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Aldo Leopold: the land ethic.

The land ethic is not simply an argument in favor of conservation of nature, as it has often been considered, but represents an ethical viewpoint towards the land and its plants and animals. Some people have considered that this has influenced the fundamentalist ideas of "deep ecology." In fact, his biocentrism led Aldo Leopold to try to "think like a mountain" and to extend ethical considerations to respect for the "land" in general, and in particular towards all living things. Unlike some present day fundamentalists, Leopold was not against exploiting plants and animals, but did consider that they have a right to existence, and that they should not disappear.

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the [ethical] community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively: the land.

This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter downriver. 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 eyelid. 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.

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.

In human history, we have learned (I hope) that the conqueror role is eventually self-defeating. Why? Because it is implicit in such a role that the conqueror knows, ex cathedra, just what makes the community clock tick, and just what and who is valuable, and what and who is worthless, in community life. It always turns out that he knows neither, and this is why his conquests eventually defeat themselves.

In the biotic community, a similar situation exists. Abraham knew exactly what the land was for: it was to drip milk and honey into Abraham's mouth. At the present moment, the assurance with which we regard this assumption is inverse to the degree of our education.

"The Land Ethic." Reproduced from A Sand County Almanac: Sketches Here and There, by Aldo Leopold (1949). Special commemorative edition, with the permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.

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Publication:Encyclopedia of the Biosphere
Article Type:Excerpt
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2000
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