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What is an ethical sequence from less to more responsibility?


"It is a worldview that acknowledges the inherent value of nonhuman life. All living beings are members of ecological communities bound together in a network of interdependencies. When his deep ecological perception becomes part of our daily awareness, a radically new system of ethics emerges."

Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life, p. 11.

This is the question Aldo Leopold posed and the view he advanced in his essay

"A Land Ethic"

adam A part of his collection called A Sand County Almanac.

Aldo Leopold, was a 19th & 20th century, wildlife biologist, conservationist, and ecologist. He defined humans as citizens of nature and called upon us to do the right thing.


"That man is, in fact, only a member of a biotic team is shown by an ecological interpretation of history. Many historical events, hitherto explained solely in terms of human enterprise, were actually biotic interactions between people and the land."
  p. 241, A Sand County Almanac, Ballantine-Sierra ed. Oxford University Press, 1949.


I. The Ethical Sequence

[The] "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 action in the struggle for existence. An ethic, philosophically is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct."

Property ownership, control and disposal as a matter of expediency is a basic American attitude about land.

Paragraph number followed by a precis of the basic meaning of the text therein.

1-2 the ethical structure of ancient Greece extended protection to wives but not human chattel -- hence slave women were disposed of by masters.

3 As ethical criteria are extended >, there is a corresponding shrinkage in the realms of expediency <

4 Extension of ethics = process of ecological evolution

Ethics are defined as: "a limitation on the freedom of action"

social from anti-social conduct

evolve modes of social cooperation

advanced symbioses (Politics and Economics)

5 complexity of coop mechanisms

"An ethic may be regarded as a mode of guidance for meeting ecological situations so new or intricate, or involving such deferred reactions, that the path of social expediency is not discernible to the average individual. Animal instincts are modes of guidance for the individual in meeting such situations. Ethics are possibly a kind of community instinct in-the-making."

6 relation between individuals & people in society

7 no ethic for land-use

"There is as yet no ethic dealing with man's relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it."


Ezekiel & Isaiah: "have asserted that the despoliation of land is not only inexpedient but wrong. Society, however, has not yet affirmed their belief. I regard the present conservation movement as the embryo of such an affirmation."

9 "ethic as a mode of guidance. . . "

"for meeting ecological situations so new or intricate, or involving such deferred reactions, that the path of social expediency is not discernible to the average individual."


10 The Community Concept: members of a community of interdependent parts

ethics suggest cooperation among otherwise competing interests

11 simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include

"The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land."

soils plants and animals collectively the land

12 right to continued existence

13 from conqueror to plain member of ecological community

14 the conqueror role is eventually self-defeating

15 education hampers the knowing that we eat, drink & breathe land

16 biomechanics is so complex -- as to be beyond scientific comprehension

17 an ecological interpretation of history

18 bluegrass was once cane-breaks of central USA

19 soils are keystones to culture

20 southwest occupancy bread erosion and retreat of land

The commercial abuse of landscape lead to a mutual deterioration of plants & soils!

21 Anasazi had no cattle to loot the land

22 plant succession has steered the course of history!



II. The Ecological Conscience

23 Conservation is a state of harmony between people and land

24 How important is the volume or content of knowing?

25 people only practice what conservation is profitable

26 no sacrifice -- no obligations only enlightened self-interest

27 topsoil slipping seaward -- Wisconsin

due to immediate visible economic gain!

28 selected those remedial practices -- profitable anyhow

29 we have more education and less soil ! [prophetic]

30 economic self-interest dominates our land values

31 institutions too timid & too anxious for quick success

extension of social conscience from people to land

32 loyalties, affections & commitments must be challenged and changed

by making conservation easy we make it trivial!




III. Substitutes for a land ethic

33 stones in lieu of an ethic (bread) [stones unlike bread are not nourishing our appetite]

34 members with no economic value are under appreciated or depreciation

integrity means entitled to continued existence

(blue-green bacteria, methanogens, wetlands, bogs,)

35 evidence has to be economic to be important (believed/ heeded)

36 do birds have a biotic right to exist?

37 still at the 'talk stage'

38 economic forestry reduces diversity

39 marshes, bogs, dunes, & deserts, these whole communities are depreciated

40 muskrat marshes

41 relegating unproductive tasks to government {CCPP game}

42 industrial attitudes

43 owner attitudes

44 economics based solely on self-interest is too lopsided for contemporary land-use & social good

45 remedy is the private owners love of the land

field sciencefarming


IV. community

Rosa Bonheur, Plowing in Nivernai, oil on canvas, 1850.

This 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


The land ethic enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils waters, plants and animals, or collectively: the land.

Land Pyramid is an actual energy flow from the sun to the plants to the organisms in a conduit of life.

Ecological land pyramidLand pyramid reveals a sense of dynamism as a basis for the development of an ecological conscience or a moral compassion we develop for our fellow creatures.

The essays define conservation, a conservation aesthetic based on the time and place of ecologically essential events, and a behavioral guide on how to further an ecological ethic as the precondition for successful, effective and equitable conservation.

Defines and adopts an ecological view of history enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils waters, plants and animals, or collectively: the land.

p. 239.



V. A/B Cleavage

Describes a new approach} to conservation in the A | B Cleavage

p. 258.

In the use of natural features, resources, and places Aldo Leopold distinguishes a commodity or production view as separate from the inherent biologically functional view that forms the basis of biological wealth.

Biotic wealth preservation account approaches [Leopold does not use these specific terms but he does examine a split between two approaches he calls the "A | B cleavage." to explain his argument]:

a) autistic (agronomic, meaning agricultural economics as narrow)
b) bio-philiacs
( ecocentric or biocentric focus on "whole landscape thinking" from the term biophilia, by E.O. Wilson meaning "a love of life;" all other life.

Two different types of investment decisions

1) future value of a forest diminishes with high interest rates

2) common property, keystone elements in ecological management.

states The public land system exists in these states.





weal as source of wealth
water -- energy -- air -- land

water symbolizes

rivers and streams - watershed

energy is eternal delight

sources of useful power


surrounding climate


vegetation, wildlife & fisheries

All four components of the habitat create together =

A dynamic feed-back loop upon itself in a self-renewing process of becoming alive.

health is the capacity of the land for self renewal. p. 258.

functional relations rely on limiting factors




biomass Oak & savannah woodland is a biome.

A new ecological way to think about the biotic community.

partnership: two begin to function as one
dynamic partnerships; eukaryotic cells may have originated this way!


Clown angelfish and sea anemones

  1. root fungus & forest health
  2. lichens & air pollution
  3. corals & water temperature

Is the entire planet symbiotic?



VI. The outlook

Admiration, if not love –respect and adoration–means a high regard for land's value.



Ten parts of the essay on a land ethic are:

1, educational and economic incentives are headed away from

true modern "separated from the land"

"Synthetic substitutes" golf-links 'scenic' area

2, attitude of the farmer adversarial or slave to nature

3, ecological comprehension

4, minority revolt against the modern trends

5, not solely an economic problem, but a perception and a behavioral one!

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community."

The meaning of the quote.

6, economic feasibility limits the resilience of our tether to natural areas

7, evolved in the minds of a thinking community; Moses 10 commandments

8, an intellectual as well as emotional process -- critical understanding

9, social approbation for right actions; social disapproval in six stages:

      1. shame
      2. sin
      3. ridicule
      4. punishment
      5. banishment
      6. deprivation

10, problem of attitudes and implements

    • we are in need of a gentler hand motivated by a set of more objective criteria
    • for the successful use of an ethical attitude, behavior, and responsiveness to our ailing planet!





The many meanings of Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic

natural objects as indicators, are really circuit breakers, enunciators; these instruments reveal a condition of a functioning unit that require our attention, maintenance or overhaul.

natural features emerge as symbols -- tree branches, tributary streams, cycles, sources, or refugia for unseen processes that sustain life on earth.

• intrinsic value
• inherent behavior what is it worth?

People have developed a misplaced trust in science

§ seeking "cures" is not the same as finding ecological (cancer) answers

§ we really are members of a biotic team

§ manipulating the external world has consequences for our own inner metabolism and reproductive successes

§ the very proteins and amino acids, made of nitrogen, carbon, sulfur, and phosphorus are the same vital elements we share with all other nature's living and once living creatures.

Nature is?

p. 241

plant succession -- history

successionp. 243

extension of ethics : from personal, to family, to group, to other groups, to all people, to wildlife, to land

p. 238

community concept

p. 239

Land } emerges as a collective organism with needs, responsiveness, and adaptive potential.

Weal & Laws of conservation, minimum, ecology.
with capacities
self renewal and keystone species

As a partner we can we become members of the biological community as equal citizens?

dynamic dancing: adaptive learning, negating functionality

intense consciousness of land

(p.243, quoted from 251, 253.)

The violence, rapidity and scope of man-made changes, warrants our attention, behavioral change, and deeper commitment to life.

(p. 254.)

wisdom of biotic navigation





The Round River,

p. 189.

history and ecology ... contrive to limit the land's carrying capacity or density.
(land due to water and energy)

Aldo Leopold insisted was "the outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is . . . but rather the complexity of the land organism"

p. 190.

That in the beauty of the natural world is the stability and permanence of existence;
inalterable, inalienable, irretrievable, it is the world that created and maintains us!

if the land ethic is ever to be demonstrable

love, respect and admiration for the regenerative capacity of the land




Have faith in the land organism: the mere thin edge of the Land Organism is seen merely as landscapes.

Because the natural world is beyond our vision of it.
Rachel Carson,
J. B. S. Haldane

But landscapes are really conspiracies of bacteria, fungus, animals and plants to utilize, redistribute, and extensively preserve the nutrients and energy on which all life depends.

If we are ever to save vegetation, wildlife, and fisheries, then a land ethic a precondition for conserving those ecosystem service we must have to be productive and healthy!

Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.

The exhaustion of wilderness in the more habitable portions of the globe.

That man-made changes are of a different order (magnitude) than evolutionary changes, and have effects (population) more comprehensive than is intended or foreseen.


The Leopold Foundation study guide.

Persistent biases | conservation vs. preservation | ecosystem services | complexity

Last Updated on June 5, 2014, & 5/25.2010, & from 3/1/2000.
By Joseph Siry

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E. O. Wilson | Lewis Thomas | Rachel Carson | Luna Leopold | Lynn Margulis | Richard Dawkins / Fritjof Capra

bookAldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, Ballantine-Sierra ed. Oxford University Press, 1949.

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