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The Once and Future Land Ethic | Part One

An image of "The Once and Future Land Ethic | Part One" book cover

The author of the definitive biography of Aldo Leopold and a longtime student of the relationship between men and land considers how conservation should adapt to succeed in the next century.


Part One

“I have purposely presented the land ethic as a product of social evolution because nothing is so important as an ethic is ever ʻwritten.ʼ” - Aldo Leopold (1949)

This sentence, appearing near the end of “The Land Ethic,” is arguably the most important Aldo Leopold ever wrote. With these words, he acknowledged the limits of his own efforts to frame a large and complex idea. He understood that such an ethic could form and evolve only “in the minds of a thinking community.” The author of the essay “The Land Ethic” did not, and could not, “write” the land ethic. No one person could. And everyone could.  

Which is not to say that Leopold did not pour himself into “The Land Ethic.” His essay distilled a lifetime of observing, reading, writing, thinking, experimenting, blundering, and always asking the next question about the very meaning of conservation. In it, Leopold sought nothing less than to redirect the conservation movement by blending knowledge and insights from the natural sciences, history, literature, ethics, economics, aesthetics, and public policy. It was the culminating expression of Leopoldʼs intellectual, professional, and spiritual growth.

Yet Leopold recognized the contingent nature of the land ethic—perhaps because the idea evolved continually in his own thinking, in varied landscapes. In any case, by explicitly framing his idea as the “tentative” expression of one member of a thinking community, Leopold opened wide the discussion. The land ethic might have gone down in history as the idiosyncratic expression of a mid-twentieth century naturalist, scientist, and writer. Instead, with his self-abnegating assertion, Leopold liberated the land ethic. He gave his readers a stake. in the idea, and a responsibility to develop it. He invited other voices to join the conversation, thus ensuring that it would remain vigorous. Each of us as individuals, as members of different communities, and as participants in a broader culture, may help to “write” the land ethic.

What forces will shape the land ethic in the future? How must the concept of a land ethic evolve in order to thrive and provide guidance to conservation in the twenty-first century? There are, of course, innumerable answers to these questions. It is possible, however, to identify at least some overarching challenges a land ethic will need to meet to remain vital.

The land ethic will need to embrace, and be embraced by, new constituencies.

How can the land ethic be nurtured within diverse and constantly changing human communities, with different traditions and relationships to land? Aldo Leopold. Land ethic reflected the social realities of his time and place. Looking head, it is not difficult to predict that, as our societies, economies, and demographics change, so will our environmental concerns. This will redefine what conservation is and how we pursue it. It will call for a blending of varied cultural traditions and values, with priorities that do not always mesh, and that may well be in conflict.

Rabbit Illustration

Fortunately, such openness and inclusiveness are in greater evidence now than perhaps at any time since Leopoldʼs day. Conservation crosses cultural divides in a way it did not in Leopoldʼs generation, with increasing appreciation of the complicated connections between healthy landscapes, communities, and identity. Community-based approaches to conservation require that people be invested with responsibilities for decisions that affect the quality and sustainability of their home landscapes. Educational programs and new technologies provide access to information in ways that did not exist even few years ago. Faith communities throughout the world have looked to their traditions for affirmation of environmental values. The environmental justice movement has opened opportunities for honest conversations on shared concerns— in much the same manner that Leopold tried to do in “The Land Ethic.”

As these trends continue, the effort must involve more than merely communicating the land ethic to new constituencies. Rather, it will require expanding the “thinking community” and encouraging people to understand themselves and their stories through their relationship with the land. To neglect such diverse voices is to leave, in Lauret Savoyʼs words, a “strength . . . only partially realized.” By contrast, when voices join, new worlds are made possible: “Perhaps then we might fully imagine and comprehend who and what we are with respect to each other and with respect to this land. What is defined by some as an edge of separation between nature and culture, people and place, is where common ground is possible.”

The land ethic will need to respond to emerging scientific insights and shifting scientific foundations.

How will the land ethic adapt to the insights that flow from the natural sciences? Leopoldʼs land ethic rested upon a solid foundation of interdisciplinary science, but that foundation is itself subject to continuous intellectual evolution. Over the last half of the twentieth century, revolutions occurred in every field of natural science, including geology (especially plate tectonic theory), climatology, oceanography, marine biology, hydrology, limnology, paleontology, biogeography, systematics, genetics, wildlife biology, forestry, and the agricultural sciences. These revolutions have rumbled on beneath the surface of the land ethic. If it is to stand, the land ethic must be supple and flexible.

In particular, the land ethic will need to reflect advances in the fields of evolutionary biology, biogeography, environmental history, and ecology. Over the last several decades, evolutionary biology and paleontology have recast our understanding of ancient, “deep time” extinctions. We have a much clearer picture of the impact of the human diaspora out of Africa on the worldʼs landscapes and biotas over the last hundred thousand years, including the period of Pleistocene extinctions that “set the stage” for todayʼs living world. Island biogeography and environmental

history have revealed the broad patterns of change that have shaped biotas, landscapes, ecosystems, and cultures over more recent centuries and decades. In ecology, emphasis has shifted away from the classic “balance of nature” idea to a better informed “flux of nature” paradigm that accounts for the dynamic nature of ecosystems.

In response to these changes, and others yet to come, conservationists will need to incorporate the lessons of environmental history and sort out the biological impact of human activities at various scales of time and space. This has already been happening in conservation biology, restoration ecology, and other fields. But the land ethic is not just for scientists. Conservation-minded citizens must also become familiar with these scientific advances to critically understand such issues, for example, as species invasions, fire management, aquifer depletion, and emerging diseases.

This essay is part of Curt Meineʼs book, Correction Lines, published by Island Press, Washington, D.C. It appears here by permission of the author. We will post the essay to the Aldo Leopold Foundation blog in three parts over the coming months.

Correction Lines is available from Island Press, 11030 South Langley Avenue, Chicago, IL 60628. (800) 621-2736. Meine is also the author of the definitive biography of Aldo Leopold, Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work, available from University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI, and the Aldo Leopold Foundation bookstore@