The Land Ethic
J. Baird Callicott (whom we just read in my “Eating Meat in America class”) is widely considered the “father of environmental philosophy.” Inspired by the pioneering ecological thought of figures such as Edward Abbey and Aldo Leopold, he’s rooted his environmental thought—a wealth if ideas captured in books such as In Defense of the Land Ethic and Earth’s Insights—in an ideology known as “the land ethic.” The gist of the land ethic is roughly this: what adds to the integrity, beauty, and stability of the environment is good while what detracts from the integrity, beauty, and stability of the environment is bad. Valuing these attributes is the signature task of the beholder.
On the face of it, this sounds like a lovely little creed. In its formulation, the global biota—the earth’s dynamic and interlocking floral and faunal systems—is granted moral standing on its own terms, as its own biodiverse entity, irrespective of individual human interest. Such a stance would seem to offer the modern environmentalist everything she could ask for and more, or at least an ethic that places humans in a moral category that’s on par with—or even subservient to—the ecological systems we seem to excel at destroying.
It must be noted that any philosophical approach that encourages attention to managing natural resources in a more responsible manner is, by virtue of that emphasis alone, a welcome addition in a world of ceaseless ecological exploitation. For this I admire the land ethic as an approach to living a meaningful and responsible life, and I look forward to seeing how it evolves in the twenty-first century.
That said, there’s an aspect to this philosophy that I fail to understand. A land ethic philosophy requires that we seek stability when we perceive the ecosystem to be out of alignment. If an animal invades a habitat, reproduces to the point of dominance, and undermines biodiversity, then that animal is, literally, fair game. Fire away. The philosophical justification for hunting in this case is the fact the rights of the biota exceed the rights of the individual animal being killed.
I get that point (although I naturally have problems with it). But where I understandably get nervous is when we take the next step and evaluate exactly who causes the most ecological instability on the planet. Of course, the answer is you, me, and every human we know. Callicott knows this as well as anybody. The logical conclusion would, therefore, to eliminate ourselves from the ecosystem, or at least enough of us to radically reduce our impact on the global biota.
Needless to say, I have a problem with species extermination in the name of achieving ecological stability. Am I missing something here? Does the land ethic as a philosophical system have a brake that prevents us from sliding into absurdity?