Aldo Leopold's "The Land Ethic" was written in 1949, yet surprisingly and somewhat sadly- much of it is still very relevant today. Leopold defines an ethic as being "a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence" or a "differentiation of social from anti-social conduct" (38). He maintains that an ethic of the land would not prevent the alteration or use of our 'resources', but it would affirm their right to continued existence and would change the role of humans from conqueror to citizen. He argues that at the time land use ethics were consisted entirely of catering to economic self-interest, which tends to ignore or destroy many elements of of biotic importance. Furthermore, this way of thinking about land tends to relegate to government many large functions which are too complex to be effectively regulated. Because of this, Leopold insists that an internal ethical obligation on part of the private landowner is the only way in which land can be conserved.
I think Leopold presents a strong and convincing argument. Even still it seems that people feel little to no ethical obligation toward land, especially that which is privately owned. Based upon my own un-empirical observations, people seem to feel that they have the right to manipulate their property at their own whims and desires and only feel that such a thing is wrong when their neighbors do something similar. At one point in the article Leopold mentions, however, that people have no economic incentive to preserve things such as wildflowers. I think here Leopold fails to consider that many people do have some incentive to preserve these things because of many people's intrinsic value of pretty things in nature, such as birds, wildflowers, and waterfalls. If people did not value nature at all our nation's national parks would receive far fewer visitors than they currently do. However, in general Leopold is correct in saying if there is any greater economic incentive than our value of nature, nature will likely be the loser- especially in cases of things in nature perceived as being ugly like beetles, swamps, and naked mole rats. I also agree with Leopold that unless society experiences an internal change where ethical conduct toward land is seen as being important and necessary, little is likely to change because land management and conservation concerns are too vast for our government to effectively regulate (and to monitor the effectiveness of those regulations). For instance, civil rights laws have not eradicated racism, but people's internal changes have made many people come to feel that people of differing races, sexes, and nationalities should be treated fairly and equally. In the same way, perhaps government environmental regulation could help motivate internal ethical change, but it would not prevent current and future land abuses. This leaves one with trying to figure out how to get people to feel an ethical responsibility toward the land. In the article, Leopold mentioned the education system's failure in creating an environmental ethical regard and I while agree with his sentiments about the current system, I do think that changes to the system could bring results. My interest in preserving the environment stems from my enjoyment of being in it while hiking, traveling, and nature watching. So, perhaps if children in schools were allowed more time outside and on field trips to natural locations they would feel more inclined to preserving what is there because their enjoyment of nature provides a greater incentive to do so. Their higher regard for the land would then be passed on to their children and so on, until it becomes a given that the land should be nurtured and respected.
Leopold, Aldo. "The Land Ethic" in Environmental Ethics, ed by Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston (Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2003), 38-46.