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08 September 2010

Environmental Ethics: The Land Ethic

This is my first real analysis paper for my Environmental Ethics course. Our reading for this week was Aldo Leopold's The Land Ethic, and Richard Sylvan's Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental, Ethic?. It's short because the professor wants us to keep them under a page, so I hope this exercise of posting them on my blog won't simply be annoying for anyone reading. I'll try to elaborate when necessary.

I'm going to start with Sylvan, because it seems to be a kind of response to Leopold. Basically, Sylvan seems to be arguing that we need a new kind of ethic for dealing with environmental issues rather than simply extending an old ethic to a new domain (as he claims Leopold is suggesting). I'm not entirely clear that he recommends an alternative or even that his argument really matters, since, practically, he's not really suggesting anything different from Leopold, just arguing that Leopold's Land Ethic doesn't fit with the dominant Western Ethic. Instead he simply runs through a number of options for creating an environmental ethic, including a rights-based framework, a responsibility-based framework, and a few others.

Reading his description of the three main Western Ethics – domination, stewardship, and cooperation – I recognized quickly that all three are anthropocentric. But not in the sense that he describes. He claims that they're anthropocentric because none of them allows for land untouched by human hands – I suggest that they're anthropocentric because they imagine land or Nature to be a domain which is there for humans to shape, which has no agency of its own. In fact, I think that all of the options proposed by Sylvan have a similar anthropocentrism, which will never really result in an effective “land ethic” or “environmental ethic. He roundly discards what he calls pantheism because “artefacts are not alive.” But this isn't an argument – he doesn't really engage the issue or explain why artefacts are not alive, simply accepts it as given. Much recent work in many fields (Science and Technology Studies, Post-Humanism, Animal Studies, etc.) would suggest otherwise (not pantheism per se, but a system which recognizes the agency, spirit, or force of otherwise inanimate objects).

Leopold's argument is that we ought to extend our ethics to the land and the creatures that inhabit our world because we are all part of a community, and ethics is essentially rules for living in a community. I think Leopold goes far towards recognizing the complexity and the agency of the world around us. His discussion of the role of Government was particularly interesting, given that he was a Government employee – many anti-environmentalists, and some environmentalists too, see the purpose of the movement to simply erect regulatory structures that would disincentivize pollution and other problematic behaviors. But Leopold argues that Government regulation can only do so much. My question is, is an environmental ethic, whether it's an extension of an old ethic or a new ethic entirely as Slyvan suggests, enough? Ethics have been unsuccessful at preventing murder, war, theft, rape, and a whole host of other behaviors that are considered morally wrong – how would a land ethic be more effective than those? Also, how does one go about generating a new ethic and establishing it in the population? Leopold suggests education, but education requires that the ethic already be somewhat established before it will be effective.

1 comment:

RaveOnEverything said...

Hi Mr.Trombley,
Thank you for your thoughts on the Land Ethic. Nice expression and explanation of Man's relationship to Land and what it should be.
As you have said that Sylvan's thoughts are Anthropocentric, may I venture to say that they are Anthropocentric AND Eurocentric? The relationship of land and man was different pre-and post industrial revolution. Before , Land was never a commodity. But the science of Economics and the advent of Industry changed it to a commodity.What changed?Our values.
I have authored a paper called the Yoga of Sustainability, and would appreciate it if you can go through it and comment.
Thank You.
Warm Regards

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