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Land Ethic 1: Introduction

Land Ethic is posted in a series of six sections. This essay was published previously in New Philosophy (Jan-June 2005). - Editor.

See next sections: 2: Instrumental Arguments; 3: Utilitarian Arguments; 4: Intrinsic Value Arguments5: Theological Arguments; 6: New Church Arguments


We live in a time of unprecedented change in the natural world. Ecologists tell us that we are currently experiencing the sixth mass extinction in the history of the world, but with one key exception. The current crisis differs from the previous five in that it is human induced. Acid rain, soil erosion, global warming, suburbanization, and over or conspicuous consumption are just a few of the problems facing us at the turn of the millennium. It would not be difficult to add many other items to this list, but it is beyond the scope of this paper to address the actual manifestations of ecological degradation in any detail, or for that matter even attempt to evaluate the veracity of the facts surrounding these environmental problems. Rather, this paper is premised on the belief that while there may be some discrepancies or even distortions in the way scientific research is used and presented, the total effect of mankind's current modus operandi is having a deleterious effect on the natural world. The earth's stocks of resources, natural capital – genetic, hydrologic, mineralogic, atmospheric, etc. – are being consumed or overburdened far faster than they can replenish.[1]

Faced with the huge, daunting ecological challenges our technological society has created, what is an appropriate Christian response? More specifically, do the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg justify developing an intimate relationship with the land that supports us a la “The Land Ethic” so eloquently envisioned by Aldo Leopold?

A Land Ethic

In recent decades society’s interest in “the environment” has blossomed in the face of mounting evidence of man’s impact on the world. An early person to sound the call for change in the practices of business as usual was a forester and ecologist from Wisconsin named Aldo Leopold. The final essay in his seminal collection A Sand County Almanac is titled “The Land Ethic”. In it he spells out why we as a culture must develop an ethical system that respects the land. The idea of a land ethic has proven to be quite powerful, particularly among environmentalists, biologists, and increasingly the public at large. Evidence of the growing awareness among academia and the larger world of the importance of Leopold’s ideas can be seen in the greater and greater number of citations of A Sand County Alamanac in scholarly works (Leopold, Bioscience).

But what is the land ethic? First his definition of “ethic”. “An ethic, ecologically speaking, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence. An ethic philosophically is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct” (ASCA, 202). Second, his definition of “land”. “Land is not merely soil; it is the fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.” From this it is obvious that he thought of “land” as much more than mere property and more than just dirt in which plants grow. His concept of land includes everything in the natural world, plants, animals, in short all biota, as well as the cycles of water and nutrients that support them. His oft-quoted synthesis of these two ideas comes toward the end of the essay, “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” (ASCA, 224).

Two modern philosophers, Callicott and Nash have read all Leopold’s papers and written about the experiences and beliefs that shaped his views. While Leopold was not antagonistic to Christianity, (in A Sand County Alamanac he refers to Ezekiel and Isaiah as individual thinkers who “asserted that despoliation of land is not only inexpedient but wrong”) neither did he have patience with the attitude of dominion which was even more widely accepted by western civilization during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, than it is today. Both Callicott and Nash point out that Leopold saw everything living, including man, to have intrinsic value. He saw intrinsic value in everything because all the parts added together made up the whole “earth organism” and that alone was enough reason to respect each plant and animal’s right to live (Nash, 66). Interestingly, but not surprisingly since he had a history of hunting and game management, this belief in intrinsic value never trickled down to the individual organism level.  He was always more concerned with species and ecosystem integrity than with the rights or suffering of individual animals (Nash, 71). This attitude is a product of his study of ecology and the realization that elevating the rights of any one individual or even group of individuals, is detrimental to the whole. The topic of intrinsic value is an important one and will be dealt with more fully later. But touching on intrinsic value does raise important questions. What are the norms by which a land ethic is evaluated? How important is ecology in developing those norms?

We must have a way to measure our impact on the land, to ascertain whether human disturbances are causal or merely correlative to an observed decline in “integrity, stability, and beauty”. Caution must also be exercised in developing such an ethic too or else one easily slips into the naturalistic fallacy of believing that because ecosystems left relatively undisturbed by man are now more diverse than drastically altered landscapes, they are somehow good. To do so is to impart a moral imperative of “ought” merely because of what “is”. Just because a given ecosystem is diverse does not mean it ought to preserved as such. In addition, ecology has made great strides in the decades since A Sand County Almanac was first published and our knowledge of stability, integrity, and diversity have grown, ushering in new understanding of those terms. For instance, for years it was assumed that stability in ecosystems was roughly equivalent to diversity. The reasoning went that the very simple systems like cornfields are highly susceptible to insect attack and therefore unstable. A forest with a mix of species is not terribly affected if one species or another succumbs to a pathogen (e.g. the American Chestnut in eastern North America), as other analogous organisms will roughly fill the voided niche. There is some solid reasoning behind this rationale, but it fails to account for stable ecosystems with very low diversity (dunes on the barrier islands of eastern North America), and for stable human altered ecosystems with low diversity (mountains in the Czech republic burnt by acid rain) (Gorke, 72). Time frames used to observe ecosystems also make a huge difference in how evaluations are made. What at first appears to be a devastating fire is in fact a needed part of an evolutionary cycle to which a forest is well adapted.

The point of these examples is not to discredit the statement about integrity, stability, and beauty.  Rather it is to force an examination of the underlying values Leopold tried to convey in that simple sentence. We must heed the clarion call of ecologists to pay attention to the effects of our actions, individually and collectively, but at the same time we must not slip into dogmatic interpretations of their warnings. All science, including ecology, is human and prone to human errors and assumptions. We must act as well as possible with what we know.

On that note, what are the arguments used to support the development of a land ethic? As I read it there are three main schools of thought on the matter: Utilitarian, Holistic, and Theological, each with its own sub-groups. I will describe each philosophy and then try to demonstrate how the teacings of the New Church square with the other worldviews on this topic.

The next section of this essay is: Instrumental Arguments.


Berry, Wendell. Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community. New York: Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, 1993.

Black, John. The Dominion of Man. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1970.

Callicott, J. Baird. Beyond the Land Ethic. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Callicott, J. Baird. In Defense of the Land Ethic. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1989.

Folsom, Rev. Paul. And Thou Shalt Die in a Polluted Land. Ligouri, Missouri: Ligourian Pamphlets and Books, 1971.

Freyfogle, Eric T. Bounded People, Boundless Lands. Washington DC: Island Press, 1998.

The Holy Bible, trans. Unknown. New King James Version. New York: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984.

Gorke, Martin. The Death of Our Planet’s Species: A Challenge to Ecology and Ethics. Washington DC: Island Press, 2003.

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949.

Leopold, Carl A. “Living with the Land Ethic,“ in Bioscience, vol 54, no 2 (February 2004), p. 149-154.

Nash, Roderick F. The Rights of Nature. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, Ltd., 1989.

Rolston III, Holmes. Environmental Ethics. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 1988.

Rolston III, Holmes. Philosophy Gone Wild. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1986.

Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics, second edition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Swedenborg, Emanuel. Arcana Caelestia, Vol I: Trans. John Elliot. London: The Swedenborg Society, 1983.

Swedenborg, Emanuel. Arcana Caelestia, Vol III: Trans. John Elliot. London: The Swedenborg Society, 1985.

Swedenborg, Emanuel. Divine Love and Wisdom, Trans. George Dole. West Chester, Pennsylvania: The Swedenborg Foundation, 2003.

Swedenborg, Emanuel. Love in Marriage, Trans. David F. Gladish. New York: The Swedenborg Foundation, 1992.

Swedenborg, Emanuel. The True Christian Religion, Vol I: Trans. John Chadwick. London: The Swedenborg Society, 1988.

Wenz, Peter S. Environmental Ethics Today. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

White, Lynn. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” in Science, 155:1203-1207.

Wright, Richard T. Biology Through the Eyes of Faith, revised. San Francisco, California: Harper Collins Publishers, 2003.

Thanks also to Rev. Grant Odhner for his paper, “Key Ideas on Nature from the Heavenly Doctrines”.

Edmund Brown

Edmund was raised in Bryn Athyn where he attended New Church schools. He lives near Cooperstown, New York where he works as a registered nurse. He is currently plotting his departure from nursing by engaging full-time in setting up a farmstead cheese making operation. He finds the greatest joys in life from his marriage to Normandy Alden, his dear family and friends, and spending time in the woods and fields of his farm.

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