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In Defense of the Land Ethic: Essays in Environmental Philosophy.

In Defense of the Land Ethic: Essays in Environmental Philosophy

Reading this work is a little like watching someone try to baptize himself. Professor Callicott announces on numerous occasions that he is a radical thinker, a revolutionary. To him a James Vardaman represents the worst in Western materialistic culture. Along with many other frustrated people who spend most of their lives thinking, he blames the world's environmental mess (he calls it a crisis) on Western culture.

Callicott counts himself among the philosophers who believe that "nothing less than a sweeping philosophical overhaul - not just of ethics, but of the whole Western world view - is mandated." Mandated by whom? He would probably say by nature or the environment. But nature, of course, expresses no preferences - having shown equal tolerance for lifeless balls of gases as for life on earth. Only human beings write their preferences, and clearly the mandate to scrap Western culture comes from people like Callicott. Even if we might say that elephants and wolves how a clear aversion to civilization, we might also note that pigeons, sparrows, horses, squirrels, cockroaches, and flies disagree. Some animals, for romantics anyway, are more equal than others.

Like the writers of Utopian fictions, Callicott has never had to put many, if any, of his ideas to work. On a university salary it is easy to call for an end to "factory farming" and the use of pesticides and chemicals that have produced a world surplus of foods. In the abstract, it is fine to suppose that once a land ethic permeated the country, it would be "eminently practicable, since, by reference to a single good, competing individual claims may be adjudicated and relative values and priorities assigned to the myriad components of the biotic community." Such Utopian notions, when applied, have generally been the stuff not of utopias but of religious dictatorships.

It is easy to make fun of the exaggerated claims and often soft science in this book, but buried in the philosophical jargon are a few messages that we hope some better writer might elaborate. Callicott is especially interesting on "animal liberation," the movement that assigns to all sentient animals moral rights and an equal claim to life and leisure. The liberationists, who often discount endangered species, turn out to be great violators of Callicott's land ethic.

Perhaps the greatest irony of this book is that the author's hero is the wonderfully readable Aldo Leopold, author of Sand County Almanac and its still famous essay on the land ethic. Next to Leopold, however, this book is like a rutted, potholed road next to a newly paved street. The only people who will enjoy the ride are macho philosophers exercising their four-wheel-drive intellects.
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Publication:American Forests
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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