The Land Ethic (part 2)

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This is part two of Leopold's essay "The Land Ethic" paired with beautiful images. This presentation can be used as a backdrop to help illustrate public readings of the essay.

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The Land Ethic (part 2)

  1. 1. On this SlideShare page, you will find several Power Point presentations, one for eachof the most popular essays to read aloud from A Sand County Almanac at Aldo LeopoldWeekend events. Each presentation has the essay text right on the slides, paired withbeautiful images that help add a visual element to public readings. Dave Winefske (AldoLeopold Weekend event planner from Argyle, Wisconsin) gets credit for putting thesetogether. Thanks Dave!A note on images within the presentations: we have only received permission to usethese images within these presentations, as part of this event. You will see a photo creditslide as the last image in every presentation. Please be sure to show that slide to youraudience at least once, and if you dont mind leaving it up to show at the end of eachessay, that is best. Also please note that we do not have permission to use these imagesoutside of Aldo Leopold Weekend reading event presentations. For example, the imagesthat come from the Aldo Leopold Foundation archive are not “public domain,” yet we seeunauthorized uses of them all the time on the internet. So, hopefully that’s enough saidon this topic—if you have any questions, just let us know. mail@aldoleopold.orgIf you download these presentations to use in your event, feel free to delete this introslide before showing to your audience.
  2. 2. The Ecological Conscience
  3. 3. CONSERVATION IS A STATE OF HARMONYbetween men and land. Despite nearly a centuryof propaganda, conservation still proceeds at asnails pace; progress still consists largely ofletterhead pieties and convention oratory. On theback forty we still slip two steps backward foreach forward stride.
  4. 4. The usual answer to this dilemma is "more conservation education: No one willdebate this, but is it certain that only the volume of education needs steppingup? Is something lacking in the content as well?
  5. 5. It is difficult to give a fair summary of its content in brief form, but, as Iunderstand it, the content is substantially this: obey the law, vote right, join someorganizations, and practice what conservation is profitable on your own land; thegovernment will do the rest.
  6. 6. Is not this formula too easy to accomplish anything worth-while? It defines noright or wrong, assigns no obligation, calls for no sacrifice, implies no changein the current philosophy of values. In respect of land-use, it urges onlyenlightened self interest. Just how far will such education take us? An examplewill perhaps yield a partial answer.
  7. 7. By 1930 it had become clear to all except the ecologically blind that southwesternWisconsins topsoil was slipping seaward.
  8. 8. In 1933 the farmers were told that if they would adopt certain remedial practicesfor five years, the public would donate CCC labor to install them, plus thenecessary machinery and materials. The offer was widely accepted, but thepractices were widely forgotten when the five-year contract period was up.
  9. 9. The farmers continued only those practices that yielded an immediate andvisible economic gain for themselves.
  10. 10. This led to the idea that maybe farmers wouldlearn more quickly if they themselves wrote therules. Accordingly the Wisconsin Legislature in1937 passed the Soil Conservation District Law.
  11. 11. This said to farmers, in effect: We, thepublic, will furnish you free technical serviceand loan you specialized machinery, if youwill write your own rules for land-use. Eachcounty may write its own rules, and thesewill have the force if law. Nearly all thecounties promptly organized to accept theproffered help, but after a decade ofoperation, no county has yet written a singlerule.
  12. 12. There has been visible progress in such practices as strip-cropping, pasturerenovation, and soil liming, but none in fencing woodlots against grazing, andnone in excluding plow and cow from steep slopes. The farmers, in short, haveselected those remedial practices which were profitable anyhow, and ignoredthose which were profitable to the community, but not clearly profitable tothemselves.
  13. 13. When one asks why no rules have been written, one is told that the community isnot yet ready to support them; education must precede rules. But the educationactually in progress makes no mention of obligations to land over and abovethose dictated by self-interest. The net result is that we have more education butless soil, fewer healthy woods, and as many floods as in 1937.
  14. 14. The puzzling aspect of such situations is that the existence of obligations overand above self-interest is taken for granted in such rural community enterprisesas the betterment of roads, schools, churches, and baseball teams. Theirexistence is not taken for granted, nor as yet seriously discussed, in bettering thebehavior of the water that falls on the land, or in the preserving of the beauty ordiversity of the farm landscape.
  15. 15. Land-use ethics are still governed wholly by economic self-interest, just as socialethics were a century ago.
  16. 16. To sum up: we asked the farmerto do what he convenientlycould to save his soil, and hehas done just that, and onlythat. The farmer who clears thewoods off a 75 percentslope, turns his cows into theclearing, and dumps itsrainfall, rocks, and soil into thecommunity creek, is still (ifotherwise decent) a respectedmember of society. If he putslime on his fields and plants hiscrops on contour, he is stillentitled to all the privileges andemoluments of his SoilConservation District.
  17. 17. The District is a beautiful piece of social machinery, but it is coughing along ontwo cylinders because we have been too timid, and too anxious for quicksuccess, to tell the farmer the true magnitude of his obligations. Obligations haveno meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of thesocial conscience from people to land.
  18. 18. No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal changein our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions. The proof thatconservation has not yet touched these foundations of conduct lies in the factthat philosophy and religion have not yet heard of it. In our attempt to makeconservation easy, we have made it trivial.
  19. 19. Substitutes for a Land EthicWHEN THE LOGIC OF HISTORY HUNGERS FORBREAD AND WE HAND OUT A STONE, we are atpains to explain how much the stone resemblesbread. I now describe some of the stones whichserve in lieu of a land ethic.
  20. 20. One basic weakness in aconservation system basedwholly on economic motivesis that most members of theland community have noeconomic value. Wildflowersand songbirds are examples.
  21. 21. Of the 22,000 higher plants and animals native to Wisconsin, it is doubtful whethermore than 5 per cent can be sold, fed, eaten, or otherwise put to economic use.Yet these creatures are members of the biotic community, and if (as I believe) itsstability depends on its integrity, they are entitled to continuance.
  22. 22. When one of these non-economic categories is threatened, and if we happen tolove it, we invent subterfuges to give it economic importance. At the beginningof the century songbirds were supposed to be disappearing. Ornithologistsjumped to the rescue with some distinctly shaky evidence to the effect thatinsects would eat us up if birds failed to control them. The evidence had to beeconomic in order to be valid.
  23. 23. It is painful to read these circumlocutions today. We have no land ethic yet, butwe have at least drawn nearer the point of admitting that birds should continueas a matter of biotic right, regardless of the presence or absence of economicadvantage to us.
  24. 24. A parallel situation exists in respect of predatory mammals, raptorial birds, andfish-eating birds. Time was when biologists somewhat overworked the evidencethat these creatures preserve the health of game by killing weaklings, or that theycontrol rodents for the farmer, or that they prey only on "worthless" species. Hereagain, the evidence had to be economic in order to be valid. It is only in recentyears that we hear the more honest argument that predators are members of thecommunity, and that no special interest has the right to exterminate them for thesake of a benefit, real or fancied, to itself.
  25. 25. Unfortunately thisenlightened view is stillin the talk stage. In thefield the exterminationof predators goesmerrily on: witness theimpending erasure ofthe timber wolf by fiatof Congress, theConservationBureaus, and many
  26. 26. Some species of trees have been "read out of the party" by economics-mindedforesters because they grow too slowly, or have too Iowa sale value to pay astimber crops: white cedar, tamarack, cypress, beech, and hemlock are examples.
  27. 27. In Europe, where forestry isecologically more advanced, thenon-commercial tree species arerecognized as members of thenative forest community, to bepreserved as such, withinreason. Moreover some (likebeech) have been found to havea valuable function in buildingup soil fertility. Theinterdependence of the forestand its constituent treespecies, ground flora, and faunais taken for granted.
  28. 28. Lack of economic value is sometimes a character not only of species or groups,but of entire biotic communities: marshes, bogs, dunes, and" deserts" areexamples. Our formula in such cases is to relegate their conservation togovernment as refuges, monuments, or parks. The difficulty is that thesecommunities are usually interspersed with more valuable private lands; thegovernment cannot possibly own or control such scattered parcels. The neteffect is that we have relegated some of them to ultimate extinction over largeareas. If the private owner were ecologically minded, he would be proud to be thecustodian of a reasonable proportion of such areas, which add diversityand beauty to his farm and to his community.
  29. 29. In some instances, the assumed lack of profit in these "waste" areas has provedto be wrong, but only after most of them had been done away with. The presentscramble to reflood muskrat marshes is a case in point.
  30. 30. There is a dear tendency in American conservation torelegate to government all necessary jobs that privatelandowners fail to perform.
  31. 31. Government ownership, operation, subsidy, orregulation is now widely prevalent in forestry, rangemanagement, soil and watershed management, parkand wilderness conservation, fisheriesmanagement, and migratory bird management, withmore to come.
  32. 32. Most of this growth in governmental conservation is proper and logical, some of itis inevitable. That I imply no disapproval of it is implicit in the fact that I havespent most of my life working for it. Nevertheless the question arises: What is theultimate magnitude of the enterprise? Will the tax base carry its eventualramifications?
  33. 33. At what point will governmental conservation, like the mastodon, becomehandicapped by its own dimensions? The answer, if there is any, seems to be in aland ethic, or some other force which assigns more obligation to the privatelandowner.
  34. 34. Industrial landowners andusers, especially lumbermenand stockmen, are inclined towail long and loudly about theextension of governmentownership and regulation toland, but (with notableexceptions) they show littledisposition to develop the onlyvisible alternative: thevoluntary practice ofconservation on their ownlands.
  35. 35. When the private landowner is asked to perform some unprofitable act for thegood of the community, he today assents only with outstretched palm. If the actcosts him cash this is fair and proper, but when it costs only forethought, open-mindedness, or time, the issue is at least debatable.
  36. 36. The overwhelming growth of land-use subsidies in recent years must beascribed, in large part, to the governments own agencies for conservationeducation: the land bureaus, the agricultural colleges, and the extension services.As far as I can detect, no ethical obligation toward land is taught in these
  37. 37. To sum up: a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest ishopelessly lopsided. It tends to ignore, and thus eventually to eliminate, manyelements in the land community that lack commercial value, but that are (as far aswe know) essential to its healthy functioning. It assumes, falsely, I think, that theeconomic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts.
  38. 38. It tends to relegate to government many functions eventually too large, toocomplex, or too widely dispersed to be performed by government
  39. 39. An ethical obligation on the part of the private owner is the only visibleremedy for these situations.
  40. 40. The Land Pyramid
  41. 41. AN ETHIC TO SUPPLEMENT AND GUIDE the economic relation to landpresupposes the existence of some mental image of land as a bioticmechanism. We can be ethical only in relation to something we cansee, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.
  42. 42. The image commonly employed in conservation education is "the balance ofnature: For reasons too lengthy to detail here, this figure of speech fails todescribe accurately what little we know about the land mechanism. A much truerimage is the one employed in ecology: the biotic pyramid. I shall first sketch thepyramid as a symbol of land, and later develop some of its implications in termsof land-use.
  43. 43. Plants absorb energy from the sun. This energy flows through a circuit called thebiota, which may be represented by a pyramid consisting of layers. The bottomlayer is the soil. A plant layer rests on the soil, an insect layer on the plants, abird and rodent layer on the insects, and so on up through various animalgroups to the apex layer, which consists of the larger carnivores.
  44. 44. The species of a layer are alike not in where they came from, or in what they looklike, but rather in what they eat. Each successive layer depends on those below itfor food & often for other services, & each in turn furnishes food & services tothose above. Proceeding upward, each successive layer decreases in numericalabundance.
  45. 45. Thus, for every carnivore there arehundreds of his prey, thousands oftheir prey, millions ofinsects, uncountable plants. Thepyramidal form of the system reflectsthis numerical progression from apexto base. Man shares an intermediatelayer with the bears, raccoons, andsquirrels which eat both meat andvegetables.
  46. 46. The lines of dependency for food and other services are called food chains. Thussoil-oak-deer-Indian is a chain that has now been largely converted to soil-corn-cow farmer. Each species, including ourselves, is a link in many chains. The deereats ahundred plants other than oak, and the cow a hundred plants other thancorn. Both, then, are links in a hundred chains. The pyramid is a tangle of chainsso complex as to seem disorderly, yet the stability of the system proves it to be ahighly organized structure. Its functioning depends on the co-operation andcompetition of its diverse parts.
  47. 47. In the beginning, the pyramid of life was low and squat; the food chains short andsimple. Evolution has added layer after layer, link after link. Man is one ofthousands of accretions to the height and complexity of the pyramid. Science hasgiven us many doubts, but it has given us at least one certainty: the trend ofevolution is to elaborate and diversify the biota.
  48. 48. Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain ofenergy flowing through a circuit ofsoils, plants, and animals. Food chains are theliving channels which conduct energy upward;death and decay return it to the soil. The circuit isnot closed; some energy is dissipated indecay, some is added by absorption from theair, some is stored in soils, peats, and long-livedforests; but it is a sustained circuit, like a slowlyaugmented revolving fund of life. There is alwaysa net loss by downhill wash, but this is normallysmall & offset by the decay of rocks. It isdeposited in the ocean and, in the course ofgeological time, raised to form new lands & newpyramids.
  49. 49. The velocity and character of the upward flow of energy dependon the complex structure of the plant and animalcommunity, much as the upward flow of sap in a tree dependson its complex cellular organization. Without thiscomplexity, normal circulation would presumably not occur.Structure means the characteristic numbers, as well as thecharacteristic kinds and functions, of the component species.This interdependence between the complex structure of the landand its smooth functioning as an energy unit is one of its basicattributes.
  50. 50. When a change occurs in one part of the circuit, many other parts must adjustthemselves to it. Change does not necessarily obstruct or divert the flow ofenergy; evolution is a long series of self-induced changes, the net result of whichhas been to elaborate the flow mechanism and to lengthen the circuit.Evolutionary changes, however, are usually slow and local. Mans invention oftools has enabled him to make changes of unprecedented violence, rapidity, andscope.
  51. 51. One change is in the composition of floras andfaunas. The larger predators are lopped off theapex of the pyramid; food chains, for the first timein history, become shorter rather than longer.Domesticated species from other lands aresubstituted for wild ones, and wild ones aremoved to new habitats.
  52. 52. In this world-wide pooling of faunas and floras, some species get out of boundsas pests and diseases, others are extinguished. Such effects are seldom intendedor foreseen; they represent unpredicted and often untraceable readjustments inthe structure.
  53. 53. Agricultural science is largely a race betweenthe emergence of new pests and theemergence of new techniques for their control.
  54. 54. Another change touches the flow of energy through plants and animals and itsreturn to the soil. Fertility is the ability of soil to receive, store, and releaseenergy. Agriculture, by overdrafts on the soil, or by too radical a substitution ofdomestic for native species in the superstructure, may derange the channels offlow or deplete storage. Soils depleted of their storage, or of the organic matterwhich anchors it, wash away faster than they form. This is erosion.
  55. 55. Waters, like soil, are part of the energycircuit. Industry, by polluting waters orobstructing them with dams, may excludethe plants and animals necessary to keepenergy in circulation.
  56. 56. Transportation brings about another basic change: theplants or animals grown in one region are now consumedand returned to the soil in another. Transportation taps theenergy stored in rocks, and in the air, and uses itelsewhere; thus we fertilize the garden with nitrogengleaned by the guano birds from the fishes of seas on theother side of the Equator. Thus the formerly localized andself-contained circuits are pooled on a world-wide scale.
  57. 57. The process of altering the pyramid for human occupationreleases stored energy, and this often gives rise, during thepioneering period, to a deceptive exuberance of plant andanimal life, both wild and tame. These releases of biotic capitaltend to becloud or postpone the penalties of violence.
  58. 58. This thumbnail sketch as an energy circuit conveys three basic ideas: (I) That land is not merely soil. (2) That the native plants and animals kept the energy circuit open; others may or may not. (3) That man-made changes are of a different order than evolutionary changes, and have effects more comprehensive than is intended or foreseen.
  59. 59. These ideas, collectively, raise two basic issues: Can the land adjust itself to thenew order? Can the desired alterations be accomplished with less violence?
  60. 60. Biotas seem to differ in their capacity tosustain violent conversion. WesternEurope, for example, carries a far differentpyramid than Caesar found there. Some largeanimals are lost; swampy forests have becomemeadows or plow-land; many new plants andanimals are introduced, some of which escapeas pests; the remaining natives are greatlychanged in distribution and abundance. Yet thesoil is still there and, with the help of importednutrients, still fertile; the waters flow normally;the new structure seems to function and topersist. There is no visible stoppage orderangement of the circuit.
  61. 61. WesternEurope, then, has a resistantbiota. Its inner processes aretough, elastic, resistant tostrain. No matter how violentthe alterations, thepyramid, so far, hasdeveloped some new modusvivendi which preserves itshabitability for man, and formost of the other natives. Japan seems topresent another instance ofradical conversion withoutdisorganization.
  62. 62. Most other civilized regions, & some as yet barely touched bycivilization, display various stages of disorganization, varying from initialsymptoms to advanced wastage. In Asia Minor & North Africa diagnosis isconfused by climatic changes, which may have been either the cause or theeffect of advanced wastage. In the United States the degree of disorganizationvaries locally; it is worst in the Southwest, the Ozarks, & parts of the South, &least in New England & the Northwest.
  63. 63. Better land-uses may still arrest it in the less advanced regions. In parts ofMexico, South America, South Africa, and Australia a violent and acceleratingwastage is in progress, but I cannot assess the prospects. This almost world-widedisplay of disorganization in the land seems to be similar to disease in ananimal, except that it never culminates in complete disorganization or death. Theland recovers, but at some reduced level of complexity, and with a reducedcarrying capacity for people, plants, and animals.
  64. 64. Many biotas currently regarded as"lands of opportunity" are in factalready subsisting on exploitativeagriculture, i.e. they have alreadyexceeded their sustained carryingcapacity. Most of South America isoverpopulated in this sense. In arid regions we attempt tooffset the process of wastage byreclamation, but it is only too evidentthat the prospective longevity ofreclamation projects is often short.In our own West, the best of themmay not last a century. The combined evidence ofhistory and ecology seems tosupport one general deduction: theless violent the manmadechanges, the greater the probabilityof successful readjustment in thepyramid. Violence, in turn, varieswith human population density; adense population requires a moreviolent conversion.
  65. 65. In this respect, NorthAmerica has a betterchance for permanencethan Europe, if she cancontrive to limit herdensity.
  66. 66. This deduction runs counter to our current philosophy, which assumes thatbecause a small increase in density enriched human life, that an indefiniteincrease will enrich it indefinitely. Ecology knows of no density relationship thatholds for indefinitely wide limits. All gains from density are subject to a law ofdiminishing returns.
  67. 67. Whatever may be the equation for men and land, it is improbable that we as yetknow all its terms. Recent discoveries in mineral and vitamin nutrition revealunsuspected dependencies in the up-circuit: incredibly minute quantities ofcertain substances determine the value of soils to plants, of plants to animals.What of the down-circuit? What of the vanishing species, the preservation ofwhich we now regard as an esthetic luxury?
  68. 68. They helped build the soil; inwhat unsuspected ways maythey be essential to itsmaintenance? ProfessorWeaver proposes that weuse prairie flowers toreflocculate the wastingsoils of the dust bowl;
  69. 69. who knows for what purposecranes and condors, otters andgrizzlies may some day be used?
  70. 70. Photo Credits•Historic photographs: Aldo Leopold Foundation archives•A Sand County Almanac photographs by Michael Sewell•David Wisnefske, Sugar River Valley Pheasants Forever, Wisconsin Environmental Education Board, WisconsinEnvironmental Education Foundation, Argyle Land Ethic Academy (ALEA)•UW Stevens Point Freckmann Herbarium, R. Freckmann, V.Kline, E. Judziewicz, K. Kohout, D. Lee, K Sytma, R.Kowal, P. Drobot, D. Woodland, A. Meeks, R. Bierman•Curt Meine, (Aldo Leopold Biographer)•Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Environmental Education for Kids (EEK)•Hays Cummins, Miami of Ohio University•Leopold Education Project, Ed Pembleton•Bird Pictures by Bill Schmoker•Pheasants Forever, Roger Hill•Ruffed Grouse Society•US Fish and Wildlife Service and US Forest Service•Eric Engbretson•James Kurz•Owen Gromme Collection•John White & Douglas Cooper•National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)•Ohio State University Extension, Buckeye Yard and Garden Online•New Jersey University, John Muir Society, Artchive.com, and Labor Law Talk

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