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Understanding the Land Ethic

An image of a snail crawling on a rock

In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold set forth his most enduring idea, the “land ethic,” a moral responsibility of humans to the natural world. Aldo Leopold’s land ethic idea is extremely relevant in today’s society, but understanding the land ethic can be difficult. This post will take a closer look at the basic tenets of Leopold’s idea and explore how we can better understand and apply land ethics in our own lives.

What did Leopold mean by a Land Ethic?

Leopold’s land ethic idea has been discussed for decades by scholars in a wide variety of academic disciplines, from philosophy to conservation biology. For this post, we’re just going to focus on the basics, but readers that want to dig deeper are encouraged to check out this list of books that explore the land ethic in greater depth through a variety of scholarly perspectives.

Let’s start near the beginning of the essay and examine an excerpt from a section entitled the “Ethical Sequence.” Leopold writes:

“The first ethics dealt with the relation between individuals; the Mosaic Decalogue is an example. Later accretions dealt with the relation between the individual and society. The Golden Rule tries to integrate the individual to society; democracy to integrate social organization to the individual….There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations…
The extension of ethics to this third element in human environment is, if I read the evidence correctly, an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity. It is the third step in a sequence. The first two have already been taken. Individual thinkers since the days of Ezekiel and Isaiah have asserted that the despoliation of land is not only inexpedient but wrong. Society, however, has not yet affirmed their belief. I regard the present conservation movement as the embryo of such an affirmation.”

Ethics deal with morality, and an inherent sense of what’s right and wrong. Leopold cites the Ten Commandments as an example of a set of moral standards that help define rights and wrongs in the context of a relationship between individuals. Leopold also talks about ethics between people and their communities, citing the examples of the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would do unto yourself) and the concept of democracy as foundations that inform our societal code of conduct. The land ethic, Leopold argues, is the missing piece in what he calls the ethical sequence.

Land Ethic Diagram

Applying the Land Ethic

In “The Ethical Sequence,” Leopold explains what a land ethic is, but he doesn’t define the specific rights and wrongs that should govern our relationship to land. In our Land Ethic Leaders program, we are often asked about where this set of rules resides within Leopold’s writing. In essence, people would like to know what Leopold’s “10 Commandments” for the land would be. The closest he gets to articulating a clear set of rules or standards that help us to judge what actions are “right” and what actions are “wrong” is represented in the following passage from the land ethic:

"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 seems pretty simple and straightforward, but it’s still difficult to know how to apply in all cases. In a foreword to a book called The Professor, written in 1987 by Leopold’s graduate student Robert McCabe and focusing on the kind of educator and person Leopold was, Luna Leopold (Aldo’s second eldest son) explores this very concept. In the quote below, Luna points out that these rules may be more complicated than they seem.

“This apparently simple statement has been discussed in detail. Does it mean that the stability, integrity and beauty of the biosphere is the sole criterion on morality? For example, the death of a quarter of the human population would not prejudice ecosystems or the diversity of species. The question is asked, would this fit the definition of morality? It has been suggested that Leopold’s words imply the value of an individual person would be inversely proportional to the supply of people.”

Luna points out that it is actually really easy to read this statement and assume that it means that humans have the least value in the system. But he argued that if you could see how Leopold treated other people around him you would understand that this was the absolute farthest thing from the truth. Luna goes on to explain that land ethic needs to be large enough to encompass both the land community and the human community, working in harmony together:

“Rather than interpreting the concept of the land ethic as an indication of disregard for the individual in favor of the species or the ecosystem, my view is quite different. I see the concept of the land ethic as the outgrowth and extension of his deep personal concern for the individual.
Accepting the idea that the cooperations and competitions in human society are eased and facilitated by concern for others, he saw that the same consideration extended to other parts of the ecosystem would tend to add integrity, beauty and stability to the whole.”

Perhaps this is an insight into why Leopold did not present the land ethic idea as a litany of rights and wrongs or a ten commandments of the land. Leopold recognized that people’s environmental values many times grow directly from their experience. He was the kind of person who was absolutely devoted to giving his students, his family and his colleagues the opportunity to get out and connect with nature firsthand. Leopold knew that direct contact with the natural world was a key factor in shaping our ability to extend our ethics beyond our own self-interest.

Boy kissing a fish

Leopold also recognized that the relationship between people and each other and people and land was a complex one, and an evolutionary process. Near the end of the essay, he explains:

“I have purposely presented the land ethic as a product of social evolution because nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘written.’ Only the most superficial student of history will suppose that Moses ‘wrote’ the Decalogue; it evolved in the minds of a thinking community, and Moses wrote a tentative summary of it for a ‘seminar.” I say tentative because evolution never stops. The evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as well as an emotional process.”

We are all part of the thinking community that needs to shape the land ethic for the 21st century and beyond. To do that, we need to be able to engage in thoughtful dialog that makes room for many different perspectives on the relationship between people and land.

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