Carl Koch
1992 Woodrow Wilson Biology Institute


Through technology, we are rapidly changing the earth. These changes have accelerated as man moved from a hunter/food gatherer to a member of an agricultural society and finally into the industrial age. Many of the present technological changes are irreversible, damaging to the land and clashing with our increasing scientific knowledge of how biotic communities function. Individuals are faced with a moral environmental responsibility.

While bioethics is a relatively new field, having developed in the last 20 years, environmental ethics is a much older field. We have a rich history of environmental writers including, Thoreau, Muir, Marsh, Murie, Clements, Adams, Huxley, Elton, Sears, Engler, Odum, Vogt, Leopold, Carson, and many others. Some of these environmentalists are being rediscovered and provide us with a framework in which to develop some ethical guidelines.

Consistent with environmental ethics is environmental knowledge. Since an understanding of the natural resources around us is vital, one goal of education should be universal environmental literacy. A focal point could be Barry Commoner's four universal laws of ecology:

  1. Everything is connected to everything else.

  2. Everything must go somewhere.

  3. Nature knows best.

  4. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

How do we put normative values on our nonhuman environment? Through much of man's history, we have applied INSTRUMENTAL value to the land. What are the economic ends and needs that can be realized from the earth? How can we maximize our profits at the earth's expense? How can we feed ourselves and other humans? We have a right to use other organisms to provide food and good health and to meet other basic survival and health needs. However, many of these uses have led to short term gains and a scarred environment with a lowered carrying capacity. Unrestrained individualism continues to exist as illustrated by our fascination with earlier explorers and the American frontier. It is no surprise to realize that civilizations are based on their soil and that when the soil is gone, the people perish or move to a new area. A land relationship cannot be strictly economic, entailing privileges with no obligations. Conservation, the wise use of our natural resources for the public good has its basis in this instrumental approach which, however, results in some unfulfillment and discontent. Perhaps other values must be employed to govern human relationships with nonhuman entities.

Aldo Leopold's land ethics offers an alternate approach and extension to the utilitarian view of the environment. He concluded his land ethics with a general principle: "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." Land to Leopold had a broad meaning. It included soils, waters, plants and animals. The boundaries include man as a member of nature and not above or as director of this community. The concept of community is not new. Victor Shelford, an ecologist at the University of Illinois in 1919, defined ecology as "the science of communities." Warder Allee and other scientists at the University of Chicago expanded the community concept and sought a scientific basis for environmental ethics. Leopold's thoughts are found in A Sand County Almanac, a literary masterpiece of essays that inspires a reader to develop a stronger feeling of responsibility toward our natural community. He draws the reader to an AESTHETIC value of nature when nature becomes an object of knowledge and perception and resources are valued because of their beauty and ability to give pleasure. He does not use some of our majestic natural wonders, but a simple wornout Southwest Wisconsin farm. We must not find ourselves in a situation where we love wilderness but hate nature since both have an aesthetic value to explore. His unique personal style is readable and thought provoking and leads us irrevocably to a sense of place where the place becomes part of the person and one is driven to defend it against damage and heal its ecological wounds. A personal commitment to a place leads to a feeling for other places and forms of life. Leopold expressed this by stating, "All ethics rest upon a single premise that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts."

Leopold grew to cherish the INTRINSIC value of the land. Organisms and species are worthwhile and good on their own. An excellent example would be his view of wolves as predators: at one time, he felt that fewer wolves would mean more wolves and no wolves would mean a hunter's paradise. However, after shooting an old wolf and watching a fierce green fire die in her eyes, he sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view. The health and survival of predator and prey species are linked together. Like Leopold, we are still struggling to understand relationships, both at the macroscopic and microscopic level. Through Leopold, we gain the insight that ecology involves more than facts; feelings are important. The affective domain is stimulated and love, respect, and admiration for nature are important traits to consider and develop. Man's relationship to nature is tied to his cultural evolution and thus will continue to evolve.

Leopold's lifelong land ethics journey led from a stewardship resource m anagement mentality to a stewardship entwined with ecological conscience. We have an obligation and duty to maintain the intrinsic value of natural systems. Leopold would not object to farming. We do not want to give up all the luxuries or necessities of modern technology and Leopold would certainly approve of some of the current trends in sustainable agriculture. After all, we certainly don't love our soil if we send large amounts of it down the river. An adoption of stewardship with an ecological conscience would change man from being the conqueror of the land-community to a plain member and citizen of it. Consistent with the intrinsic value of nature is the need to preserve and maintain tracts of wilderness which should be maintained and valued for present and future generations. Biodiversity, the preservation of existing species, seeks to keep ecosystems intact and evolving. The forces of biological evolution, not technological control, should determine which species live or die. Fundamental to an environmental ethic is a need to limit human population which strains the earth and its resources if we are to arrive at a sustainable view of the earth.

In conclusion, environmental ethics should bring together knowledge, emotions, value and actions. The opportunities and rewards are boundless. An individual needs to consider what he "ought" to do as a steward of the earth and act. The popular saying of acting locally and thinking globally is an appropriate course of action.


Callicott, J. Baird. In Defense of the Land Ethics. Albany, State University of New York Press. 1989. 325 pages.

Devall, Bill. Deep Ecology. Salt Lake City, Gibbs M. Smith, Inc., l985. 267 pages.

Holmes Rolston, III. Environmental Ethics: Duties to the Values in the Natural World. Philadelphia, Temple University Press. 1988. 391 pages.

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There . New York, Oxford University Press. 1949. 226 pages.

Miller, G. Taylor, Jr. Living in the Environment. Belmont, California, Wadsworth Publishing Company. 1990. 620 pages.

Worster, Donald. Nature's Economy: The History of Ecological Ideas . New York, Cambridge University Press. 1977. 404 pages.


  1. Your task is to investigate an ecologist and write an informational paragraph. You may chose from the list or investigate another. The list is not meant to be complete, but rather a starting point. In your paragraph include the following information:

    a. The time period of the ecologist

    b. Accomplishments of the ecologist

    c. Your opinion as to whether the ecologist was concerned with only scientific facts or did the person express some ethical ideas

    d. Your paper will enable you to participate in the upcoming seminar on the history of ecology


    Adams, Charles C.Allee, Warder
    Clements, FredericCowles, Henry
    Ehrlich, PaulEmerson, Alfred
    Hardin, GarrettLeopold, Aldo
    Merriam, C. HartMumford, Louis
    Odum, EugenPinchot, Gifford
    Shelford, VictorThoreau, Henry David
    Carson, RachaelCommoner, Barry
    Darling, FrankDouglas, William O.
    Eisley, Loren C.Elton, Charles
    Haeckel, ErnestHuxley, Thomas or Julian
    Marsh, George PerkinsMuir, John
    Murie, ClausParks, Thomas
    Sears, PaulTansley, A.G.
    Vogt, William

  2. Your task is to write to an environmental organization and request informational literature. Only one student will write to each group, so make sure you use the sign up sheet. Turn in a Xerox copy of your letter. After you get the information complete the following worksheet:

    a. Name of the organization.

    b. Goals of the organization.

    c. Give examples of how the organization meets its goals.

    d. Give your opinions as to whether the organization is concerned with instrumental, aesthetic or intrinsic values of the environment. Give reasons for your answer.

    e. Save all information you receive for your resource area.

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