• kevinwaynezerbe

What is my Land Ethic?

I spend many of my days thinking on the same question: what is my land ethic? Aldo Leopold coined the term. Said “land ethic” was a philosophy about how humans should regard the land, that there is some moral responsibility in stewardship of the land and all of its components. Air, water, soil, life.

There is inherent in the term a set of moral standards. Right and wrong. And like many moral standards, it appears easy to understand what is right and what is wrong. Any environmentalist would jump at the opportunity to set you down and explain these standards to you, in plain language. The line is not so thin, they might say. They might use words like “sustainability.” “Preservation.” “Management.”

But when it comes to land ethics, I’m not certain it’s quite that simple.

As an environmental scientist, most of my work is about discovering the rights and the wrongs. And there’s so much work to be done that I and the thousands of other environmental scientists around the world have dedicated their careers for doing it. The work is about knowing better the natural world, its systems and sub-systems, and finding the ways in which our human lives influence these systems. It’s about lessening the adverse symptoms of our dominance on Earth and encouraging what some call “ecosystem services,” those natural processes that better our lives in some way.

For me, it’s about making sure there’s fish in the river you drive over every morning, or live within earshot of, or hike alongside.

From a land ethics lens, this work doesn’t seem morally ambiguous. It seems firmly on the side with the other rights of the environmental sciences. The “reducing greenhouse gas emissions” side. The “rid the oceans of plastics” side. The “protect endangered species” side. But any ecologist will tell you that sometimes you fix one problem and you cause another. It’s the very nature of systems, that a change in one part will effect change in another. In the early 1900s, men like me wanted to fish the fish-less waters of the western United States, and trout were brought in for no other reason than that’s the fish men cared about then. Some would argue it improved some of the mightiest of western rivers. Others wouldn't. Was it right to do this, though? I honestly can’t say. But was it natural? Maybe that’s a different question.

I suppose my point is that the life of an ecologist like myself is a life filled with ambiguity. Like the written word, meanings change upon further reflection and time and world-view. It means forgetting that there may be such things as rights and wrongs. Maybe it’s more prudent to think only in terms of natural and unnatural. Maybe that’s my land ethic: whatever it was before humankind it should be after, that whatever action marches back toward natural order is righteous.

As I said, many a-days are spent thinking on this. I suspect my definition will change tomorrow.



© 2020 Kevin Wayne Zerbe. All photographs on this website were taken by and are property of Kevin Wayne Zerbe. Do not use without permission.  


Created with