Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic

Aldo Leopold Leopold (1886–1948) was a trained forester and early environmental philosopher and ethicist. He taught at the University of Wisconsin, was director of the Audubon Society, and founded the Wilderness Society. He was born in 1886 and died 71 years ago this month (April) in 1948. A nice, brief biography produced by the Aldo Leopold Foundation is here.

a-sand-county-almanac-cover-insetRecently, I had students in my agricultural ethics course read his most famous essay, “The Land Ethic,” excerpted from his book, A Sand County Almanac, which was published a year after his death. In this essay, Leopold argues that we need to change the way we think about land and natural resources, especially how we value them. According to Leopold, the value of the land does not come merely or even largely from its productivity, profitability or commercial value. We must “quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem,” he writes. Rather, we should “regard the land as a biota, and its function as something broader.”

Leopold was particularly critical of conservation education. He complained that the problem with conservation education was not about volume but rather its content. Leopold wrote, “as I understand it, the content is substantially this: obey the law, vote right, join some organizations, and practice what conservation is profitable on your own land; the government will do the rest.”

I asked my students who have taken conservation, land management and agroforestry courses about their content. While efforts have been made to incorporate principles of sustainability in lectures and readings, my students reported that the underlying messages are still largely governed by economics. As an economist I should be comfortable with this, but as an ethicist I am troubled that after nearly three-quarters of a century, we still have not learned Leopold’s lesson that economic motives must be moderated and self-restrained. We should talk and teach more about stewardship and obligation and less about commodity production and narrow economic self-interest. “Obligations have no meaning without conscience,” according to Leopold, “and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land.”

Leopold’s essay is insightful for many reasons. One of my favorite quotes is his commentary about ethics. He says,

An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence. … 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).

I don’t think we appreciate how interconnected we are–to each other and to the world around us. My actions affect not only me but also my family, neighbors, coworkers and others in society. But Leopold encourages us also to consider how our actions and attitudes affect the land as well. “The land ethic,” he writes, “simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, water, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”

If you still subscribe to a narrow economic self-interest, then consider the fact that if we fail to continue to appreciate and respect the land and our environment, then when they go we will go as well.