Ethics and the Environment – Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic

“Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching – even when doing the wrong thing is legal” Aldo Leopold

In the face of climate change, human beings have many decisions to contend with. One such decision is to continue on our current path of business-as-usual, ignoring the science and consequences of climate change or to act now by mitigating or adapting to the issues at stake. If humans take the decision to act, the problem shifts to mitigating and adapting to climate change, keeping ecological ethics in mind. Ethics will help to ensure that humans follow a certain conduct that is fair and just to all living beings on this planet. One such ethic that can keep humans on the right path is Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic, which considers humans as a part of nature and not separate from it. This therefore requires a shift in the current paradigm to consider ourselves as a part of the natural community and not as rulers of the natural world.

The land ethic was coined by Aldo Leopold in his book A Sand Country Almanac. This ethic is one that extends current boundaries of the community to include soils, water, plants and animals; in other words, the land (Leopold & Schwartz, 1987). The land ethic understands that resource use will continue, however it does uphold that the natural world has a right to exist in its natural state as an end in itself (Leopold & Schwartz, 1987). Furthermore, it suggests that humans are a member of the natural community rather than being a conqueror of the land (Leopold & Schwartz, 1987). The land ethic also implies that humans have obligations above their own self-interest (Leopold & Schwartz, 1987).

The land ethic can therefore help us make decisions when it comes to finding solutions to the current environmental crises. This means that we must consider the benefits and outcomes of a project in terms of the entire biotic community, rather than just the benefits for humans. It also means valuing the natural world in and of itself, and not in monetary terms. Leopold argues that a conservation system based on economic motives is inefficient as most of the land community is priceless (Leopold & Schwartz, 1987). This stems from the attempt to conserve natural areas through determining their value based on the ecosystem services they provide to humans; however, this “effort to make conservation simpler has in effect made conservation trivial” (Leopold & Schwartz, 1987). Trying to establish economic values for ecosystem services will eventually mean that some components of the land that are less valuable will be neglected, despite their importance to the functioning of the ecosystem (Leopold & Schwartz, 1987).

Leopold’s land ethic has three main tenets: first, to achieve an ecological ethic, we must limit our freedoms and actions, which results in cooperation between individuals and groups; second, humans must consider themselves as a member of the biotic community and not as the conqueror of the natural world; and finally, the land ethic affirms the right of the natural world’s continued existence, in and of itself (Leopold & Schwartz, 1987).

Ethics and the Environment - A Focus on Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic

Ethics and the Environment – A Focus on Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic

Leopold (1987) defines an ecological ethic as one that limits freedoms of action in the fight for existence. In today’s world, this can be translated to limiting human actions to benefit coexistence between humans and the natural world, while eliminating the dichotomy that currently exists. Our current economic situation, however, has not allowed for the efficient use of resources as is seen in natural cycles. Our economy has allowed for intense population growth, mass consumption and changes within ecosystems, all while producing waste that cannot be reused (Brown, 2012). Therefore, by shifting to an economic system that limits actions as well as considers itself embedded with nature (Brown, 2012), we may be able to limit our actions in a way that engenders a beneficial coexistence between humans and nature. If we reground our moral beliefs in a way that establishes respect for the natural world of which we are members and custodians, limiting development may become easier than we believe. Our current path of development shows no bounds, therefore we must urge the global populace to revere the natural world as well as base their decisions on an extensive scientific understanding of the world (Brown, 2012). In other words, ethical decisions must be made in order to limit development and impacts on the natural dynamics of ecosystems.

Leopold (1987), Brown (2012) and Berry (1999) all argue that in order to develop an ethic in which we revere the natural world, we must consider ourselves as members of the community and not separate from it. This concept is more difficult to translate into policy, although it must be considered when making new policies if not explicitly made into its own. These services do not function solely for the use of humans, but in and of themselves for the functioning of the entire ecosystem. Once we move away from the notion that we are conquerors of the land, to one where we feel connected with all species of flora and fauna, only then will the ecosystems be revered as an end in themselves. This type of ethic is seen within indigenous communities who live in a way in which they understand that they are members of something larger than human society, being the entire natural community.

The final tenet is that nature must be valued in and of its own right. Giving nature rights, allows for continued existence in its natural state. These rights would have to be set and be made legally binding through political frameworks; however, this kind of policy seldom becomes reality. One example could be the lack of rights given to animals. Leopold (1987) argues that we can only be ethical to things “that we can see, feel, understand, love or otherwise have faith in.” Therefore, if we cannot give rights to animals as sentient beings that we often love as pets, it may be difficult to give rights to forests as many people do not understand their value to the biotic community of which humans are a part. Another method that has been used to value the forest for its natural rights is through economic valuing. As mentioned previously, economic valuation of ecosystem services poses problems. Brown (2012) argues that the estimates given to ecosystem services are flawed and should not be used extensively in policy-making as they may blur the broader mission of ecological economics. It is for these reasons that policies must be created that give rights to the natural world for their own sake.

Berry (1999) suggests that the “Great Work” that lies ahead for humans is one where we must carry out a transformation from an era of human devastation of the natural world to one where humans live in harmony with the earth. He also argues that this is our duty as humans and custodians of the planet (Berry, 1999). Brown (2012), along the same lines as Berry (1999), urges that we need to redefine our current agenda and fight for radical changes over the status quo. Hopefully ecological ethics such as the land ethic can help us find our way.

Can the land ethic lead to more effective policies in 2016? How do we urge policy-makers to consider ecological ethics? I would love to hear your feedback on this topic and how you have dealt with ethics in your line of work.

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Author: Lisa Andrews

As a recent graduate, I am determined to use my skills and expertise to make this world a better place for future generations. I am an energetic and outgoing person and I always wear a smile. I excel while working in teams and have strong leadership skills. Trained in the field of environmental management with technical and social backgrounds, I am interested in projects related to water resources, urban resilience and participatory management.

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