Debunking Myths About Aldo Leopold’s Environmental Philosophy

How two sentences in Leopold’s famous essay, ‘the land ethic,’ became so widely influential, and so widely misinterpreted.

Gavin Lamb, PhD
Aug 1 · 6 min read
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Photo by Peter Vanosdall on Unsplash

Aldo Leopold (1887–1948) was a wildlife manager, forester, conservationist, and university professor. The fields of environmental ethics and conservation biology have been profoundly influenced by Leopold’s ideas about environmental ethics, in particular, due to his classic essay ‘The Land Ethic’ in A Sand County Almanac.

What is Leopold’s ‘land ethic’?

Aldo Leopold’s land ethic has become extremely influential in conservation biology and is based on four basic ideas (#4 is the trouble-maker):

  1. First, Leopold argued that the moral community, or, what Leopold calls “the land” should include soils, waters, plants, and animals.
  2. Second, human beings must stop viewing themselves as controllers or conquerors of nature, and instead view their role as just another member of the land community.
  3. Third, Leopold argued that we can only be moral in relation to something we can understand, see, feel, respect, admire, love, or otherwise have faith in.
  4. And finally, in a statement that many scientists, conservation biologists, and ethicists view as the core principle or ‘summary moral maxim’ of Leopold’s environmental philosophy, he writes:

“a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community; it is wrong when it tends otherwise”

A founding pillar of biodiversity conservation

Many environmental philosophers and conservation biologists, in fact, consider Leopold’s development of the ‘land ethic’ to be the first genuine environmental ethics developed in Western philosophy.

As environmental ethics scholar, Eric Katz, puts it,

“Leopold’s classic essay ‘The Land Ethic’ in A Sand County Almanac is probably the most widely cited source in the literature of environmental philosophy. His view of the moral consideration of the land-community is the starting point for almost all discussions of environmental ethics.”

Some even suggest that Aldo Leopold’s land ethic has been so influential in environmental philosophy and conservation biology, that without his development of a value-driven approach to science and conservation, the field of conservation biology could never have emerged at all. As one group of conservation biologists put it:

“Today the emergence of conservation biology, perceived as a distinct discipline, is a direct result of the failure of resource management fields … to fully embrace the values espoused by Leopold …”

For many conservationists, Aldo Leopold’s ‘the Land Ethic’ is widely accepted as a founding pillar of environmental conservation.

In particular, his ‘moral maxim’ ––“a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community; it is wrong when it tends otherwise” –– is frequently cited as an important source of inspiration for improving human relationships with animals, ecosystems, and the planet in a time of ecological crisis.

Historian and philosopher of science, Roberta Milstein, chronicles how this two-sentence statement became the primary representation of Aldo Leopold’s ‘land ethic’ in much current thinking about the influence of his work on conservation today.

Unfortunately, she says, reducing Leopold’s philosophy to these two sentences has led to all sorts of misinterpretations about his actual environmental beliefs.

In fact, this two-sentence statement has been so misinterpreted over the decades, that it has given rise to a number of ‘myths’ about Leopold’s thinking.

The main ‘keystone myth,’ she argues, is how this little two-sentence phrase has come to encapsulate for many Leopold’s entire environmental philosophy. This in turn has led all sorts of other mistakes, misrepresentations and myths about his work popping up over time.

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community’

I won’t get into all the other myths about Leopold’s Land Ethic, but the main problems stem from how people have interpreted particular words in these two sentences — a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community; it is wrong when it tends otherwise.

Integrity, stability, and beauty can be interpreted in a lot of ways. But the notion of ‘biotic community’ has caused the most

For one thing, does the biotic community include human beings? Or are human beings secondary, meant only to protect and preserve the nonhuman biotic community of flora, fauna and environments?

Some interpret these two sentences as meaning that anything benefiting the ‘integrity, stability, or beauty of a biotic community’ would be ethical, even if that meant removing human inhabitants from protected places, sacrificing the rights of individuals, or potentially sacrificing the well-being, health and even lives of people for the sake of saving nature.

For some ecocentric conservationists, one interpretation of Leopold’s statement is embraced as a call to recognize that “human needs, like the needs of other species, are secondary to those of the Earth as the sum of its ecosystems.”

This ecocentric view tends to support a position where the primary goal of conservation should be to protect as many pristine ecosystems as possible completely free of human encroachment.

For others, like well-known animal rights scholar and activist Tom Regan, the “implications of [Leopold’s] view include the clear prospect that the individual may be sacrificed for the greater biotic good.” Regan even goes so far as to call Leopold an ‘environmental fascist’ based on those two sentences Leopold wrote in the land ethic.

Leopold’s land community

Environmental philosopher Roberta Milstein argues that when scientists and scholars use Leopold’s work to support their position only based on Leopold’s two-sentences in the Land Ethic, myths abound. Whether they agree with these sentences or not, researchers taking these two sentences as representative of Leopold’s philosophy inevitably end up completely misinterpreting Leopold’s work.

And because so much can be read into these two sentences – almost acting like a Rorschach test for the wide range of environmentalists out there– unfortunately, myths about Leopold’s Land ethic keep spreading.

Leopold wrote over 500 pieces during his lifetime, and his views were much richer, complex and more in tune with contemporary ecological conservation approaches that seek to develop healthy, ethical, integrated, and regenerative human-environment relationships.

Put another way, Leopold’s ecophilosophy sought a middle path between ecocentrism and anthropocentrism, that viewed humans as interdependent organisms with nature.

As Roberta Milstein argues,

“where [human and nonhuman] individuals and the land communities they are a part of are both valued, with land communities consisting of interacting interdependent organisms, abiotic components, and matter/energy flow, where the “good” of a land community is understood in terms of its health, characterized in terms of its ability to continue the nutrient cycling necessary to sustain life over time, where our numerous goals include maintaining important ecological relationships and matter/energy flows, preserving soil health, and preventing the extinction of species, all of which is predicated on the fact that humans and other species are interdependent with each other, so that their fates are not separable. It presents an appealing, practical, and moderate picture of the land ethic.”

– Rebecca Milstein, in Debunking myths about Aldo Leopold’s land ethic

Conclusion

While not perfect, Leopold’s Land Ethic is one important piece of the conservation puzzle, in finding our way towards more ethical, life-sustaining human relationships with the ‘more-than-human world’ in a time of rapidly growing social and ecological crises.

“A land ethic reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of land.”

– Aldo Leopold

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Gavin Lamb, PhD

Written by

I’m a researcher and writer in ecolinguistics and environmental communication. My weekly digest of ideas, tools, and research: https://wildones.substack.com

The Apeiron Blog

An easy to read Philosophical space that aims to elicit discussion and debate on matters of the universe.

Gavin Lamb, PhD

Written by

I’m a researcher and writer in ecolinguistics and environmental communication. My weekly digest of ideas, tools, and research: https://wildones.substack.com

The Apeiron Blog

An easy to read Philosophical space that aims to elicit discussion and debate on matters of the universe.

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