In times of social and environmental crisis, Aldo Léopold’s call for “land ethics” is still relevant today


An ongoing calculation with breed in American history has drawn attention to racism in the environmental movement. Critics have focused on themes such as forced eviction of indigenous peoples from ancestral lands, the first environmentalists support for eugenics and the chronic lack of diversity in environmental organizations.

They also examined the racial opinions of key figures such as John muir and Theodore Roosevelt. Critics maintain that these men valued the virgin lands, but cared little for the poor and the indigenous peoples who occupied them.

Some observers say the same about Aldo Leopold, born January 11, 1887. Leopold was a prominent conservationist who wore many hats: author, philosopher, forester, naturalist, scientist, ecologist, teacher. Because he was devoted to protect the wilderness and has also expressed concern about the social and ecological impacts of the growing human population, his critics have called him a callous misanthropist at best and racist at worst.

Ranger helper Aldo Leopold and the dog ‘Flip’ on land cut by intruders, later set aside as part of the Apache National Forest, Arizona, 1911.
JD Guthrie / Forest History Society / Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Like a Leopold’s biographer, environmentalist and historian, I think this argument misses the mark. It is true that Leopold did not fully recognize the historical trauma of the dispossession and genocide of Native Americans, or did not explicitly recognize how the impacts of land exploitation fell disproportionately on the poor, blacks. , Aboriginal people and people of color. But he came to believe that Western ethical frameworks should expand to encompass the land, as he wrote in his book “A Sand County Almanac”, Like“ a community to which we belong ”. He called this idea “the ethics of the territory. “

Caring for the land and people

Aldo Leopold was a transformative figure in the evolution of conservation in the United States and around the world. A forester by training, he has contributed to the development of fields ranging from soil conservation and wildlife ecology to environmental history and ecological economics.

Early in his career, while working for the US Forest Service in the 1920s, Leopold advocated for the protection of public wilderness lands without a road – what was to be referred to as wilderness four decades later – as a new form of land use. Automobiles had just entered the landscape, and the federal government had started funding road and highway construction Across the country. Leopold pushed to give land without roads special protection that left them open to hunting, fishing, camping and other uses consistent with their less developed character.

Wilderness sign in the United States National Forest
More than 111 million acres of US federal lands are now protected as wilderness – an idea first proposed by Aldo Leopold.
Jason Crotty / Flickr, CC BY

Leopold’s rationale for protecting wild lands would later evolve to encompass a wider range of cultural, scientific, and spiritual values. But he could only vaguely foresee how the wild lands would serve as the basis for the revitalization of communities and cultural links, of Prairies of Wisconsin at deserts of the southwest at German forests and beyond.

But the conservative thought of Leopold never focused exclusively on the wilderness. He has worked to integrate land protection with concern for more populated landscapes, from farms, forests and rangelands to entire watersheds and urban neighborhoods. He acted to repair damaged ecosystems and rebuild impoverished wildlife populations, laying the foundation for modern fields like ecological restoration, landscape ecology and conservation biology.

Aldo Léopold sitting outside
Aldo Leopold at his cabin on the Wisconsin River near Baraboo, Wisconsin, circa 1940.
UW Digital Archives, CC BY-ND

“A Sand County Almanac” was published in 1949, a year after Leopold’s death. It is compulsory in many courses on American environmental thought. I believe it’s because of its lyrical prose but also because it links the old conservation movement with contemporary environmentalism.

In the grand arc of Western conservation history, the tenure ethic represented a shift away from the perception of land as a commodity to be exploited and towards something more in line with indigenous views on intergenerational obligations and human kinship with other species. I think this may contribute to further progress in achieving an ethics of responsibility and reciprocity between men and between men and the earth.

Leopold, breed and conservation

Several recent articles and comments called Leopold a racist or a white supremacist. This view reflects specific claims that concern not only Leopold as an individual, but the conservation movement in general.

In my opinion, calling Leopold a racist oversimplifies his advocacy for the wilderness and his efforts to understand human population pressure as a driver of environmental change. He doesn’t like either critical changes in the ethical perspective of Leopold in the last years of his life. In his foreword to “A Sand County Almanac” he writes: “I don’t mean that this philosophy of the land has always been clear to me. It is rather the culmination of a life course … “

As Leopold was one of the early leaders in the development of population ecology and wildlife management, it is not surprising that he wondered if these areas could offer a perspective on human population growth. He knew this was sensitive territory and explored these notions with caution, examining population and its interaction with wealth, consumption, education, and technological change.

By encouraging citizens to be more attentive to their consumption choices, he redefined conservation as “our attempt to put human ecology on a permanent basis. “

Land ethics and social development

Although Leopold never advocated harsh or coercive population control measures or measures that could be considered racially motivated, he was not as visionary on social justice issues as he was on issues of social justice. conservation issues. In his many writings, you can find occasional statements and formulations that now read as clumsy, inept, and naive. In an essay on pines, for example, he used an archaic common phrase, casually remarking that white pines “closely adhere to the Anglo-Saxon doctrine of the free, the white, and the twenty-one.”

However, Leopold was also a longtime reformer who understood the fundamental links between social and ecological well-being. Based on this understanding, he strived to advance an ethic of care that united humans’ need for justice and compassion for one another and for the living earth.

The ethics of the land as Leopold saw it was neither elitist nor exclusive. This explicitly kissed people as members of the “land community”, without imposing any conditions on this membership. Its principles inherently subvert racist and white supremacist attitudes.

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Léopold composed “The Land Ethic” in the summer of 1947 when the clouds of World War II were still dissipating. The global conflagration and the deployment of destructive new technologies have tempered his characteristic progressive view. He wrote – albeit in the gendered language of the day – that “it has taken nineteen centuries to define decent man-to-man conduct and the process is only half done; the development of a code of decency for the conduct of man on land can take so long. ”

Leopold saw that an ethics had to be a collective cultural effort, always emerging “in the spirit of a thinking community”. Today, as people around the world struggle to cope with complex and interconnected social and environmental crises, our common future depends on creating an ethic that integrates voices, belief systems and ways of knowing. various.


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