Ethics of Life

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Essay for the “Eco-Literature” class at Newark Academy (Mr. Jon Downs) 

Have you ever killed a human being? Probably not. But have you ever killed a tree, a fish, a bird? Most likely, yes. Have you ever defaced someone’s house? But what about an animal’s habitat? The atmosphere? Why is there such a difference between the way we treat members of our own species and members of other ones? Why the human moral is so strict and the moral toward the nature is so lax? In his essay, Land Ethic, Aldo Leopold attributes this difference to trends in human evolution. He argues that, just as human-to-human ethics is an adaptation for survival, human-to-land ethics is a natural result of man’s increasing power to change the natural environment, and furthermore are a necessity for human survival and progress.

 Early humans most likely were not gregarious creatures. Survival was a ruggedly competitive, individualistic endeavor. But such competition was apparently inefficient for survival. Cooperation proved to be better fit, because it was much easier, for example, to hunt a bison in groups rather than individually. With the cooperation gaining ground, the moral emerges as the set of principles limiting deadly competition and governing useful interactions. That is exactly what Leopold establishes in the first pages of Land Ethic – any ethics is an adaptation for survival: “An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence … [ethics] has its origin in the tendency of interdependent individuals or groups to evolve in modes of co-operation.” Human ethics, politics, economics, as Leopold points out, are advanced forms of symbiosis.

Leopold also analyses another underlying principle of ethics — concept of property. Invoking Odysseus’s slave girls, he argues that when we consider something as property, we do not have ethics concerning it, since we do not cooperate with it. But once economic or natural changes either necessitate (for survival) our cooperation with what we previously considered property, or make us incapable of treating it as property, that’s when we realize our lack of control, and start developing ethical relationships, considering it as a part of our community. During era of industrialization humans thought that they could harvest nature and control it the way they want. Today we are beginning to understand how fragile the biosphere really is, how much our actions can destroy it, and how much we depend on it. A land ethic emerges when we consider the land becoming a part of our community, or rather, we consider ourselves a part of the global community.

Leopold provides a similar realization in the short essay, Thinking like a Mountain. One of the results of the spread of human civilization is the decrease in the population of natural predators (such as wolves, bears) in environments. In eco-systems, natural predators keep the population of their prey (usually herbivores, such as deer) in check. As population of predators decrease (even disappear in some areas), herbivores proliferate, making a huge impact on vegetation. Leopold describes the devastation brought to mountainsides by herds of deer: “the starved bones of the hoped for deer herd, dead of its own too much, bleach with bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers” . Leopold’s essay makes clear an intricate relation between three parts of an ecosystem that seem independent at first glance: “…just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer”. If our deeds of destroying the predator population go so far as eroding mountainsides then, Leopold argues, our community involves not only Homo sapiens, but also what Leopold collectively calls the land. As our society becomes aware that we are part of the global community we call Life on Earth, a land ethic emerges, just as Leopold’s encounter with the wolf made him realize his part in the life of the mountain.

While conditions become right, Leopold argues, there is a serious block in modern society for the emergence of land ethic, and it is that “Your true modern is separated from the land by many middlemen and by innumerable physical gadgets” (p261). Modern humans rarely see the land, so how can they have an ethical connection towards it? “It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for the land, and a high regard for its value,” he says (p261). “Only experience of the beauty of the land can awaken in a person a true land ethic.” In effect, Leopold calls on the reader to go out and enjoy the nature, to see its beauty and to understand how human activities destroy it. I very much agree. When I began hiking in the Adirondacks, I was stunned at the rugged beauty of these mountains – peaks of solid rock, kilometer high, nearly vertical drop-offs, cold and harsh winds. But I was also stunned at the lifelessness of these mountains – the lakes in the warm valleys completely silent of fish, surrealistic forests of dead trees at the shorelines. In the Adirondacks, I have yet to see a bear or a deer or any kind of wildlife, which makes New Jersey suburbia seem like wildlife preserve compared to Adirondacks. It was only later that I realized why. The acid exhaust from Midwest power plants that bring light to my house is what erodes the life from these mountains. Of course, I knew about global warming, pollution, and probably heard in a classroom about acid rain. But it was only after seeing how human activities destroy such beautiful and majestic mountains that I began to turn off lights, recycle, and develop a land ethics.

In his essay Leopold proves a case for land ethic in human society. But he leaves unanswered an interesting question: does land ethic conflict with human ethic? T.C. Boyle, in Friend of the Earth says “to be a friend of the Earth, you have to be an enemy of the people.” Edward Abbey, who we might argue is very much land-ethical, claims to be anti-social. Perhaps the non-conformist characters, such as Abbey and the fictional “eco-terrorists” in T.C. Boyle’s story, are those mutants in our social evolution, , who succeed in survival of not just our species, but survival of the community we call Life on Earth.

Pavlo Levkiv 11/15/2006

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