Tuesday, June 26, 2012

If Leopold’s Land Ethic was going to work would we know it by now?

A few months ago I wrote a fairly critical account of Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic.  To restate my contention from my original post: If the land ethic was going to work as formulated in the 1940s we’d probably know about it by now.  

Eric Daryl Meyer recently responded with some comments on my post and with some additional comments on Leopold’s essay (see here). I'll respond to Eric at greater length soon:  perhaps one of the metrics of the significance of Leopold's essay is that, even when one thinks one knows it, it is nevertheless worth revisiting before one writes about it in detail.  But for now a few initial comments.

Eric wrote that I overstated the disjunction that Leopold makes between philosophical and ecological ethics.  This may be the case – Leopold’s writing is a little muddy on this point.  That is, he claims that it’s the “extension” of ethics that has so far only been studied by philosophers. Therefore an ecological account of this extension is what’s needed – a geological accretion of sorts.  Therefore, Leopold was not taking on ethics in its entirety – just the more focused question of how one gives to the land that which we already, in theory, grant to one another, that is, ethical consideration.  However, it is pretty clear that in attempting to reconcile a philosophical definition of ethics with an ecological one he splits the difference in favor of the ecological.  To be clear, I don’t think that Leopold is making philosophy and ecology disjunct: he is rather conflating them and saying that if we solve, so to speak, the equation for the “x” of evolutionary ecology, we also get the “y” of philosophical ethics. That is for Leopold x=y.  With this the resources of philosophy, which might be a very useful partner in developing the land ethic, get brushed aside.

Now, it may simply be the case that Leopold has no particular interest in the deliberations of let’s say the past couple of millennia of philosophy on the question of ethics.  That’s fine – pessimism on the question of how philosophy will help us in the matter of an ethical extension to the land community may be reasonable. But it doesn’t seem to me that we get an awful lot from Leopold's speculation about social evolution or from Eltonian ecology either.  (That being said, he does anticipate several issues that became important in ecology only decades after the land ethic.) 

It’s with all of this is mind that I said we need to save the Land Ethic from Leopold’s particular account of it.  In my original post I noted that there has been a lot of work on the land ethic in the past decades –work that often supplements precisely what Leopold sets aside.  I had invited my readers to set this aside for the time being so that we could get back to Leopold’s essay in our efforts to finally get past it.  Perhaps this was not an especially helpful suggestion.  That being said, in some ways it seems to me that this is what Eric does in his short but interesting post.  I say this not to be agreeable, but because I think the approach, Eric’s approach, hints at some paths forward. 

An example: Eric helps out Leopold by saying that he didn’t really mean “to extend” ethics but rather that he wanted to put philosophical ethical considerations back in their deeper ecological context.  Now to maintain this one has to discount some of what Leopold says – he seemed to mean extend in a pretty concrete way.  In fact, helpful diagrams of the development of ethics depicting the Leopoldian extension abound. Both Leopold and his interpreters see it in these terms.  Therefore Eric’s rereading of this get’s beyond Leopold in a fairly provocative manner.

Eric says that once we put ethics in their ecological context then we may get “human beings to recognize their already-situatedness in relations to living and non-living beings…” That is, we will have a new understanding of ourselves. Perhaps; certainly it seems necessary.  But as Eric notes (concurring with me) we are left with no idea about the means by which this comes about. To push for a “framework in which it is feasible for people to…self identify as citizens…of the ecological community…” is simply to hope for the same think that Leopold hoped for.  I regard this as useful, however, because Eric concludes as I do that one needs to clear away, or at the very least reinterpret, a lot of the work in Leopold’s essay to get to its useful core.  In other words the land ethic needs to be rescued from Leopold’s treatment of it.

[An essay by William Jordan II with contributions of the "values group" on the value theory that I alluded to in the original post will appear in Environmental Ethics later this year.  Also, I briefly, very briefly, comment on Leopold and the Balance of Nature in this recent post at 3Quarksdaily]

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