Aldo Leopold and Land Ethics
I want to begin by discussing Aldo Leopold’s ideas regarding land ethics. The foundation of Leopold’s land ethic is that humans are members, not sovereigns over the eco-community because we are bound to the land for our very survival (Leopold, 1949). To Leopold, the land comprises soil, water and all the flora and fauna that live upon it. Leopold thought that moral regard should include the integrity of natural ecosystems and the health of biotic communities because we are part of the biotic community (Leopold, 1949). The health of an ecosystem will ultimately be mirrored in the health of the living organisms that reside within the system. As the environment becomes toxic, human beings have also become toxic. Caring for the land is not only in our best interest, it is the ethical choice of action.
The predominate cultural perspective of nature/environment is anthropocentric in which land and natural resources are seen as commodities to exploit rather than as a community of belongingness (Leopold, 1949). The natural world is objectified to exploit its natural resources because when natural places are not subjective places of belonging, their destruction can be easily justified. Within western culture, what is valued is ranked within a hierarchal system and untamed wilderness is seen as less valuable than land used for agriculture, mining or real estate. Within this hierarchal system, modern humans place themselves above nature. Under corporate hegemony, short-term profits are valued over long-term sustainability and biodiversity. Because of global homogenization and disconnect from place, there is also a loss of social diversity.
Ecology is a complex, interdisciplinary study of dynamic systems, energy flow, and nutrient cycles within a myriad of relationships. The nature of these relationships can be competitive or cooperative and exist between living organisms, as well as between biotic and abiotic components of the environment. Diversity is an important measure of the health of an ecosystem because the greater the diversity of a system, the more resilient the web of life. This web of relationships reflects the interdependence of living things to one another and to the services that nature provides. These services include the cycling of: water, carbon dioxide/oxygen and soil nutrients; these services provide the basics of life: air, freshwater and healthy soils to grow food. Unfortunately, there are many people in our culture who seem to be unaware or do not care about the importance of a relationship with the environment or the role of humans in their ecosystem. Ecological relationships are central to environmental ethics. People that have a relationship with the land know that relationship must be honored.
This commentary will explore the nature of relationships in a community that includes the ecosystems that sustain life on the planet. This is also a critique of the affect that alienation from both nature and close community bonds have had on individuals’ health and well-being, as well as sustainability. Leopold's perspective on land ethics will serve as a framework for the discussion.