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Ecocentrism : The Land Ethic

Aldo Leopold (1887-1947) worked for the U.S. Forest operation. The ecologist calls these symbioses. Politics
Service before becoming the first professor of Wildlife and economics are advanced symbioses in which the
Management at the University of Wisconsin. He is original free-for-all competition has been replaced, in
considered the father of "The Land Ethic ." His main part, by cooperative mechanisms with an ethical content.
work is Sand County Almanac (1947) from which our The complexity of cooperative mechanisms has in-
selection is taken . creased with population density, and with the efficiency of
Leopold was distressed at the degradation of the tools. It was simpler, for example, to define the anti-social
environment, and argued that we must begin to realize uses of sticks and stones in the days of the mastodons than
our symbiotic relationship to Earth so that we value of bullets and billboards in the age of motors .
"the land" or biotic community for its own sake . We The first ethics dealt with the relation between indi-
must come to see ourselves, not as conquerors of the viduals; the Mosaic Decalogue is an example. Later
land but rather, as plain members and citizens of the accretions dealt with the relation between the individual
biotic community. and society. The Golden Rule tries to integrate the indi-
vidual to society; democracy to integrate social organi-
When god-like Odysseus returned from the wars in zation to the individual .
Troy, he hanged all on one rope a dozen slave-girls of There is as yet no ethic dealing with man's relation to
his household whom he suspected of misbehavior dur- land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.
ing his absence. Land, like Odysseus' slave-girls, is still property. The
This hanging involved no question of propriety. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privi-
girls were property . The disposal of property was then, leges but not obligations .
as now, a matter of expediency, not of right and wrong. The extension of ethics to this third element in
Concepts of right and wrong were not lacking from human environment is, if I read the evidence correctly,
Odysseus' Greece : witness the fidelity of his wife an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.
through the long years before at last his black-prowed It is the third step in a sequence . The first two have
galleys clove the wine-dark seas for home . The ethical already been taken. Individual thinkers since the days of
structure of that day covered wives, but had not yet been Ezekiel and Isaiah have asserted that the despoliation of
extended to human chattels . During the three thousand land is not only inexpedient but wrong. Society, how-
years which have since elapsed, ethical criteria have been ever, has not yet affirmed their belief. I regard the pres-
extended to many fields of conduct, with corresponding ent conservation movement as the embryo of such an
shrinkages in those judged by expediency only . affirmation.
An ethic may be regarded as a mode of guidance for
meeting ecological situations so new or intricate, or
The Ethical Sequence involving such deferred reactions, that the path of social
This extension of ethics, so far studied only by philoso- expediency is not discernible to the average individual .
phers, is actually a process in ecological evolution. Its Animal instincts are modes of guidance for the individ-
sequences may be described in ecological as well as in ual in meeting such situations . Ethics are possibly a kind
philosophical terms. An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation of community instinct in-the-making.
on freedom of action in the struggle for existence. An
ethic, philosophically, is a differentiation of social from
anti-social conduct. These are two definitions of one The Community Concept
thing. The thing has its origin in the tendency of interde-
pendent individuals or groups to evolve modes of co- All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that
the individual is a member of a community of interde-
pendent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for
FROM: A Sand County Almanac : And Essays on Conservation from
Round River, by Aldo Leopold. Copyright © 1949, 1953, 1966, his place in the community, but his ethics prompt him
renewed 1977, 1981 by Oxford University Press, Inc. Reprinted by also to cooperate (perhaps in order that there may be a
permission . place to compete for) .

Leopold : Ecocentrism: The Land Ethic 11 9

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the plow, fire, and ax of the pioneer, became bluegrass.
community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, What if the plant succession inherent in this dark and
or collectively: the land . bloody ground had, under the impact of these forces,
This sounds simple : do we not already sing our love for given us some worthless sedge, shrub, or weed? Would
and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the Boone and Kenton have held out? Would there have
brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? been any overflow into Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and
Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter Missouri? Any Louisiana Purchase? Any transcontinen-
downriver. Certainly not the waters, which we assume tal union of new states? Any Civil War?
have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and Kentucky was one sentence in the drama of history.
carry off sewage . Certainly not the plants, of which we We are commonly told what the human actors in this
exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. drama tried to do, but we are seldom told that their suc-
Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extir- cess, or the lack of it, hung in large degree on the reaction
pated many of the largest and most beautiful species. A of particular soils to the impact of the particular forces
land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, man- exerted by their occupancy. In the case of Kentucky, we
agement, and use of these "resources," but it does affirm do not even know where the bluegrass came from-
their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, whether it is a native species, or a stowaway from Europe .
their continued existence in a natural state. Contrast the cane-lands with what hindsight tells us
In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens about the Southwest, where the pioneers were equally
from conqueror of the land-community to plain member brave, resourceful, and persevering. The impact of occu-
and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, pancy here brought no bluegrass, or other plant fitted to
and also respect for the community as such. withstand the bumps and buffetings of hard use. This
In human history, we have learned (I hope) that the region, when grazed by livestock, reverted through a
conqueror role is eventually self-defeating . Why? sense of more and more worthless grasses, shrubs, and
Because it is implicit in such a role that the conqueror weeds to a condition of unstable equilibrium. Each
knows, ex cathedra, just what makes the community recession of plant types bred erosion; each increment to
clock tick, and just what and who is valuable, and what erosion bred a further recession of plants . The result
and who is worthless, in community life. It always turns today is a progressive and mutual deterioration, not
out that he knows neither, and this is why his conquests only of plants and soils, but of the animal community
eventually defeat themselves . subsisting thereon. The early settlers did not expect this:
In the biotic community, a parallel situation exists . on the cienegas of New Mexico some even cut ditches to
Abraham knew exactly what the Land was for: it was to hasten it. So subtle has been its progress that few resi-
drip milk and honey into Abraham's mouth. At the pres- dents of the region are aware of it. It is quite invisible to
ent moment, the assurance with which we regard this the tourist who finds this wrecked landscape colorful
assumption is inverse to the degree of our education. and charming (as indeed it is, but it bears scant resem-
The ordinary citizen today assumes that science blance to what it was in 1848).
knows what makes the community clock tick; the scien- This same landscape was "developed" once before,
tist is equally sure that he does not. He knows that the but with quite different results. The Pueblo Indians set-
biotic mechanism is so complex that its workings may tled the Southwest in pre-Columbian times, but they
never be fully understood. happened not to be equipped with range livestock. Their
That man is, in fact, only a member of a biotic team civilization expired, but not because their land expired.
is shown by an ecological interpretation of history. In India, regions devoid of any sod-forming grass
Many historical events, hitherto explained solely in have been settled, apparently without wrecking the land,
terms of human enterprise, were actually biotic interac- by the simple expedient of carrying the grass to the cow,
tions between people and land . The characteristics of the rather than vice versa. (Was this the result of some deep
land determined the facts quite as potently as the char- wisdom, or was it just good luck? I do not know.)
acteristics of the men who lived on it. In short, the plant succession steered the course of
Consider, for example, the settlement of the history; the pioneer simply demonstrated, for good or
Mississippi valley . In the years following the Revolution, ill, what successions inhered in the land . Is history
three groups were contending for its control: the native taught in this spirit? It will be, once the concept of land
Indian, the French and English traders, and the as a community really penetrates our intellectual life .
American settlers . Historians wonder what would have
happened if the English at Detroit had thrown a little
more weight into the Indian side of those tipsy scales The Ecological Conscience
which decided the outcome of the colonial migration
into the cane-lands of Kentucky . It is time now to pon- Conservation is a state of harmony between men and
der the fact that the cane-lands, when subjected to the land . Despite nearly a century of propaganda, conser-
particular mixture of forces represented by the cow, vation still proceeds at a snail's pace; progress still con-

12 0 Chapter Three: Does Nature Have Intrinsic Value? Biocentric and Ecocentric Ethics and Deep Ecology
sists largely of letterhead pieties and convention ora- existence of obligations over and above self-interest is
tory. On the back forty we still slip two steps backward taken for granted in such rural community enterprises
for each forward stride . as the betterment of roads, schools, churches, and
The usual answer to this dilemma is "more conserva- baseball teams. Their existence is not taken for
tion education." No one will debate this, but is it certain granted, nor as yet seriously discussed, in bettering the
that only the volume of education needs stepping up? Is behavior of the water that falls on the land, or in the
something lacking in the content as well? preserving of the beauty or diversity of the farm land-
It is difficult to give a fair summary of its content in scape. Land-use ethics are still governed wholly by eco-
brief form, but, as I understand it, the content is sub- nomic self-interest, just as social ethics were a century
stantially this : obey the law, vote right, join some orga- ago.
nizations, and practice what conservation is profitable To sum up : we asked the farmer to do what he con-
on your own land ; the government will do the rest . veniently could to save his soil, and he has done just
Is not this formula too easy to accomplish anything that, and only that. The farmer who clears the woods off
worthwhile? It defines no right or wrong, assigns no a 75 per cent slope, turns his cows into the clearing, and
obligation, calls for no sacrifice, implies no change in the dumps its rainfall, rocks, and soil into the community
current philosophy of values . In respect of land-use, it creek, is still (if otherwise decent) a respected member of
urges only enlightened self-interest. Just how far will society. If he puts lime on his fields and plants his crops
such education take us? An example will perhaps yield a on contour, he is still entitled to all the privileges and
partial answer . emoluments of his Soil Conservation District. The
By 1930 it had become clear to all except the eco- District is a beautiful piece of social machinery, but it is
logically blind that southwestern Wisconsin's topsoil coughing along on two cylinders because we have been
was slipping seaward. In 1933 the farmers were told too timid, and too anxious for quick success, to tell the
that if they would adopt certain remedial practices for farmer the true magnitude of his obligations.
five years, the public would donate CCC labor to Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and
install them, plus the necessary machinery and materi- the problem we face is the extension of the social con-
als. The offer was widely accepted, but the practices science from people to land.
were widely forgotten when the five-year contract No important change in ethics was ever accomplished
period was up. The farmers continued only those prac- without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis,
tices that yielded an immediate and visible economic loyalties, affections, and convictions. The proof that
gain for themselves . conservation has not yet touched these foundations of
This led to the idea that maybe farmers would learn conduct lies in the fact that philosophy and religion have
more quickly if they themselves wrote the rules. not yet heard of it. In our attempt to make conservation
Accordingly the Wisconsin Legislature in 1937 passed easy, we have made it trivial.
the Soil Conservation District Law. This said to farm-
ers, in effect : We, the public, will furnish you free tech-
nical service and loan you specialized machinery, if you Substitutes for a Land Ethic
will write your own rules for land-use . Each county
may write its own rules, and these will have the force When the logic of history hungers for bread and we
of law. Nearly all the counties promptly organized to hand out a stone, we are at pains to explain how much
accept the proffered help, but after a decade of opera- the stone resembles bread. I now describe some of the
tion, no county has yet written a single rule . There stones which serve in lieu of a land ethic.
has been visible progress in such practices as strip- One basic weakness in a conservation system based
cropping, pasture renovation, and soil liming, but none wholly on economic motives is that most members of
in fencing woodlots against grazing, and none in the land community have no economic value.
excluding plow and cow from steep slopes . The farm- Wildflowers and songbirds are examples. Of the 22,000
ers, in short, have selected those remedial practices higher plants and animals native to Wisconsin, it is
which were profitable anyhow, and ignored those doubtful whether more than 5 per cent can be sold, fed,
which were profitable to the community, but not eaten, or otherwise put to economic use. Yet these crea-
clearly profitable to themselves. tures are members of the biotic community, and if (as I
When one asks why no rules have been written, one believe) its stability depends on its integrity, they are
is told that the community is not yet ready to support entitled to continuance.
them ; education must precede rules. But the education When one of these non-economic categories is threat-
actually in progress makes no mention of obligations to ened, and if we happen to love it, we invent subterfuges
land over and above those dictated by self-interest. The to give it economic importance . At the beginning of the
net result is that we have more education but less soil, century songbirds were supposed to be disappearing.
fewer healthy woods, and as many floods as in 1937. Ornithologists jumped to the rescue with some distinctly
The puzzling aspect of such situations is that the shaky evidence to the effect that insects would eat us up

Leopold: Ecocentrism: The Land Ethic 12 1

if birds failed to control them . The evidence had to be management, park and wilderness conservation, fish-
economic in order to be valid. eries management, and migratory bird management,
It is painful to read these circumlocutions today. We with more to come. Most of this growth in governmen-
have no land ethic yet, but we have at least drawn nearer tal conservation is proper and logical, some of it is
the point of admitting that birds should continue as a inevitable . That I imply no disapproval of it is implicit in
matter of biotic right, regardless of the presence or the fact that I have spent most of my life working for it.
absence of economic advantage to us. Nevertheless the question arises : What is the ultimate
A parallel situation exists in respect of predatory magnitude of the enterprise? Will the tax base carry its
mammals, raptorial birds, and fish-eating birds. Time eventual ramifications? At what point will governmental
was when biologists somewhat overworked the evidence conservation, like the mastodon, become handicapped
that these creatures preserve the health of game by by its own dimensions? The answer, if there is any,
killing weaklings, or that they control rodents for the seems to be in a land ethic, or some other force which
farmer, or that they prey only on "worthless" species. assigns more obligation to the private landowner.
Here again, the evidence had to be economic in order to Industrial landowners and users, especially lumber-
be valid. It is only in recent years that we hear the more men and stockmen, are inclined to wail long and loudly
honest argument that predators are members of the about the extension of government ownership and regu-
community, and that no special interest has the right to lation to land, but (with notable exceptions) they show
exterminate them for the sake of a benefit, real or fan- little disposition to develop the only visible alternative:
cied, to itself . Unfortunately this enlightened view is still the voluntary practice of conservation on their own
in the talk stage. In the field the extermination of preda- lands.
tors goes merrily on: witness the impending erasure of When the private landowner is asked to perform
the timber wolf by fiat of Congress, the Conservation some unprofitable act for the good of the community,
Bureaus, and many state legislatures . he today assents only with outstretched palm. If the act
Some species of trees have been "read out of the costs him cash this is fair and proper, but when it costs
party" by economics-minded foresters because they only forethought, open-mindedness, or time, the issue is
grow too slowly, or have too low a sale value to pay as at least debatable. The overwhelming growth of
timber crops: white cedar, tamarack, cypress, beech, and land-uses subsidies in recent years must be ascribed, in
hemlock are examples . In Europe, where forestry is eco- large part, to the government's own agencies for con-
logically more advanced, the non-commercial tree servation education: the land bureaus, the agricultural
species are recognized as members of the native forest colleges, and the extension services . As far as I can
community, to be preserved as such, within reason . detect, no ethical obligation toward land is taught in
Moreover some (like beech) have been found to have a these institutions .
valuable function in building up soil fertility. The inter- To sum up : a system of conservation based solely on
dependence of the forest and its constituent tree species, economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided . It tends to
ground flora, and fauna is taken for granted. ignore, and thus eventually to eliminate, many elements
Lack of economic value is sometimes a character not in the land community that lack commercial value, but
only of species or groups, but of entire biotic communi- that are (as far as we know) essential to its healthy func-
ties : marshes, bogs, dunes, and "deserts" are examples . tioning. It assumes, falsely, I think, that the economic
Our formula in such cases is to relegate their conservation parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneco-
to government as refuges, monuments, or parks. The dif- nomic parts . It tends to relegate to government many
ficulty is that these communities are usually interspersed functions eventually too large, too complex, or too
with more valuable private lands; the government cannot widely dispersed to be performed by government .
possibly own or control such scattered parcels. The net An ethical obligation on the part of the private owner
effect is that we have relegated some of them to ultimate is the only visible remedy for these situations .
extinction over large areas. If the private owner were eco-
logically minded, he would be proud to be the custodian
of a reasonable proportion of such areas, which add The Land Pyramid
diversity and beauty to his farm and to his community.
In some instances, the assumed lack of profit in these An ethic to supplement and guide the economic relation
"waste" areas has proved to be wrong, but only after to land presupposes the existence of some mental image
most of them had been done away with. The present of land as a biotic mechanism. We can be ethical only
scramble to reflood muskrat marshes is a case in point. in relation to something we can see, feel, understand,
There is a clear tendency in American conservation to love, or otherwise have faith in.
relegate to government all necessary jobs that private The image commonly employed in conservation edu-
landowners fail to perform. Government ownership, cation is "the balance of nature ." For reasons too
operation, subsidy, or regulation is now widely preva- lengthy to detail here, this figure of speech fails to
lent in forestry, range management, soil and watershed describe accurately what little we know about the land

122 Chapter Three : Does Nature Have Intrinsic Value? Biocentric and Ecocentric Ethics and Deep Ecology
mechanism. A much truer image is the one employed in tree depends on its complex cellular organization .
ecology: the biotic pyramid. I shall first sketch the pyra- Without this complexity, normal circulation would pre-
mid as a symbol of land, and later develop some of its sumably not occur. Structure means the characteristic
implications in terms of land-use . numbers, as well as the characteristic kinds and func-
Plants absorb energy from the sun. This energy flows tions, of the component species. This interdependence
through a circuit called the biota, which may be repre- between the complex structure of the land and its smooth
sented by a pyramid consisting of layers . The bottom functioning as an energy unit is one of its basic attributes .
layer is the soil . A plant layer rests on the soil, an insect When a change occurs in one part ofthe circuit, many
layer on the plants, a bird and rodent layer on the other parts must adjust themselves to it. Change does
insects, and so on up through various animal groups to not necessarily obstruct or divert the flow of energy;
the apex layer, which consists of the larger carnivores. evolution is a longseries of self-induced changes, the net
The species of a layer are alike not in where they result of which has been to elaborate the flow mecha-
came from, or in what they look like, but rather in nism and to lengthen the circuit. Evolutionary changes,
what they eat. Each successive layer depends on those however, are usually slow and local. Man's invention of
below it for food and often for other services, and each tools has enabled him to make changes of unprece-
in turn furnishes food and services to those above. dented violence, rapidity, and scope.
Proceeding upward, each successive layer decreases in One change is in the composition of floras and fau-
numerical abundance. Thus, for every carnivore there nas . The larger predators are lopped off the apex of the
are hundreds of his prey, thousands of their prey, mil- pyramid; food chains, for the first time in history,
lions of insects, uncountable plants . The pyramidal become shorter rather than longer. Domesticated species
form of the system reflects this numerical progression from other lands are substituted for wild ones, and wild
from apex to base . Man shares an intermediate layer ones are moved to new habitats . In this world-wide
with the bears, raccoons, and squirrels which eat both pooling of faunas and floras, some species get out of
meat and vegetables. bounds as pests and diseases, others are extinguished .
The lines of dependency for food and other services Such effects are seldom intended or foreseen ; they repre-
are called food chains. Thus soil-oak-deer-Indian is a sent unpredicted and often untraceable readjustments in
chain that has now been largely converted to soil-corn- the structure. Agricultural science is largely a race
cow-farmer. Each species, including ourselves, is a link between the emergence of new pests and the emergence
in many chains . The deer eats a hundred plants other of new techniques for their control.
than oak, and the cow a hundred plants other than corn. Another change touches the flow of energy through
Both, then, are links in a hundred chains . The pyramid plants and animals and its return to the soil . Fertility is
is a tangle of chains so complex as to seem disorderly, the ability of soil to receive, store, and release energy.
yet the stability of the system proves it to be a highly Agriculture, by overdrafts on the soil, or by too radical
organized structure. Its functioning depends on the a substitution of domestic for native species in the super-
cooperation and competition of its diverse parts. structure, may derange the channels of flow or deplete
In the beginning, the pyramid of life was low and storage. Soils depleted of their storage, or of the organic
squat; the food chains short and simple . Evolution has matter which anchors it, wash away faster than they
added layer after layer, link after link. Man is one of form. This is erosion.
thousands of accretions to the height and complexity of Waters, like soil, are part of the energy circuit.
the pyramid. Science has given us many doubts, but it Industry, by polluting waters or obstructing them with
has given us at least one certainty: the trend of evolution dams, may exclude the plants and animals necessary to
is to elaborate and diversify the biota. keep energy in circulation.
Land, then, is not merely soil ; it is a fountain of Transportation brings about another basic change:
energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and ani- the plants or animals grown in one region are now con-
mals . Food chains are the living channels which conduct sumed and returned to the soil in another. Transpor-
energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil . The tation taps the energy stored in rocks, and in the air, and
circuit is not closed; some energy is dissipated in decay, uses it elsewhere; thus we fertilize the garden with nitro-
some is added by absorption from the air, some is stored gen gleaned by the guano birds from the fishes of seas on
in soils, peats, and long-lived forests; but it is a sustained the other side of the Equator. Thus the formerly local-
circuit, like a slowly augmented revolving fund of life. ized and self-contained circuits are pooled on a
There is always a net loss by downhill wash, but this is world-wide scale.
normally small and offset by the decay of rocks. It is The process of altering the pyramid for human occu-
deposited in the ocean and, in the course of geological pation releases stored energy, and this often gives rise,
time, raised to form new lands and new pyramids . during the pioneering period, to a deceptive exuberance
The velocity and character of the upward flow of of plant and animal life, both wild and tame. These
energy depend on the complex structure of the plant and releases of biotic capital tend to becloud or postpone the
animal community, much as the upward flow of sap in a penalties of violence.

Leopold: Ecocentrism : The Land Ethic 12 3

This thumbnail sketch of land as an energy circuit short. In our own West, the best of them may not last a
conveys three basic ideas: century.
The combined evidence of history and ecology seems
1 . That land is not merely soil .
to support one general deduction: the less violent the
2. That the native plants and animals kept the energy
man-made changes, the greater the probability of suc-
circuit open ; others may or may not. cessful readjustment in the pyramid. Violence, in turn,
3. That man-made changes are of a different order than varies with human population density; a dense popula-
evolutionary changes, and have effects more com- tion requires a more violent conversion . In this respect,
prehensive than is intended or foreseen . North America has a better chance for permanence than
These ideas, collectively, raise two basic issues : Can Europe, if she can contrive to limit her density.
the land adjust itself to the new order? Can the desired This deduction runs counter to our current philoso-
alterations be accomplished with less violence? phy, which assumes that because a small increase in den-
Biotas seem to differ in their capacity to sustain vio- sity enriched human life, that an indefinite increase will
lent conversion . Western Europe, for example, carries a enrich it indefinitely. Ecology knows of no density rela-
far different pyramid than Caesar found there. Some tionship that holds for indefinitely wide limits . All gains
large animals are lost; swampy forests have become from density are subject to a law of diminishing returns.
meadows or plowland; many new plants and animals Whatever may be the equation for men and land, it is
are introduced, some of which escape as pests; the improbable that we as yet know all its terms. Recent dis-
remaining natives are greatly changed in distribution coveries in mineral and vitamin nutrition reveal unsus-
and abundance. Yet the soil is still there and, with the pected dependencies in the up-circuit : incredibly minute
help of imported nutrients, still fertile; and waters flow quantities of certain substances determine the value
normally ; the new structure seems to function and to of soils to plants, of plants to animals. What of the
persist. There is no visible stoppage or derangement of down-circuit? What of the vanishing species, the preser-
the circuit. vation of which we now regard as an esthetic luxury?
Western Europe, then, has a resistant biota. Its inner They helped build the soil; in what unsuspected ways
processes are tough, elastic, resistant to strain . No mat- may they be essential to its maintenance? Professor
ter how violent the alterations, the pyramid, so far, has Weaver proposes that we use prairie flowers to reflocu-
developed some new modus vivendi which preserves its late the wasting soils of the dust bowl; who knows for
habitability for man, and for most of the other natives. what purpose cranes and condors, otters and grizzlies
Japan seems to present another instance of radical may some day be used?
conversion without disorganization.
Most other civilized regions, and some as yet barely
touched by civilization, display various stages of disor- Land Health and
ganization, varying from initial symptoms to advanced the A-B Cleavage
wastage. In Asia Minor and North Africa diagnosis is
confused by climatic changes, which may have been A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecologi-
either the cause or the effect of advanced wastage. In cal conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of
the United States the degree of disorganization varies individual responsibility for the health of the land .
locally; it is worst in the Southwest, the Ozarks, and Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal .
parts of the South, and least in New England and the Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve
Northwest. Better land-uses may still arrest it in the less this capacity .
advanced regions. In parts of Mexico, South America, Conservationists are notorious for their dissensions.
South Africa, and Australia a violent and accelerating Superficially these seem to add up to mere confusion,
wastage is in progress, but I cannot assess the prospects. but a more careful scrutiny reveals a single plane of
This almost world-wide display of disorganization in cleavage common to many specialized fields . In each
the land seems to be similar to disease in an animal, field one group (A) regards the land as soil, and its func-
except that it never culminates in complete disorganiza- tion as commodity-production ; another group (B)
tion or death. The land recovers, but at some reduced regards the land as a biota, and its function as something
level of complexity, and with a reduced carrying capac- broader. How much broader is admittedly in a state of
ity for people, plants, and animals. Many biotas cur- doubt and confusion.
rently regarded as "lands of opportunity" are in fact In my own field, forestry, group A is quite content to
already subsisting on exploitative agriculture, i.e. they grow trees like cabbages, with cellulose as the basic for-
have already exceeded their sustained carrying capacity . est commodity. It feels no inhibition against violence ; its
Most of South America is overpopulated in this sense. ideology is agronomic. Group B, on the other hand, sees
In arid regions we attempt to offset the process of forestry as fundamentally different from agronomy
wastage by reclamation, but it is only too evident that because it employs natural species, and manages a nat-
the prospective longevity of reclamation projects is often ural environment rather than creating an artificial one.

12 4 Chapter Three : Does Nature Have Intrinsic Value? Biocentric and Ecocentric Ethics and Deep Ecology
Group B prefers natural reproduction on principle. It injunction to Tristram may well be applied, at this junc-
worries on biotic as well as economic grounds about the ture, to Homo sapiens as a species in geological time :
loss of species like chestnut, and the threatened loss of
the white pines. It worries about a whole series of sec- Whether you will or not
ondary forest functions : wildlife, recreation, watersheds, You are a King, Tristram, for you are one
wilderness areas. To my mind, Group B feels the stir- Of the time-tested few that leave the world,
rings of an ecological conscience . When they are gone, not the same place it was.
In the wildlife field, a parallel cleavage exists . For Mark what you leave.
Group A the basic commodities are sport and meat; the
yardsticks of production are ciphers of take in pheasants
and trout. Artificial propagation is acceptable as a per- The Outlook
manent as well as a temporary recourse-if its unit costs
permit. Group B, on the other hand, worries about a It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land
whole series of biotic side-issues. What is the cost in can exist without love, respect, and admiration for
predators of producing a game crop? Should we have land, and a high regard for its value. By value, I of
further recourse to exotics? How can management course mean something far broader than mere eco-
restore the shrinking species, like prairie grouse, already nomic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense.
hopeless as shootable game? How can management Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolu-
restore the threatened rarities, like trumpeter swan and tion of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and
whooping crane? Can management principles be economic system is headed away from, rather than
extended to wildflowers? Here again it is clear to me toward, an intense consciousness of land. Your true
that we have the same A-B cleavage as in forestry. modern is separated from the land by many middlemen,
In the larger field of agriculture I am less competent and by innumerable physical gadgets. He has no vital
to speak, but there seem to be somewhat parallel cleav- relation to it; to him it is the space between cities on
ages . Scientific agriculture was actively developing which crops grow. Turn him loose for a day on the land,
before ecology was born, hence a slower penetration of and if the spot does not happen to be a golf links or a
ecological concepts might be expected . Moreover the "scenic" area, he is bored stiff. If crops could be raised by
farmer, by the very nature of his techniques, must mod- hydroponics instead of farming, it would suit him very
ify the biota more radically than the forester or the well. Synthetic substitutes for wood, leather, wool, and
wildlife manager. Nevertheless, there are many discon- other natural land products suit him better than the orig-
tents in agriculture which seem to add up to a new vision inals. In short, land is something he has "outgrown."
of "biotic farming." Almost equally serious as an obstacle to a land ethic
Perhaps the most important of these is the new evi- is the attitude of the farmer for whom the land is still an
dence that poundage or tonnage is no measure of the adversary, or a taskmaster that keeps him in slavery.
food-value of farm crops; the products of fertile soil may Theoretically, the mechanization of farming ought to
be qualitatively as well as quantitatively superior . We cut the farmer's chains, but whether it really does is
can bolster poundage from depleted soils by pouring on debatable.
imported fertility, but we are not necessarily bolstering One of the requisites for an ecological comprehension
food-value . The possible ultimate ramifications of this of land is an understanding of ecology, and this is by no
idea are so immense that I must leave their exposition to means co-extensive with "education"; in fact, much
abler pens . higher education seems deliberately to avoid ecological
The discontent that labels itself "organic farming," concepts. An understanding of ecology does not neces-
while bearing some of the earmarks of a cult, is never- sarily originate in courses bearing ecological labels ; it is
theless biotic in its direction, particularly in its insistence quite as likely to be labeled geography, botany, agron-
on the importance of soil flora and fauna . omy, history, or economics . This is as it should be, but
The ecological fundamentals of agriculture are just as whatever the label, ecological training is scarce.
poorly known to the public as in other fields of land-use . The case for a land ethic would appear hopeless but
For example, few educated people realize that the mar- for the minority which is in obvious revolt against these
velous advances in technique made during recent "modern" trends .
decades are improvements in the pump, rather than the The "key-log" which must be moved to release the
well. Acre for acre, they have barely sufficed to offset the evolutionary process for an ethic is simply this: quit
sinking level of fertility. thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic
In all of these cleavages, we see repeated the same problem. Examine each question in terms of what is eth-
basic paradoxes: man the conqueror versus man the ically and esthetically right, as well as what is economi-
biotic citizen; science the sharpener of his sword versus cally expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve
science the searchlight on his universe; land the slave and the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic commu-
servant versus land the collective organism . Robinson's nity . It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

Leopold: Ecocentrism: The Land Ethic 125

It of course goes without saying that economic feasi- that as the ethical frontier advances from the individual
bility limits the tether of what can or cannot be done for to the community, its intellectual content increases.
land. It always has and it always will. The fallacy the The mechanism of operation is the same for any
economic determinists have tied around our collective ethic: social approbation for right actions, social disap-
neck, and which we now need to cast off, is the belief proval for wrong actions .
that economics determines all land-use . This is simply By and large, our present problem is one of attitudes
not true. An innumerable host of actions and attitudes, and implements. We are remodeling the Alhambra with
comprising perhaps the bulk of all land relations, is a steamshovel, and we are proud of our yardage . We
determined by the land-users' tastes and predilections, shall hardly relinquish the shovel, which after all has
rather than by his purse . The bulk of all land relations many good points, but we are in need of gentler and
hinges on investments of time, forethought, skill, and more objective criteria for its successful use .
faith rather than on investments of cash. As a land-user
thinketh, so is he. Study Questions
I have purposely presented the land ethic as a product 1 . Does Leopold make a case for the intrinsic value of the
of social evolution because nothing so important as an biotic community, or does he only assume this?
ethic is ever "written." Only the most superficial student 2. Analyze Leopold's view of humans and of biotic com-
of history supposes that Moses "wrote" the Decalogue; munities. How do we resolve conflicts between their
it evolved in the minds of a thinking community, and claims and needs? Which are more important, ecosys-
Moses wrote a tentative summary of it for a "seminar." tems or individuals?
I say tentative because evolution never stops . 3. Critically discuss the strengths and weaknesses of
The evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as well Leopold's position.
as emotional process . Conservation is paved with good 4. Leopold makes two fundamental claims of the American
intentions which prove to be futile, or even dangerous, conservation movement. What are they? Has American
because they are devoid of critical understanding either environmentalism moved in the direction that Leopold
of the land, or of economic land-use . I think it is a truism advocated?

The Conceptual Foundations of the Land Ethic

J. Baird Callicott (b. 1941) is professor of philosophy Just as important, however, as the origin of plants, ani-
and natural resources at the University o f Wisconsin, mals, and soil is the question of how they operate as a
Stevens Point, and the author of several works in envi- community. That task has fallen to the new science of
ronmental philosophy, including In Defense of the Land ecology, which is daily uncovering a web of interdepen-
Ethic (1989) from which this essay is taken . dencies so intricate as to amaze-were he here-even
Callicott develops the philosophical implications of Darwin himself, who, of all men, should have least cause
Leopold's land ethic. He shows how it is rooted in the to tremble before the veil.
eighteenth-century Scottish Sentimentalist School o f ALDO LEOPOLD, FRAGMENT
David Hume and Adam Smith, who said that ethics is 61316, NO . 36, LEOPOLD
based in natural sympathy or sentiments. Leopold, PAPERS, UNIVERSITY OF
adding a Darwinian dimension to these thoughts, WISCONSIN-MADISON
extended the notion of natural sentiments to ecosystems ARCHIVES
as the locus of value. Callicott argues that Leopold is
not claiming that we should sacrifice basic human needs
to the environment, but rather that we should see our-
selves as members o f a wider ecological community.
The two great cultural advances of the past century were As Wallace Stegner observes, A Sand County Almanac
the Darwinian theory and the development of geology. . . . is considered "almost a holy book in conservation cir-
cles," and Aldo Leopold a prophet, "an American
Isaiah ." And as Curt Meine points out, "The Land
Reprinted from Companion to a Sand County Almanac (Madison :
WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987) by permission . Footnotes Ethic" is the climactic essay of Sand County, "the
deleted. Page numbers in this selection refer to Aldo Leopold's Sand upshot of `The Upshot."' One might, therefore, fairly
County Almanac (Oxford University Press, 1949). say that the recommendation and justification of moral

126 Chapter Three: Does Nature Have Intrinsic Value? Biocentric and Ecocentric Ethics and Deep Ecology