Book review of 'The Land Ethic' chapter in Aldo Leopold's book: A Sand County Almanac.
''That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.'' - Aldo Leopold
Leopold is writing in 1948, shortly before he died. His career began in 1909 in the U.S Forestry Service, later becoming Associate Director of the Forest Products Laboratory in Wisconsin. In 1933 he became involved in game management. He was posthumously honoured at the National Wildlife Federation's Conservation Hall of Fame. J.Baird Callicott describes Leopold as the founding father of recent environmental ethics, and his 'Land Ethic' as a modern classic.
'The Land Ethic' chapter can be condensed into seven main points:
1. The Ethical Sequence: Leopold defines ecological 'ethics' as: 'a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence'. There is currently no ethic for man's relation to land, but Leopold believes that free-for-all competition can be replaced by co-operative mechanisms, or 'symbiosis'.
2. The Community Concept: The land ethic expands our biotic community to include soil, water, plants and animals. Humanity's role shifts from land conqueror to community member.
3. The Ecological Conscience: The aim of conservation is to create harmony between people and land. Changing the content of our education systems can help change our current values. When land owners follow government conservation regulations, they usually do so with economic self-interest. Obligations have no meaning without conscience: our inherent values must change.
4. Substitutes for Land Ethic: All members of the land community are entitled to continuance. The stability of the whole depends on the integrity of individual members. Historically, members of the biotic community only had value if they were economically valuable to humans. This lack of value has been extended to whole communities: marshes, deserts etc. Assign more obligations to private landowners, and encourage pride in the diverse communities on their land.
5. The Land Pyramid: The bottom layer of the ‘Land Pyramid’ is soil, above it plants, then insects, and so on until the largest predators at the top. The number of individuals decreases upwards through the layers. The pyramid is based on what the species eat, so energy moves upwards, and death and decay moves the energy back down to the soil. There are many chains of energy moving through the pyramid, through many species. It may seem chaotic, but it's stable, although it depends on co-operation of all individuals. When changes occur, other parts must adjust. This is not always negative if it's slow and local: it's evolution. Humanity's rapid, violent, global actions have for the first time made food chains shorter. Can the land adjust? If so, how long for?
6. Land Health: Land health is 'the capacity of the land for self-renewal.' The A-B Cleavage of common viewpoints: A- land is a commodity for production, B- biota are important for their own sake. Leopold gives examples of the A-B cleavage in forestry, wildlife management, and agriculture. All cleavages show: man as conqueror vs man as biotic citizen and land as slave vs land as collective organism.
7. The Outlook: Some concluding points: a land ethic can only exist with love, respect and admiration for land; the major obstacle is our educational and economic systems; for an ethic to work we need social approval for right action, and disapproval for wrong action.
One of the main questions of environmental ethics is: what beings should be taken into ethical consideration, known as ‘moral standing’? Anthropocentric (human-centred) views are that only humans have moral standing, because only humans are conscious, rational beings. There are other opinions that extend moral standing to sentient animals (beings that feel pleasure and pain), to 'beings-of-a-life' (that have beliefs, desires, memory, emotion), or to individual living organisms.
Leopold's ethic is at the other end of the scale: moral standing should be extended to the whole biotic community, including soil, water, plants and animals. This view is holistic, meaning that systems such as lakes, rivers, species and ecosystems should be given moral standing too.
One objection to Leopold's Land Ethic is that it does not go deep enough into why the biotic community deserves moral standing. He quickly jumps from a description of how the land is, to what we ought to do. 'It is one thing to say how nature is, but quite another to say how society ought to be'. If Leopold can offer no answer, there is no need to build environmental obligations around this ethic. However, Leopold's aim is not to arrive at an impeccable theory, but to express a set of clear, consistent principles.
Perhaps the more important question is: how do we feel about the land? Lawrence E. Johnson points out that feelings may not be suitable foundations for an environmental ethic, as interests are not always tied to conscious experience. Some people feel no emotion for the biotic community, so will ignore the ethic. Benson suggests using intuition in decision making, but people have different intuition. To create ethical principles out of intuition may cause some to reject them.
Benson thinks these difficulties are enough that we should take a cautious approach: the same results may be obtained by applying traditional principles, even if they are human (or animal) centred. Human well-being will always be a reason to treat the environment with respect. True, humanity will always need to use and modify land for food, shelter, clothing and water, but if human well-being is enough to treat the environment with respect, why are we in a worsening mess?
Leopold discusses the duty land owners have over their land. Is it necessary for landowners to extend moral standing to the whole biotic community, or can they achieve same thing by acting according to their own interests? Concluding something is bad for humanity is a strong force against it happening, but many think the biotic community deserves consideration in its own right. Midgely says: 'To insist that it is really only a duty to the exploiting human beings is not consistent with the emphasis often given to reverence for the actual trees, mountains, lakes, rivers...'. Leopold would definitely agree with this.
Gould would agree too: 'we cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well - for we will not fight to save what we do not love'. Emotional and even religious appreciation of nature is part of an ecological ethic. One way to increase this appreciation is through Leopold's shift from man as conqueror to man as citizen. Rowe agrees 'we are Earthling's first, humans second'. Once this is fully grasped we can become Leopold's 'plain citizen' of the biotic community.
Yet there is still the suspicion that the Land Ethic is grounded in human interest, because a whole, stable environment is obviously better for humanity. Leopold clearly believes enlightened self-interest doesn't go far enough: the Land Ethic requires 'love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value'. Callicott thinks that if it's possible to value people in and of themselves, we can do the same with land.
Another criticism of the Land Ethic is that holistic philosophies condone sacrificing individuals for the sake of the whole. We can shoot rabbits to save a plant species, but are unhappy about doing the same to humans: the most abundant species destroying biotic communities. Regan (1983) calls this 'environmental fascism'. However, granting moral standing to the whole is not the same as taking it from individuals. But the question remains: when interests clash, who wins? Leopold's answer 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'. This has become one of the maxims of holistic ethics.
Callicott believes the Land Ethic will add to and contextualise other ethics, but will not replace them. The biotic community matters, but so do other communities. We are part of many, and can judge clashes of interest based on community commitments. But who decides the strength of community commitments? Surely our strongest commitment is to the human community, which brings us back to anthropocentrism.
Attfield suggests we need to take account of ecological systems, as it is pointless rescuing individuals while the system that supports them fails. However, 'systems matter because of the individual lives which depend on them and which they make possible'. So ethicists must take both individuals and systems of nature into account without becoming sentientists (who believe only sentient animals have moral standing) or holists.
A further criticism, from animal liberationists, is that the Land Ethic does not prohibit hunting, killing or eating animals. Leopold himself was a hunter and writes about it in his book. Does this make him stupid or hypocritical? Or does he consider hunting as consistent with his ethic? In Leopold's Land Pyramid, he puts homo sapiens in the same layer as squirrels, raccoons and bears, because they are all omnivores. This would not exclude humans from killing animals and eating meat. Leopold would not hunt endangered species, as a classical 'law' of ecology says: 'diversity contributes to stability', so rare species must have preferential consideration.
Richard Sylvan thinks that Leopold does not go far enough with his ethic. Leopold extends our current anthropocentric ethic to include the whole biotic community. 'But it is not, as Leopold seems to think... that an extension of traditional morality is required... [but] a change in the ethics and in attitudes, values, and evaluations'. I think Leopold does promote a new ethic: his message is to change consciousness around how we treat the land. Arne Naess, founder of Deep Ecology, believes: 'once the appropriate consciousness is established, one will naturally protect the environment and allow it to flourish, for that will be part and parcel of the protecting and flourishing of oneself'.
Sylvan hopes that a brand new ethic will cause immoral environmental conduct to rouse the indignation of others. Leopold also believes this is key, 'the mechanism of operation is the same for any ethic: social approbation for right actions: social disapproval for wrong actions'. Perhaps it is impossible to create a 'new' ethic, as all ethics are extensions of the old. Sylvan looks at current social ethics, shifting them into environmental terms: dominant (anthropocentric), despotic (man as steward) and co-operative (man as perfecter). He finds them all wanting in terms of the environment, so concludes: we do need a new ethic.
Curry believes that the new ethic should begin from a different starting point: 'I start from the belief, or perception, that nature - which certainly includes humanity - is the ultimate source of all value'. Sylvan and Bennett (1994) say we must imagine and aim for 'what lies entirely beyond the bounds of present practice, thinking the unthinkable'.
I think Leopold's Land Ethic goes far enough for this, and that it constitutes an excellent starting point for an ethic. Curry agrees, and thinks Leopold's virtues are significant. For one, it specifies right and wrong: it is certainly an ethic. Secondly, the focus is ecocentric: it excludes nothing. Lastly, the clarity and simplicity help to get the message across. And the change is radical indeed: enlarging the community re-frames all ethical discourse.
Curry says that ethics in ecology is not missing, it's just largely unconscious, and what is needed is a revival of an ancient ethic. 'There is something ancient about an ecological ethic; it is more something we have forgotten than something we have never known'. It is still present in Indigenous peoples, and in ethics such as Leopold's. Deep ecologists Bill Devall and George Sessions (1985) say that the change needed involves 'reawakening something very old'. Curry concludes that we need a new ethic based on an ancient, almost forgotten one.
The issue is 'how to encourage enough people to behave in a sufficiently co-ethical way, and discourage them from acting otherwise, and sooner rather than later'. Most people currently think Bernard Brecht's way: 'Grub first, then ethics', but Curry thinks ethics is not optional: it's in every choice we make. Callicott suggests that instead of imposing laws and rights, we accept natural, biological laws and their limitations on human spheres, just as indigenous peoples do. It may be impossible for the Western world to return entirely to that life, but the ethos can be integrated.
Des Jardins (2001) suggests that we proceed with caution and respect, using a light touch. We can work with evolutionary changes, encourage native species, and take preference over biological engineering. As Leopold says 'think like a mountain': see things from that perspective, with the mountain's time-scales and priorities. This metaphor has been adopted by Deep Ecologists. One group putting this ethic into action is led by Ted Mosquin and Stan Rowe, writers of A Manifesto for Earth. 'The goal is restoration of Earth's diversity and beauty, with our prodigal species once again a co-operative, responsible, ethical member'. Exactly Leopold's philosophy.
Leopold's Land Ethic is a gateway to how we ought to organise our society to protect our Earth. It could be extended to include the Ocean Ethic, and the Earth Ethic. The Land Ethic does not give all the answers, but gives a clear set of principles that can be built upon. Views that only humans, animals, or individuals have moral standing are worth considering, but holistic values such as the Land Ethic should also be taken into account, as it can reach into areas the others cannot. We will always need to compromise on environmental solutions, but I think taking into consideration the whole (species, ecosystem, planet) is fundamental to our survival. I do not see this as antropocentric, if 'our survival' can be extended to include all beings, living or non-living, on Earth.
Can we make acceptable environmental decisions using emotion or intuition? I would say that a lack of emotion and intuition is what drove humanity to this destructive point in the first place. Any ethic that promotes 'love, respect and admiration for the land' is worthy of consideration. When thinking about forsaking individuals for the benefit of the whole, it pays to be cautious and to work with natural biological laws, and use a light touch. I think Leopold’s chapter promotes the light touch, using love and respect for the land, and extends full moral standing to all biotic communities. If we use these basic principles, we can find solutions to our environmental problems.