The Land Ethic

» September 20th, 2013

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?




24 Responses to The Land Ethic

  1. Rucio says:

    I share a wariness of “managing” the ecosystem. It is necessarily done on human terms. My ethic (which also drives my veganism) would be “least harm”, which means leaving things be as much as possible. A managing ethic becomes necessary when we can not remove ourselves from the system. Otherwise, it may be worth noting that nature is not at all stable. Species of flora and fauna rise and fall and rise again as they interact.

    • Elaine Brown says:

      Unfortunately, it is the managing ethic which causes the imbalances. Left alone and to itself, nature balances quite nicely. Wild horses for example are excellent at fertalizing and seed depositors via their manure and nomadic lifestyle. In addition, horses by that nature do not ruin or muck up water holes not having cloven hoofs. And finally Wild Horses clear out the lower brush in the wild lands and woods thus preventing forest fires.

      To remove Wild Horses and Burros from their lands is to put forth an ecological imbalance just as removal of predators as has been done in New Mexico has caused a huge population explosion in the prey species such as the Prairie Dog. We need Wolves, Bobcats, and Lions for a reason.

      • Rucio says:

        “Balance” is different from “stability”. Nature is about change. As predators thrive, their prey dwindles and the predators thin until the prey recovers. Ponds fill in and become fields become forests. Fires transform the forests and with that the kinds of animals that exploit it. Etc. Hell, even seasonal changes effect their changes. It is all balanced in the long term, but it is far from stable. Which is as it should be or it wouldn’t be life.

  2. Marc Bedner says:

    As an abstract principle, there is much to be said for the land ethic. In practice, however, Aldo Leopold was by training and inclination a game manager. While Leopold in his later life came to regret his participation in exterminating wolves, he never, to the best of my knowledge, rejected the management philosophy. And, as you point out, he never saw the biggest threat to biodiversity, i.e. humans.

  3. What concerns me is that the “management” that often occurs is due to human desires for more land or a meat based diet and the things that were done to achieve those goals in the first place. Whether it is the badger cull in the UK (for agriculture of cows), wolves in the western US (for agriculture of cows), or white-tailed deer in the eastern US (for residential and commercial land development), the decisions to eradicate/hunt or otherwise manipulate populations are usually because they compete with or interfere with something that humans want to do, which most times is not necessity but greed or desire for more [fill in the blank]. Humans and their activities are the biggest thumb on the scale of ecological diversity and stability the world has ever seen. To paraphrase George Costanza, it’s not them, it’s us. ~Linda

  4. Elaine Livesey-Fassel says:

    While we do not need to follow ‘to the letter’ the human extermination concept ( and we seem to be doing an excellent job of that nonetheless ), we should at least seriously consider and abide by the concept of ‘treading lightly’ on the earth ( and each other). Contraception is an excellent idea!!!

  5. Ken says:

    In most cases, predators can be introduced, or allowed to spread into areas where species become overpopulated. Often this is not made an option, since many predators of animals also prey on farm animals and pets.
    I’ve thought for some time that some sort of human made virus that renders every person on the planet sterile would be the best alternative toward restoring the planet – since there would be no killing – only a slow death by old age.
    Recently though, I’ve been wondering about what would happen to Earth if we were all gone. I mean of course the eco system would rebound wouldn’t it? I wonder about our nuclear (waste storage) facilities – would they eventually all fall out of repair and rupture causing widespread nuclear contamination for hundreds of millions of years? Perhaps this will happen regardless of our presence, however something to ponder non the less

    • Taylor says:

      There’s a whole book on what would happen: The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman.

    • Mountain says:

      You’re a frightening man, Ken. Why persuade people not to procreate when you can infect them with a virus that prevents them from doing so?

      I wouldn’t do that to humans. I wouldn’t do that to animals I like (chickens, dogs, goats, etc). I wouldn’t even do that to animals I don’t like (coyotes, ticks, etc).

  6. Ruth says:

    Agree with all the above comments, apart from contraception being a good idea. Well, it is, but even in countries where it is readily available, population continues to rise in most of them. NGO’s (and govts.) MUST start to bring population issues to the forefront, so that peoples attitudes start to change over the “right” to have as many children as they want. It’s probably too late, but I hope I’m wrong.
    The governments of countries that are seeing particularly high levels of pop. growth should be told that until the issue is addressed, no immigration from those countries will be allowed. I dont really want to argue the fact that there will be more food for everyone if the world were vegan, because if populations did reduce it might cause some to think that it would be OK to start eating animals again, and there are other issues involved in relation to the sustainability and harm of a large and growing human population (although animal farming is of course a major issue re sustainability). Probably, by the time pops. reduce, attitudes towards animals will have hopefully changed drastically.

  7. Isabella says:

    I found this on the ALF website to be enlightening:–The%20Fierce%20Green%20Fire.htm

    The article discusses The Nature Conservancy’s decision to snare pigs in Hawaii because they deemed the pigs to be wreaking havoc on the ecosystem and PETA members’ ability to change their decision.

    In The Case for Animal Rights, Tom Regan explains that sacrificing the individual for the greater biotic good might be fairly dubbed “environmental fascism.” (Pg. 362) Using Regan’s example, if man is “only a member of the biotic team” with the same moral standing as other members of the team, and there was a situation which pitted the life of a rare wildflower against a human life, would it not contribute more to the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community to kill the human and save the wildflower? From a rights perspective, this conclusion could never be reached because a rights perspective “denies the propriety of deciding what should be done to individuals who have rights by appeal to aggregate considerations” including decisions that would benefit the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. Regan states that “individual rights are not to be outweighed by such considerations (which is not to say that they are never to be outweighed)” (p. 362).

    I believe that intersectionality would be desirable and even necessary if animal advocates of all stripes, environmentalists, feminists, and social justice activists are to prevail. But I do not know how to achieve it.

  8. Karen Harris says:

    I agree with many of the sentiments expressed.
    The notion that every other animal species can be culled and exterminated for the good of biodiversity – stability and integrity of the environment – with the exclusion humans of course, is speciesism in its most virulent form.
    I recently have been doing a great deal of reading about breeding programs in zoos, now renamed as conservation societies. I have learned that zoos routinely sell off impure animals to roadside zoos and venues where they are assured of terrible lives. Another example of sacrificing animals who do not contribute to the “integrity” of the environment.

  9. CAA says:

    One of the difficulties with the Land Ethic is that from there seems to be no reason to prefer one state of equilibrium rather than another. Thus, if we have placed an ecosystem into some sort of imbalance such that an invasive species can take hold, it may just well be the ecosystem restoring balance.

    And I think there are two ways of thinking about the obligation to the land. Insofar as it is the sole principle of ethics it leads to some troubling conclusions, but insofar as it articulates the ground of one of our many obligations, it seems unavoidable. It may not even be possible to have any sort of adequate environmental ethics without recognizing that some things are wrong simply because they undermine the stability, integrity, or beauty of the ecosystem. How that obligation should be weighed against other obligations we have is difficult, but we have ways of thinking through this. We probably have an analogous obligation to our nation or society and sometimes that obligation will override others we have (in times of war etc.) and at other times that obligations will be overridden by others, but typically, or at least, hopefully our obligations can be consistent with one another.

  10. Taylor says:

    I wouldn’t say Callicott is considered the “father” of environmental philosophy; if anything, that title goes to Leopold. Callicott is what we might call “Leopold’s Bulldog”, as Thomas Huxley was “Darwin’s Bulldog”.

    Leopold argued that we must stop looking at nature simply in terms of economic benefit and that humans should be considered not conquerors of nature but rather just plain citizens and members of the biotic community.

    Hence Callicott claimed (past tense) that even humans have value only as members of the biotic community. It was this untempered interpretation of the land ethic that led Regan to call the position “environmental fascism”. Callicott subsequently modified his position, both by adopting a concentric-circles idea of obligation (our strongest obligations are to those closest to us) and by saying that the land ethic’s holism has to be complemented by the principle that we must treat all individual elements (sentient or not) of ecosystems with “respect” (when we use them, use them thoughtfully and without waste). Callicott viewed his revised position as facilitating common cause with the animal-liberation movement against industrial society’s destruction of the natural environment, though “on terms … favorable to ecocentric environmental ethics”.

  11. Ken says:

    Hello Mountain, It’s not a matter of me “liking or disliking” humans or any other animal, it’s a matter of function. We’ve been given a chance here on earth and we continue to cause nothing but trouble for most all other species. Even if our population dwindles to 1000 (for example) we’d eventually end up at this place again – it’s our nature. I think it’s highly intelligent to bow out – admit that our power to influence the world around us does not correspond with any kind of intelligence or functionality. Though, as I mentioned before, we need to stay here if only to manage our nuclear waste so that all other species do not suffer for the selfish one. Oh, and by the way, I do not believe we should have ANY domestic animals. We need to learn the difference between “natural selection” and “human selection” – human selection almost never has the animal’s best interest in mind – we usually breed animals for profit, entertainment, addiction, slaves, and a handful of other insane, selfish reasons. Hope I’ve explained my point of view more clearly. Thanks for engaging Ken

    • Mountain says:

      Hello Ken, I don’t object to your idea that many things would be better with a smaller human population, I have a problem with your suggesting to do it by force. Knowingly infecting others witha virus they don’t want is a use of force, even though it wouldn’t kill them. I fully support using persuasion to reduce population; I think attempting to do so by force is ethically hideous and contrary to the guiding principles of ethical veganism.

      Also, there really is no distinction between natural selection and human selection– humans are a part of nature, not apart from nature.

  12. Ken says:

    Good point Mountain, but I suppose then spaying and nurturing pets would be anti vegan since it is against their will as well. I’m not saying I’D be the one to initiate such a virus, but I am saying it may be the best thing for us and the planet in the long run. Tough love.
    Good luck with the “persuasion” thing. I don’t believe we have another million years to wait for that to happen.
    OK, people are nature, there is still a difference between a type of natural selection that takes place over millennia ultimately for the good of that species versus a type of selection that happens over decades or centuries that does not benefit that species but benefits only the species in control. Call it what you will, but there is a clear difference as I see it.

    • Mountain says:

      Spaying & neutering is an interesting case, because it is an obvious example of violence toward an animal, against his/her will. The argument for spaying/neutering isn’t that it’s a good thing, but that it’s necessary. That is, it’s a necessary evil. Probably the least harmful way to keep population from spiraling out of control.

      With humans, the argument that population control must be forced upon people is much weaker. Time and again, we find that when women have access to contraception, education, and economic opportunities, they take advantage of that access and birth rates declines. World population growth was highest in the 1950s and 60s– it peaked at 2.2% in 1963– and is now less than half of that, under 1.1%.

      In developed countries– the part of the world where women have the most access to contraception, education, and economic opportunity– birth rates have already dropped below replacement level, which is to say the population is already declining (slightly) in the developed world. In the rest of the world, population is still growing, but at much lower rates than during the past 100 years. If we can continue to expand access to women in the developing world, there is every reason to believe population will stabilize there as it has in the developed world.

      This is why facts are important. They show that persuasion (and the ability to act on that persuasion) actually does work. Since it does work, there is no need to use force (your hypothetical viral neutering of the human population) to keep population in check. Therefore, your hypothetical virus isn’t a necessary evil, it’s just evil. And grotesque. And ethically hideous.

    • James says:

      It’s not anti my vegan.

      • Mountain says:

        Wait… what? You’re saying that Ken’s hypothetical virus doesn’t violate ethical vegan principles? It would forcibly sterilize all humans on earth. How, exactly, does that not violate the principle of minimizing harm to sentient beings?

        As John McEnroe would say (but I would not): You cannot be serious!

  13. Ken says:

    I appreciate your activism and your optimism, please keep up the good work,

    • Mountain says:


      Thank you. Sorry for being so combative, and I hope you didn’t take it personally. The unnecessary use of force is a hot-button issue for me. Again, sorry if overly aggressive in my arguments.


  14. Fireweed says:

    One of my mentors the late ecofeminist Marti Kheel explored this topic in the excellent “Nature Ethics”:

    “In Nature Ethics: An Ecofeminist Perspective, Marti Kheel explores the underlying worldview of nature ethics, offering an alternative ecofeminist perspective. She focuses on four prominent representatives of holist philosophy: two early conservationists (Theodore Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold) and two contemporary philosophers (Holmes Rolston III, and transpersonal ecologist Warwick Fox).

    Kheel argues that in directing their moral allegiance to abstract constructs (e.g. species, the ecosystem, or the transpersonal Self) these influential nature theorists represent a masculinist orientation that devalues concern for individual animals. Seeking to heal the divisions among the seemingly disparate movements and philosophies of feminism, animal advocacy, environmental ethics, and holistic health, Kheel proposes an ecofeminist philosophy that underscores the importance of empathy and care for individual beings as well as larger wholes.”

Leave a Reply