Baal Shem Tov, or Besht — the founder of Chasidism —
The Land Ethicby Aldo Leopold, from A Sand County Almanac, 1948
This presentation of Leopold's seminal essay includes all the essential points, while leaving out a lot of the political discussion contemporary to his time and some of the historical examples that are less relevant. It has also been proofed and corrected (it is hard to find a copy of Leopold's seminal essay on the web without lots of typos). See below for notations on what has been excluded, as well as for helpful links on Leopold and "The Land Ethic". Download the whole essay as a pdf here.
The Ethical Sequence
Th[e] extension of ethics, so far studied only by philosophers, is actually a process in ecological evolution. Its sequence may be described in ecological as well as in philosophic terms. An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence. An ethic, philosophically, is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct. These are two definitions of one thing. The thing has its origin in the tendency of interdependent individuals or groups to evolve modes of co-operation. The ecologist calls these symbioses. Politics and economics are advanced symbioses in which the original free-for-all competition has been replaced, in part, by co-operative mechanisms with an ethical content.
The Community Concept
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 that community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).
The Ecological Conscience
No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions. The proof that conservation has not yet touched these foundations of conduct lies in the fact that philosophy and religion have not yet heard of it. In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial.
To sum up: a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided. It tends to ignore, and thus eventually to eliminate, many elements in the land community that lack commercial value, but that are (as far as we know) essential to its healthy functioning. It assumes, falsely, I think, that the economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts. It tends to relegate to government many functions eventually too large, too complex, or too widely dispersed to be performed by government.
An ethical obligation on the part of the private owner is the only visible remedy for these situations.
The Land Pyramid
An ethic to supplement and guide the economic relation to land presupposes the existence of some mental image of land as a biotic mechanism. We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.
It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to 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.
About this abridgment:
Two longer sections, along with the introduction, have been left out entirely. They are: "Substitutes for a Land Ethic" and "Land Health and the A-B Cleavage". Here is the essence of the intro: "When god-like Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy, he hanged all on one rope a dozen slave-girls of his household, whom he suspected of misbehavior during his absence. This hanging involved no question of propriety...The ethical structure of that day covered wives, but had not yet been extended to human chattels. During the three thousand years which have since elapsed, ethical criteria have been extended to many fields of conduct, with corresponding shrinkages in those judged by expediency only."
* Left out from the section on "The Community Concept" is one line about Abraham that is truly incorrect. In that line, Leopold displays the common prejudices many people share about the Biblical account of our relationship with the earth. He writes, "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."
His characterization of Abraham (our emphasis) does indeed reflect many readings of Genesis (especially certain Christian ones), but the actual significance of the land of Canaan in the Torah is quite the opposite: Canaan is praised for being a land in which humans have no direct control over the land's fertility, and must depend on rain instead of irrigation, which in turn depends on God's affirmation of the goodness of their way of living. In the Torah, this is inextricably linked to two things: equity and justice for all residents whether rich or poor, and letting the land rest in Sabbatical and Jubilee years.
This point in the text is btw followed by one of Leopold's more interesting historical digressions about Kentucky and the Civil War, the Southwest and India. See the second half of the section in the full essay, downloadable here.
Leopold's conclusion, "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise," stands in essence, but his emphasis on stability sounds a lot like 'the balance of nature', which he even briefly critiques. ('Balance' in this sense can imply stasis, which is contradicted by ideas about 'dynamic equilibrium' in ecology, and 'punctuated equilibrium' in evolutionary theory.) And of course, how shall we measure beauty in any way that is not so thoroughly anthropocentric as to undermine seeing ourselves merely as citizens rather than masters or stewards of the biosphere? Yet if we conjecture a human instinct towards 'biophilia', as Edmund Wilson does, which would ally our sense of beauty with those needs that nurture biodiversity, and if we limit the scope of 'stability' to speciifc localities, in the sense of both time and space, we can arrive at a conception of what is 'right' that still works in relation to current ecological theory.
Less significantly, Leopold's characterization of The Odyssey and Odysseus' Greece, with which he begins the essay, has also been challenged. His general point stands regardless.
Design in progress © Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg 2006