Leopold proposes the construction of an ecological ethic. This would distinguish between “social” and “anti-social conduct,” and would encourage a cooperative view of humankind’s place in the natural world.
Throughout the book Leopold has been alluding to his idea of the land ethic, but this is the first time that he solidifies it. This is perhaps because the book was compiled posthumously by his son. Had Leopold organized the book himself, he may have introduced this concept sooner.
Leopold gives a brief history of ethics. At first, ethics concerned behavior between individual people. Eventually it extended to include the relationship between individual people and the society in which they lived. Leopold proposes extending ethics one step further, to include people’s relationship to “land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.” The land ethic simply assumes the community extends to include the natural world—“soils, waters, plants, animals, or collectively: the land.”
At the heart of Leopold’s philosophy is the idea that people need to see the land as a being with needs, just as they themselves are beings with needs. The land is part of a community, and needs to be treated with respect. Any ethical system assumes that individuals are members of a community, and the individual must cooperate and compromise with others to guarantee that the community thrives.
Leopold points out that, at present, society’s relationship with the land is economical, not ethical. However, he thinks ethics are an “ecological necessity.” They would serve as a kind of guide for future behavior and policy. Where “animal instincts” guide an individual’s behavior, he argues ethics create a “community instinct.”
Leopold does not trust humankind to instinctually understand how to care for the land. He can simply look back at all of human history and see that this is not true. However, Leopold has hope that people can train themselves to interact with the land more ethically.
Leopold admits that a land ethic can’t prevent the use or alteration of the land, but it can help protect it from destruction. A land ethic ideally makes humans feel as though they are respectful citizens of the land-community, not conquerors.
Leopold criticizes what he sees as an educated view that the earth exists to be exploited by humankind. Many people assume that experts and scientists know what is best for the environment. However, Leopold challenges the idea that humans always know what is best for themselves and for the land they inhabit.
One downside of education, in Leopold’s mind, is the assumption that once a person is educated they understand the land and how to modify it. Leopold believes the land is too complicated to ever fully understand.
Leopold discusses the European settlement of the Mississippi Valley, which taxed the land in such a way that it created an ecological void that was filled by the now famous Kentucky bluegrass. In contrast, in the Southwest, grazing animals ate so many native plants that they degraded the land and the soil, causing erosion which led to further destruction of plants. Leopold argues that if humans cannot even predict how their behavior will affect the landscape and the soil, they are hardly qualified to make decisions about the landscape’s future.
This anecdote drives home Leopold’s idea that the natural world is too complicated for people to fully comprehend. He argues that if people cannot even understand why bluegrass grows in some places but not others, they are not qualified to actively make changes to the landscape. Part of being a good ethical biotic citizen is staying educated, but another aspect is admitting ignorance, and not presuming to know what is best for the world.
Leopold contrasts the Europeans’ treatment of the American landscapes with the Pueblo Indians’ treatment of the land which, perhaps because they didn’t have grazing animals, was less detrimental to the soil’s health. He also discusses parts of India that have preserved the landscape by cutting sod for cows to eat, as opposed to letting them graze freely.
Although historically some groups have been able to coexist with the land, Leopold sees this as an exception, not a rule. Still, he hopes to learn something from societies that treated the land with respect, and made less of a negative impact upon it.
Leopold hopes “the concept of land as a community” will soon “penetrate our intellectual life.” He is unhappy that conservation has not fully caught on. He thinks it is an issue not just of “volume” or education but of “content.” He thinks conservation is taught as though it is a simple matter of voting and leaving the rest up to the government. He complains that this style of conservation “assigns no obligation” and “calls for no sacrifice.”
Leopold believes that to be a good, ethical, biotic citizen a person must actively work to better the land. He worries that too many people see conservation as a political issue that should be regulated by the government, and which is out of the hands of ordinary people. This is not true, and Leopold hopes to educate a new generation of conservationists who feel inspired to personally care for the land.
Leopold shares a story about farmers in Wisconsin who were bribed into working to preserve the topsoil for five years with free labor and materials from the government. However, when the five years were up, the farmers stopped maintaining their conservationist practices. The Wisconsin legislature thought maybe farmers would be more motivated to maintain the environment if they wrote their own rules, but after turning over land-use legislation to the farmers, the farmers never wrote a rule to improve their treatment of the land. The only choices farmers made to save the soil were those which were also profitable and convenient, like renovating pastures and not grazing or cultivating hills that could easily erode from overuse.
Leopold has observed that most people will not volunteer to care for the land. Instead, many people feel that they have no duty to the land at all, and want to be paid if they are required to do any upkeep, even if it costs them nothing. Leopold sees that without an ecological education, people are more likely to act selfishly, as though they have no responsibility to the land at all. They only do what is economically viable and valuable in the moment. A farmer himself, Leopold shows little animosity towards this group, and instead is inspired to change minds and hearts.
Leopold worries, “in our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial.”
Leopold knows that most people will only work towards helping the environment as long as it is convenient for them.
Leopold categorizes various substitutes for the land ethic he has observed. Economic substitutes are risky because most organisms, or “members of the land community,” have no economic value. Often, plants or animals are seen as having no importance unless they have economic value. Although Leopold finds this upsetting, he is happy that there seems to be a shift towards recognizing the “biotic right” of plants and animals to exist. Similarly, Leopold notes that predators have only recently been seen to have value.
As Leopold has observed multiple times before in the text, protecting only economically valuable parts of the land is a losing proposition. The majority of the land is not economically valuable (in the short-term, at least), thus leaving most of the ecosystem unprotected from capitalist exploitation. Furthermore, Leopold believes in the “biotic rights” of plants and animals. That is, he thinks that because they are living things, they deserve to continue to live.
In the United States many species of trees have been “read out of the party,” because they do not have as great an economic value as others, either because they do not sell for a lot of money, or because they grow too slowly. Leopold contrasts this with Europe, where some “valueless” trees have been found to enhance the soil and improve the environment. This is not necessarily a quality that can be measured economically, but it has value nonetheless.
Once again, Leopold looks abroad to Europe, which he believes has a more nuanced and admirable approach to the natural world than contemporary America. There, people have begun to understand that even trees that have no immediate monetary value can still contribute meaningfully to the ecosystem.
Leopold also points out that certain ecosystems, like marshes, bogs, dunes, and deserts, are seen as being of little value. These can be saved by designating them as monuments or parks, or by private owners who choose to preserve the land. Leopold notes that occasionally these valueless areas turn out to have some hidden value, only revealed when an ecosystem is destroyed and has stopped some necessary function that previously benefited the greater landscape.
Leopold continues to argue in favor of parts of the natural world that don’t have an immediately obvious value. He often bemoans the fact that areas that are not beautiful are not valued, even if these areas often have an important ecological function that humans, ignorant of so much of the complexity of nature, ignore when making decisions about whether or not landscapes should be allowed to survive.
Leopold observes that American conservation gives much responsibility to the government. Leopold wonders if this is a sustainable model financially and logistically. He worries the government is too big to deal with the minutiae of land management, and again circles back to an ideal of a national (or global) land ethic, which would require every citizen to do their part to treat the land as a community. He concludes that a purely economic system overlooks the unquantifiable, or economically valueless, elements of a landscape. Furthermore, he thinks the government is ill-equipped to oversee conservation, and instead believes that private landowners need to embrace their ethical obligation to the land.
In an ideal world, Leopold would educate each citizen and create millions of people with closely held, deeply ingrained land ethics, who would each contribute a small part to help repair and preserve the natural world. He feels that the government is ill-equipped to deal with this issue, and that by relying on the government the average citizen is disenfranchised and left less inspired to do their own part to help the natural world.
Leopold believes humans can “be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.” To try and make the land seem more accessible, or more tangible, Leopold proposes the idea of a “land pyramid.” This is a visualization of the land as a physical pyramid. Energy flows from soil, on the bottom of the pyramid, to plants, insects, birds and rodents, and finally to apex predators, at the top of the pyramid.
The land pyramid is a concept Leopold only introduces in this final section, but has been gesturing towards throughout the text. He has come up with various other metaphors, similes, and symbols to describe the interconnectedness of the natural world, as he has tried to illustrate how essential each individual component is to the function of the whole.
Each level of the land pyramid eats and receives energy from organisms on the level below, except for plants, which also receive energy from sunlight. Within the food pyramid are additional food chains and food webs, “lines of dependency” that determine which animals eat what.
Like the idea of a food web or food chain, which many people are more familiar with, the land pyramid emphasizes the connections between organisms, driving home Leopold’s point that every member of the biotic community is important.
When the earth was younger, the land pyramid was simpler, but as more species have evolved it has gotten higher. Leopold argues that “the trend of evolution” is to “diversify the biota,” and therefore extend the land pyramid upwards. Changes in one part of the pyramid change the entire system. Sometimes the pyramid can adjust, when a change is on a slow, evolutionary scale, but it is harder to recalibrate to man-made changes, which were—and continue to be—of “unprecedented violence, rapidity, and scope.”
This idea of the land pyramid growing throughout history contrasts with the present-day land pyramid, which is constantly being attacked as different species become endangered or extinct due to human intervention. Although the pyramid can adapt to change on a geological scale, it is harder for it to restructure itself on a manmade timeline.
Leopold lists a few changes humankind has brought to the land pyramid, including the elimination of many apex predators, thereby shortening food chains. These changes also include agricultural practices, which strip the soil of its fertility, and polluting the water, which flows back into the pyramid and feeds its plants and animals.
Modern humans have not been operating with the land ethic in mind, and as a result have severely damaged the ecosystem. This is easily demonstrated with the aid of the land pyramid, a physical representation of an entire ecosystem that can be imagined to shrink and shrivel as species die or are killed off.
In summary, Leopold proposes that looking at “land as an energy circuit” is useful for three reasons: first, because it shows “land is not merely soil”; second, because it shows that native plants and animals help maintain a system, whereas invasive or nonnative organisms may not; third, because it demonstrates how changes wrought by humans are often much more violent and impactful than slower, natural, evolutionary changes.
The land pyramid, like the idea of the Round River in an earlier essay, helps readers picture the ecosystem in more concrete terms. It also helps bring value to inanimate aspects of the wilderness, like the soil itself. Like all of Leopold’s visual aids, it is designed to make the reader care more deeply about the natural world.
Leopold has two primary questions: can the land adjust to manmade changes; and can the changes be enacted in a less violent way? Although he notices that many people believe an “indefinite increase” in human density will enrich the quality of human life, he disagrees. Instead, less dense populations will enact less violent changes on the environment.
Leopold worries that education and progress will eventually swallow up the entire remaining wilderness. He knows many people believe that if a little bit of progress improves their lives, infinite progress will improve it infinitely, when, in fact, certain areas that are less developed actually bring humans more joy than a completely developed, “civilized” world would.
Prairie flowers, formerly thought valueless, have been used to rebuild the soil of the dust bowl. He wonders how other, now economically valueless animals might one day be repurposed.
The dust bowl occurred when farmers were not careful about rotating crops, and stripped the soil of nutrients and water. When the land was allowed to regulate itself, this kind of thing didn’t happen, and when native plants are reintroduced, the problem is partially solved. This is part of a land ethic—trusting the land to self regulate.
Leopold believes people who have yet to develop a land ethic can view the land in two distinct ways. He splits people into Group A versus Group B, where Group A sees humans as conquerors, and Group B sees man as the “biotic citizen.”
When considering the environment, people can either see the land as inherently valuable whether or not humans live on it, or valueless until a human finds a way to extract value from it. Leopold hopes more people can see the land as valuable in itself.
Leopold thinks it is essential that people love, respect, and admire the land. Only then can they see its non-economic value. He worries that the current economic and educational system teaches people to “outgrow” a love of the landscape.
Leopold’s proposed solution is to stop thinking about land-use as an economic issue. Instead, questions about the land should be considered “in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right.” He goes on to say that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.” Leopold acknowledges that economics will always influence land-use, but he believes that it does not determine land use totally.
Leopold hopes the future of land management is ethical and not economic. He understands economics will always play a part in how society makes decisions about value, but he truly believes that with the right kind of education, enough people could be convinced of the inherent value of the land and the necessity of a land ethic that economics would become a secondary concern.
Leopold hopes that a land ethic can and will develop in America. Although he has set down some proposed rules, he understands that an ethic is a constantly evolving, organic concept that can soon be applied to all land-use.
Never one to privilege formal education over an informal one, Leopold would be happy if people spontaneously developed their own land ethics merely from spending time in and on the land themselves.