Case Analysis: Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic

The Chesapeake Semester presents a fabulous opportunity to gain hands on field experience, as we discovered through the first twelve day journey. Prior to departure, Professor McCabe held a lecture discussing Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic. Leopold presents the notion that society must make the transition between instrumentally valuing the land and learn to value the landscape intrinsically. Instrumental value is placed on objects that individuals cherish merely for what it gives to the person. For example, cell phones are valued for what they allow us to do: contact people in different areas. Intrinsic value is applied to something for the nature of itself. Therefore, human beings and priceless works of art may possess intrinsic value. Difficulties arise once a request is made for individuals to consider intrinsically valuing the land. Nature has always been perceived as a commodity: how many crops can fit onto this plot of land, what type of structure can be constructed on these soils, how profitable are these pelts? Leopold claims, “A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state”(Leopold, A Sand County Almanac). While traveling around the Bay, I considered Leopold’s proposal, digesting the paradoxical system we were participating in.


The mobile classroom rolled over seemingly endless miles of impermeable surfaces, passing hectares of disturbed lands: flecked with buildings or transformed into sterile, monoculture fields. Absorbing this, I reconsidered how I viewed the entirety of the journey. Prior to remembering Professor McCabe’s lecture, I could barely contain my excitement to travel around the area and discover these interesting, new locations. However, I began to think about the impact we made during the adventure. Snaking our way around the Bay, we covered over six hundred miles. Just in this six hundred mile stretch, try to envision the amount of deforestation that occurred in order to pave the way to our destinations. How much earth was displaced while creating the quarries that provided the construction companies with stone to pave these roads?  Consider the amount of fossil fuels burned in order to cart ourselves to these various regions. Thinking back to the origin of fossil fuels, how much destruction of land and aquatic ecosystems occurred in order for us to explore these areas?  And think of the vehicle used – a large, fuel inefficient bus. This hunk of metal, rubber, and plastic was created from materials which wreaked havoc on the environment during extraction. Countless hours were dedicated to developing the quarry, from which the iron ore was extracted in order to create the steel shell of the bus. As most tires are petroleum based, that is another material that comes from the oil rigs. I will refrain from delving into the disgusting concept that is plastic, which now finds its way into everything. This paradox has left me stumped – this semester is an opportunity to experience systems that desperately need tending to in order to thrive once more, like the Chesapeake Bay. This semester sheds light on potential career paths, one which may promise a better environment for our future children and grandchildren. Choosing this phenomenal program stemmed from a similar desire to make a mark, make a change, make a difference in the world, all through an environmental lens. Yet from the get-go, we pollute the environment. The idea is there, yet our actions do not correspond with our desires.

farmers market

Dr. Schindler brought this concept to my attention one night while camping at Chino Farms. He expressed his concern that individuals walk to the local farmers market, with their reusable bag, and purchase goods directly from the farmer. Sporting a smile, they pat themselves on the back for their good deed and travel home, content with their ‘green’ action for the day. But what did this actually accomplish? The food was still grown by another individual, delivered to this community environment, and is not that much different from purchasing the vegetables from the supermarket. At first I disagreed with him, annoyed with the fact that he dismissed these people as simply demonstrating a valiant effort to be more environmentally conscious. However, reflecting on our journey, as well as his words, I now agree with his opinion. This ‘valiant effort’ concept pertains to the journeys also. Yes, it is incredible to visit these locations and I would have hated to miss this great opportunity. But it does contradict what we hope to accomplish: reducing our impact and minimizing our involvement in the cycle which negatively impacts the Chesapeake.

I suppose this is the part that becomes most painful: deciding what is most important in our current societal situation. We are always making compromises, ensuring it is always in our favor. Take the idea of a land ethic. Few have committed themselves to sustaining a lifestyle which fits this description, because it becomes inconvenient. I hate knowing my mode of transportation contributes to the unsustainable, insecure reliance on finite fossil fuels, and that it adds to the demand for oil. But I also want to travel to Peru. Our human nature is highly contradicting, and this makes it incredibly difficult to adhere to what we perceive as our moral obligations, especially when discussing the environment. Because while it is an organic, animate system, we have detached ourselves so much from the beauty of its existence, creating blinders for ourselves to see simply the extractable resources of the landscape.


One thought on “Case Analysis: Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic

  1. Cindy says:

    I know this semester is going to be a life changing experience. Enjoy the journey, the world is waiting for you.

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