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A Declaration of the Rights of Land

Lord Acton observed that “few discoveries are more irritating than those that expose the pedigree of ideas.” Acton’s remark highlights the kind of uneasiness that present-day environmentalists undoubtedly must experience. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the idea that the earth’s flora and fauna should be actively protected is not the product of the ideological Left. The modern effort to preserve endangered nature was the brainchild of a Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt. Motivated in part by his love of outdoor activities such as hunting and fishing, Roosevelt convened a series of official conferences dedicated to what he simply called “conservation.” As its name suggests, the political movement of conservation principally was concerned with conserving existing wilderness and wildlife. The conservation movement viewed access to and enjoyment of nature as a genuine human good. The conservation of nature and of natural resources was something, therefore, that was in the best interest of human beings.

This understanding of the reason for conserving nature is not shared by contemporary environmentalism. Mainline environmentalism characteristically is suspicious of the kind of robust enjoyment of nature Roosevelt sought to preserve. From environmentalism’s perspective, the conservation movement falsely assumed that nature exists primarily for human beings’ enjoyment. Consequently, it failed to see that nature actually needs to be protected from, not preserved for, human beings. According to the worldview of mainline environmentalism, human beings are the great “despoilers” of nature. This dramatic shift in perspective helps explain why contemporary environmentalists are more likely to call for the cleaning up of industrial chemical dumps than conserving and game-managing existing wetlands.

Somewhere between the conservation and the environmental movements, there was the short-lived “ecological movement.” During the middle of the twentieth century, this school of thought sought to “reintegrate” human beings into the natural world. Amid the remarkable industrial development that followed World War II, the ecological movement tried to remind human beings that they, too, were “natural” and thus periodically needed to “get back to nature.” Nineteen ninety-nine marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of one of the most celebrated books of the ecological movement, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. A graduate of the Yale Forestry School, Leopold served nineteen years in the United States Forest Service. At the age of forty-six, Leopold was appointed professor of game management in the Agricultural Economics Department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. One year after Leopold’s death, his Sand County Almanac was published to rave reviews in the New York Times. Looking back at this sprightly written book, one clearly sees what the ecological movement tried to correct in the idea of conservation and how this correction eventually gave birth to the modern environmental movement.

The Ethics of “Ecological Evolution”

Leopold divided A Sand County Almanac into three parts. The first part chronicles his observations of the monthly changes in the Wisconsin countryside over the course of a calendar year. The second section brings together several short essays that Leopold wrote about his experiences of wildlife in Oregon, Arizona, Iowa, and other places. But Leopold’s book is best known for the “philosophical questions” raised in its final section, titled “The Upshot.” Leopold here traces the current ecological threat nature faces back to the Western world’s “Abrahamic concept of land.” While his perspective is less developed than Lynn White’s classic argument in “The Historic Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Leopold also sees today’s ecological crisis as having biblical roots. The Bible perniciously teaches man “exactly what the land is for, [namely] to drip milk and honey into [his] mouth.” The Bible teaches human beings that, in fulfilling their own selfish desires, they are free to “exploit” and to “conquer” nature. Within this framework, it is impossible to affirm the “natural goodness” of the earth. Nature is to be viewed simply in terms of its “economic value.” In sharp contrast to the actual self-understanding of the Christian or Jew, Leopold claims that the Bible fosters an anthropocentric worldview. For Leopold, the Bible views nature “as raw material” that can, and ought to, be used to fulfill human beings’ every need and desire.

Over and against this “wrong-headed” Abrahamic conception of nature, Leopold sets forth “a land ethic” that offers a more “biotic view of the world.” This “symbiotic vision” of human beings’ relation to nature “enlarges” their understanding of the members of their community. Leopold’s land ethic personifies all members of the “biotic community … to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” For Leopold, “land” should be respected not because of its utility or the enjoyment it gives human beings, but, remarkably, because of its “biotic rights.” Leopold does not say what these biotic rights actually are. Rather, he limits himself to stating that the earth’s flora and fauna have “a biotic right” to continued existence. For Leopold, the land, like human beings in Hobbes’ state of nature, has a basic right to self-preservation.

Leopold realizes that in order for this biotic worldview to take hold, human beings will have to “rethink” their place in the world. To begin with, they must begin to think of themselves not as “conquerors of the land-community but plain members and citizens of it.“ Human beings, plants, birds, beasts, and insects are all equal members of the same “biotic team.” For Leopold, this is simply a fact of “ecological evolution.” His land ethic “merely attempts” to extend the social conscience of existing ethical systems to land itself. In practical terms, Leopold’s land ethic states that only those actions that “preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community … [are] ethically legitimate.” In Leopold’s view, a land ethic requires human beings to posses a sense of “intellectual humility.” It “reminds” them that they do not possess a privileged place in the world of nature. In fact, the land ethic reveals that human beings ultimately are shaped by the all-encompassing biotic community. (Along these lines, Leopold extols the virtues of what he calls “an ecological interpretation of history.” Such historical analysis allegedly could explain the reasons behind events such as the Civil War “far better” than analyses that interpret such events “solely” as the work “of human enterprise.” Leopold perversely goes so far as to ask if the Civil War–America’s greatest moral and political test–could have been avoided had “the cane-lands of Kentucky … only given us some worthless sedge, shrub, or weed.”) Only by renouncing their “proud” belief that they are superior to other natural beings, claims Leopold, will human beings be able to extend the social conscience from people to land.

Leopold consequently views “the present conservation movement as the embryo of ” an “ethical relationship to wilderness.” For as laudable as it is, in the end, the conservation movement does not affirm the inherent goodness of nature. Rather, the conservationist “values land” solely on the basis of its economic, recreational, and aesthetic utility. Even more disturbing for Leopold is the fact that the conservation movement stops short of reintegrating human beings back into the natural world. Leopold observes that insofar as it views nature in terms of utility, the conservation movement is incapable of seeing what the biotic world can tell us about ourselves. As Leopold rightly points out, conservation recognizes that nature is good for man, but it fails to see that man himself is natural.

For these reasons, Leopold believes that the conservation movement must give way to an ecologically sound education. But Leopold suspects that even this may not be enough. Anticipating the more radical environmental activism of our time, Leopold naïvely, and rather disturbingly, looks forward to the day when “a militant minority of wilderness-minded citizens … [will] be on watch throughout the nation, and available for action in a pinch.”

Evolution and Ecology: Continuity or Discontinuity?

To be sure, there is an element of truth in Leopold’s criticisms of the conservationists’ understanding of the relationship of human beings to nature. The conservation movement was right to affirm that the enjoyment of nature represents an authentic human good, but it stopped short of asking why this is a human good, or what the enjoyment of this good can tell us about human beings. However, this is because conservation–and, for that matter, environmentalism–is primarily a political movement. In this sense, the ecologists’ “nature study” is intellectually deeper than either conservationist or environmentalist ideology.

Leopold sees Darwinian theory as providing the actual basis for reintegrating human beings back into “the biotic community.” Leopold praises Darwinian theory for providing a “first glimpse of the origin of species.” “The odyssey of evolution” reveals that human beings are “only fellow-travelers with other creatures.“ In Leopold’s mind, the ecologist builds on this fundamental insight. Having learned from evolutionary theory of his ”kinship with other fellow-creatures,“ the ecologist discovers the true grounds of the land ethic: that all members of the biotic community should respect each other’s right ”to live and let live.“

There is, however, something fundamentally incoherent about Leopold’s position. On the one hand, he accepts Darwinian theory as a basic fact. What is more, he thinks the odyssey of evolution is ongoing, since the “biotic enterprise … never stops.” Darwinian theory shows that human beings do not occupy a privileged place in the natural world. The human animal is himself part of nature. It makes no sense, therefore, for human beings to view nature as something extrinsic, something that is there simply to be used. On the other hand, Leopold claims human beings have a responsibility to act unlike any other natural being. People should act reasonably with other living beings. They should “live and let live.” By some kind of twisted logic, Leopold both claims that man is king of the beasts and that, as king, he has a moral obligation to rule benevolently.

What Leopold fails to realize is that one must look outside of Darwinian theory for the kind of moral ethic he wishes to establish. One cannot lower human beings to the level of all other living beings–as, say, animal rights advocates do–and simultaneously argue that they have a moral obligation to treat other living beings ethically. Leopold’s argument for the “renaturalization” of human beings, in the end, would make them the most unnatural products of evolution. Ecology’s admirable effort to reintegrate human beings into nature and to make them aware of their obligation to dumb nature, in other words, requires one to admit that as rational animals, human beings differ from other natural beings almost in kind.

Adam, Eve, and the Conquest of Nature

Leopold’s inability to make this fundamental distinction is largely due to his failure to grasp the basic difference between the biblical and the modern scientific understandings of human beings and nature. Contrary to Leopold’s claims, the Bible, which admittedly has little to say about how human beings concretely relate to nature, does not encourage the conquest of nature. Rather, it enjoins human beings, who alone are said to be created in God’s image and likeness, to “subdue” and to “guard” nature. To be sure, it makes clear that the earth and its flora and fauna, which God in fact calls “very good,” are created for human beings. But the Bible also makes clear that as stewards of nature, human beings are to use reason when ruling over nature. Reason requires human beings to respect both the goodness of created nature and the divinely appointed limits that it places on them. In short, the biblical notion of mastery over nature requires human beings to rule nature with an eye to the good of all of creation, not merely to their own private good.

The kind of mastery of nature to which Leopold actually objects has its origins in the explicit rejection of the biblical (and Greek philosophic) view of human beings’ relation to nature. Francis Bacon and René Descartes, the two founders of modern natural science, opposed premodern thought’s fundamentally receptive stance towards nature. Rejecting teleology, they emphasized the mechanistic lawfulness of nature. Denying natural purposefulness, modern natural science sought to “put nature to the test.” By subjecting nature to endless “vexations,” it sought to make human beings “masters and possessors” of nature. In short, it was modern natural science, not the Bible, that set in motion the idea that nature should be conquered for “the relief of man’s estate.”

Both the problem Leopold sees in conservationist thought and ecology’s unintended exacerbation of this problem underscore modern thought’s inability to reintegrate human beings into nature. Ecologists such as Leopold are aware of the sound human and scientific reasons for reintegrating human beings back into the natural world. But as long as they cling to modern science’s view of the unnaturalness of human beings, they cannot say why such reintegration is desirable, nor can they offer any principled reason why human beings ought to exercise special care for nature.

These are precisely the key points to which the Christian notion of stewardship has something important to say. Christianity thus finds itself in a unique position in today’s environmental debates. Presently, Christianity stands alone in its simultaneous ability to articulate the privileged position human beings occupy in nature as well as the obligation that this position entails.