Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Land Ethic

Aldo Leopold was born in 1887 and spend his childhood exploring the Mississippi River valley that dominated his hometown of Burlington Iowa.  He moved out east as he entered adulthood where he enrolled in the Yale Forestry school where he got a master’s degree in forestry.  From their he got his first job working for the newly formed U.S. Forest Service and moved to the Southwest in New Mexico where he become supervisor of the Carson National Forest.  Eventually Leopold and his family moved back to the Midwest, to Madison Wisconsin.  In Madison, he eventually went to work for the University of Wisconsin where he taught Game Management.  

The Leopold family purchased an abandoned farm in Sauk County on the banks of the Wisconsin River where they converted an old chicken coop into what would affectionately become known by the family as the “shack” – the place where the family would retreat to and spend time restoring the land that had been degraded by previous land use practices.  It was from his lifetime of experiences of living and working with the land that Leopold based his book THE SAND COUNTYALMANAC on.  

The ALMANAC is a collection of essays Leopold had written.  In Part I – The Sand County Almanac, he shares writings from his time at the “shack”.  Part II – The Quality of Landscape, is a collection of experiences from the various places he lived, worked and played throughout his life.  The essays in Part III – A Taste for Country, are a synthesis of the previous two parts that explain how there is more to land than simply providing us a place to spend our leisure time and that by paying attention to the land there is much we can learn.   And the concluding Part IV – The Upshot, is where Leopold brings it all together to explain his ideas about why our culture needs to develop a land ethic and what that ethic entailed.  It is perhaps a poetic tragedy that Leopold died from a heart attack helping a neighbor fight a wild fire next to the “shack” property in 1948, before the ALMANAC was published in 1949. 

Some excerpts from The Upshot follow.   

When god-like Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy, he hanged all on one rope a dozen slave-girls of his house-hold, whom he suspected of misbehavior during his absence.  This hanging involved no question of propriety. The girls were property. The disposal of property was then, as now, a matter of expediency, not of right and wrong.

An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom action in the struggle for existence. An ethic, philosophically is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct.

There is as yet no ethic dealing with man's relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. Land, like Odysseus' slave-girls, is still property. The land relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but no obligations.

All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).
In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.

One basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives is that most members of the land community have no economic value. 
To sum up: a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided. It tends to ignore, and thus eventually to eliminate, many elements in the land community that lack commercial value, but that are (as far as we know) essential to its healthy functioning. It assumes, falsely, I think, that the economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts. It tends to relegate to government many functions eventually too large, too complex, or too widely dispersed to be performed by government.

We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.

Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals. Food chains are the living channels which conduct energy up ward; death and decay return it to the soil. The circuit is not closed; some energy is dissipated in decay, some is added by absorption from the air, some is stored in soils, peats, and long-lived forests; but it is a sustained circuit, like a slowly augmented revolving fund of life. There is always a net loss by downhill wash, but this is normally small and offset by the decay of rocks. It is deposited in the ocean and, in the course of geological time, raised to form new lands and new pyramids.

A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.

It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land and a high regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense.

The 'key-log' which must be moved to release the evolutionary process for an ethic is simply this: quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

The mechanism of operation is the same for any ethic: social approbation for right actions: social disapproval for wrong actions.