Land Ethic for Don

Posted on March 12, 2012

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Prompted by the funeral for forester and mountaineer Don Slocum who we farewelled today, I’ve been thinking about Leopold’s Land Ethic. In 1948 Aldo Leopold published the Sand County Almanac. In it he recognised that our ethics are derived from a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. While his (sic) instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate. So the first ethic describes interactions as individuals, and the second ethic integrates individual to society. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.

When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man.

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.

We might see this as self evident, but Leopold argues that this is too easy to say:

Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter down river. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state.

This mankind being part of a wider community is clearly expressed in Lovelock’s Gaia, and land having value in its own right in Deep Ecology. The love for the “Wilderness” is also still strong (although perhaps now tempered by the realisation from Landscape Ecology that there is no such thing as a separate pure wilderness – rather we are all part of a total human ecosystem).

The complexity of co-operative mechanisms has increased with population density, and with the efficiency of tools. It was simpler, for example, to define the anti-social uses of sticks and stones in the days of the mastodons than of bullets and billboards in the age of motors.

In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.

By and large, our present problem is one of attitudes and implements. We are remodeling the Alhambra with a steam shovel, and we are proud of our yardage. We shall hardly relinquish the shovel, which after all has many good points, but we are in need of gentler and more objective criteria for its successful use.

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