Land Ethic

This post contains objective and subjective content based off of Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic.  I highly recommend reading Leopold’s essay on his theory of Land Ethic for a more complete account of his thoughts on the topic.

The definition of the term “ethics” varies between its uses in philosophy and ecology. In ecology, an ethic is acknowledging the land’s inability to speak up for or defend itself for its right to live and prosper. In philosophy, an ethic is determining the difference between behavior of the social and anti-social nature. The first discussions of ethics started out by philosophers considering what interactions were proper and “social” between humans. Ethics evolved to include individual humans and their interactions with society.  Aldo Leopold recognized that a very important relationship was not explicitly discussed in ethics and that is how “Land Ethic” was born. Leopold believed that there should be an awareness of the interaction and the interconnection between humans and all of land, which includes all non-human biological beings, such as soil, plants, and our fellow animals.

Land ethic emphasizes that humans’ duty to Earth is mandated by our symbiotic relationship to Earth.  This symbiotic relationship is defined by our sameness in biological origin and make up.  Humans are one in the same with trees, birds, bees, and all other living creature.  Humans tend to only value land for its monetary worth, rather than its inherent worth. Land ethic calls us to value things for the sake of their existence, rather than how much change they can put in our pockets.

Land ethic is meant to teach humans to shift their mindsets from owner to citizens. Land is not our property, but out home. There is a major trend of humans relishing in the fruits of the land much more frequently than giving back and nurturing the land. Humans must shift their thought process from the instinct to compete to the ethical concept of cooperation.  A major purpose of promoting the concept of Land Ethic is to engrain the awareness of the necessity of conservation in the minds of people. Leopold defines conservation as “a state of harmony between [humans] and land.” In order to have people jump on board the conservation train, education is a must.  Leopold originally published his piece on Land Ethic in his book Sand County Almanac in 1949. At the time he wrote the book, there was some small degree of education on the concept of conservation, but it was not very in depth.  It certainly was not enough to make a significant change in the way that the general population treated, or mistreated, the land. Many conservation efforts were made in an attempt to preserve and replenish resources, simply for the benefit of the humans, rather than for Earth itself.  The key to an ecologically ethical change is change within the hearts of humans who recognize and feel how deeply we are connected to this magnificent planet and all of the life that it is home to.

With conservation movements being driven by the greed and monetary desires of humans, it is difficult to show people with such a closed-minded perspective the value of forms of life with no economic value. Many humans are selfish beings and feel that they have the power to measure and project the worth of different plants and creatures.  Humans generally focus on protecting non-human species that have the most value to them, whether it be an animal that we eat or a flower that radiates a smell that we enjoy. In the United States, most of the conservation movements are orchestrated by the government.  The government uses our tax dollars to pick up the slack of private landowners.  The government makes an effort to set regulations to preserve our resources and seeks support for these efforts from industrial landowners and users. The support is often turned down when no monetary compensation is being doled out.

The Land Pyramid is a model introduced by Leopold that demonstrates the Earth’s carrying capacity and the interdependence between different forms of life.  The base of the pyramid is soil, which is topped by plants.  After that, there is a layer of insects, on which rests a layer of birds.  The birds are followed by groups of smaller animals leading up to layers of groups of larger animals.  At the highest and smallest point of the pyramid are large, carnivorous animals, including humans.  The pyramid is a map of the flow of energy, and it demonstrates how many lives of beings in higher levels can be sustained by the production of energy by the lower levels. The Land Pyramid is commonly referred to as the “food chain.”  When the energy on our planet is flowing productively, it is considered to be in good health.  To be in good health is for the land to maintain its ability of self-renewal and carrying capacity.

Without a loving and respecting relationship between humans and the land, it is difficult for humans to act ethically towards the land. Leopold says that “the evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as well as emotional process.” Until Earth’s inhabitants become aware of their role as citizen of the land rather than rulers of the land, it will be difficult for them to move forward with solid efforts of conservation to help the non-human parts of their community.

Something that really struck me in Leopold’s work was his explanation of the Land Pyramid.  I have thought about the carrying capacity of our planet before, I have seen visual representations of the food chain, and I was aware of how the flow of energy works.  What I did not think about was how many members of lower levels of the pyramid it takes to sustain large numbers human lives.  In class, we talked about how all living things are interconnected and interdependent “wholes,” as opposed to parts of a whole.  I would have to disagree with that.  The layout of the Land Pyramid is definite evidence that although all life may have the same moral value, the higher level that a member falls in, the less important they actually are.  If humans all disappeared today, the only lives that would struggle would be those that we tampered with.  The process of coming to terms with how relatively insignificant I am, has been sort of mind blowing.  Humans are conditioned to believe that we rule the planet.  In a sense, we do, but this is not because we were given the crown; it is because we have the mental capacity to create technology to control some levels of the land.

It is now becoming apparent that nature may not be on our side.  The natural disasters and Mother Nature’s misbehaviors are a result of our own wrong doing.  This has happened because we have treated her as our property and not as our home.  Humans, because of our great ignorance, have made the division between “us” and “them” even though we are meant to be one in the same.  We are now paying for it.



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