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Aldo Leupold Land Ethic Essay Describes To A Tee


Critical response



In his essay “The Land Ethic,” from A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold confronts the weaknesses in the common approach to conserving the environment. His proposed solution is no less than the development of an entire new branch of ethics to guide humanity’s relationship with the natural world. It is a big idea. Leopold carefully explains every aspect of his reasoning to us, from a brief history of ethics, to what it means to live in a community with the land, to why it is necessary to do so. But in the end, when we are waiting for him to break down his moral code explicitly, he vaguely concludes: “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” (224–225). We may come to the end of the essay in total agreement with Leopold but still not understand what we should do. What specific things should we do differently if our actions are to be ethically just? The confusion is further complicated by Leopold’s claim that “the biotic mechanism is so complex that its workings may never be fully understood” (205). If we cannot understand our environment, how can we know what behavior will preserve its integrity?

Leopold often emphasizes in “The Land Ethic” how hard it is to understand the workings of nature and our role in them. He describes the land—the plants, animals, water, and soil of our world—as “the community clock” (205), a mechanism, or an “energy circuit” (217). Putting it in these terms highlights the land’s delicate, interdependent organization. The biotic community, he writes, “is a tangle of chains so complex as to seem disorderly, yet the stability of the system proves it to be a highly organized structure” (215). Like a clock, each tiny piece performs a vital function. Tinkering with a clock is a job that can only be done effectively by a skilled and experienced craftsman. But, as Leopold points out, humans have tinkered with the land to the effect of radical changes to its structure. The clumsy changes man makes to his environment “have effects more comprehensive than is intended or foreseen” (218). Since we only see the cause and effect of our actions in hindsight, we cannot know with confidence that the actions we take toward the land today will turn out to be ethically right or wrong. Leopold warns us: “Conservation is 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” (225). When we don’t understand what we do, we’re at risk of destroying the integrity of the biotic community. We may even destroy ourselves. It is this fearsome uncertainty that creates our need for more concrete instructions from Leopold, but he cannot give us a list of rules because of that same uncertainty. Leopold doesn’t know how to fix the biotic clock. Without a deep understanding of its mechanics, any rules he might lay out could just as easily result in disaster. But then what kind of ethic can we have?

Ultimately Leopold is asking us, since we cannot know how to live in perfect harmony within the environment, to try to limit our effect on it. It is there in the word “conservation” itself: conserve the land. Don’t let it go to waste; keep it from changing. Leopold understands that change inevitably occurs within the energy circuit, “but it is a sustained circuit, like a slowly augmented revolving fund of life” (216). He sees a balance that happens with gradual, natural change, and this is one of the system’s strengths. He acknowledges that degree of flexibility in the structure as he writes: “When a change occurs in one part of the circuit, many other parts must adjust themselves to it” (216). The trouble with our role in this perfectly engineered machine is that we are increasingly able to make enormous changes to the circuit very quickly. In Leopold’s time, the process was beginning to accelerate. The Industrial Revolution and World Wars brought humanity into the modern era. Leopold saw that man was now able “to make changes of unprecedented violence, rapidity, and scope” (217). Looking at where we are now, 64 years later, that potential has increased exponentially. How much more complex and unknowable, then, are the ultimate consequences of our modern way of life on the land? Is Leopold asking us to abandon it all and return to the wilderness?

No, he is calling for a philosophical shift rather than specific actions. Early in the essay, Leopold mentions the Mosaic Decalogue, better known as The Ten Commandments (202), and the Golden Rule (203) as examples of ethics. Both ethics guide our relationships with individuals and society, but there is a distinction between them that illuminates what Leopold’s land ethic is intended to be. The Ten Commandments is exactly what its name suggests: a declaration of ten specific moral rules that are literally set in stone. The Golden Rule, on the other hand, is a single guiding principle of reciprocity: treat other people the way you would like to be treated. While the Ten Commandments ask only to be obeyed, the Golden Rule requires active reflection. To know how to treat others, we must think about feelings and consequences and give true consideration and respect to another human being. There is no point-by-point instruction set handed down by a higher authority. Instead, it is a deeply personal attitude and way of thinking that can shift and evolve with different situations.

Leopold intends for his land ethic to be developed in that same spirit. Throughout the essay, he stresses that, “The evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as well as an emotional process” (225), and it “reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land” (221).  In contrast, he complains that the conservation efforts of his day are little more than a formula: “obey the law, vote right, join some organizations, and practice what conservation is profitable on your own land; the government will do the rest” (207). For Leopold, such a formula is too simple to be effective. Meaningful progress is accomplished in a different way:

No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions. The proof that conservation has not yet touched these foundations of conduct lies in the fact that philosophy and religion have not yet heard of it. In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial. (209 – 210)

Leopold wants to change humanity’s soul right down to its foundations. Rather than having his essay give us a “trivial” list of “easy” steps we can take to conserve the environment, he wants to inspire us to take the land community into our hearts, the same way we try to take the human community into our hearts. Leopold believes the land deserves the same considerate treatment we give to our loved ones: “It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to the land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land and a high regard for its value” (223). We humans often do not understand each other and can easily hurt one another, but we try to bridge that gap in understanding with thoughtfulness. When a conflict arises, we reflect on it, try to see what went wrong, and use its lessons in our future interactions. What we should not do is use or manipulate each other unthinkingly. We can apply these same principles to the land community. There are things about the land that we don’t fully comprehend, and that ignorance can result in negative consequences. But with the attitude of the land ethic, those situations can become teachable moments that yield deeper insight and better ways of living. Human history is already full of such moments we can study. Leopold asks: “Is history taught in this spirit? It will be, once the concept of land as a community really penetrates our intellectual life” (207).

So even once we understand why Leopold’s land ethic is so vague, another question remains: has it penetrated our intellectual life? Does the essay succeed in communicating Leopold’s subtle concepts? It’s easy to assume that the best way to convey an idea is to say it directly and clearly, but Leopold works in a different way. We end “The Land Ethic” with questions still stuck in our heads. How do we make the land ethic a reality? How do we know that our actions won’t create ecological disasters? These questions are seeds of thought that Leopold planted. So we keep thinking about them and, as we do, the seeds grow in our minds. That is what Leopold would call “the stirrings of an ecological conscience” (221). And that was what Leopold wanted: not to give us easy answers or tell us what to do, but to inspire generations of conservationists to think deeply about our relationship with the land.

Leopold, Aldo. “The Land Ethic.” A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford UP, 1949. 201-26. Print.


In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold set forth his most enduring idea, the “land ethic,” a moral responsibility of humans to the natural world. Aldo Leopold’s land ethic idea is extremely relevant in today’s society, but understanding the land ethic can be difficult. This post will take a closer look at the basic tenets of Leopold’s idea and explore how we can better understand and apply land ethics in our own lives.

What did Leopold mean by a Land Ethic?

Leopold’s land ethic idea has been discussed for decades by scholars in a wide variety of academic disciplines, from philosophy to conservation biology. For this post, we’re just going to focus on the basics, but readers that want to dig deeper are encouraged to check out this list of books that explore the land ethic in greater depth through a variety of scholarly perspectives.

Let’s start near the beginning of the essay and examine an excerpt from a section entitled the “Ethical Sequence.” Leopold writes:

“The first ethics dealt with the relation between individuals; the Mosaic Decalogue is an example. Later accretions dealt with the relation between the individual and society. The Golden Rule tries to integrate the individual to society; democracy to integrate social organization to the individual….There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations…

The extension of ethics to this third element in human environment is, if I read the evidence correctly, an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity. It is the third step in a sequence. The first two have already been taken. Individual thinkers since the days of Ezekiel and Isaiah have asserted that the despoliation of land is not only inexpedient but wrong. Society, however, has not yet affirmed their belief. I regard the present conservation movement as the embryo of such an affirmation.”

Ethics deal with morality, and an inherent sense of what’s right and wrong. Leopold cites the Ten Commandments as an example of a set of moral standards that help define rights and wrongs in the context of a relationship between individuals. Leopold also talks about ethics between people and their communities, citing the examples of the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would do unto yourself) and the concept of democracy as foundations that inform our societal code of conduct. The land ethic, Leopold argues, is the missing piece in what he calls the ethical sequence.

 Applying the Land Ethic

In “The Ethical Sequence,” Leopold explains what a land ethic is, but he doesn’t define the specific rights and wrongs that should govern our relationship to land. In our Land Ethic Leaders program, we are often asked about where this set of rules resides within Leopold’s writing. In essence, people would like to know what Leopold’s “10 Commandments” for the land would be. The closest he gets to articulating a clear set of rules or standards that help us to judge what actions are “right” and what actions are “wrong” is represented in the following passage from the land ethic:

This seems pretty simple and straightforward, but it’s still difficult to know how to apply in all cases. In a foreword to a book called The Professor, written in 1987 by Leopold’s graduate student Robert McCabe and focusing on the kind of educator and person Leopold was, Luna Leopold (Aldo’s second eldest son) explores this very concept. In the quote below, Luna points out that these rules may be more complicated than they seem.

“This apparently simple statement has been discussed in detail. Does it mean that the stability, integrity and beauty of the biosphere is the sole criterion on morality? For example, the death of a quarter of the human population would not prejudice ecosystems or the diversity of species. The question is asked, would this fit the definition of morality? It has been suggested that Leopold’s words imply the value of an individual person would be inversely proportional to the supply of people.”

Luna points out that it is actually really easy to read this statement and assume that it means that humans have the least value in the system. But he argued that if you could see how Leopold treated other people around him you would understand that this was the absolute farthest thing from the truth. Luna goes on to explain that land ethic needs to be large enough to encompass both the land community and the human community, working in harmony together:

“Rather than interpreting the concept of the land ethic as an indication of disregard for the individual in favor of the species or the ecosystem, my view is quite different. I see the concept of the land ethic as the outgrowth and extension of his deep personal concern for the individual.

Accepting the idea that the cooperations and competitions in human society are eased and facilitated by concern for others, he saw that the same consideration extended to other parts of the ecosystem would tend to add integrity, beauty and stability to the whole.”

Perhaps this is an insight into why Leopold did not present the land ethic idea as a litany of rights and wrongs or a ten commandments of the land. Leopold recognized that people’s environmental values many times grow directly from their experience. He was the kind of person who was absolutely devoted to giving his students, his family and his colleagues the opportunity to get out and connect with nature firsthand. Leopold knew that direct contact with the natural world was a key factor in shaping our ability to extend our ethics beyond our own self-interest.

Leopold also recognized that the relationship between people and each other and people and land was a complex one, and an evolutionary process. Near the end of the essay, he explains:

“I have purposely presented the land ethic as a product of social evolution because nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘written.’ Only the most superficial student of history will suppose that Moses ‘wrote’ the Decalogue; it evolved in the minds of a thinking community, and Moses wrote a tentative summary of it for a ‘seminar.” I say tentative because evolution never stops. The evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as well as an emotional process.”

We are all part of the thinking community that needs to shape the land ethic for the 21st century and beyond. To do that, we need to be able to engage in thoughtful dialog that makes room for many different perspectives on the relationship between people and land.

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