Teaching “The Land Ethic”

In my last blog, I wrote about Cronon’s idea of wilderness dualism, and the problems associated with the “humans versus nature” approach to environmental management. The text we engaged with this week, Aldo Leopold’s “The Land Ethic,” also advocated for breaking down the barriers between humans and the environment. Leopold writes, “A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it” (Leopold). The land ethic calls for us to apply ethical consideration to our interactions with the environment. One of the most important points I think Leopold makes is that laws and regulation alone cannot solve the environmental problems we face. There needs to be a fundamental shift in the attitude we have about land use and exploitation, where people hold one another morally accountable for treatment of the environment.   Leopold calls this the “extension of the social conscience from people to land.” At this point, the way the government gets people to go along with environmental regulation and conservation efforts is through appealing to their economic self-interest. We see this in Maryland with the provision of government subsidies to farmers for employing best management practices (BMPs), such as planting cover crops (Fox). There is no shared expectation in the agricultural community that one should prioritize the health of the environment for its inherent value—quite the opposite is true. And we arguably have no right to judge those who use land unsustainably, as we live in a culture that values economic productivity at any cost.

One of my passions is environmental education, specifically because I want to connect people with the land and instill in them a sense of responsibility for its health. But I think that the concept of “environmental education” can be problematic, in that it plays into the division between humans and the environment. Instead of integrating the environment into every aspect of our education, we isolate the information to be delivered in specific settings (such as nature centers). One of the best ways to achieve a shared land ethic is to provide a shared educational experience when it comes to the environment. Since the land provides the foundation upon which our lives our built, it should play a fundamental role in our curriculum. Environmental literature, science, economics, history, and more can all be integrated into existing curriculum. Depoliticizing discussion of the environment is necessary in order to engage in productive conversation surrounding conservation and management. The environment cannot continue to be viewed as part of the liberal agenda, or as the antithesis of economic productivity. Regardless of our personal political beliefs and priorities, every person on earth relies on the land for survival. Therefore Leopold’s idea that we should be living as citizens of the “land-community” as opposed to conquerors of the environment must be adopted into our social conscience in order to protect the natural world and ensure our own survival.

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