Q/A Video – Main Ideas in Leopold
Main Ideas in Leopold (Links to an external site.)
Hello, and welcome back for this video on main ideas in Leopold.
Background on Leopold
So let’s start with some background on Aldo Leopold. Leopold, was an American forest manager, ecologist, and writer who lived during the late 1800s and early 1900s. He worked for the US Forest Service in Arizona, New Mexico, and Wisconsin, and served as a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Leopold’ s most famous book is A Sand County Almanac, which tells the story of a year on his farm in rural Wisconsin. The book includes detailed descriptions of the local ecosystem and an outline of his views on environmental ethics. As we will see, Leopold promotes an ethical view that stresses care for the natural environment.
The Story of Odysseus
Let me mention a little background about an analogy which he provides at the very beginning of the text, and which can help us understand some of his ethical concerns.
Towards the beginning of the assigned reading, Leopold uses a story from Ancient Greece to illustrate one of his main ideas. In the story, the warrior Odysseus returns from war and kills twelve slave girls that he suspects of betraying him during his absence. This action is not viewed as wrong by anyone in the story, since at that time slaves were viewed as the property of their master.
Leopold uses the story as an analogy for the way people currently view nature. He notes that many people view nature as property, and believe that land owners have a right to manipulate or destroy plants, animals, and natural ecosystems, as long as these are on their land.
In the same way that ethics has evolved to include concern for slaves, and nearly all humans, Leopold predicts that ethics will evolve to include concern for nature as well.
The Community Concept
One key theme from the reading is that Leopold views nature as a community, with plants, animals, soil, and water each playing a cooperative role in a given area. This is similar to the concept of an ecosystem, in which many parts of nature are closely interrelated.
On p. 498 of our reading, Leopold (1949/2010) says that:
The human species should view itself as a “plain member and citizen” of the natural community.
Rather than try to dominate and exploit all of nature, he tells humans to play a more limited and cooperative role in the ecological community.
Limits of an Economic Approach
Some people view nature in purely economic terms, as a source of commodities that can be bought and sold by humans. On this view, it is only worth preserving nature if we have an economic use for it.
However, Leopold identifies some shortcomings of this approach:
· For one thing, some plants and animals, such as backyard birds, are valued by humans, but are not bought and sold in the economy.
· Also, if we try to preserve only species that have an economic use, we will through off the stability of the ecosystem. For example, if we do not care about bugs in the soil, many other species could be effected.
In place of a purely economic approach, Leopold advocates care and respect for all parts of the natural environment.
The Land Ethic as an Ethical Theory
On p. 504 in the reading, Leopold makes a general statement about right action.
According to the land ethic:
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (Leopold, 1949/2010, p. 504).
Technically, this is not a full ethical theory, since it does not say much about actions in the human community that have little effect on the environment, such as lying and stealing. However, it is meant as a general principle to keep in mind when acting.
In this context, we can note that the land ethic conflicts with some of the other ethical theories that we have studied in the course. It obviously diverges from cultural relativism, since many environmentally destructive actions are socially acceptable in modern society. In some cases, it can also conflict with theories such as utilitarianism, Kant’s categorical imperative, and Noddings’ ethics of of care. This could occur in cases where human needs and interests are in tension with the good of the environment.
It might seem that Leopold’s view would be a good fit with Regan’s animal rights form of the categorical imperative, since both extend moral concern beyond the human community. However, there are also points of disagreement here. For example, if deer are reducing the diversity of native plants in a given forest, Leopold might recommend hunting the deer. In contrast, Regan might prioritize the rights of the individual deer over the good of natural diversity.
This brings us to the end of the video, so thank you for your attention and engagement with the material covered. You should now be in a good position to move on to the rest of the course tasks for the module.