Land Ethic

Have you formed ethical standards for your relationship with Earth? Most people teach ethical standards to children in what behaviors are ‘right’ and how best to treat other people. As we grow, we learn through experience how to build on those ethical standards to be good people. But, few people I’ve met have taught their children the ethics of their relationship outside of the human world. How would you answer questions about how to act ethically with the natural world?

Aldo Leopold wrote possibly the most influential modern treatise on this subject, which was published in his Sand County Almanac and entitled The Land Ethic. I suggest you read that 14 page essay first and this second, as I supply a framework for how his thoughts apply in our shared place, the central coast of California.

We Hold These Truths…

Are these statements true to you?

  • Our food, air, and water are products of Nature
  • Nature is very, very complex: there is wisdom in considering the precautionary principle when considering impacts to the natural world
  • As citizens of this particularly ecologically rich place, we have a particularly high level of responsibility for nature conservation.

Land as Economic

As Leopold suggested was normal throughout the USA in 1949, so it is today…we citizens of central California are continuing to commodify nature. We treat our agricultural lands as short-term profit-making properties; most are barely cover cropped so that soil is washing away at tremendous rates, many agricultural properties are awash with fertilizer and chemical pesticides that have had too little human health and environmental impact study. Our conversations around property circle around what ‘rights’ we are afforded, not what duties we have: even knowledgeable people lack the information to well manage private property. Land Trusts commodify land that they hold, managing negatively impactful agriculture, grazing, and other uses and expanding recreational use with little idea of its impacts. Public parks are even more guilty of commodifying nature for highly exploitive, barely planned/monitored recreational uses that are rife with negative impacts on soil and wildlife. Economic interests drive these types of nature commodification, those interests are embedded in even local politics, yet few people vote for candidates based on these types of issues.

Aldo’s Land Ethic

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.” – Aldo Leopold

What would happen if we all used Leopold’s land ethic when weighing proposals on natural lands around the Central Coast? For instance, how would application of that ethic affect how you feel about the development of the Homeless Garden Project in the middle of Pogonip Greenbelt’s main meadow? What about the way proposals have been made for the new trails at Cotoni Coast Dairies? What would you think about the plans for post-fire re-building of Big Basin State Park’s visitor center?  How do your feelings on those proposals compare with how you think about applying Leopold’s Land Ethic to the planned wildlife tunnel under Highway 17…to restoring the Scott Creek Marsh on the North Coast?

Is Education Enough?

Most people with whom I discuss the Land Ethic emphasize a problem Leopold anticipated: they focus on a perceived need for more education before it will be possible to apply the Land Ethic. I have spoken with leaders and practitioners of environmental education around the Monterey Bay, and they all reiterate the primary need for education until a more ethical approach to Nature can take hold. And yet, almost none of these educators are familiar with well-established tools to change human behavior towards the environment. I wonder how many would be able to help others by describing what a Land Ethic might be?

The same goes for most staff whose jobs entail environmental protection. Parks law enforcement staff rarely give tickets for environmental destruction, preferring ‘education.’ Municipal planning agency personnel rely almost entirely on education in hopes that it will serve to protect nature in the Central Coast. The personnel responsible for protecting whales and other marine mammals in the Monterey Bay also entirely rely on education to accomplish their mission. With the many interactions I’ve witnessed with these individuals, none have ever tried to help elevate awareness of the ethics of caring for Nature. I have heard political decision makers cite anything like the Land Ethic very, very few times.

The Central Coast has a large variety of environmental organizations focused on environmental education. I hope that they will incorporate the Land Ethic in their curricula, including the many available local case studies to further illustrate lessons.

A Place for Science?

We are lucky to have the California Environmental Quality Act (aka CEQA) as a potential to start the conversation about portions of Leopold’s suggested Land Ethic. For instance, lead agencies using CEQA might ask ‘How does the proposed project affect the integrity of the biotic community?’ What if this question were posed about the numerous wetlands that will be obliterated along the proposed Rail Trail on the North Coast? I would anticipate that the lead agency would pick scientist-consultants to outline a restoration program somewhere along the coast that would ‘improve’ the integrity of wetlands in the project vicinity…checking that box in CEQA…and proceeding with the project. The ‘improved’ wetlands would likely have some attention for restoration for 3 years, but with no long term proposal for management or monitoring. It is very likely that the more correct answer to the Land Ethic-informed question would be ‘the proposed project negatively affects the integrity of the biotic community.’ But, even in the unlikely possibility that the lead agency received that answer from their paid consultants, they would likely proceed with a “statement of overriding considerations” and proceed anyway…because there is no chance that anyone would be held accountable during their election to political office. In short, there is a lot of demand for consultant-scientists to create plans that appear to address the Land Ethic but which in fact are just the excuse a project proponent needed to proceed with their destruction of Nature.

The Solution?

Any decision maker in our region whose work impacts the environment should have access to the smartest ecologists around, so that they receive the best information possible to make excellent decisions to conserve nature. For a while, this happened in the Santa Cruz County Planning office. That model could expand. There are certainly a very many well respected biologists in our region who we might learn from!

-this originally published in Bruce Bratton’s weekly blog BrattonOnline.com

2 comments

  1. Dear Grey, Thank you for this excellent essay. RE: “almost none of these educators are familiar with well-established tools to change human behavior towards the environment,” please delineate/explain what “tools to change human behavior” you are referring to. I have worked in Santa Cruz County as an “environmental educator,” but I don’t know what you’re referring to, if not “education.” I would really like to know, so I can start applying these tools for positive change. Hope you will respond.

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    1. Social science suggests that people are only willing to change certain behaviors under certain circumstances. Lots of peer reviewed literature. Google Scholar ‘pro-environmental behavior’ education and I bet you get that sience.

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