Published in 1949 as the finale to A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic” essay is a call for moral responsibility to the natural world. At its core, the idea of a land ethic is simply caring: about people, about land, and about strengthening the relationships between them.
What are Ethics?
Fundamentally grounded in values, ethics are a moral sense of right and wrong. Ethics are demonstrated by the way people live their lives: When a person cares about someone or something, their actions convey that care and respect, and invite the same in return.
“When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
What is a Land Ethic?
Ethics direct all members of a community to treat one another with respect for the mutual benefit of all. A land ethic expands the definition of “community” to include not only humans, but all of the other parts of the Earth, as well: soils, waters, plants, and animals, or what Leopold called “the land.”
In Leopold’s vision of a land ethic, the relationships between people and land are intertwined: care for people cannot be separated from care for the land. A land ethic is a moral code of conduct that grows out of these interconnected caring relationships.
Leopold did not define the land ethic with a litany of rights and wrongs in A Sand County Almanac. Instead, he presented it as a set of values that naturally grew out of his lifetime of experiences in the outdoors. Leopold wrote that “we can only be ethical in relation to something we can see, understand, feel, love, or otherwise have faith in.”
He believed that direct contact with the natural world was crucial in shaping our ability to extend our ethics beyond our own self-interest. He hoped his essays would inspire others to embark or continue on a similar lifelong journey of outdoor exploration, developing an ethic of care that would grow out of their own close personal connection to nature.
Evolution in a Thinking Community
Leopold recognized that his dream of a widely accepted and implemented set of values based on caring – for people, for land, and for all the connections between them – would have to “evolve… in the minds of a thinking community.”
We are all part of the thinking community that needs to shape a land ethic for the 21st century and beyond. To do that, we must engage in thoughtful dialog with each other, inviting a diversity of perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds. Together, we can form a land ethic that can be passed down to future generations.
Download a list of Land Ethic Additional Readings in printable PDF format:
Aldo Leopold's classic work A Sand County Almanac is widely regarded as one of the most influential conservation books of all time. In it, Leopold sets forth an eloquent plea for the development of a "land ethic" -- a belief that humans have a duty to interact with the soils, waters, plants, and animals that collectively comprise "the land" in ways that ensure their well-being and survival.
For the Health of the Land, a new collection of rare and previously unpublished essays by Leopold, builds on that vision of ethical land use and develops the concept of "land health" and the practical measures landowners can take to sustain it. The writings are vintage Leopold -- clear, sensible, and provocative, sometimes humorous, often lyrical, and always inspiring. Joining them together are a wisdom and a passion that transcend the time and place of the author's life.
The book offers a series of forty short pieces, arranged in seasonal "almanac" form, along with longer essays, arranged chronologically, which show the development of Leopold's approach to managing private lands for conservation ends. The final essay is a never before published work, left in pencil draft at his death, which proposes the concept of land health as an organizing principle for conservation. Also featured is an introduction by noted Leopold scholars J. Baird Callicott and Eric T. Freyfogle that provides a brief biography of Leopold and places the essays in the context of his life and work, and an afterword by conservation biologist Stanley A. Temple that comments on Leopold's ideas from the perspective of modern wildlife management.
The book's conservation message and practical ideas are as relevant today as they were when first written over fifty years ago. For the Health of the Land represents a stunning new addition to the literary legacy of Aldo Leopold.