Land Ethics

After graduating from the Yale Forest School, Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) joined the U.S. Forest Service in 1909 and served for fifteen years. He resigned to pursue his interest in wildlife ecology and management; in 1933 he was named Professor of Game Management and inaugurated a doctoral program in the subject at the University of Wisconsin. Over the course of his multifaceted career, Leopold came to believe that human harmony with nature could be achieved only if, in addition to governmental management and regulation, private citizens (and property owners in particular) acquired a "land ethic." Such an ethic would make ecosystems and their parts direct beneficiaries of human morality: "A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such" (Leopold,

Leopold is routinely called a modern American "prophet." A Sand County Almanac, his slender book of literary and philosophical essays, has become the "bible" of the contemporary environmental movement in the United States. And his land ethic is the environmental ethic of choice among most American environmentalists and conservationists, both amateur and professional. It rests upon secular scientific, not sectarian or supernatural religious, foundations. It is less rigidly doctrinaire than deep ecology's eight-point ethical "platform." Unlike ecofeminism, it focuses directly on the human-nature relationship, unrefracted by the alleged historical oppression of women by men. And, in sharp contrast to Western ethical paradigms, it has a holistic dimension that can ground environmental policy and law respecting endangered species and biodiversity.

In the foreword to A Sand County Almanac, Leopold (1949, pp. viii-ix) identifies the central eco-axiological theme: "That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten. These essays attempt to weld these three concepts." Its forty-odd essays document two decades of Leopold's reflective intimacy with the natural world; they span the North American continent from Mexico to Canada and from the Southwest to the Midwest; and they range in style from pastoral vignettes to didactic sermonettes. Part One introduces the basic ecological concept of a biotic community (or ecosystem) personally and experientially through artful seasonal sketches of Leopold's beloved 120 acres of Wisconsin River bottomland. The regional sketches of Part Two develop the community concept in ecology more intellectually, generally, and abstractly. The prescriptive essays of Part Three frankly and forcefully explore the ethical and aesthetic implications of the community concept in ecology. The final essay, "The Land Ethic," is the book's philosophical climax and consummation.

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