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The Once and Future Land Ethic | Part Three

Ducks on water

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 Three

The land ethic will need to help reform the traditional economic worldview to include conservation concerns in a meaningful way.

Can the land ethic have deep and meaningful impact on the human economic enterprise? This is the 750-pound gorilla. For all the discussion of sustainability in recent decades, conservation has had a hard time gaining a full hearing within the dominant schools of neoclassical economics. Especially with rapid globalization and technological change driving economic development, conservation receives scant attention in the salons of high finance and international trade.

Is there room, in the long run, for true reconciliation of economic and ecological worldviews? Is there any safe way out of our current addiction to the quarterly earnings report to a sincere commitment to the seventh generation? Leopold worded his own views with extreme care: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Leopold thus held out the possibility of loving and respectful use. But he took no comfort in the early expressions of the post-World War II economic boom. He saw a society “so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy.” He did not live long enough to see the obsession become the norm.

In framing the land ethic, Leopold joined a long line of economic dissenters in the conservation tradition, stretching from George Perkins Marsh to Henry George to E.F. Schumacher to Herman Daly. That line  took a new turn beginning in the 1980s. Economists operating under the banners of ecological economics and sustainable development began to challenge economic orthodoxy. Although they have not yet convinced their disciplinary colleagues of the need to see the human economy as a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the global ecosystem, they have forced the boundaries of the conversation outward. They have explored new ways to value nature, redefine capital, and build conservation-based economies. Many a battle yet to come will be framed reflexively according to shopworn jobs-versus-the-environment myths. But conservationists are gaining new tools with which they can not just wage the battle, but dispel the myth.

The land ethic will need to engage, and find acceptance within, diverse disciplines, vocations, and professions. How can serious consideration of the land ethic be encourage beyond its core devotees in the natural sciences, environmental and conservation groups, and resource management professions? An effective land ethic will require commitment from a wide spetrum of fields and occupations. Architects, designers, engineers, planners, artists, builders, bankers, clergy, teachers, doctors, farmers, manufacturers, business owners: all have an impact on land and the way people regard land. All may benefit from the innovative thinking that arises when land is regarded as more than just raw material or scenery.

In one of his lesser-known classic articles, “The Role of Wildlife in a Liberal Education” (1942), Leopold included a simple graphic of food chains to illustrate the “lines of dependency…in an ordinary community” of Wisconsin. One chain extended, rather conventionally, from rock to soil to ragweed, to mouse to fox. Another, however, linked rock to soil to alfalfa to cow to farmer. . . to grocer…to lawyer…to 8 Wyoming Wildlife student; another branched off, going from cow to farmer…to implement maker…to mechanic…to union secretary. Leopold”s point was that to think of “wild community [as] one thing, the human community another” was erroneous.

When human communities are reconceived along such lines, all members have a role— and an interest—in formulating a land ethic. And new connections are made. It becomes possible, for example, to think of ecologically informed design, sustainable architecture, and the “green infrastructure” of cities.

It becomes important to think of the relationships between individual and public health, the environment, and biodiversity. It becomes prudent to plan and account for true costs, with the ecosystem in mind. It becomes exciting to teach, and learn, across disciplines. The land ethic becomes not just a rationale for protecting nature, but a means of enriching community life.

The land ethic will need to promote awareness and critical thinking among young people.

How can the land ethic, in the face of rapid changes in education and in society, encourage curiosity and critical judgment among students? In “The Land Ethic,” Leopold noted the dilemma educators face. “Despite nearly a century of propaganda,” he noted, “progress [in conservation] still consists largely of letterhead pieties and convention oratory.” He agreed tat more education was needed. “No one will debate this, but is it certain that only the volume of education needs stepping up? Is something lacking in the content as well?”

Propaganda was not to be confused with education. The quality of conservation education depended, in part, on a positive understanding of land as a dynamic community, which in turn depended on “an understanding of ecology.” But, Leopold lamented, “this is by no means coextensive with ‘education’; in fact, much education seems deliberatel to avoid ecological concepts. An understanding of ecology does not necessarily originate in courses bearing ecological labels; it is quite as likely to be labeled geography, botany, agronomy, history, or economics.” At the heart of the matter: Modern education divides the world into subjects, disciplines, and fields, while effective conservation education requires an appreciation of relationships. We need, in David Orrʼs words, to “connect thought, words, and deeds with our obligations as citizens of the land community.”

Environmental education had made great strides over the last quarter century. Has the effort succeeded merely in exposing students to “correct” attitudes, or has it given them the tools to think, feel, and act with clarity and independence? It is a tough but necessary question to ask. For the land ethic to endure, students (of all ages) will need to be emotionally and intellectually engaged in the world around them. In a world where distractions reign, they will need to acquire the wisdom of their places: the rocks and weathers, soils and waters, plants and animals, origins and histories, people and cultures. And it will need to be more than a chore; it has to be an unending adventure.

The land ethic will need to provide encouragement and guidance for expanded community-based conservation projects.

How can the land ethic more effectively encourage local responsibility for land and stimulate cooperative measures to protect, restore, and sustain land health? “A land ethic,” Leopold wrote, “reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for

the health of the land.” As Leopold recognized, individuals can at upon that conviction in various ways: as landowners, consumers, voters, students, parents, employees. Community- based conservation provides one more avenue through which individuals may act: as neighbors sharing a place.

The conservation movement has seen an explosion of innovation and energy at the local level, at home, and around the world. Nongovernmental, community-based organizations— conservancies, watershed

groups, land trusts, neighborhood associations, and a wild array of alliances, co-ops, partnerships, coalitions, projects, and councils— have transformed the social landscape of conservation. While there are older precedents to these efforts, the rise of community-based conservation is a new and potentially powerful force for change on the land and in civil society. It does not replace either individual or governmental action; it supplements them, providing new opportunities to reclaim common ground and enhance the public interest.

The magnitude of our conservation needs, and the limits of both individual and governmental action in meeting them, are such that community-based projects must continue to expand. But it will be no small challenge for these organizations to stay on course, sustain themselves, resist provincialism, and incorporate solid science in their work. The community-based conservation movement is one of he most helpful recent indicators that the land ethic is alive and well and dispersing into new fields. In the decades to come, the health of that movement will be a gauge of our overall societal commitment to the land.

The land ethic will need to build upon its roots in the American experience while remaining adaptable in other settings.

How can the land ethic continue to grow as it was, and is, the product of a specific time and place? The land ethic, as Leopold framed it, emerged in response to particular landscapes, cultural traditions, and historical circumstances. It is an achievement to be proud of, and defended with vigor. Just as the American people have struggled, so painfully, to free themselves from the original sin of slavery, so have we at least begun to emancipate ourselves from what Donald Worster has described as out “fanatical drive against the earth.” Much damage, to be sure, has been done— to the American land and to ourselves in the process. We have much to do to redeem past losses and to prevent new wounds. But in the last century, we have also created a national ethic to provide guidance along the way.

Meanwhile, the land ethic has outgrown its American origins. It has done so in different ways. Over the last half century, especially, the land ethic has contributed to the. emergence of a global environmental ethic (through, for example, the decade-long international effort to draft the Earth Charter). It has crossed borders to influence the conservation policies of other nations. It has changed the way scientists, resource managers, policy makers, advocates, and business leaders are trained, regardless of location. But it has also inspired local conservation efforts in communities worldwide.

Still ,the land ethic as conceived by Americans cannot be simply “transferred.” Ethics cannot be exported, only evoked. Even within the United States, the land ethic continues to evolve in varied ecological, cultural, and historical contexts. It sets high goals in Leopold’s language, safeguarding “the capacity of the land for self-renewal” and protecting “the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community”—but no one prescribed path. To thrive, the land ethic will need to tell the stories, sing the songs, and dance the dances of people in their own home places.

These needs (and no doubt others) will shape the land ethic in unpredictable ways in the century ahead. Other realities will surely influence our land ethic conversations. To name a few: climate change, continued international tensions and cultural conflicts, the transition beyond oil-based economies, global patterns of trade and development, and population growth and migration. But as members of the “thinking community,” and citizens in a democracy that itself faces crucial challenges, we are obliged to continue “wiring” the land ethic, not only in words but on the land. That process has a long history on this continent and around the world. It began long before Aldo Leopold wrote his “tentative summary.” It will continue as long as we care about people, land, and the connections between them. 


This essay is part of Curt Meine’s book, Correction Lines, published by Island Press, Washington, D.C. It appears here by permission of the author. This is the third and final section of this essay. Read Part One HERE, and Part Two HERE.

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’s Marshland Market, at