Leopold’s primary concern, which spans A Sand County Almanac but is addressed most directly in its final essay, “The Land Ethic,” is the question of how to treat the land respectfully and ethically. He defines ethics as “a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct,” which essentially means that ethics is behavior that takes into account the well-being of entities outside of the self. Ethics were originally concerned with relationships between people, but Leopold proposes extending them to include “man’s relation to the land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.” He sees this as an “ecological necessity,” an important step mankind must take if they want to begin to undo the damage they’ve done to the land thus far.
A key tenet of Leopold’s theory of land ethics is an acknowledgement that the natural world is a community, and that human beings are part of that community. Leopold notes that mankind’s “instincts prompt him to compete for his place in the community, but his ethics prompt him also to co—operate.” In this theory, “soils, waters, plants, and animals” are all included as members of the community, and all should be considered and respected. Humans should not think of themselves as the “conqueror of the land-community,” but instead as “plain member and citizen of it.” Leopold sees that many people are unwilling to labor for the environment without recompense, but hopes that there is a way to teach them that they have an ethical obligation to the land, which they would willingly fulfill without a monetary incentive. Leopold does his best to point out similarities between mankind and the land, in hopes of stirring the reader’s sympathy for it. He writes that mankind has tried both to interfere with its own health, and the health of the land. However, in the case of the land, mankind has not carefully controlled its health, because mankind did not understand it. Leopold argues that what is required is more caution, and more research. Caution will help prevent further degradation, whereas research can help mankind figure out where it went wrong, and how to fix its mistakes.
Leopold understands that land is a “biotic mechanism.” He realizes that “we can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in,” and therefore finds it useful to picture the land as a living pyramid, to which he can ascribe some kind of personality or identity. This pyramid, he hopes, will be something mankind can treat more ethically than the anonymous soil. In the pyramid, plants take energy from the sun, which is passed to insects, birds, rodents, and eventually to carnivorous predators. Humans, necessarily, also fit into this pyramid, and can perhaps be convinced to care about it because it recognizes their own participation. Leopold notes that land “is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.” Even if a layperson cannot see that every part of the land is alive and important, perhaps if they consider the pyramid itself they can think more openly and ethically about how to treat the land, from the dirt up to the highest trees. Leopold also hopes to “convey three basic ideas” about the land, “1) That land is not merely soil. 2) That the native plants and animals kept the energy circuit open; others may or may not. 3) That man-made changes are of a different order than evolutionary changes, and have effects more comprehensive than is intended or foreseen.” That is, the pyramid underscores the importance of keeping nature in its natural state, and asks people to be aware of the way they can easily damage the environment around them.
Leopold also lays out a theory of “conservation esthetic,” which imagines ways to conserve the environment for future use. He primarily discusses recreation, and wonders how it is possibly to ethically open the land to people who want to experience it, and whose experiences may make them more sympathetic to it, while also protecting the land itself. He acknowledges recreation is often thought of economically, but he argues that there is an “ethical aspect. In the scramble for unspoiled spaces” we must consider “outdoor manners” and train ethical sportsmen who use the land with care and caution. Leopold worries about the need for people to take home trophies, which prove that they have been outdoors and remind them of their time in the land. These trophies can range from a harmless photograph to a “bird’s egg, a mass of trout, a basket of mushrooms,” all of which “attest that its owner has been somewhere and done something.” He points out that photographs do not damage an environment, but trophies like game and fish, or rocks or flowers, do actively degrade the environment and “dilute it,” thereby reducing its quality for future visitors. Similarly, to make wilderness (which is by “official definition roadless”) accessible to the public, roads must be built, thereby compromising its status as wilderness. Leopold acknowledges that mass-use of wilderness then leads to “envelopments” of roads, campgrounds, and toilets, which dilute the experience of true wilderness. However, if visitors are looking not for true solitude and wilderness, but instead “fresh-air and a change of scene,” then an outdoor area can accommodate essentially infinite numbers of people, as “the thousandth tourist who clicks the gate to the National Park breathes approximately the same air…as does the first.” In the closing sentences of his book, Leopold argues, “Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”
Throughout the book, Leopold is preoccupied with considering how mankind can ethically interact with the environment. He believes mankind is part of nature, and should therefore treat the whole world, soil, trees, birds, rivers, and all, as part of the same enormous, interdependent community. He also believes in spending time out in nature, observing and learning from it. However, he understands that there are ethical and unethical ways to interact with the world, and so he has proposed a series of solutions. Firstly, he hopes that mankind can learn to love and respect the land as they would love and respect another human being. Secondly, he hopes they can see the land itself as alive, complex, and deeply interdependent — mankind must respect each component of the land, as each component requires the others to survive. Finally, Leopold considers how recreation can be ethical, settling on a change not necessarily in how recreational spaces are constructed, but instead in how mankind perceives recreation.
Ethics and Ecology ThemeTracker
Ethics and Ecology Quotes in A Sand County Almanac
During every week from April to September there are, on the average, ten wild plants coming into first bloom. In June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them. He who steps unseeing on May dandelions may be hauled up short by August ragweed pollen; he who ignores the ruddy haze of April elms may skid his car on the fallen corollas of June catalpas. Tell me of what plant-birthday a man takes notice, and I shall tell you a good deal about this vocation, his hobbies, his hay fever, and the general level of his ecological education.
The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, but He is no longer the only on to do so. When some remote ancestor of ours invented the shovel, he became a giver: he could plant a tree. And when the axe was invented, he became a taker: he could chop it down. Whoever owns land has thus assumed, whether he knows it or not, the divine functions of creating and destroying plants.
Other ancestors, less remote, have since invented other tools, but each of these, upon close scrutiny, proves to be either an elaboration of or an accessory to, the original pair of basic implements. We classify ourselves into vocations, each of which either wields some particular tool, or sells it, or repairs it, or sharpens it, or dispenses advice on how to do so; by such division of labors we avoid responsibility for the misuse of any tool save our own. But there is one vocation—philosophy—which knows that all men, by what they think about and wish for, in effect wield all tools. It knows that men thus determine, by their manner of thinking and wishing, whether it is worthwhile to wield any.
I have read many definitions of what is a conservationist, and written not a few myself, but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen, but with an axe. It is a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land. Signatures of course differ, whether written with axe or pen, and this is as it should be.
Since the beginning, time had gnawed at the basaltic hulk of the Escudilla, wasting, waiting, and building. Time built three things on the old mountain, a venerable aspect, a community of minor animals and plants, and a grizzly.
The government trapper who took the grizzly knew he had made Escudilla safe for cows. He did not know he had toppled the spire of an edifice a-building since the morning stars sang together.
The bureau chief who sent the trapper was a biologist versed in the architecture of evolution, but he did not k now that spires might be as important as cows. He did not foresee that within two decades the cow country would become tourist country, and as such have greater need of bears than of beefsteaks.
The Congressmen who voted money to clear the ranges of bears were the songs of pioneers. They acclaimed the superior virtues of the frontiersman, but hey strove with might and main to make an end of the frontier.
In our educational system, the biotic continuum is seldom pictured to us as a stream. From our tenderest years we are fed facts about the soils, floras, and faunas that comprise the channel of Round River (biology), and their origins in time (geology and evolution), and about the technique of exploiting them (agriculture and engineering). But the concept of a current with droughts and freshets, backwaters and bars, is left to inference. To learn the hydrology of the biotic stream we must think at right angles to evolution and examine the collective behavior of biotic materials. This calls for a reversal of specialization; instead of learning more and more about less and less, we must learn more and more about the whole biotic landscape.
Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land. By land is meant all of the things on, over, or in the earth. Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say, you cannot love game and hate predators; you cannot conserve the waters and waste the ranges; you cannot build the forest and mine the farm. The land is one organism. Its parts, like our own parts, compete with each other and co-operate with each other. The competitions are as much a part of the inner workings as the co-operations. You can regulate them—cautiously—but not abolish them.
The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little is known about it. The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.
All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in the community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).
The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.
A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state.
In short, a land ethic changes the role of Home 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.
In human history, we have learned (I hope) that the conqueror role is eventually self-defeating. Why? Because it is implicit in such a role that the conqueror knows, ex cathedra, just what makes the community clock tick, and just what and who is valuable, and what and who is worthless, in community life. It always turns out that he knows neither, and this is why his conquests eventually defeat themselves.
In the biotic community, a parallel situation exists. Abraham knew exactly what the land was for: it was to drip milk and honey into Abraham’s mouth. At the present moment, the assurance with which we regard this assumption is inverse to the degree of our education.
The ordinary citizen today assumes that science knows what makes the community clock tick; the scientist is equally sure that he does not. He knows that the biotic mechanism is so complex that is workings may never be fully understood.
When the logic of history hungers for bread and we hand out a stone, we are at pains to explain how much the stone resembles bread. I now describe some of the stones which serve in lieu of a land ethic.
One of the basic weaknesses in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives is that most members of the land community have no economic value. Wildflowers and songbirds are examples. Of the 22,000 higher plants and animals native to Wisconsin, it is doubtful whether more than 5 per cent can be sold, fed, eaten, or otherwise put to economic use. Yet these creatures are members of the biotic community, and if (as I believe) its stability depends on its integrity, they are entitled to continuance.
The thumbnail sketch of land as an energy circuit conveys three basic ideas:
(1) That land is not merely soil.
(2) That the native plants and animals kept the energy circuit open; others may or may not.
(3) That man-made changes are of a different order than evolutionary changes, and have effects more comprehensive than is intended or foreseen.
These ideas, collectively, raise two basic issues: Can the land adjust itself to the new order? Can the desired alterations be accomplished with less violence?
…We see repeated the same basic paradoxes: man the conqueror versus man the biotic citizen; science the sharpener of his sword versus science the searchlight on his universe; land the slave and servant versus land the collective organism. Robinson’s injunction to Tristram may well be applied, at this juncture, to Homo sapiens as a species in geological time:
Whether you will or not
You are a King, Tritram, for you are one
Of the time-tested few that leave the world,
When they are gone, not the same place it was.
Mark what you leave.
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. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense.
Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of the land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than towards, an intense consciousness of land.
Wilderness is the raw material out of which man has hammered the artifact called civilization.
Wilderness was never a homogenous raw material. It was very diverse, and the resulting artifacts are very diverse. These differences in the end-product are known as cultures. The rich diversity of the world’s cultures reflects a corresponding diversity in the wilds that gave them birth.
For the first time in the history of the human species, two changes are now impending. One is the exhaustion of wilderness in the more habitable portions of the globe. The other is the world-wide hybridization of cultures through modern transport and industrialization. Neither can be prevented, and perhaps should be, but the question arises weather, by some slight amelioration of the impending changes, certain values can be preserved that would otherwise be lost.
To the laborer in the sweat of his labor, the raw stuff on his anvil is an adversary to be conquered. So was wilderness an adversary to the pioneer.
But to the laborer in repose, able for the moment to cast a philosophical eye on his world, that same raw stuff is something to be loved and cherished, because it gives definition and meaning to his life. This is a plea for the preservation of some tag-ends of wilderness, as museum pieces, for the edification of those who may one day wish to see, feel, or study the origins of their cultural inheritance.
The trophy-recreationist has peculiarities that contribute in subtle ways to his own undoing. To enjoy he must possess, invade appropriate. Hence the wilderness that he cannot personally see has no value to him. Hence the universal assumption that an unused hinterland is rendering no service to society. To those devoid of imagination, a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part. (Is my share in Alaska worthless to me because I shall never go there? Do I need a road to show me the arctic prairie, the goose pastures of the Yukon, the Kodiak bear, the sheep meadows behind McKinley?)
It would appear, in short, that the rudimentary grades of outdoor recreation consume their resource-base; the higher grades, at least to a degree, create their own satisfactions with little or no attrition of land or life. It is the expansion of transport without a corresponding growth of perception that threatens us with qualitative bankruptcy of the recreational process. Recreation development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.