On Aldo Leopold :: Scattershot

In response to a thesis that I tossed out on twitter yesterday (“Aldo Leopold’s ‘Sand County Almanac’ outweighs at least 16 volumes of what passes for ecotheology in insight, analysis, and foresight.”) A.P.S. introduced me to Liam Heneghan, who has been thinking about Leopold undoubtedly much longer and in greater depth than have I (caveat lector).

Liam directed me to a rather critical post on Leopold that he wrote a while back. What follows is, in part, a response to that piece.

The sharpest edge on Liam’s critique is that Leopold is too quickly dismissive of philosophy at points within his thinking where he implicitly relies upon discourses and concepts with lengthy histories of rigorous philosophical discussion. So, for example, Leopold dismisses the philosophical history of ethics in order to develop a new “land ethic,” and again, Leopold works toward a broader sense of “community” in which the land and its creatures are regarded as a “valued” members (not monetary value here), yet  without putting forward any nuanced account of value.

I think that Liam is overstating Leopold’s disjunction between philosophical ethics and an ecological ethic. Here is the whole passage where Leopold introduces the distinction:

The extension of ethics, so far studied only by philosophers, is actually a process in ecological evolution. Its sequences may be described in ecological as well as in philosophical terms. An ethic, ecologically is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence. An ethic, philosophically, is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct. These are two definitions of one thing. The thing has its origin in the tendency of interdependent individuals or groups to evolve modes of co-operation. The ecologist calls these symbioses. Politics and economics are advanced symbioses in which the original free-for-all competition has been replaced , in part, by co-operative mechanisms with an ethical content. (202)

I read Leopold a little differently in this passage and in what follows. Rather than wresting ethics away from philosophy in order to “extend” its consideration to the land, I see Leopold here trying to set philosophical ethics back into the context of ecology (that is, evolutionary/geological history). He is pretty explicit that he’s offering two definitions of what he considers to be one thing. And rather than seeing ethics primarily as a set of conventions that govern the human community, which need to be reconfigured in the face of ecological degradation, I see Leopold’s emphasis falling on a recognition of humanity’s place (for better or worse) within the larger ecological community. The concern, then, is less about extending the operation of human ethics, politics, economics, etc. to “cover” the land (in more positive ways than at present, of course) and more about getting human beings to recognize their always-already-situatedness in relations to living and non-living beings—relations which are every bit as political and ethical as relations between human beings.

Leopold’s language is not consistent, he does indeed talk quite a bit of “extending” ethics to the land, but this way of speaking (it seems to me) cuts against the grain of his stronger argument that humanity is always embedded within a biotic community, even if it seems to be the most radically disruptive member. Leopold also overtaxes metaphorical references to the land (and the natural community) as an “organism” that maintains balance, harmony, and equilibrium, but for all that he does not think of the land in static timeless terms, nor does the “community” that he refers to necessarily have to be an irenic one. These inconsistencies seem superficial to me, easily worked around.

Furthermore, I’m not convinced that philosophical ethics or a more nuanced theory of value is actually the point at which Leopold’s project most needs supplementation. In fact, Leopold himself seems to recognize that the root of humanity’s tendencies toward destructive behavior is not primarily a deficiency in ethics, but a delusional self-understanding. Or again, the faulty ethic that validates ecological degradation derives from a faulty self-understanding. It is a theme repeated at length:

“In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” (204)

“No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions. The proof that conservation has not yet touched these foundations of conduct lies in the fact that philosophy and religion have not yet heard of it. In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial.” (210)

“In all of these cleavages, we see repeated the same basic paradoxes: man the conqueror versus man the biotic citizen; science the sharpener of his sword versus science the searchlight on his universe; land the slave and servant versus land the collective organism.” (223)

But if a “land ethic” contains the correct “role” for human beings to comport themselves in a more ecologically sensible way, we are nevertheless left without a clear sense for the means by which people are supposed to adopt the land ethic and be changed from “man the conqueror” to “man the citizen.” If anything (as Liam points out) this is the work that is supposed to be done on someone by a “vision of the land” (that is, all the interdependencies of the biotic pyramid). I’d agree that Leopold is too optimistic on this point.  I would guess that Liam’s project working at a theory of value is one effort at finding a way to draw people into embracing environmental ethics (and I look forward to reading Jordan’s book, which I’ve got on my desk as I write).

I regard the identity-construction of what Leopold calls “man the conqueror” as an ideology deeply embedded in the fabric of our day-to-day lives, reinforced by our interactions within political and economic systems, and underwritten in the West by the bulk of the philosophical and theological tradition. For that reason, I’m more or less convinced that the best point at which to address ecological degradation is not a theory of value which leaves the subjectivity of the “value-er” (the one who registers and perceives value) relatively untouched, but instead, by exposing the ideology that reinforces our own self-identification as some form or another of “man the conquerer” for the constructed, arbitrary, and malleable pattern that it is, and pushing toward a framework in which it is feasible for people to sincerely and coherently self-identify as citizens and members of the ecological community.

Again, the ecological “community” (likely a poorly chosen word) need not be irenic; but the major cause of ecological degradation will not be addressed, in my opinion, so long as we maintain the ideological machinery by which we are convinced that we human beings are creatures categorically different than all the others. Positing a fundamental, unbridgeable difference between being-human and being-lizard, or leopard, or lemur enables us to disregard the basic interests of these creatures even where we understand those interests quite plainly (and much worse where we do not). Human progress, time and again, trumps the interests of every other creature.

Sand County Almanac is an amazingly prescient text for having been written over 70 years ago. There is plenty to disagree with, plenty of points at which we should go further, but Leopold’s unique combination of insight and analysis is, in my opinion, pulls its  philosophical/theological weight well enough.