The ‘Land Ethic’

“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.” –Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopold is a well-known American author, scientist, ecologist, and environmentalist.  In his most famous work, A Sand County Almanac (1949), he writes about the extension of ethics to the natural world, which was extremely influential in the modern conservation movement.


Ethics typically direct people to cooperate and to conduct themselves in a way that will benefit the social community at large.  However, ‘the community’ is typically understood to be human-centred, and so lands and animals can and have been exploited for human interests.  Leopold argues that in Western culture, we are missing a ‘Land Ethic’, and so our idea of ‘community’ needs to be extended to include non-human and natural elements as well as humans.

“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.  A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience,  and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of land.” –AL

Leopold urges us to “quit thinking about decent land use as solely an economic problem.”  Since our environmental existence cannot be separated from our economic existence, we need to extend our democratic ethics to elements of our environment that would otherwise end up commodified, used and sold to strengthen economies.  The economic system is an infinite system, requiring infinite growth, while the environmental system on which our economic system depends is a finite system; we do not have infinite resources to consume.


Although Leopold was writing over 50 years go, his ‘Land Ethic’ resonates still.  We need to critically re-evaluate how we value things around us, paritularly natural environments.  If we can truly love nature, we will care for it.

“We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.” –AL


“This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love
for and obligation to the land of the free and the
home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom
do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are
sending helter-skelter downriver. Certainly not the
waters, which we assume have no function except
to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage.
Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate
whole communities without batting an eye.
Certainly not the animals, of which we have already
extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful
species. 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.”


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2 Comments on “The ‘Land Ethic’”

  1. pendantry April 20, 2013 at 8:22 am #

    Christopher Stone argued back in 1971 that trees should have rights; I agree with him entirely, and with this Aldo Leopold chappie’s views on land, too.

    The question is: where can I put my ‘X’ against the name of a politician who thinks that we should live in harmony with our environment? Sadly, I cannot: the only choice offered to me is to vote for those who are locked into the manic lunacy of growthmania.

    • utopiandreaming April 23, 2013 at 5:16 pm #

      Agreed. Lands and organisms should certainly have rights, and urban and suburban planning should take into account animal habitats and migration patterns so that we are not drastically disturbing ecosystems wherever we go! In Ecuador and a few other countries, lands and animals actually do have constitutional rights, however I don’t believe these are actively enforced.

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