Worksheet: The Land Ethic
Read Leopold’s “The Land Ethic” in Sand County Almanac. (https://www.aldoleopold.org/about/the-land-ethic/) You will notice that it is organized in sections with subtitles. Read the essay one section at a time. As you conclude each section, review it and note the important concepts. This is a concept driven argument. Underline important quotes or sentences that you like. Think about how this essay, written a long time ago, long before the reality of climate change was understood, is relevant to current problems and examples.
Remember, ethics provide context for our individual actions relative to larger social values. Leopold understood that ultimately the health of land, and in turn human health, would be determined by people’s values. A Sand County Almanac ends with Leopold’s challenge to individuals and communities to join in the “intellectual and emotional” evolution of a land ethic.
As you read, draft answers to the questions below (copy/past into a Word doc). Then, once you have finished, carefully revise and edit your responses before submitting:
1. Explain the extended analogy to slavery.
2. What is the deeper significance or importance of these key concepts–Property and Expediency?
3. Paraphrase the suggestive claim: “During the last three thousand years which have since elapsed, ethical criteria have been extended to many fields of conduct, with corresponding shrinkages in those judged by expediency only” (202). Is there a thesis here?
The Ethical Sequence
4. In what sense are ethics “a process in ecological evolution”?
5. How are ecological and philosophical ethics analogous? What is the common “tendency”?
6. Elaborate on the idea of the key concept: co-operation. Why is cooperation important to Leopold?
7. Paraphrase: “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 discernable 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” (203).
The Community Concept
8. How exactly does Leopold redefine the concept of “community” for his argument?
9. How does Leopold anticipate an objection to his position? How does he refute it?
10. Paraphrase: “In short, the land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiensfrom conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it” (204).
11. Characterize the wrong kind of thinking—that of the conqueror, or Abraham–in this argument.
12. There are two examples from American history (205-6). Each is aimed at demonstrating a different outcome related to the idea that humans are part of a “biotic team.” The first is the story of Kentucky bluegrass; the second is about the loss of grasslands in the Southwest. Explain these examples and how they support his argument.
The Ecological Conscience
13. Paraphrase: “Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land. No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions.” (209-10).
Substitutes for a Land Ethic
14. What are some examples of substitutes—or what is NOT a land ethic?
15. What are some of the consequences of not having a real land ethic?
16. What is the conclusion to be drawn from this section?
The Land Pyramid
In your notebook, draw the several “mental” images “of land as a biotic mechanism.
17. How does the land pyramid— “a tangle of chains so complex as to seem disorderly” (215)—help Leopold demonstrate his key concepts of co-operation and community?
18. How have we altered the “energy circuit” or pyramid? What are the “penalties” (218)?
Land Health and the A-B Cleavage
19. This section discusses the split between different points of view on land and conservation: the ecological versus the agronomical (or agricultural). In your own words, explain the differences in perspective.
20. Leopold writes, “One of the requisites for an ecological comprehension of land is an understanding of ecology, and this is by no means co-extensive with education; in fact, most higher education seems deliberately to avoid ecological concepts” (224). Is this true? Explain.
21. He also leaves us with this memorable statement: “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” (225). How could such a seemingly simple set of measurements work?
22. One of the last words of the argument is “objective” (226). This reminds us of the claim in “Thinking Like a Mountain.” How are these two arguments—in a simple way—connected?