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Published in 1949 as the finale to A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic” essay is a call for moral responsibility to the natural world. At its core, the idea of a land ethic is simply caring: about people, about land, and about strengthening the relationships between them.
Fundamentally grounded in values, ethics are a moral sense of right and wrong. Ethics are demonstrated by the way people live their lives: When a person cares about someone or something, their actions convey that care and respect, and invite the same in return.
“When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
Ethics direct all members of a community to treat one another with respect for the mutual benefit of all. A land ethic expands the definition of “community” to include not only humans, but all of the other parts of the Earth, as well: soils, waters, plants, and animals, or what Leopold called “the land.”
In Leopold’s vision of a land ethic, the relationships between people and land are intertwined: care for people cannot be separated from care for the land. A land ethic is a moral code of conduct that grows out of these interconnected caring relationships.
Leopold did not define the land ethic with a litany of rights and wrongs in A Sand County Almanac. Instead, he presented it as a set of values that naturally grew out of his lifetime of experiences in the outdoors. Leopold wrote that “we can only be ethical in relation to something we can see, understand, feel, love, or otherwise have faith in.”
He believed that direct contact with the natural world was crucial in shaping our ability to extend our ethics beyond our own self-interest. He hoped his essays would inspire others to embark or continue on a similar lifelong journey of outdoor exploration, developing an ethic of care that would grow out of their own close personal connection to nature.
Leopold recognized that his dream of a widely accepted and implemented set of values based on caring – for people, for land, and for all the connections between them – would have to “evolve… in the minds of a thinking community.”
We are all part of the thinking community that needs to shape a land ethic for the 21st century and beyond. To do that, we must engage in thoughtful dialog with each other, inviting a diversity of perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds. Together, we can form a land ethic that can be passed down to future generations.
Download a list of Land Ethic Additional Readings in printable PDF format: