Despite the plethora of ethical theories that revolve around an anthropocentric set of values, there are still strong believers in a non-anthropocentric value set. One example of a biocentric set of values is the Land ethic. Before we break it down, however, it is important to understand what an ethic is in the ecological sense. “An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence.” This is usually contrasted with the definition of general philosophical ethics that works to “differentiate social from anti-social conduct.”
Land has been conventionally thought of as property up until the Land ethic was created by Aldo Leopold and others. Before this time, there was no ethic that dealt with man’s relation between the land, and the animals that lived on it. Aldo Leopold, author of Sand County Almanac was influenced by his work in the National Parks to consider nature and the land as something more than just property. His ideas centered around the idea that we should have holistic, eco-centric ethics regarding the land. He felt that we should value those who were good ecological citizens, rather than those who were virtuous churchgoers.
All ethics we have discussed so far have only been based on the premise that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts in which to compete in for survival, but the land ethic changes this view and prompts individuals to cooperate within the environment instead of crushing the other interdependent players. The land ethic enlarges the community that the individual must cooperate with to include soils, waters, plants and animals-not just humans. It changes the role of Homo sapiens sapiens to a citizen of Earth from a conqueror. One way to rationalize this idea is to remember that science and human thought does not have everything figured out about what makes the environment work and thus it is important to simply solidify our role as cooperating parts of the ecosystem instead of determinants of its survival.
There is one other important concept that needs to be understood to solidify people’s thoughts on the land ethic. This is the land pyramid, which is a biotic mechanism that is a symbol of land. A basic description of the land pyramid begins with the plants that absorb energy from the sun; the energy then flows through a system called a biota, or the layers of life on the pyramid from insects to birds and various other animal groups.
Each successive layer depends on those below it for food and often for other services, and each successive layer decreases in numerical abundance as well. Land is not outside of this food pyramid-it is made up of soils, plants and animals. It is also important to note that the more complex the structure of the community is, the more stable it is as well. When a change occurs in one part of the circuit then many parts must adjust themselves in order to survive, or risk going extinct as well.
In the process of finding a way to conserve the environment for all its inhabitants it is often difficult to get people to understand the importance of conservation of the environment. Although one would think that environmental education may be the solution to this lack of interest, the real answer may be simply to create empathy for the community members involved in forming our world. Education is most importantly motivated by self-interest, and so it makes sense to cultivate an empathy for the land rather than just working to teach people about it. Unfortunately, despite the growing number of governmental conservation programs that educate the public, few teach land ethics and thus no ethical obligation towards the land is instilled in the people. It is not enough to force environmental problems to become obligations-natural resources must instead be looked at as more than just mere property to boost someone’s profit margin but an extension of our community.
Bucking the trend is the government of Ecuador which, in 2010, became the first country to declare constitutional rights to nature and codified a new system of environmental protection for it. According to the new constitution, nature has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structures, functions and its processes in evolution. There are, however, shortcomings with other laws that regulate industries within Ecuador. For example, the Mining Law has loop-holes that give giant earth-movers the right to drive through indigenous communities and habitats that harbor endangered species. There is work to be done to rectify these loopholes but it shows the progress made towards a future of conservation.
Another ordinance that set historical legal precedence in terms of moving the Land ethic to prominence was put into law in Shapleigh, Maine when a town’s citizens voted to endow all of the land’s natural resources with legal rights. Although the motivation for this unusual law was to protect its aquifers from the Nestle corporation, it still helps move us forward to being a more just society. I was excited to hear about this case as it is also a giant leap ahead for the fight for Water Rights as well. Many proponents find nothing strange about gifting nonentities like streams with legal rights, as other non-humans such as ships and corporations have also been granted similar rights.
Akin to that case, animals have also been represented by lawyers in order to sue their owners for mishandling them when they are represented by other humans. For example a chimpanzee held in Gloversville, NY called Tommy was entered in a lawsuit by animal rights lawyers in order to be released from the abuse of his owner. What one lawyer, Steven Wise, perceptively pointed out was that, judging from previous cases of Habeus corpus, a legal person does not necessarily have to be a full human. On the flip side though, he has often been cited as being speciesist, or favoring one species over another, towards only animals that have proven cognitive abilities. There is also great progress, however, in countries such as Spain which extended rights to non-humans, particularly great apes, in 2008.
Despite a seemingly united front, there is a certain division, called A-B cleavage, among conservationists in their ethical treatises and the land ethic is no different. One group of conservationists regards the land as soil and its function as commodity-production while another group regards the land as biota and realizes that it has a broader function. This cleavage also exists for forestry, wildlife and agricultural fields but throughout them there exists the idea of man as a conqueror pitted against man as the biotic citizen.
Despite the seeming lack of initiative found by economists to reduce the human impact on the environment without incentive, there are still many organizations that are dedicated to aiding in environmental preservation. One example of such a group is the Society for Conservation Biology, which is an international professional organization dedicated to promoting the scientific study of the phenomena that affect the maintenance, loss, and restoration of biological diversity. Their main vision is to help create “a society where people understand, value, and conserve the diversity of life on Earth.” I think that groups like this can pave the way for a true human empathy for nature.
We are far from instilling a land ethic into our collective conscience. Most of the time conservation is motivated by the cost that would be accrued if we lose ecosystem features such as healthy soil. This view may paint predators as not of value, even though they have the ability to thin the herds of endangered species and thus conserve valued game, or it marks trees out for the count because foresters did not find them viable as timber crops.
After I attended the lecture by Fr. Eduardo Scarel, O. Carm, an atmospheric scientist and priest, I learned that although you can understand the data and mechanisms behind the ecological problems it is not guaranteed that you will appreciate the Land ethic. Fr. Scarel feels that, above all, human life is most important and does not view the Land ethic as viable. Even spiritually he maintains that Earth and the land are not divine, only God is. He is all for saving the Earth, but his motivations lie elsewhere. There are, however, societies such as The Earth Charter Initiative and the Society for Conservation Biology among others who do stand up for the inherent rights that they believe ecosystems have.
It is important not to take for granted the interdependence of ecosystem members and it is vital to let go of the notion that economics determines all land use. Conservation is a viewpoint that is full of good intentions, but looking at the underlying motivations is just as important as fulfilling the obligations invested within it.