Friday, August 31, 2012

Expanding the Canon - Aldo Leopold

As a preface, this is the first of an irregular series of 'Expanding the Canon' posts, which will highlight a work I (or my co-writers) think is worth being placed within the canon of Great Books, or works of art, or whatever.  It's a bit different than 'The Greatness of X' because it doesn't argue simply that a work is great on its own merits, but that it adds something to the sum of human thought that is unique and inarguably worthwhile.  These are works I think are worth putting up there with Aristotle, Kant and Kiekegaard, works that shape the way we think.

The first thinker in this series is Aldo Leopold and his works, A Sand County Almanac and Round River .


This past week I was on vacation to the beautiful, savage Northern Appalachians of New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont.  Being surrounded by the natural world tends to get me more impassioned about the politics of the environment, and makes me think more about them.  The forests seem solid, and in general seem healthier than those further south, but they're incredibly fragile, and seeing healthy hemlocks was bittersweet, since I don't know if they'll be there in 10 or 20 years, and I didn't see a single healthy beech -- bark disease had reduced most of them to pockmarked, oozing husks*.

Somewhere during the week my thoughts drifted onto Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, one of the greatest works of nature writing and probably one of the most famous.  I've thought about it every now and again, on and off for the past few years, and the more I think about it the more I'm struck by its greatness.

The central idea in Leopold's work is the Land, and its moral value.  He explores the land scientifically  in his accounts of ecological succession, lyrically in his vivid depictions of the seasons and the landscape (descriptions which remain scientific) and philosophically  in his argument in favor of a land ethic.

Before discussing the Leopold's ethical argument, it is important to dwell on his idea of 'land.'  It is a word that he chose carefully: land is not a political abstraction like 'the environment' nor a pseudo-religious totem like 'the earth.'  On the contrary, the land is immediate -- the land is not an abstract whole but the thing that lies outside your door, that your house is build on, that you walk on and through every day.  It is tied to place -- every piece of land is a place, and exists in the context of other places.  The fact that we can speak of a piece of land shows the immediacy of the concept -- we never speak of 'a piece of the environment' -- 'environment' has no place, and 'the earth' is all places on our world. The immediacy of the concept of land underscores its importance, and its omnipresence in our lives.

Part of its immediacy is that it is a very human thing -- the land is something that man relates to by farming it, hunting on it and owning it.  It harkens back to the Bible, with the promise of the land to Abraham and his seed forever, and the prophets discussing the moral contingencies by which Israel maintained a right to the land.  While the earth and the environment are concepts indifferent to man, land implies a relation to humanity.  The human-ness of land is important because it sets the stage for Leopold's great moral theme -- the importance of a land ethic.

This ethic is not specific.  Leopold does not lay out a systematic ethics, but instead insists that all relationships between man and the land have an ethical component.  We cannot continue to deal with the land like Odysseus dealt with his slave girls, killing them as casually as he ordered his house cleaned (both were matters of purifying his house, after all).

Leopold is sometimes remembered merely as the man that taught us that the wolves were good and that wilderness was sacred.  This is a shame, because wilderness is only one possible relationship that man can have to the land (even though it is a very important one).  Our current system of conservation is at risk of dividing land between preserves, which much be protected from humanity and left to be 'natural,' and everything else, where we can do whatever we please to the land.  Leopold's central point is that our ethical obligation extends to all of the land, and even if land is developed or otherwise used by people, we cannot treat it casually.  We have an ethical obligation to our backyards and to the tiny copses of trees behind our houses, not just to the 'wilderness.'

This obligation is not an obligation to be impartial, to rid ourselves of 'specieism' and to treat other creatures as we would treat people.  The humanism inherent in the concept of land precludes this -- land is not something that humans relate to impartially, but relate to as beings with their own interests and desires.  Instead the ethic is an obligation to respect the land in its totality, and to approach it with humility.  Leopold's own words from Round River are the best summary of this, the crux of his ethical thought.
Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land. By land is meant all of the things on, over, or in the earth. Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say, you cannot love game and hate predators; you cannot conserve the waters and waste the ranges; you cannot build the forest and mine the farm. The land is one organism. Its parts, like our own parts, compete with each other and co-operate with each other. The competitions are as much a part of the inner workings as the co-operations. You can regulate them—cautiously—but not abolish them.
The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little we know about it. The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: "What good is it?" If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.
The importance of the land ethic is the history of philosophy is that it expands the realm of the ethical to include the non-human.  Unlike concepts of animal rights, it does not do this by extending human rights to individual creatures, but by introducing a new ethical relationship -- that between human beings and the land as a whole.  It is a huge shift, that moves ethics from the study of relations between human beings to relationships between human beings and all other living things.  Given the current state of the world, it is a shift whose time has come.

*There is a Leopold quote for this experience, of seeing the wounds in nature that are no apparent to the untrained eye: "One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise."

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