Reflections on ‘The Land Ethic’

Kate Gardner
Biology 1120-Sp17
The Land Ethic, written by Aldo Leopold in 1949, a classic of the modern conservation effort

presented a new approach and potential solution to the struggling conservation efforts in the

United States; an approach which aspired to shift the anthropocentric focus to one that includes

humans as part of the environment who are in need of defining an ethical relationship with the

land. Once an ethical relationship with the land is defined and accepted; conservation work will

persist.

Leopold begins building his idea of a ‘land ethic’ with a discussion of ethics. He

explains that over the past millennia, ethics has evolved to include the relationships between

individuals as well as the relationship between an individual and society. Leopold argues it is

imperative that ethics expand to include the relationship between individual and land as we are

members of the land itself.

Leopold then targets the effectiveness of conservation, and makes clear that it is simply

ineffective for a two main reasons; the first being education, the second being the tendency of

western culture to place economic value on ecosystems. The solutions to these two hindrances is

the acceptance of a land ethic. Leopold supports this by discussing the situation of education

during that present time; “No one will debate [more conservation education], but is it certain that

only the volume of education needs stepping up? Is something lacking in the content as well?...

the education actually in progress makes no mention of obligations to land over and above those

dictated by self-interest. The net result is that we have more education but less soil, fewer

healthy woods, and as many floods as in 1937.” It is only through changing the way we view

our relationship with the land that we will create an education and economic system which will

further conservation efforts and reach the end goal of creating the “state of harmony between

men and land”.
As the daughter of a farmer who spent her formative years nurturing and studying plants,

my personal conservation beliefs have grown over time from what Leopold would describe as an

‘Abrahamic’ view, to one that aligns more closely with Leopold’s own view- we are functioning

parts of every ecosystem we live in; and we are indebted to the earth for what it provides.

Conservation not only will prolong the human race, but it is needed to protect the organisms and

landscapes which are valuable in spite of the monetary value we place on them. My beliefs

evolved as my experience with nature became more intimate and mature each year; it was

exhilarating in my youth to witness rather inconspicuous seeds develop into fruitful organisms,

capable of living on their own. It was easy to fall into the belief that I had power over these

creatures; that I made them grow and produce. However, the more I studied the organisms

themselves, the more I realized my power over them was close to nonexistent. These plants

provide for me, and I should provide for and protect them.

Leopold wrote, “A land ethic changes the role of humans from conqueror of the land

community to plain members and citizens of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and

also respect for the community as such.” Applying the land ethic is not a straightforward task.

One cannot simply enforce respect or push legislation to achieve all following a certain ethic. In

order to apply this ethic, a change in culture and thinking would be necessary. Western culture

has an ideal that focuses on humanity’s ownership of land and private property in general. The

concept of a shared land community in regards to land is almost foreign to western culture.

However, with a willing community to adhere to the ethic, it would be possible to enact

sustainable resource-gathering practices from the land while not causing long-term damage to

ecosystems and create a balance between human need and natural need. If logs are harvested,
trees must be planted in a sustainable rate and not taken from the same area when possible and

proper maintenance of soil and water resources to prevent over-farming and harvesting.

Nearly 80 years have passed since Leopold wrote The Land Ethic, but our relationship

with the land is arguably similar to what it was. While far more environmental protections have

been enacted and conservation has become more prevalent in education of today, an ethical

relationship with the land continues to be halted by an issue Leopold addressed; a lack of

personal obligation or sense of responsibility toward conservation or use of land. Events such as

the creation of the EPA in 1970 have helped us bring to light and discontinue many harmful

practices, but the overwhelming responsibility of environmental protection continues to be

placed upon the government.

Leopold mentioned that the land ethic is extending a community’s sensibilities to all

members of the community, nonhuman as well as human. For my community, as well as my life,

applying this would mean treating the nonhuman entities in the community just as we currently

respect the rights of humans. Ethically, we should not steal from humans, so we should not steal

from other members of the community. If we take the seeds or fruits of a plant, we must return

something in value by planting some seeds or giving more nutrients to the plant to make up for

it. If we take the wood of a tree, we must plant another tree. For animals, we cannot abuse them

for their meat, their fur, or other things- rather we need to rely on the inputs they place into the

ecosystem already. If we take a life of an animal out of our own need, we must be mindful to be

respectful by only taking what is necessary and not wasting. Ultimately, humans must be in sync

with the surrounding ecosystem, and view ourselves as members of it, rather than outsiders.

Another critical passage from the The Land Ethic states,”It is inconceivable to me that an

ethical relationship [with land] can exist without love, respect, admiration, and a high regard for
its value.” This suggests that Leopold believed the integrity of the biotic community superseded

the concerns of its individual members. The implications of this is, unlike how the current

human-dominated world works, the comfort of humans is not guaranteed. Essentially, humans

currently take anything they need from the land and the ecosystem to secure vast comforts for the

individuals in the community, sometimes with great disparity, with the land suffering a great

deal. Including land-use in our ethic, individual members, primarily humans, cannot lord over

resources to ensure a comfort level that abuses others in the community. If certain members

must go without in order for the land to be kept healthy, fair, and sustainable, then that will be

required of them.

The above quote poses the question of what drives me in committing to the land ethic,

duty or beauty? Thinking this over, it is beauty which motivates me. Humans, at the core, are

emotional creatures, and I feel strongly about nature when I see its untamed splendor. From our

National Parks to my rather unimpressive garden at home, I feel blessed to witness the gifts that

nature has provided me personally over centuries of enduring and evolving on this planet.

Humans have the ability to create art, but it is often a mere interpretation of what they witness in

nature. The beauty of our natural world has taught me of the intrinsic value it holds.

In my personal land ethic, it emanates from a true interest in non-human elements.

Although being in harmony with the environment and the land certainly benefits my health and

well-being for the future, I personally have felt a strong connection with plants and animals since

I was very young. I have a strong bond with my garden, the plants in it, and the pets I have.

When they are in need of help, I feel a natural urge to lend a hand without a thought. The

intrinsic urge primarily comes from the culture of my family as well as my personal experiences

in my life up to this point that pushes me to feel an ethical and mutual bond with non-human
elements. Much in the current culture is driven from self-interest already, so I don’t feel the

urgent need to commit to my land ethic based on that. It is my feelings for the non-human

elements that pushed me in this direction.

The Land Ethic is a piece of literature that I look forward to continuously studying, even

after this assignment is completed. It was no surprise that Leopold’s argument for building an

ethical relationship with the land resounded strongly with me. His critique of the ideology of

western society regarding land use are all thoughts I have had previous to studying this writing,

and it was refreshing to have somebody much more eloquent than I put these thoughts into

words. However, after all of the criticism and dialogue regarding the flaws of the current

approach to conservation and land use, I was disappointed to find that there was no tangible plan

of action or rather any sort of suggestion for how to approach the issues Leopold so eagerly

exposed. While specific solutions may certainly not have been the purpose of this work, I

believe they would have been beneficial.

Regardless of the lack of solid solutions, Leopold’s philosophies did shape my thinking.

When I began reading this work I already felt strongly regarding the treatment and preservation

of nature and was undergoing a transition in my view of man’s relation to the land. I still held to

the idea that man was superior to the land, but land certainly had value that was not given by

man. After reading, my view of human-land relation has been altered greatly to something in

line with what Leopold argues; man is a part of land, and because of this we have an obligation

to treat it as we would other humans. While I certainly would not credit Leopold alone with

changing my thinking, The Land Ethic was very influential on shaping my current belief.
The Land Ethic is a piece I anticipate coming back to and referencing in my life going forward,

especially as I plan to become a botanist. I feel it is imperative to building an ethical relationship

with the land, and I look forward to sharing the insight I gained from this work with others as it

will take a coordinated effort to put into place practical solutions that respect the land.