Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ecocentrism - what Aldo Leopold has to say

This blog post is going to be a bit more formal (I basically wrote a short essay for it), but bear with me - it's worth reading. Aldo Leopold is an important environmentalist and a great author (hence all the quotes). I suggest everyone read his book A Sand County Almanac, which I reference in this post.

Aldo Leopold, an environmentalist from the early decades of the 20th century, is the creator of the land ethic and the father of modern wildlife conservationism. In his highly influential book, A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold develops his ideas about conservation, ones that are deeply tied to ecocentrism and the idea that all things - plants, animals, even rocks - are inherently good in themselves. In order to understand how Leopold believes humans have a duty to act in relation to their environment, we must first understand his beliefs surrounding the proper functioning of the earth and its ecosystems.

Leopold explains the functioning of ecosystems using the idea of a biotic pyramid as a model. He describes land as not merely soil but “a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals" (Sand County Almanac, pg. 253). He uses the pyramid model because the sun’s energy, which fuels all living entities on the planet, “flows through a circuit called the biota, which may be represented by a pyramid consisting of layers” (Pg. 252). Beginning with the bottom layer of the soil, energy travels up through the levels of the pyramid, with each successive layer depending “on those below it for food and other services,” and in turn providing food and other services for those above it (Pg. 252). As the energy moves up the pyramid, each layer “decreases in numerical abundance” compared to the one below it; it is for this reason that there are billions more plants than there are predators (pg. 252).

This pyramid system, however, is not a linear one: each species is linked in numerous dependency relationships (referred to as food-chains) with countless other forms of nature. Thus, the pyramid is really a “tangle of chains so complex as to seem disorderly, yet the stability of the system proves to be a highly organized structure. Its functioning depends on the co-operation and competition of its diverse parts” (pg. 252). In the Earth’s energy circuit, “food chains are the living channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil. The circuit is not closed… but it is a sustained circuit, like a slowly augmented revolving fund of life” (pg. 253). Leopold explains that “the velocity and character of the upward flow of energy depend on the complex structure of the plant and animal community…” (Pg. 253). He defines structure a referring to the “characteristic numbers, as well as the characteristic kinds and functions, of the component species” (Pg. 253). Here we begin to see how human interference can interrupt the complicated balance of an ecosystem.

Leopold elucidates how such a complex but vital system can begin to unravel. “When a change occurs in part of the circuit,” he writes, “many other parts must adjust themselves to it” (Pg. 254). He clarifies that not all changes are bad (in fact, without evolution we would not have the incredible biodiversity to protect at all), but that those changes made by man tend to be larger in intensity, rapidity, and scope than anything nature can adjust to (at least without serious consequences to the health of the planet as it now exists). For that reason, Leopold develops a role for humans that is very different than the role of “leader” that man has tended to assign for himself.

Aldo Leopold’s land ethic changes the “role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. [The land ethic] implies respect for his fellow-members…” including soil, plants, and animals of all kinds (Pg. 240). Leopold informs us that we need to examine each question about decent land-use in “terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. 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” (pg. 262). Intuitively, nature represents that which is “good” under the land-ethic.

The principle tenet of the land ethic is conservation, the effort to understand and preserve the lands capacity for health and self-renewal. Leopold describes conservation as “a state of harmony between men and land,” though one we are slow to achieve (Pg. 243). Practicing conservation requires that man learn to manage his environment in a way that helps to support balance in the ecosystem. In order to best achieve this, land ethic advocates something referred to as “reading the land” which centers on the understanding of the interconnectivity of all life forms discussed above. Leopold acknowledges that this new role for humans creates a paradox: somehow man must be both a conqueror of the land and a biotic citizen. He argues that in order to fill both of these roles simultaneously that we must cultivate an appreciation for the intrinsic value of nature, one that is based in love, respect and admiration. It is my hope that one day (soon) we can all achieve this.

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