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The Once and Future Land Ethic | Part Two

An image of "The Once and Future Land Ethic | Part One" book cover, but needs to say Part Two

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 Two

The land ethic will need to extend across, and recognize connections within, the entire landscape.

How can the land ethic help to revive and strengthen bonds of common interest within the landscape and within conservation? Leopold’s work focused on the health of wild, semiwild, and rural lands. His ethic spanned a broad range of conservation interests. But changes in society, the economy, and the landscape itself have undermined that fragile unity. Conservation’s constituency has fragmented, as evidenced especially in increased polarization between urban and suburban environmentalists and rural people who own and work land. Conservation, by contrast, is all about protecting the public interest in the beauty, diversity, and health of the landscape as a whole.

In his more expansive moments, Leopold tried to stretch his notion of a land ethic beyond those parts of the landscape he was especially interested in. In lecture notes from the 1940s, he wrote:

 “There must be some force behind conservation— more universal than profit, less awkward than government, less ephemeral than sport; something that reaches into all times and places, where men live on  the land, something that brackets everything from rivers to raindrops, from whales to hummingbirds, from land estates to window-boxes. I can see only one such force: a respect for land as an organism; a voluntary decency in land-use exercised by every citizen and every land-owner out of a sense of a love for and obligation to that great biota we call America. This is the meaning of conservation, and this is the task of conservation education.” 

Leopold was not alone in such expressions. In “The Land Ethic,” he was indeed speaking on behalf of a community of conservation scientists, thinkers, and advocates who found common cause, and assumed a common responsibility.

There was no past golden age when conservation united people across social, economic, and political divides. However, there have been periods when the conservation consensus was unusually strong: the

early years of the progressive movement, the “dirty thirties,” the Earth Day awakening of the early 1970s.

Unfortunately, such consensus seems to emerge only in response to environmental crises— wid spread deforestation and wildlife destruction, extensive soil erosion, unchecked environmental contamination andpollution, depletion of the earth’s ozone layer. The question is: Must it always be so? Or can conservation go on the offensive and provide a positive vision of the public good to be gained through environmental stewardship?

To do so, conservationists will have to assume many chores: linking concern for wild lands and the more developed parts of the landscape; forging a renewed movement for the conservation of private lands; recognizing, as Wes Jackson has noted, that “if we donʼt save agriculture, we wonʼt save wilderness”; bringing urban and suburban dwellers into conversations about conservation; taking seriously the connections between land, fresh water, and the marine environment. The land ethic cannot meaningfully endure if the fragmentation of interests prevails. It will flourish if it makes connections.

The land ethic will need to be extended to the aquatic and marine realms. 

How can the land ethic fully embrace water resources and aquatic ecosystems, and encourage an “ocean ethic”? We are terrestrial creatures with terrestrial biases. Only with time have even conservationists come to appreciate the essential connections between groundwater, surface waters, and atmospheric waters, and between water as a vital ecosystem component and a basic human need.

Leopold explicitly included water in his definition of “land” and devoted significant and professional energies to understanding human impacts on watersheds and aquatic systems. Aldoʼs sun Luna, a renowned hydrologist and conservationist in his own right, defined the essential point: “Water is the most critical resource issue of our lifetime and our children’s lifetime. The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land.” The headlines give regular notice of the increasing pressures, locally and globally, on the quality, quantity, distribution, and uses of water and the health of aquatic ecosystems. These pressures are sure to increase in the century ahead and will inevitably raise issues of access, equity, and justice. Understanding water connections and articulating an ethic to guide the protection and careful use of water are urgent tasks, not only for conservationists, but society at large.

Until recently, conservationists have lagged in their attention to the oceans. With the popularity of Rachel Carson’s ocean books and Jacques Cousteau’s films in the 1950s and 1960s, marine conservation began to enter public consciousness. Although cetaceans, sea turtles, and other groups of organisms focused concern on the oceans, only in the 1990s did conservationists begin to consider more systematically the status and needs of marine resources, biodiversity, and ecosystems. Once again, however, consensus has come only in the wake of acute disasters—depleted fisheries, highly disrupted marine food webs, e panding “dead zones,” the global spread of aquatic invasive species, intensified coastline development, the widespread degradation of coral reefs, mangrove swamps, estuaries, and other sensitive marine communities.

The conservation of marine biodiversity and the need for an “ocean ethic” now appear to be gaining the attention they have long required. New organizations have formed to raise awareness of marine conservation issues. Conservation biology has entered the marine realm, helping to establish marine protected areas and develop (hopefully) more sustainable, ecosystem-based fishing regimes. For communities whose economies, livelihoods, and cultural identity depend on marine resources, sustainability is no vague abstraction. As the song goes, “No more fish, no fishermen.”

In this century, we will either remain mere consumers of the seas’ bounty or become true caretakers of marine communities. Marine biologist and conservationist Carl Safina writes, “People who think of themselves

as conservationist carry a concern for wildlife, wild lands, habitat quality, and sustainable extraction as part of the collective ethic, their sense of right and wrong. It is high time to take these kinds of ideas below high tide, and a sea ethic is the perfect vessel in which to begin the voyage.” The vastness, complexity,and mystery of the oceans have allowed us to postpone that project. The longer we delay, the more difficult the voyage will be.

The land ethic will need to confront directly the challenges posed by human population growth and contribute to the shaping of a parallel consumption ethic. 

How can the land ethic help to address the pressures arising from human population growth responsibly, respectfully, and effectively? Will we recognize and act upon the connection between ecosystem health and resource consumption? These have always been among he most politically and economically vexingissues in conservation. They are the eight-hundred-pound gorillas whose presence we would just as soon not acknowledge.

But with human population now over six billion, the interrelated trends of continued population growth and intensified resource consumption cannot be avoided. For decades—indeed, since Thomas Malthus’s day—warring ideological camps have debated the relationship between population growth, economic development, and environmental degradation. Because the issue involves fundamental assumptions of economic philosophy and cuts so very close to the political bone, the moments of consensus have been rare and elusive. The rapid growth and movement of the human population over the last century has no precedent in human history, and our inherited ethical systems provide too little guidance in response.

If the land ethic has any special contribution to make, it may be to draw attention to the land itself; to steer the discussion away from raw ideology and toward careful consideration of the quality of life, human and otherwise, over the long run. If there is to be any consensus, it will have to grow out of the realization

that population and consumption are necessarily connected: Environmental change is a function of both our numbers and our ways of life. Neither factor in the equation can be ignored. At present, we tend to ignore both.

In the 1920s, Aldo Leopold pointed out the need for honesty in addressing consumption patterns and choices. He wrote, “A public which lives in wooden houses should be careful about throwing stones at lumbermen, even wasteful ones, until it has learned how its own arbitrary demands as to kinds and qualities of lumber help cause the waste which it decries. . . . The long and the short of the matter is that forest conservation depends in part on intelligent consumption, as well as intelligent production of lumber.” His point extended beyond just forestry and wood products: Conservation and consumption were, and are, connected. As forester Doug MacCreery has framed it, a land ethic that ignores those connections amounts to “half a loaf.” We need the whole loaf. “Intelligent consumption,” were we to achieve it, would defy the assumptions of both modern hyperconsumer culture and of that brand of environmentalism that prefers to avert its eyes from the impacts of personal consumer choices.

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. We will post the third and final section of this essay to the Aldo Leopold Foundation blog next month.

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@