The Land Ethic

We will breifly revisit Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic to discuss some of its implications in the debate of whether or not people should be labeled or identify as consumers or citizens in environmentalism today. This whole debate centers on the ideas of environmental citizenship and whether or not citizens as citizens should adopt the land ethic instead of maintaining an anthropocentric stance on environmental issues. Aldo Leopold’s enlightenment to the wrongs committed by man is a main focus of the idea and is revealed in “Thinking Like A Mountain.”

In the book "Thinking Like A Mountain," Aldo Leopold discussed the importance of wolves in the western United States

In the book “Thinking Like A Mountain,” Aldo Leopold discussed the importance of wolves in the western United States

When we examine whether or not we should adhere to the belief that we should use the land ethic as a guide to life we must reexamine the land ethic. Aldo Leopold in “Thinking Like A Mountain,” discusses his thoughts prior to the encounter and then how they changed. Prior to his encounter Leopold “never heard of passing up the chance to kill a wolf,” and in fact thought that killing predators would do the mountain good. He soon realized he was wrong. When he killed the wolf he saw a “fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” which was something of a religious experience for Leopold. In the end he realized that humans must become citizens of the land-community and no longer be conquerors of the role, and even discussed the impossibility of conquerors existing at all, for once a person became a conqueror then they realize what makes the community tick and in that knowledge learn that their conquests had no purposes.

Leopold’s Land Ethic is, then, a biocentric ethic that “the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts,” and that you must suppress your instincts in order to yield to your ethics in order to cooperate. Historically, this has not been the case for an environmental ethic. Legislature to prevent damage to the environment began as Aldo Leopold wrote “A Sand County Almanac” in 1949, creating a new kind of conservation movement. This new way of looking at the land changed the previous goals of conservation of land space to preservation and then environmental regulations such as the Air Pollution Control Act and many more. This work to protect the environment was fundamental in saving many Endangered Species and creating a cleaner, more sustainable future, but it was also extremely anthropocentric. Although Aldo Leopold’s work did create a new precedent for ethics to follow it was not explicitly followed in terms of its purposes. Environmental citizenship was the name of the game.

The Aldo Leopold Foundation continues to instill the Land Ethic for future generations.

The Aldo Leopold Foundation continues to instill the Land Ethic for future generations.

Environmental citizenship is the idea that each of us is an integral part of a larger ecosystem, which is a similar concept to Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic. Environmental citizens realize that their future depends on each of them embracing the challenge and acting responsibly and positively toward our environment. Aldo Leopold describes something akin to Environmental citizenship as he describes the conqueror role turning to the citizenship role.
Inherent in environmental citizenship is the idea of citizen preferences overriding the terms of consumer-survey results by economics. The idea of environmental citizenship basically, is an inherent rejection of the initiative of private citizens to take matters into their own hands. Although it would seem that Aldo Leopold would be in favor of this environmental citizenship belief he in fact created the land ethic as a response to the failings that he saw in environmental citizenship. He discovered that if there was no land ethic or other force then it was necessary to assign more obligations to the private landowner.

As an Environmental Citizen you would be participating in events such as protests, as opposed to voting with your dollar

As an Environmental Citizen you would be participating in events such as protests, as opposed to voting with your dollar

What also differentiates the Land Ethic from the environmental citizenship view is that the environmental citizenship view is considered Anthropocentric, much different from the biocentric view of the Land ethic. As explained by Andrew Dobson in Citizenship and the Environment the primary objective of environmental citizenship is preventing harm to humans which is much different than the idea of maintaining a balance in an ecosystem. Ecological citizenship, a nickname that Dobson has for environmental citizenship, is responsibility not rights or duties. In the end, environmental citizenship is not a set of universal principles because the responsibility involves culture-specific teachings of ethics, virtues and values. Seen in this way, it also makes more sense to follow the Land ethic because it is more exact and considered to be composed of legitimate principles on its own.
Others also believe that there is merit to adhering to the Land ethic, even decades later. As interviewed in the documentary on modern day Land Ethics applications Green Fire, from ranchers out west who examine the relationships between parts of the ecosystem and then apply them to their grazing fields to communities in urban areas like Chicago who foster in their children a love of nature by building up their knowledge of it and allowing them to experience it as well. In this we also see organizations such as the Children & Nature Network which looks to bring urban children to wild, open spaces. Clearly, Leopold’s land ethic has not lost its allure and it has only been made more important due to disconnectedness with the outdoors and other generational problems.

The Film, Green Fire, explores modern day applications of Leopold's Land Ethic

The Film, Green Fire, explores modern day applications of Leopold’s Land Ethic

The question that remains is whether man can choose to continue its path as a conqueror or create a new path as a citizen of the environment. Due to the complicated connections that rule our world we may always be drawn to the call of the conqueror but perhaps with ethics and a new outlook there can one day be more people who value their roles as citizens more than anything else. As Leopold said, “man is, in fact, only a member of a biotic team,” perhaps it is about time that we become true team players.


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