Aldo Leopold(oct3).docx

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University of Toronto St. George
School of Environment
Stephen Scharper

Aldo Leopold “The Land Ethic” Reading (for Oct 3 2013) - Raw wilderness gives definition and meaning to the human enterprise. The Ethical Sequence - Extension of ethics is a process in ecological evolution - An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence - Origin: in the tendency of interdependent people or groups to evolve modes of cooperation (ecologist calls these symbioses) - There is no ethic yet that deals with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants, which grow upon it. The land relation is strictly economical, entailing privileges but not obligations - An ethic may be regarded as a mode of guidance for meeting ecological situations The Community Concept - All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. Instincts prompt him to compete for his place in the community, but ethics prompt him to cooperate - Land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants & animals (collectively: the land) - Land ethic cannot prevent the alteration, management and use of resources (like water, soil, plants etc), but does affirm their right to their continued existence in a natural state - Land ethic changes the role of humans from conqueror of the land to plain member & citizen, implying respect for his fellow members and for the community - Biotic mechanism is so complex that its workings may never be fully understood - Many historical events were actually biotic interactions b/w people and land - Consider the settlement of the Mississippi valley (native Indian, French & English traders and American settlers contended for control of the land)  Kentucky cane-lands, subjected to forces of the cow, plow, fire and axe, became bluegrass  Southwest region was grazed by livestock and reverted to a condition of unstable equilibrium through a series of worthless grasses, shrubs & weeds. Each recession of plant types bred erosion. Each addition of erosion bred a further recession of plants. Early settlers didn’t expect the progressive and mutual deterioration of plants, soils and animal community (subtle process)  In short, plant succession steered the course of history The Ecological Conscience - Conservation is a state of harmony b/w man and land, proceeding at a snail’s pace. There is a need for ‘more conservation education’ - Volume of education needs to be improved or content as well? - Content: obey law, vote right, join some organization, practice what conservation is profitable on your own land and government will do the rest - But the formula of the content defines no right or wrong, nor does it assign any obligations. Calls for no sacrifice, implies no change in the philosophy of values. In respect of land-use, it urges only enlightened self-interest - Example: Wisconsin’s topsoil was slipping seaward  Certain remedial practices adopted by farmers for 5 years were widely forgotten when the 5 year contract was over  Farmers only continued those practices that yielded an immediate and visible economical gain for themselves  Led to the idea that farmers would learn more quickly if they themselves wrote the rules. In 1937, Soil Conservation District Law was passed. Nearly all countries promptly organized to accept the proffered help  But no country has yet written a single rule!  Farmers, in short, have selected those remedial practices which were profitable anyhow, and ignored those which were profitable to the community, but not clearly profitable to themselves  One is told that no rules yet written because community is not yet ready to support them and education must precede the rules  But this ^ education makes no mention of obligations to land over and above those dictated by self-interest. Result: more education but less soil, fewer healthy woods and as many floods as in 1937 - Existence of obligations over and above self-interest is taken for granted - Land-use ethics are still governed wholly by economic self-interest (just like social ethics a century ago) - We are too timid and too anxious for quick success to tell the farmer the true magnitude of his obligations - Problem faced: extension of social conscience from people to land - No important change in ethics was ever accomplished w/o an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections and convictions Substitutes for a Land Ethic - One basic weakness in a conservation system, based wholly on economic motives: most members of the land community have no economic value - If any plant or animal (that doesn’t have any economic value) is threatened, only if we happen to love it do we invent deception to give it economic importance. Evidence for the deception could be shaky, but has to be economic in order to be valid - We have no land ethic yet, but have at least drawn nearer the point of admitting that birds should continue as a matter of biotic right, regardless of the presence/absence of economic advantage - Parallel situation exists in respect of predatory mammals, raptorial birds & fish- eating birds  Biologists used to overwork the evidence that ^ these creatures preserve the health of the game by killing weaklings  Or that they control rodents for farmers  Or that they prey only on ‘worthless’ species  Evidence had to be economic in order to be valid  Only in recent years, we hear honest arguments that predators are members of the community & that no special interest has the right to exterminate them (this view is still in the talk stage, the extermination of predators on field goes merrily on) - Some species of trees have been ‘read out of the party’ by economics-minded foresters because they grow too slowly or have too low a sale value - The interdependence of the forest and its constituent tree species, ground flora and fauna is taken for granted - Lack of economic value is a character of entire biotic communities too, example marshes, bogs, dunes & deserts  Formula in such cases is to consign their conservation to governments as refuges, monuments or parks  Problem is that these communities are usually interspersed with more valuable private lands  Net effect: we have consigned some of them to ultimate extinction over large areas - In some cases, the assumed lack of profit in these ‘waste’ areas has proved to be wrong, but only after most of them had been done away with - To sum up: a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided. Tends to ignore many elements in the land community that lack commercial value, but are essential to its healthy functioning. Assumes falsely that the economic parts of the biotic clock will function w/o the uneconomic parts - Remedy: an ethical obligation on the part of the private owner The Land Pyramid (the biotic pyramid) - Larger carnivores (apex layer) birds & rodents  insects  plants 
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