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Leopold Land Ethic Essay

Wallace Stegner

Daniel Boone's reaction [to the outdoors] depended not only on the quality of what he saw, but on the quality of the mental eye with which he saw it. Ecological science has wrought a change in the mental eye. It has disclosed origins and functions for what to Boone were only facts. It has disclosed mechanisms for what to Boone were only attributes.... We may safely say that, as compared with the competent ecologist of the present day, Boone saw only the surface of things...


1) "Land" (which we would now call an "ecosystem") is a system of interdependent parts: best regarded as a "community," not a "commodity."


In a strict sense, I submit that the analytic philosophers are correct: it is a basic rule of logic that one cannot validly introduce into a conclusion terms and concepts that are absent from the premises. Accordingly, one cannot derive "oughts" from "is-es," values from facts, prescriptions from descriptions. Philosophers have come to call such attempts "the naturalistic fallacy."


This maxim, ignored throughout most of the history of Western civilization, has recently become common knowledge. It has echoed throughout the world, even within the walls of the Kremlin, as Mikhail Gorbachov proclaimed: " , ... ." "Humanity is part of the biosphere, and ... the biosphere is an integrated whole."

A fanciful thought experiment might illustrate the difficulties with such an approach. Suppose our bodily organs were conscious and deliberative. One might imagine a "selfish kidney" saying, "look, why should I care about the heart and lungs? Me and my buddy kidney have our own problems?" To which the heart might respond, "Oh yeah? If that's the way you feel, I'll just do my thing and the Hell with you?" Needless to say, you wouldn't want to be carrying a life insurance policy on that body.

While the concept of the "healthy land" is implicit, and occasionally explicit, throughout A Sand County Almanac, Leopold takes little trouble in either defining this concept or defending its desirability.

But why should the systemic 'health' of the ecosystem be of interest to the human beings? Because, of course, our personal health is inextricably tied in with the health of the ecosystem. We'd better take care of the ecosystem if we know what's good for us. But that's simply anthropocentrism writ large. And, of course, Leopold wants much more than that: not mere "enlightened self-interest," but affirmation and love. For, as Joseph Wood Krutch writes, in behalf of Leopold: "We must live for something besides making a living. If we do not permit the earth to produce beauty and joy, it will in the end not produce food either... Unless somebody teaches love, there can be no ultimate protection to what is lusted after."

... the best environment is one in which the human animal can have maximum contact with the type of natural environment in which it evolved and for which it is genetically programmed without sacrificing the major advantages of civilization... Every basic adaptation of the human body, be it the ear, the eye, the brain, yes, even our psyche, demands for proper functioning, access to an environment similar, at least, to the one in which these structures evolved through natural selection over the past 100 million years.

It is an intriguing hypothesis, to be sure, and not without some nagging problems. How, for example, are we to explain such notorious naturophobes as Ronald Reagan's Interior Secretary, James Watt, and that quintessential urbanite, Woody Allen? Despite such puzzling counterexamples, I suggest that there is at least something to the hypothesis -- that, to use Paul Shepard's vivid image, the destruction of nature is an "amputation of man."

It remains to be determined just how much we can live in a totally artificial environment, detached from the environment that selected our genes and shaped our genome, without going bonkers. I will only suggest that amongst those genes that hard-wire our nervous system, are a few that dispose us toward having positive "natural sentiments" of affirmation toward undisturbed nature, and conversely, to suffer when deprived of our primeval landscapes. From this "biophilic" nervous system has issued the great works of art, literature and science that celebrate nature. Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony," Debussy's La Mer, Van Gogh's Starry Night, Thoreau's Walden, Ed Abbey's Desert Solitaire, Sigurd Olson's The Singing Wilderness, and, of course, Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac -- all are voices of nature speaking back to us and through us.

The wisest, the most enlightened, the most remotely long-seeing exploitation of resources is not enough, for the simple reason that the whole concept of exploitation is so false and so limited that in the end it will defeat itself and the earth will have been plundered, no matter how scientifically and far-seeingly the plundering has been done.

To live healthily and successfully on the land, we must also live with it. We must be part not only of the human community, we must acknowledge some sort of oneness, not only with our neighbors, our countrymen and our civilization, but also with the natural as well as the man-made community.

"Ecological thinking," writes Holmes Rolston, "leads us to silent wonder and affirmation."

As authentic lovers, we cherish nature, not for ourselves, but for its own sake. Thus do we affirm the "health of nature," as a good for ourselves. The ethical foundation of the Land Ethic is thus complete.

The enduring strength and significance of Leopold's work lies in the fact that his literary grace and his philosophical vision are grounded in hard and compelling science: ecology. Through this science alone we may gain understanding -- all too often, coldly and impersonally. Add moral philosophy and we might literally comprehend (meaning "bring together," "encompass") and appreciate the facts, laws and theories yielded by science. Leopold's Land Ethic transforms the science of ecology into a world-view, and thus the grounds for a guide to conduct -- which is to say, an ethic. "That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology," he writes, "but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics."

As it happens, Leopold was not simply out of step with his philosophical contemporaries, he was ahead of them. And now, at last, moral Philosophy has caught up with him. As few philosophers would or could recognize in the thirties and forties, ethics cannot be reduced to simple emotions or acts of will of the individual. For to seek "meaning" in ethics from such a perspective makes as much sense as the statement, "move that horse-head piece two squares forward and one square left," detached from knowledge of the placement of the other pieces, and of the rules and objectives of the game of chess. Now we have come to realize that moral philosophy must be grounded in an "ecology" of relationships, expectations, sentiments, and requirements, so that, as the ecologist Garrett Hardin puts it, "the morality of an act is a function of the state of the system."

In fact, the progress of the Almanac, from particular observations at his Sauk County farm, to generalizations from his North American travels, to "the Upshot," his summary concepts and precepts, is built, not upon controlled experiments and structured arguments, but upon anecdotes and impressions. Accordingly, to those who fail to understand Leopold's method and grasp his objective, Almanac is weak science and unrefined philosophy.

Not bad for a Wisconsin professor, who claimed he was just writing for himself and his friends, as he jotted down his sketches sipping coffee by "the shack," while the dawn crept across the meadow of his farm.

17. In an unpublished earlier version of the Foreword to A Sand County Almanac, Leopold wrote: "These essays were written for myself and my close friends, but I suspect that we are not alone in our discontent with the ecological status quo." Published in J. Baird Callicott (ed.), Companion to A Sand County Almanac, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987, p. 288.

Published in 1949 as the finale to A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic” essay is a call for moral responsibility to the natural world. At its core, the idea of a land ethic is simply caring: about people, about land, and about strengthening the relationships between them.

What are Ethics?

Fundamentally grounded in values, ethics are a moral sense of right and wrong. Ethics are demonstrated by the way people live their lives: When a person cares about someone or something, their actions convey that care and respect, and invite the same in return.

“When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

What is a Land Ethic?

Ethics direct all members of a community to treat one another with respect for the mutual benefit of all. A land ethic expands the definition of “community” to include not only humans, but all of the other parts of the Earth, as well: soils, waters, plants, and animals, or what Leopold called “the land.”

In Leopold’s vision of a land ethic, the relationships between people and land are intertwined: care for people cannot be separated from care for the land. A land ethic is a moral code of conduct that grows out of these interconnected caring relationships.

Leopold did not define the land ethic with a litany of rights and wrongs in A Sand County Almanac. Instead, he presented it as a set of values that naturally grew out of his lifetime of experiences in the outdoors. Leopold wrote that “we can only be ethical in relation to something we can see, understand, feel, love, or otherwise have faith in.”

He believed that direct contact with the natural world was crucial in shaping our ability to extend our ethics beyond our own self-interest. He hoped his essays would inspire others to embark or continue on a similar lifelong journey of outdoor exploration, developing an ethic of care that would grow out of their own close personal connection to nature.

Evolution in a Thinking Community

Leopold recognized that his dream of a widely accepted and implemented set of values based on caring – for people, for land, and for all the connections between them – would have to “evolve… in the minds of a thinking community.”

We are all part of the thinking community that needs to shape a land ethic for the 21st century and beyond. To do that, we must engage in thoughtful dialog with each other, inviting a diversity of perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds. Together, we can form a land ethic that can be passed down to future generations.

Download a list of Land Ethic Additional Readings in printable PDF format:


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