Blog 4: Land Ethics

Reading the excerpt from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac I thought some of his criticism was poorly targeted, weakening his overall argument. His central thesis that we should be ethical toward plants, animals, and the environment in general is a good one that I don’t think many would disagree with – all else equal being ethical is superior being unethical – but leaves a lot of obvious counterpoints unaddressed.

His strongest point was “[p]erhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land. Your true modern is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets. He has no vital relation to it; to him it is the space between cities on which crops grow.” (pg 75) This part didn’t address the main point of why we should treat the land ethically directly, but it was a strong point because of how fundamentally true it is. Some may criticize him as a Luddite for blaming technology and modernity in general for the failures of “the evolution of a land ethic” but I think it’s a valid point to bring up. The people I personally know that are most ethical towards the land and the environment in their actions are not my politically left-leaning friends and family or those among them that constantly share Sierra Club posts in my Facebook feed. It’s generally my older relatives that grew up intimately with the environment, who as children had acres of natural forests, rivers, and swamps to explore. People like my grandpa who grew up in the Ohio River Valley before moving to South Florida and working as a surveyor in the Everglades in his early 20s. That kind of experience in a natural environment affects you. It’s people like my uncle who grew up on a farm in Iowa and has lived on farms ever since. He doesn’t have the ideological support for land ethics like the author does but he knows intuitively that keeping acres and acres of natural forest on his land is ultimately a good thing, even though he could make more money by planting crops there instead.

Upper Iowa River
The Upper Iowa River, not far from where my uncle lives.

In the same vein, the author wildly underestimates the depth of economic theory, even considering when the book was published. He asserts that “[o]ne basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives is that most members of the land community have no economic value.” (pg 65) In reality, economists have explored non-monetary valuations since at least Adam Smith and one of the basic tenets of value theory is that market price is not the same as economic value. If my mother’s house went up in flames she wouldn’t save the jewelry or television or any other high-price things, she’d go straight for her photo albums and things with similar sentimental value. Even though a photo album probably would fetch no more than $20 on the open market she values them more than the hundreds or even thousand of dollars she could get for saving other objects. Just because she values something more than its market price doesn’t mean this isn’t an economic decision. In the same way, asserting that white cedar, tamarack, cypress, beech, and hemlock have no economic value because they aren’t commodities is simply wrong. In the same part of the book, the author attacks attempts at making a pro-environment argument using economics as circumlocutions. However, I think economic arguments are the strongest ways to make pro-environment arguments. So long as the data backs up the claim, people will be far more likely to change their habits if your argument is along the lines of “Our overuse of pesticides is killing birds. Without these birds imagine how annoying mosquitoes will be, not to mention the unforeseeable domino effect on the food chain.” Rather than “Our overuse of pesticides is killing birds. These birds have a right to live and it’s unethical to take that from them.” People act in their own self-interest so framing a point around that will be far more effective.

I didn’t really understand when the author said, “Perhaps the most important of these is the new evidence that poundage or tonnage is no measure of the food-value of farm crops; the products of fertile soil may be qualitatively as well as quantitatively superior.” (pg 74) I think he’s making the point that one pound of crops grown in fertile soil has more food value than, say, a pound and a quarter of the same crops grown in depleted soil, which makes sense, but he doesn’t elaborate or explain why this is “perhaps the most important” discontent in agriculture or how this weaves into his overall argument instead leaving that to “abler pens.”

Overall, I think Aldo Leopold wrote in support of a worthy goal but his arguments were wanting. Several times he attacked something pejoratively, such as the ornithology studies, without explaining what was wrong with it and other times his hyperbole or dismissiveness simply made his argument seem weak, such as comparing land ethics to Odysseus hanging slaves or the aforementioned economic valuations. It was a thought-provoking excerpt, though, and a good read.

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