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A Sand County Almanac at 75: the evolution of the land ethic

A lot changes in 75 years. In 1949, when Oxford University Press published Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac with “The Land Ethic” included, there were about 2.5 billion people alive on Earth. The atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration was just over 310 parts per million. The average global temperature was 0.6 degrees Celsius below the average for the twentieth century. Less than 30% of the world population lived in cities; agriculture was industrializing, but not yet industrial. Climate change and environmental injustice existed, but they were not formalized concepts, let alone fields to be studied. Much of Leopold’s writing was concerned with developing an appreciation for the aesthetics and services of intact ecosystems; protecting wilderness for recreation, beauty, and ecological stability; and advancing the emerging science of land health and the potential of ecological restoration.

If Leopold were to rewrite his collection essays for a present-day audience, he would face 8 billion people, 411 ppm of atmospheric CO2, 1.2 degrees Celsius of temperature rise, and an increasingly urbanized population. Climate change is perhaps the most widespread threat to human well-being—and life in general—and it both reveals and exacerbates environmental injustice around the world. We are reframing the concept of wilderness, and even conservation as a whole, as Indigenous and other non-Euro-centric perspectives are finally given the regard they deserve. And, while ecological restoration is now common and celebrated, we are confronted with new questions about what is right and wrong for us to manipulate in the landscape.

With all of this rapid change and no sign of slowing down, can Leopold’s land ethic evolve to stay relevant in this tumultuous era?

Thankfully, the land ethic was actually meant to evolve. Leopold acknowledged that he could not write or prescribe it—it would “evolve in the minds of a thinking community.” Leopold hoped his readers, members of a Western society who weren’t always raised to see the land as community, would create a mindset of care and respect for the land to which we all belong. The land ethic is meant to be a foundation for social norms that consider the health of air, water, soils, and all other beings. Such consideration was needed in the 1940s to address rampant soil erosion and habitat loss; it is needed today, perhaps even more urgently, to address our warming planet and species extinctions.

Because the land ethic was not meant to live in a vacuum, it adapts, informing and inspiring us as we seek to make our conservation work more just. The essay alone may not contain explicit guidance for how to pair care for other humans with care for the land, but the two are inextricably tied, and contemporary conservation leaders are bridging the gaps. “The evolution of the land ethic is an intellectual as well as emotional process,” Leopold wrote. It is our job to continue advancing this ethic from “the individual to the community,” taking what works from Leopold and combining it with knowledge and wisdom from other cultures and teachers, be they past or present.

For many, A Sand County Almanac and the land ethic are their first glimpse into a worldview that cares for and respects the land and other people. This worldview must continue to evolve with, and through, a more diverse thinking community if we are to truly develop an ethic of care for all people in all places.

A lot changes in 75 years, the land ethic included. It will continue to evolve with the times as we listen and learn from new voices and reconcile with past injustices. But no matter how or when the land ethic reaches someone new, it will still carry its timeless message: to “see the land as a community to which we belong.”

Feature image by John Salzarulo on Unsplash.

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