A Sand County Almanac: The Land Ethic
Aldo Leopold begins his last chapter by presenting a harsh tale of Odysseus, a Greek hero who
returned home from his journey and, with no hesitation or remorse, hanged many of his slaves for rumors of their disobedience when he was away. In modern times, this act of punishment would seem cruel and lacking of any moral justice whatsoever, but Leopold stresses that in ancients’ eyes, this would only be a reasonable response toward what was rightfully Odysseus’ property. With this in mind, we must realize that as our species has evolved from this brutality; consensuses through history have established ethics, first addressing the respect toward other individuals and second toward society as a whole. In order for an individual to be granted a place this society, rules must be created that govern, and often limit, the actions of those individuals in order to safe keep the wellbeing of the whole. However, Leopold stresses that although humans have struggled for centuries to find this balance between selfish pursuits and social righteousness, the majority of the public today has still not realized that these ethical standards must also be applied to the land that we call ourselves “stewards” of. Like Odysseus, humans are still primitive in the belief that parcels of the Earth are property, to be forced into submission without any regard to that land’s wellbeing. Instead, we allow the land to degrade for our sole benefit—soils to erode from the Green Revolution’s agricultural methods, rivers to be industrially polluted and impaired by dams and levees, and whole species to be destroyed for the economic benefits of the land which they inhabited.
There is a phrase that historians often use to describe how historical events will be remembered for generations to come: “history is written by the victors.” From the land’s point of view, however, this victor is not which group of humans shed the least blood or won the desired territory—the victors are simply humans, conquering and pillaging an entity that has no voice to object. In the classroom, history is taught in this way as textbook outlines stories of human development throughout the far reaches of the Earth. Due to this lack of a “land ethic,” teachers and students alike only discuss how settlers transform the land and fail to consider the effect of the environment on the settler. In this mindset, Leopold portrays the story of the American transcontinental conqueror. After the American Revolution, natives, French and English traders, and American settlers wished to control the floodplain of the Mississippi, desiring access to trade and nutrient-rich agricultural lands. However, if it had not been for the introduction of the resilient bluegrass in the Old Northwest just decades before, the delicacy of the prairielands might have just as easily become as barren and dry as the American Southwest (which did experience environmental catastrophe after the massacre of the buffalo and overgrazing). Leopold wonders how history would have continued with a lack of this simple plant succession—would farmers have continued to expand? Would railroads have continued west? Would the debate over the expansion of slavery blossomed into the chaos of the Civil War? Leopold concludes that a simple change in thought, from being the “victor” to being a citizen of the interdependent nation of Earth, can create a more enlightened and conscious society.
Society as a whole sees no obligation toward the conservation and preservation of the land because there exists no social conscience directed toward the natural state of the environment. Instead, conscience is only measured by the treatment of humans by humans, and even that has been limited again and again by nothing less than the selfish pursuit of economic gain. Irish immigrants, an oppressed group on the streets of Northeastern cities in the early 1900s, voted for decades against the civil rights of African Americans for fear the masses of free blacks would threaten their job opportunities. Students would think that these two groups, constantly discriminated against by the wealthy and “superior,” would come together and fight against the social injustices acted on them. Instead, history has proven that ethics, the well-being of the whole, are second to money. These social crimes have shown themselves less than a century ago, seeming to render any chance toward a land ethic nearly impossible. However, Aldo Leopold holds on to the belief that preserving Mother Earth must be incorporated to our philosophical and religious beliefs, arguably the fundamental aspects of our selfless endeavors, in order to be considered as equal to our other moral pursuits. We must embrace the belief that just as each individual has a spiritual obligation to consider the consequences on others over our own desires, we must recognize that our world deserves equal respect—an ecocentric worldview, if you will. Of course, if that mindset is not applicable to the most conservative of us, humans must also realize that the environmental world that we live in is just as interconnected as our social one—the negative implications on the land will, in the long run, negatively affect our own endeavors. Either way, we as a society must focus on cultivating our spiritual and altruistic connections with the world around us, valuing our emotional guidelines as much as we do our empirical ones.