Sustainability Compared to The Land Ethic

Alan Holland’s Sustainability and Aldo Leopold’s, The Land Ethic, are two examples of experts committed to summarizing their careers before they die, in a no-holds-barred manner. The way in which they portend doom for our planet should serve as a lesson in the potentially unintended consequences of trying to do the right thing. Holland writes, “It is hard to see how a sustainable path could be  identified in any other way than retrospectively.” This is a powerful  statement, given that the consequence of an action is all that matters  in sustainability, not the intention of an actor or even the nature of  an action.

Holland explains what form sustainability would take, saying, “It  appears rather as an inter-temporal and path-dependent process which can  only be maintained by procedures and traditions that are self-critical,  self-renewing, and sensitive to distributional and historical  concerns.” In expressing this Holland makes it clear that what goals we  set now will have to be implemented fairly, and that future efforts  continuously act dynamically and in an appropriate-to-the-situation way.  In light of Holland’s earlier statement one is still left wondering how  such a thing is possible at all. Holland explains that, “Poverty is declared an “evil in itself”  and…current economic activity imposes costs on the future.” In doing  so he brings light to a major challenge for sustainability, given that  constant growth has been the goal of any given business or economy.

Holland defines sustainable development as, “development of a kind  that does not prejudice future development.” Depending on what shape one  envisions future development to take, there seem to be endless ways to  interpret prejudice. Holland admits we, “may not be able to predict  future human development,” but generally prescribes major needs as,  “resources, sinks, and life-sustaining systems.” One drawback to this  approach is the current level of environmental degradation and  pollution.

Holland’s generalist approach would have been timely upon the  invention of the steam engine perhaps, but today it is hard to see as  relevant. Holland admits this ultimately, when he says, “the question of  whether any society is on a sustainable trajectory is at best an  extremely complex one, and may be in principle impossible to compute.”

Finally, Holland ultimately rejects sustainability, if partly,  saying, “it must be judged ultimately unsatisfying.” Instead, he  inspires the reader to think critically about the situation they are in  and how best to treat the next generation, saying our task is, “how not  to blight the interlocking futures of the human and natural community  that we have the power profoundly to affect but lack the capacity and  the wisdom to manage.” In admitting all of this, Holland prescribes that  we, “do something in the face of loss,” and make the best of a bad  situation. I for one can only sit and hope that the principalities of  the world adhere to such pragmatism and fairness, but so far it seems  the opposite will occur.

Leopold seems to have a depth of knowledge, and insight into the nature of reality. He is able to say things I’ve held to be true, in better ways than I’ve ever imagined before. He does not suggest a possibility. He states as a fact, that the pursuits of man as a conqueror will only ever defeat itself. He writes, “it is implicit in such a role that the conqueror knows ex cathedra just what makes the community clock tick, and just what and who is valuable, and what and who is worthless, in community life. It always turns out that he knows neither, and this is why his conquests eventually defeat themselves.”

Leopold states that a “parallel situation exists,” in biology, saying, “The ordinary citizen today assumes that science knows what makes the community clock tick; the scientist is equally sure that he does not. He knows that the biotic mechanism is so complex that it may never be fully understood.” These words come at an ironic time in human history, as governments globally lock down 90 percent of the population, with the promise of opening up society after control measures are in place to save lives. In effect governments have opened up a new lucrative market for digital surveillance and cheap generic drugs. Governments have taken Fascistic control over companies, but I don’t see how any of that will help in any way medically. What other insight can Leopold give about ethics that we can apply to our daily lives?

Leopold questions the rationale of increasing the “volume” of conservation education, asking whether the “content” is lacking. I find this concept of new content, to be central to our class and the reason we are all here. We are seeking a way to bring harmony to man and nature which doesn’t lead back to more of the same old problems. Leopold questions whether our formula for individual action is enough to accomplish our task, considering that afterwards people expect, “the government will do the rest.” The issue I find with that is that we have a government that has slashed the Clean Water Act, proposed slashing the National Environmental Protection Act, fast-tracked FDA processes through a unified and streamlined new structure, and opened up mining and oil drilling on federal lands, some of which were taken by the fed for its own protection from things like mining and drilling. If a government has to act right before the world will return to sanity, it never will. Leopold’s example of west-Wisconsin agriculture laws makes this plainly obvious. People will find ways to keep getting paid, but they may not do their job if they get paid before doing it.

Leopold humbly admits that his offer of alternatives to Land Ethics are like stones for bread. In his admittal he displays his earnest intention to grapple for the truth, and to find a solution for social problems caused by environmental issues. He explains that many members of a biotic community have no economic value, and yet have value and even necessity as parts of an ecosystem. He goes over examples of times when species have been protected in perhaps a redundant way, and how such mismanagement has had its own ill-effects. That even to save nature man harms it, shows we do not understand the effect of our actions even if we have good intentions. Though Leopold refuses to disapprove of governmental management of resources, this is not the same as approval, and he questions the ways in which this is an ineffective strategy. He plainly reveals, “To sum up: a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided,” and that, “ethical obligation on the part of the private owner is the only visible remedy for these situations.”

Leopold briefs us on energy cycles and food chains, saying that for the first time in history food chains are becoming shorter rather than longer, as humans have lopped off apex-predators from the top of the pyramid. He mentions guano used for nitrogenating soil, and that is a limited substance set to expire in our lifetime. He questions whether the land can adjust to this “new order.” He claims that many lands have “a reduced level of complexity, and with a reduced carrying capacity for people, plants and animals,” and that they have become “overpopulated.” He connects population density to violence, saying “Violence, in turn, varies with human population.” He predicts America has a better chance of adjusting than Europe, due to population density.

After admitting man has improved it’s “pump” and not the “well” Leopold has painted a grim picture for ecology, and then finally begins to unveil his outlook on the form a solution may take. His solution is simply that, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.” He admits that, “Conservation is paved with good intentions which prove to be futile,” and looks at such ethics as a work in progress. While he may accurately portray the cause of ecology today, Leopold hardly provides a solution. If humans cannot know all consequences to their actions, their intentions won’t ever save the day.

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