A Modern Land Ethic

Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, gracefully described in his book, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (Oxford University Press 1949), is the towering classic of 20th-century conservation philosophy. 

The land ethic is an ecocentric moral stance that places humanity in the context of a broader natural community.  It represents a Copernican shift of perspective, expanding the circle of beings that are entitled to moral consideration from humans alone to include “soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively:  the land.”  

Leopold’s work so dominates contemporary thinking about conservation ethics that it is difficult to imagine any approach to this topic that is not derivative of his. 

Which got me to thinking:  what if Leopold hadn’t articulated his philosophy of the land ethic?  How would one approach a conservation ethic if starting on a clean slate today?  What would be its grounding principles?  And would those principles be helpful in addressing contemporary issues and conditions, like climate change, that he could not possibly have imagined?

Not to the exclusion of other important issues, it seems to me that a modern conservation ethic would need to consider at least the following questions:

What is the moral relationship of humanity to other animals?  What about other manifestations of nature such as plants, rocks, rivers, mountains and the like?  These are the central questions that Leopold addressed.

What are possible first principles for this moral relationship, the premises upon which it might be based?  Are those first principles reasonable?  Are they compelling?  Do they resonate with personal experience?  Again, these issues run throughout Leopold's work.

However, in the 21st century, one cannot address these matters without also considering issues of social and environmental justice within the human community that get a little farther afield from Leopold's original conception of the land ethic.  Some first principles are needed for this discussion as well.

Wouldn’t a philosophy that claims to be a conservation ethic need to address the rights of indigenous peoples to live in a manner consistent with their traditional cultures?  The historical differences in how African Americans have related to wilderness in comparison to European immigrant populations?  The disparate effects of climate change on populations within America and around the world?  

Carolyn Finney and Rue Mapp have made important contributions to current thinking about the de facto segregation of wilderness and similar civil rights issues.  To have contemporary relevance, wouldn't a conservation ethic need to address these questions as well?

How about intergenerational issues and the rights and responsibilities that different age cohorts enjoy and owe to one another?  What does it mean to borrow the earth from our children?  What if those children rarely leave an urban environment?  Can city parks and the occasional field trip provide the experience upon which they can base their own conservation ethic for the future?

What about income and wealth inequality in our own country, not to mention around the world?  Most Americans lack the financial capacity to visit a far-off place like the Arctic Refuge.  To paraphrase Leopold, is their share of this iconic public land any less important because they will never go there?  If they will never visit the arctic, what moral claim do they have to participate in land use decisions about energy development there? 

And what is the relationship among these social factors?  Aren't they intertwined?  As Jourdan Keith pointed out in a recent Orion article titled Desegregating Wilderness, "the wild is hardest to reach for the people [of color] who, for historical reasons, still have fewer of the financial assets required to get there."

These are tough, and important, issues.  Some of the questions have been introduced in previous posts on this blog, especially in the Whose Land? series last spring.  I expect to develop these topics further in various posts over the coming winter, under the general rubric of Democratizing Wilderness.

A key theme of this blog is that conservation ethics and wilderness esthetics go hand in hand.  A good test for a modern conservation ethic is that it should feel comfortable, like a raggedy old sweater or the familiar family rhythms and sage-infused aromas of Thanksgiving.  

Accordingly, while I am sorting out some initial reflections on the philosophical questions posed above, the next series of posts will focus more on the esthetics of wilderness, relating some experiences I had with my son Tom, and our friends and guides Brian and Diane Okonek, in the Gates of the Arctic in 2002.  That trip played a large role in the evolution of my own moral sensibilities relating to wilderness and conservation.