 20, 2010

In a Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold articulately presented the case for a “land ethic.” He identifies as an ecological and sociological necessity the extension of ethics to¬† include nonhuman members of life, collectively referred to as “the land.” His basic principle is, “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Leopold argues homo sapia needs to show respect for fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such. He hoped that man would use his sense of right and wrong to change his role from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.

While arguing to enlarge the boundaries of the ethical community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, Leopold wrote that land “is still only seen as property” and the “land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations.” His words still ring sharply true today. In fact, writing in the 1940s, Aldo Leopold probably didn’t foresee new, more destructive transitions in land use that took shape in the second half of the 20th-Century. He likely didn’t imagine the ubiquity of suburban sprawl. He’d been hurt to know the ways that the soil conservation movement would be eclipsed by an explosion in use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. He might have been terrified of the way mining, always dirty and dangerous, levels mountains, fills valleys, and leaves nothing but destruction in the place of productive land.

Without a land ethic, described so well by Aldo Leopold, we couldn’t understand why just the knowledge of these things can emotionally hurt some people. For people with strong values and compassion, these manmade and often fruitless ecological tragedies are touching in the same way human tragedies or injustices sometimes are.

Moreover, people with strong landsense, or environmental awareness, are conscious that these tragedies also strike mankind, especially in the long-term. We are not separate from but reliant members of the land community. Practices that destroy its integrity or obliterate hundreds of acres of productivity diminish man’s potential.

People without compassion for the land but who empathize with future generations will recognize that, even if technology replaces the resources we exploited at extraordinarily unsustainable rates, some things can never be replaced. Those things include, for example, ecosystems free of persistent bioaccumulative toxins and carcinogens that we rely on for drinking water. The modern bottled water phenomena demonstrates, in part, people’s cynicism about potentially polluted water but willingness to condone continued environmental destruction.

Future generations, like our own, will depend on ever shrinking non-replacable resources to nourish growing populations. Oftentimes, it is the simplest unadulterated things which may be missed the most including water, open space, prime soils, species, quiet, beauty, and dark. Future generations will also be constricted by the choices of previous earth inheritors and enjoy much less natural flexibility in where and how they live.

Man should show gratitude for creation and treat it with respect. Aldo Leopold argued not only that a Land Ethic is right, but that it is necessary. The destruction we continue to inflict harms partner members of the land community and will ultimately be a burden on successive generations.

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