Excerpt from A Sand County Almanac: The Land Ethic

Photo from: http://qcpages.qc.edu/Biology/LahtiSites/greatlit/contempus/leopold/sandcounty.htm
Photo from: http://qcpages.qc.edu/Biology/LahtiSites/greatlit/contempus/leopold/sandcounty.htm

In reading this excerpt, Leopold’s view is that humans see the environment as property and compares the land to Odysseus’ slave girls, saying that “The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations”.  This is true and we see it every day.  People buy up land to develop and build houses and shopping centers on, but don’t take into account what animals they are displacing or killing in the process and how many trees they are cutting down.  We don’t feel obligated to take care of the land, but use it as we will.  We conquer all that is conquer-able.  We take all that we can take.  Leopold continues that there is an instrumental value to nature, and this is one of the reasons we have no choice but to preserve it.  We cannot survive as a species without its resources.  We have to compete for resources, but at the same time we have to cooperate and care for all of the parts of the community within.

Photo from: http://www.aldoleopold.org/greenfire/quotes.shtml
Photo from: http://www.aldoleopold.org/greenfire/quotes.shtml

Leopold also draws to our attention that the land that we live on has been developed once before, but with different results.  The Pueblo Indians lived here long before America was established. Their civilization failed, but not because they used all of the resources.  The way we are going, we will use all of the water, land, oil, oceans, air, etc. due to the overpopulation of the Earth and the way in which we use the resources with reckless abandon.  All we think about when we think of ethics is generally the ethics involved when dealing with people and higher order animals.  What Leopold wants is a land ethic, and it begins with the relationship between two or more individuals. Second is the bond between an individual and the community that they are a part of. Third, and the most important for saving the environment, is the relationship between humans and nature. His land ethic says that there are other things we should be aware and care about than simply ourselves as a species.  Even farmers, who you would think would be closest to conservation due to appreciation and respect for nature tend to be lax in dealing with conservation rules.  In 1937, the Soil Conservation District Law was passed that allowed farmers to write their own rules for land use.  No county wrote a single rule, although there was progress in some practices, and none in others. Leopold says, “The farmers, in short, have selected those remedial practices which were profitable anyhow, and ignored those which were profitable to the community, but not clearly profitable to themselves…. In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial”.  That is the human way.  All we think about in these situations is purely self-interest and we are only interested in the now and the instant gratification that we have grown accustomed to.  The land pyramid is an interesting explanation of the relationships and flow of energy between everything in the environment.  He says that loans is an energy circuit in which the land is not merely soil, native plants and animals keep the energy circuit open while non-natives may mess it up, and that man-made alterations have more effects than can be expected.  My favorite quote from the excerpt is actually the next to last paragraph, in which Leopold sums up his feelings on the issue of a land ethic by saying that, “The evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as well as emotional process. Conservationist paved with good intentions which prove to be futile, or even dangerous, because they are devoid of critical understanding either of the land, or of economic land-use.  I think it is a truism that as the ethical frontier advances from the individual to the community, its intellectual content increases”.


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