A Sand County Almanac | Study Guide

Aldo Leopold

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A Sand County Almanac | Part 3, The Land Ethic : The Upshot | Summary



In this final entry Leopold discusses ethical systems that allow people to work together cooperatively. Over time ethics have developed from systems that govern how individuals interact with other individuals to systems that govern how individuals interact with society. The next step is to develop an ethic governing how humans interact with the land and the plants and animals that live on it.

Rather than viewing land as property, or acting as conquerors of it, he believes that humans should regard themselves as part of a community that includes the land and the living things on it: "The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land." This requires shifting our perspective in many ways. For example, we must learn to view history not as a series of human events but as a series of events in which the land itself plays an important role.

Along with developing an ethical orientation to the land, a basic understanding of the "energy circuit"—the way energy flows through living things—is fundamental to conservation. For example, one can think of the relationships among living things as a pyramid, with soil at the bottom and the large predators at the apex. Food chains are another way to visualize the relationships among the parts of the land, with each living thing obtaining the energy it needs from other parts. Native plants are best at keeping the parts of this energy circuit open, and while these natural systems are able to adapt to slower evolutionary changes, they are not as equipped to adapt to human-caused changes. Some ecosystems are more resilient than others, but all can be harmed by human actions. Conservation means reducing the harmful actions and preserving the "health" of the land—the capacity of the land's natural systems for self-renewal.

Humans must develop an "ecological conscience," accepting responsibility for maintaining healthy land even when it is not convenient or economically profitable. This responsibility is not just laid on the government but on landowners. Having a land ethic means people voluntarily practice conservation on their own land, even when there is no economic motive for doing so. This voluntary practice stems from a "love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value." Ultimately, humans cannot be expected to completely give up remaking the land for their own comfort and gain. But we must apply some wisdom and morality to the question of how we remake the land: "We shall hardly relinquish the shovel, which after all has many good points, but we are in need of gentler and more objective criteria for its successful use."


In this last essay Leopold argues for a "land ethic," and by "land" he means the actual land (soil, water, etc.) plus all the living things that live on it. Today we typically use the term ecosystem to refer to biological communities of living things and their surroundings. So Leopold is arguing for the development of an ethical structure that includes ecosystems and through which humans begin to see themselves as members of those ecosystems, with an obligation to keep them healthy.

Leopold's argument begins dramatically, in a different manner for him, with an illustration from the Odyssey in which Odysseus has several women killed for "misbehavior." His point is Odysseus does this because the women were considered property, and so there was no moral judgment associated with their deaths. Executing them is the moral equivalent of taking out the trash. Of course, Odysseus's action seems terrible to modern people because our ethics have changed. Thus, Leopold suggests, it can change again.

Once he establishes the need for a land ethic, he discusses the details of what it would look like and some of the roadblocks to its development. One major roadblock is the lack of daily engagement with nature, leading to a lack of appreciation of its value. Even those who work on the land—farmers—have an adversarial relationship with it. Alongside this lack of appreciation is a lack of education about how ecosystems work, how people fit into these natural systems, and the role of the land in human history. The way to overcome this roadblock is to educate people on these issues. Leopold helpfully outlines the content of such an education, as he explains what he calls "the land pyramid" or "the biotic pyramid," which is similar to the energy pyramid, with the added base layer of soil. He also explains food chains and how each organism is a link in many different food chains. He would be encouraged to learn that this content is now commonly taught to all students, from elementary school on up. He also gives examples of how the land has impacted the history of human settlement and agriculture.

Another roadblock Leopold sees is the role government plays in conservation. He has several criticisms: First, because government provides some incentives for conservation, landowners do not take personal responsibility for their own land. In addition government incentives are mostly economic in nature and so serve to encourage economical thinking about the land, rather than ethical thinking. Finally, government programs have no real enforcement, so they allow landowners to apply only those conservation methods they find profitable while ignoring others. This piecemeal approach does not accomplish the goals of the programs, rendering the programs ineffective overall.

Leopold ends his essay with a plea to begin seeing land use as more than an economic decision. Rather, we should also consider land use "in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right." Furthermore, he defines what "right" looks like as it relates to the land: "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." He invites readers to the intellectual, emotional, and philosophical process of developing a land ethic so that humanity can begin to operate with "gentler and more objective criteria" for successful land use.

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