Land Ethic

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Land ethic

Land ethic refers to an approach to issues of land use that emphasizes conservation and respect for our natural environment . Rejecting the belief that all natural resources should be available for unchecked human exploitation, a land ethic advocates land use without undue disturbances of the complex, delicately balanced ecological systems of which humans are a part. Land ethic, environmental ethics , and ecological ethics are sometimes used interchangeably.

Discussions of land ethic, especially in the United States, usually begin with a reference of some kind to Aldo Leopold . Many participants in the debate over land and resource use admire Leopold's prescient and pioneering quest and date the beginnings of a land ethic to his A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949. However, Leopold's earliest formulation of his position may be found in "A Conservation Ethic," a benchmark essay on ethics published in 1933.

Even recognizing Leopold's remarkable early contribution, it is still necessary to place his pioneer work in a larger context. Land ethic is not a radically new invention of the twentieth century but has many ancient and modern antecedents in the Western philosophical tradition. The Greek philosopher Plato, for example, wrote that morality is "the effective harmony of the whole"not a bad statement of an ecological ethic. Reckless exploitation has at times been justified as enjoying divine sanction in the Judeo-Christian tradition (man was made master of the creation, authorized to do with it as he saw fit). However, most Christian thought through the ages has interpreted the proper human role as one of careful husbandry of resources that do not, in fact, belong to humans. In the nineteenth century, the Huxleys, Thomas and Julian, worked on relating evolution and ethics. The mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote that "man is not a solitary animal, and so long as social life survives, self-realization cannot be the supreme principle of ethics." Albert Schweitzer became famousat about the same time that Leopold formulated a land ethicfor teaching reverence for life, and not just human life. Many non-western traditions also emphasize harmony and a respect for all living things. Such a context implies that a land ethic cannot easily be separated from age-old thinking on ethics in general.

See also Land stewardship

[Gerald L. Young and Marijke Rijsberman ]



Bormann, F. H., and S. R. Kellert, eds. Ecology, Economics, Ethics: The Broken Circle. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.

Kealey, D. A. Revisioning Environmental Ethics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

Leopold, A. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949.

Nash, R. F. The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

Rolston, H. Environmental Ethics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

Turner, F. "A New Ecological Ethics." In Rebirth of Value. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.


Callicott, J. Baird. "The Land Ethic: Key Philosophical and Scientific Challenges." October 15, 1998 [June 19, 2002]. <>.

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Land Ethic

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