The case for a Land Ethic

This post was first published at on Mar 08, 2011.

“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.”
—Aldo Leopold
Over the past couple months, I have been thinking quite a bit about how our society relates to nature. From covering the PASA sustainable agriculture conference to discussing the tension between conservation and economic development in southwest Pennsylvania, this theme has been as much a response to current events as to timeless moral questions.
The question that everyone seems to be asking these days is whether it’s acceptable to sacrifice the future for the good of the present. It’s the argument that Republicans have been using to justify budget cuts, contending that mounting debt threatens our security and stability in the future. And of course this has been the argument environmentalists have been using for decades to demonstrate that short-term economic gains at the expense of environmental health is not sustainable. What we are really dealing with, though, is not purely economic or environmental — it is a matter of ethics.
Aldo Leopold wrote compellingly of the need for a land ethic over 60 years ago. He believed that ethics have developed in an evolutionary process, governing first the relationship between individuals, then between the individual and society, and finally between society and nature. “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts … The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”
Our ethics evidently have not yet evolved. Not when increasingly risky and destructive methods of mining the earth — mountaintop removal coal mining, tar sand mining, deep sea oil drilling, and now hydraulic fracturing — are the basis of economic growth. In one of the first articles on their recently launched website covering the Marcellus Shale, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked of natural gas drilling, “A boom without a bust?” Even from a purely economic standpoint, the answer seems clear. If we consider the environmental and ethical dimensions of thus degrading the land, the answer is certain.
As I recently paraphrased Wes Jackson, drilling in deep shale is a sign not of technological advance, but of economic desperation. Recent stories by the New York Times on previously unknown environmental risks associated with drilling wastewater seem to confirm this.
We are too bent on defending a status quo that is no longer plausible given economic and environmental realities. But more than just our economic models and environmental regulations, it is our ethics that are outdated. How we choose to relate to the land will certainly have far-reaching consequences for ourselves and future generations.
Perhaps it is not too late, though, for our current economic and environmental problems offer an unprecedented opportunity for change. Evolution, after all, is the process of adapting to changing circumstances in order to survive and flourish. These global crises demand a new way of relating to the earth. Only through the lens of a land ethic can we have an honest discussion of the true value of life and the true cost of our current way of living.

3 thoughts on “The case for a Land Ethic

    • Thanks for reading. It’s a discussion that needs to take place more openly I think. Feel free to share more of your thoughts with us!

      • I wish that I had something helpful or insightful to add. I heard a piece on NPR the other day a town in North Dakota (?) where they were experiencing a boom due to the incredible expansion of the oil industry, since a tremendous amount of oil was found in shale deposits. They interviewed local politicians who credited their “business-friendly” regulatory environment to the boom. They interviewed a ton of people who talked about being unemployed for long periods of time in their home states and getting recruited to ND, where jobs are just as plentiful as the oil. They talked about how all of the people working on the oil extraction needed places to live and shop and eat and how the oil boom was leading to small business and construction booms and revitalizing the whole area.
        And I was struck by the shortsightedness of it all. There was absolutely no discussion of the potential environmental consequences. People were just excited that there was going to be a giant new Walmart and that at McDonald’s they were paying people $17/hr.
        I guess my biggest fear is that things will need to be pretty calamitous before people will be able to focus on the larger picture– maybe until a “land ethic” is actually a short-term priority– and at that point I imagine it will be too late.

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