Aldo Leopold's 'The land ethic' is an edited extract from his book A Sand County Almanac - a collection of essays describing the land around his home in Wisconsin, USA, published a year after his death in 1948. It provides the first formalized expression of an environmental ethic, and is the most celebrated and widely cited work in the tradition of environmental ethics. As a forester, ecologist and conservationist, Leopold does not use the vocabulary of traditional philosophical ethics. But his simple description of what is required for environmental responsibility resonates as much now in philosophy and politics as it did when his work was first published.
§ There is as yet no ethic dealing with man's relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. Land, like Odysseus' slave-girls, is still property. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations.
The extension of ethics to this third element in human environment is, if I read the evidence correctly, an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity. It is the third step in a sequence. The first two have already been taken. Individual thinkers since the days of Ezekiel and Isaiah have asserted that the despoliation of land is not only inexpedient but wrong. Society, however, has not yet affirmed their belief. I regard the present conservation movement as the embryo of such an affirmation.
An ethic may be regarded as a mode of guidance for meeting ecological situations so new or intricate, or involving such deferred reactions, that the path of social expediency is not discernible to the average individual. Animal instincts are modes of guidance for the individual in meeting such situations. Ethics are possibly a kind of community instinct in-the-making.
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