A land ethic
Is public land our mutual bastard? Aristotle gave an example of a child with 1,000 fathers. With 1,000 shares of fatherhood, each one only has 1/1,000th of an investment in the child’s success. If you were one of these fathers would you feel more or less responsible for the child? Modern attitudes towards publicly owned lands are similar. Public water and land get polluted by individuals and organizations who have more interest in convenience than stewardship. How do hundreds of millions of public land shareholders get on the same page regarding their communal property? One answer comes from American author, environmentalist, and philosopher Aldo Leopold. Leopold’s clarion call for a system of ethics for land is in his essay The Land Ethic, which provides insight and reasoning for the necessity of such a concept.
Leopold uses Odysseus hanging twelve slave-girls on his return from the battle of Troy to draw parallels between how people and land are treated poorly as property. Historically, land and people were executed in whatever expedient manner their proprietor saw fit. As society progressed it became evident that treating humans as property was immoral and violated their sovereignty. We have not made the same progress in “land rights” as human rights, but some strides have been made (Leopold, 1949). Government efforts to protect the land are seen in the existence of enforcement agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, United States Forestry Service, and the Fish & Game Department.
Leopold’s definition of land is all “soils, waters, plants, and animals.” By taking a comprehensive ecological perspective in creating an ethic--we also addresses concerns from animal rights activists like Peter Singer; who believe we ought to extend to non-human animals the same equality of consideration we extend to human beings. Leopold and Singer use similar methods to support their hypothesis. Leopold identifies an ethical sequence; where an extension and integration of ethics into societal consciousness is a logical conclusion from the development of a morality concerning the use of land. This mirrors how Singer attempts to extend social consciousness by developing concern and investment in the treatment of non-humans by comparing the intelligence of certain animals to human infants and those who are handicapped.
Using an utilitarian model as a substitute for a land ethic is a double-edged sword. Historically, land has been paved, tilled, and railroaded for the greater good. Many plants and animals have no economic value. How do we explain to layfolk the Spotted Owl is necessary to increase pleasure? However, conservation in the name of the common good is an easier sell when people’s jobs are at risk. Red Snapper was nearly extinct off the Gulf of Mexico about a decade ago, but conservation efforts in controlling the size of catches has resulted in an abundance of the fish in recent years. Through the establishment of harvest shares the species along with the livelihoods of the fisherman were saved (Vice News, 2015).
Developing a comprehensive environmental ethic is essential for the continuance of life on this planet. How our ethic is formed is a matter of debate among philosophers, lawmakers, and society. How will you contribute to this dialogue?
Leopold, Aldo. The Land Ethic. 1949
Singer, Peter. All Animals are Equal. 1989Vice News. Countdown to Extinction. 2015 HBO Network. Television.