Environmental issues have for a long time now been discussed and debated all over the world. The twenty-first century call for a reconsideration of the approaches through which environmental concerns that affect the planet earth as well as the societies in it are dealt with (Bunnin 517). People of the world have been called upon to embrace those practices that will ensure sustainable development so as not to compromise the survival of both the present and future generations.
Attfield defines environmental ethics as the study of ethics of the day to day interactions of human beings with their environment and their impacts on the systems of nature (15). This essay discusses the connections between Leopold’s “Land ethic” and the platform of deep ecology and their appropriateness to environment ethics. The usefulness of these connections to two current issues of environmental concern is presented.
Leopold’s “Land Ethic”
Leopold’s ‘Land Ethic’ that was introduced in 1949 defined a new dimension of understanding the relationship between human beings and the natural environment and paved the way for the present day professional conservationists movement (Jamieson 204). These conservationists are concerned with anthropogenic pollution of water and air by harmful industrial wastes, alarming decline in the number of species, deliberate extinction of species as well as the introduction of new species in new habitats.
According to Leopold, ethics have undergone significant growth in scope and complexity over the past 3,000 years in western civilization. In ecological terms, ethics refers to the limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence while philosophers define it as a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct (Jamieson 205). He believed that ethics are meant to guide individuals to unite for the common good.
Leopold is credited for arguing that ‘community’ ought to include both human and non-human elements in the environment like waters, animals, plants, and soils which may be referred generally from an ecological perspective as land. The land is to be loved and accorded respect as an extension of ethics (Jamieson 208). Human beings, therefore, have a great responsibility of protecting and preserving the land in the larger context.
Leopold summarized the evolution of ethics as presented by Darwin by stating that all ethics so far advanced are underpinned upon one major premise: that the individual belongs to a larger community whose parts are interdependent (Jamieson 208). Land, therefore, is a community to which man belongs and not a commodity owned by human beings, and hence all are members of the biotic community.
The ever increasing human population has been identified as a major threat (unethical) to the biotic community (Jamieson 210). The land ethic in the time of a changing science of ecology has been a major topic for discussion. Ecologically, Leopold argued that nature should be at static equilibrium but this has not been possible due to disturbance and perturbation, especially those stirred by human beings (Jamieson 214).
The shift in contemporary ecology to a more dynamic paradigm raises concerns of whether the concept of land ethic is still real in the modern world. Over the past decades, there has been a paradigm shift from a static equilibrium of nature to the “flux of nature” in ecology. Many have been left questioning the validity of the land ethic. When putting across his idea of environmental conservation and preservation, Leopold was aware of the implications of his words in a dynamic, ever changing biota (Jamieson 214).
This is because the words used literally mean to “arrest change.” This tension was addressed by the introduction of concept of scale which includes rate (temporal) and scope (spatial) when used in ecology. Leopold argued that evolutionary changes ought to be slow and localized but the invention of sophisticated tools by man has facilitated changes at unprecedented rapidity, violence, as well as scope (Jamieson 214).
In his opinion, Leopold believed that man was an ordinary member and citizen of the land community and just equal to other members of the community. However, he argued that man was a moral species and could deliberate ethically and make conscientious choices. Hence, they are endowed with an obligation of caring for the rest of the land-community.
A Critical Position
Having elaborated on the concept of land ethic as put forward by Aldo Leopold, it is worthy giving a critique of his arguments. His propositions have a scientific basis and cannot be dismissed as being naive claims.
The coming into existence of ecology which is concerned with the study of the complex relationships between the diverse species and their natural habitats reinforced the tenet of the land ethic. The suggestion put forward by Leopold’s on the need to extend the human community to incorporate the non-human aspects of the world is wise and acceptable (Callicort 15).
None can ignore the interrelatedness of these dimensions of nature. In order to preserve the ecological stability of nature, there is need to promote sustainable co-existence among the members of land. Throughout the history of the world, ethical consciousness has undergone change with the advancement of our species.
In terms of the position of human beings in the land community, Leopold wants all to be regarded as equal members of the community. This may sound controversial but I think clarification given is acceptable.
Human beings are not in any way degraded to the same moral level as non-human components, instead man is expanding his boundaries to include the rest of nature into his community since man is a moral agent (Callicort 17). The challenge here is a situation where man is treated in the same way as non-human members as was the case with slaves during colonial period.
The arguments presented by Leopold can play a crucial role when it comes to sustainable use of available ‘resources’ by man. His intention is not to prevent man from making use of the resources but to make human beings aware of the fact that these non-human components of nature have a right to continue existing.
This is evidenced by the fact that if man’s advancements in various spheres are not checked, he has the potential of altering the entire natural order of the world. Nuclear wastes, ever rising temperatures, mass extinction of species, among other catastrophic phenomena can have significant impacts on the human and non-human components of the community. In general, Leopold’s land ethic was designed to restrain the civilized man’s impact on other species and natural environment at large.
Application to a Current Issue
In the quest to promote environmental ethics in the U.S., a number of conflicts have been experienced over the decades between conservationists and those having reservations on the ideas championed by the environmental professionals.
Dr. Ivar Giaever, the 1973 winner of the Nobel Prize in physics resigned on September 13, 2011, from his position annoyed by the society’s official statement of policy that “global warming is occurring” (Hayward). He accused global warming crusaders and politicians as being money-hungry individuals ready to exploit unsuspecting American citizens.
Giaever believed that there is no scientific evidence to show that global warming was occurring and that its effects, if at all there is any, would be devastating. In his resignation letter, he criticized the claims that greenhouse gas emissions were changing the atmospheric conditions and hence affecting the planet earth’s climate. He said that any changes in the world are natural and human activity should not be blamed.
He also argued that data showing the extinction of polar bear were forged by known scientists. Although he agreed that the climatic changes could have and will occur, Giaever was perturbed by those out to con people by politicizing science. The sentiments aired by this scientist represent the opinions of many on how man interacts with nature. The critical question provoked by Giaever is what the real intentions of the conservationists and politicians are when they seem to champion for a better world.
Is it the love of money? Is it out of their desire for a balanced land-community or ecosystem? Calls to reverse the trend of climate change may best be understood if Leopold’s arguments are brought into focus. Perhaps, the passionate feelings expressed by Dr. Giaever and other like-minded individuals could be that they have never imagined that the non-human beings can be accorded moral standing. If that be the case, then they are still embracing the traditional Western systems of ethics.
The Platform of Deep Ecology
The term “deep ecology” came into existence in the early 1970s but its usage has ever since spread to the international environment movement platform (Jamieson 218). Naess, the pioneer of the term highlighted seven principles of deep ecology.
These are: metaphysics of inter-relatedness, an ethos of biospherical egalitarianism, the values of diversity and symbiosis, an anti-class posture, opposition to pollution and depletion of resources, the value of complexity, and an emphasis on local autonomy and decentralization (Jamieson 218).
These principles point toward a cohesive ecological world-view, and to some of the ethical and political implications of such a view of the world (Jamieson 219). Deep ecology, therefore, implies that the whole world is interrelated to its ontological depths.
While explaining the principles, Naess adopted an ecological world-view. He pointed out that the first principle shows that no individual is independent of the other members of the world or reality, but part of the whole. Thus reality should be seen as relational as opposed to aggregative in nature. Then there is the interrelatedness of all forms of life which have equal right to live and blossom.
The principles of diversity and symbiotic relationship are at the core of ecology since they facilitate the enjoyment the other entitlements. All other non-ecological forms resulting from exploitation and suppression are to be discouraged as pointed out by the next principle (Jamieson 219). Pollution and exploitation should then be fought since it leads to resource depletion.
However, the war against pollution should be fought in such a way that it does not exacerbate class differences. Appeal to ecological thinking by embracing the value of complexity is also a critical principle. Finally, local autonomy as opposed to decentralization is to be promoted so as to enhance the integrity of individuals as well as the systems (Jamieson 219).
A Critical Position
This notion of the relationship/interrelatedness between human beings and nature is connected to Leopold’s “Land ethics” as they both advocate for some sort of unity between the human and non-human. The perspective from which the world is to be viewed from deep ecology is in great contrast with the classical point of view.
In the past centuries, the world was viewed from mechanistic dimensions as consisting of independent entities; the physical world governed by blind laws of physics. Society, on the other hand, was seen as consisting of thinking beings guided by the ‘blind’ law of self-interest. According to the new world view, this perspective was too parochial and totally against the order of ecological systems.
The old conception of reality resulted in the setting aside of man as being morally superior to other members of reality on the basis of being endowed with the mind. It was actually in contrast to both the principles of deep ecology as well as Leopold’s land ethic.
If the principles are correctly applied, then the proper understanding of the interrelatedness of reality would be achieved. Adhering to the teachings of the past on reality will only serve to create opportunities for exploitation and suppression of the other members of the community.
Azzoni reported on Monday, November 21, 2011 that Chevron was fined $28 million for not preventing oil spillage off the Rio de Jenairo coast. This was after an investigative report indicated that the oil spill could have been averted were it not for lack of precaution by the company.
Conservationists and the national government jointly condemned the unfortunate phenomenon. All of them accused the company of environmental crime and posing a great threat to the ecosystem. It was established that the company’s emergency workforce was very slow in response, taking nearly 10 hours before taking action on the matter. The clean-up process took even a longer period due to lack of appropriate equipment.
From the article, it is evident that people are very much concerned with the need to take care of the environment including the waters and biodiversity. This demonstrates a strong sense of ecology both from the government and the citizens in Brazil.
In applying the principles of deep ecology, albeit without knowing, the concerned parties accused the company of negligence in their duties as well as the risk of polluting the environment. In their judgment, the entire sea life was at risk due to suffocation caused by spilled oil. Recreational activities in the affected areas would also have to be suspended until proper cleaning is done. It is this awareness that caused outrage from all sides against Chevron Company.
This essay has discussed the connections between Leopold’s “Land ethic” and the platform of Deep Ecology and their appropriateness to environment ethics. Literature on each of the topic has been summarized. The paper has also constructed a critical position and potential challenges associated with the two topics.
The usefulness of these connections to two current issues of environmental concern has been presented. The issue of global warming in America and recent oil spillage in Brazil as discussed in two separate articles has been critically analyzed in relation to the two topics. Land ethics and deep ecology, therefore, are critical areas in the study of environmental ethics and should be embraced by all.
Attfield, Robin. Environmental Ethics: An Overview for the Twenty-First Century. Wiley-Blackwell, 2003, 1- 78.
Azzoni, Tales. “Brazil fines Chevron in $28 million for oil spill.” Environment News. Retrieved on November 22, 2011 from
Bunnin, Nicholas and Tsui-James, E. P. (eds). The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003, 517-527.
Callicort, Baaird J. In Defense of the Land Ethic: Essays in Environmental Philosophy. SUNY Press, 1989, 15-17. Hayward, John. “Nobel Laureate Resigns over Global Warming Dogma.” Fox News, September 15, 2011. Retrieved on November 22, 2011 from
Jamieson, Dale (ed). A Companion to Environmental Philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003, 204-219.