Land Ethic – A Model for Environmentalists?

Catching up on some old reading, I came across an article, “The Land Ethic” by J. Baird Callicott, that stirred my juices for discussing some aspects of environmental ethics. I do this from time to time, it’s part of my ‘illness’ to engage in something for sheer geekfest value. If this interests you – hmmm, well, I wouldn’t want to criticize.

Synopsis of Arguments

J. Baird Callicott asserts that discussions on environmental ethics, rather than being viewed as a polarity between “ethical or moral humanism” and “humane moralism”, should be made a triangular argument by including Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic”[i]. In reality, however, he summarily dismisses moral humanism, with its view that nonhuman animals should be accorded no value since they possess none of the rational and linguistic characteristics of humans, as wrong. Humane moralists, as proponents of ‘animal liberation’, are given much more attention, albeit as purveyors of a philosophy that may have far crueler effects on wildlife and the environment than, initially, it would appear. Callicort’s arguments indict animal liberation as an impractical environmental ethic, due to its egalitarian method of deriving value, and elevates land ethic to the stature of the only viable environmental ethic because it is holistic and judicious by nature[ii].

            Callicort contends that animal liberationists indiscriminately seek the protection of all animals, whether wild, feral or domesticated, and further maintains their primary solution, human vegetarianism, is based on hedonism. In contrast, land ethic seeks to provide the status of moral value on all the components of ecological systems – animal, plant, mineral, water – not decided arbitrarily, but on the basis of necessity to the health of the system, or biotic community. Callicort, quoting Leopold, gives the categorical imperative of land ethics: “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.[iii]

            To argue that humans should harm no animals is to renounce man’s classification as an omnivore, and deny the extent to which the unchecked proliferation of certain species could cause irreparable damage to the ecology. Callicort assert that animals in the wild also have value inversely proportional to their population, and directly proportional to their participation in the “economy of nature”[iv]. Callicort makes a very strong case that domesticated animals, rather than being in the same category as wild animals, are actually artifacts of human culture. The ‘natural behavior’, that animal liberationists seek to protect in chicken, sheep, cattle or other domesticated creatures, has been bred out of these animals. Finding themselves all of a sudden in the wild because we humans had become vegetarians, these creatures, able to copulate at will, would produce blight of unimaginable proportions. Their need for fodder would conflict with humankind’s need for more agricultural space, in which to produce vegetarian fare, in turn conflicting with wildlife’s need for a natural ecology[v].

            Rather than continue to regard nature with the same hedonistic values, based on pleasure and pain, that the humane moralists propose, Callicort suggests returning to the more symbiotic relationship with ecological systems that the “primitive” tribes enjoyed. They hunted, with all the dangers and difficulties in the process, respectfully ate animal flesh, cultivated a tolerance for pain, and prized virtue, among other attributes. “Personal, social and environmental health” would be paramount, rather than “comfort, self-indulgence and anesthetic insulation from pain”[vi].

            Callicort states, “From the perspective of the land ethic, the immoral aspect of the factory farm has to do far less with the suffering and killing of nonhuman animals than with the monstrous transformation of living things from an organic to a mechanical mode of being…”[vii]. His prioritized solutions to factory farming are: to hunt and consume wildlife and wild vegetation, living within the example of the aboriginal human ecologies; eat from one’s own orchard, garden, henhouse, etc.; buy or barter organic foods, meats included, from your neighbors.



Do humans have any claim to a higher status than other animals? Genesis 1:26 says, “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground”.[viii]” Because of the fall of Adam and Eve, we entered into a contest of authority over God’s creation with none other than Lucifer. Foolishly, in exchange for knowing as God knows (Genesis 3:4-5), Eve, and then Adam, agreed to doubt, then disobey God, and in the process became obedient to Satan. There has been a battle for control ever since, but within this battle, it is rare to find anyone who is concerned with that for which we are supposedly fighting – God’s creation. God clearly gave dominion of the Earth to humankind, but is what we’ve done to it what He had in mind?

In the matter of dominion over the earth, I believe it is impossible to deny humans have taken it literally. I can find no basis in logic, even without reference to scripture, which would add any substance to the argument that humans are just like other animals. Simply the fact that some among us can discuss the future ethical treatment of the environment is one proof of the uniqueness of our species. One can argue that we’ve handled our stewardship poorly, didn’t deserve it in the first place, or even that, as a species, we’ve been so driven by self-determination and greed that we have set up our own extinction, but I think it is delusion to disallow that humans have a practical superiority. Ultimately proof of this dominion is found, as unfortunate as it may be, in the very fact that humankind has exercised the domination of which it was capable. That being said, is there a way to compensate for the damage we’ve done, and do we have an ethical responsibility to, at least, try?

Has the history of our faith in any way reinforced that the Earth is ours alone, and God, since creation, has disavowed any interest in His creation? Did He gift us the Earth, like a toy to a precocious child, not caring that we broke it in very short order? Amongst other references, one section of scripture stands out against the argument that the world is ours to do with as we see fit. The Great Flood (Genesis 6-9) clearly shows God’s retained sovereignty over our world, even to the point of being willing to destroy the whole Earth in His repentance of having made humans. There are many biblical references, such as “…whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31, NIV), imploring us to simply glorify God in our very existence, that I find it impossible to misunderstand the responsibility we have to maintain, and in fact repair, God’s creation, so it in turn testifies to God’s glory.

I find little, if anything, that is disagreeable in Callicott’s assertions. To grant greater importance for environmental conservation to animal species is ludicrous. The absolute wonder in God’s creation is the interrelatedness of all of the components. We all function within an ecological organism and unless all elements within the system, as well as the system itself, are valued, protected and healthy, each individual species will eventually suffer. The ‘natural order’ of the world includes a food chain, at once extremely complex and beautifully simple, in which all the individual parts of God’s ecosystem play a part. Besides the obvious – carnivores eating other animals, herbivores consuming plants and omnivores enjoying a veritable bounty – even water, dirt, mountains and rocks play a role in sustaining life[ix].

Extremism, in any cohesive system, can be damaging. When an ecosystem is thrown out of balance, extremes in population, and ecological destruction occur. Ohio’s current overpopulation of white-tailed deer, mirroring Callicott’s general example, is resulting in damage to both cultivated and natural environments, and can be traced to the drastic reduction of natural predators, which in turn were hunted because they developed a taste for the domestic livestock we propagated. Most environmental damage can be traced to the extremism of human response to a particular need, want or desire, including the need to procreate.

Primitive peoples trusted God, by whatever name(s) they may have used, for their existence. Food was abundant in their territories, since they were omnivorous. Populations developed in places that could support them, and oral histories prepared these populations for survival in their particular areas. Populations rose and fell with climatic, and resultant, natural environmental changes. One pattern to primitive cultures was the constant prayer to their deities of appreciation for needs being met. People lived in the hands of God, and God met their needs.

In essence, humans began to judge God’s creation inadequate to their needs, and became bent on adjusting the world’s systems to suit their own purposes. The primary pattern of behavior for civilized humans has been selfish hedonism. There is one characteristic that began in Mesopotamia and has continued throughout the rest of recorded civilization – the move from hunting/gathering to cultivating. With this transformation came changes in conduct that have permeated ‘modern’ societies. The ability to cultivate changed the balance of power; at least we thought it did. No longer were we dependent on God for provision, we controlled our own food supply, and if we needed to rearrange God’s creation to do it – so be it. We removed forests and wild vegetation to make room for crops. The fact that this displaced or destroyed other parts of God’s creation was inconsequential. In this respect our culture began to perceive Gods creation as errant. God’s Earth was a wild and dangerous place, certainly not acceptable for a cultured race. We knew better than God what our environment should be, and we’ve been reshaping it ever since[x].

Humankind began to kill for something other than food or territorial rights, which are the reasons most visible in the animal world. We started to systematically remove our competition for resources. When we removed a forest or plain, to plant crops or raise livestock, we then killed the creatures that would eat our produce, or the predators that would feed on our animals. After we changed God’s creation to suit our perception of our world, we judged the animals provided as to their suitability in it. Naturally it followed that we could also remove our human competitors for similar reasons. Cain, having had his gift to God rejected, killed his brother Abel, whose gift was valued (Genesis 4:3-12). This biblical account is considered by many to be a cultural myth about man’s desire to control our environment. Instead of protecting our territory, mankind began to kill to gain someone else’s resources or to remove competition. Someone else had something we didn’t, and we wanted it – so therefore, as rulers of what was now our creation, we went to war to get it. Most wars, despite other religious or moral reasons given, have been about controlling resources – economics.

Oddly enough, the motivating factor behind most people recognizing the need for some ecological repair was not the protection of God’s creation – it was the protection of ours. The advance of technology, and with it corporate farming, threatened the security of the culture of cultivation, and changed our image of society. Agriculture, not hunter/gatherer, now represents the developed world’s more primitive societies. The ‘First World’s’ loss of farm acreage to societal and technological advance has increased the need to farm the Third World, which has ‘necessitated’ the need for the destruction of yet more of God’s creation. The sense of loss associated with our changing culture seemed to open our eyes to the plight of the rest of God’s creation.

Will humankind adopt a different ethic? We have subordinated all of God’s creation to our desires. We have recreated God’s work to look and function more like what we envision. We have taken people who lived in the palm of God’s hand and converted them to the knowledge of absolute poverty, after taking their resources to satisfy our ever-growing appetite for material wealth. Is this the profile of a population that can learn from its mistakes, and begin to find the magnificent efficiency inherent in God’s o

[i] J. Baird Callicott, “The Land Ethic”, Morality and Moral Controversies – Fifth Ed., John Arthur – Editor, (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999), pp. 152-164.

 [ii] Ibid., p 163.

[iii] Ibid., p. 156.

[iv] Ibid., p. 158.

[v] Ibid., pp. 159 – 161.

[vi] Ibid., p. 162.

[vii] Ibid., p. 163.

[viii] The NIV Study Bible, 10th Anniversary Edition, The Zondervan Corporation, 1995.

[ix] Callicott p. 158.

[x] Andrew Little, “Are We Insane” (Text of sermon delivered at Westminster College, Cambridge, England, 2004). I drew much of my inspiration from previous readings of the following books:

  • Daniel Quinn, Ishmael, 5th Anniversary Edition, Bantam/Turner, 1997.
  • Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline, Doubleday, 1994.
  • Gene Edwards, A Tale of Three Kings, Seedsowers, 1980.

2 Responses to “Land Ethic – A Model for Environmentalists?”

  1. February 5, 2009 at 1:57 PM

    Do you agree with Callicott? If not, what is the alternative?

    What Callicott said sounds compatible with our “dominion.” In fact, we can use his ethics to try to balance natural environments.

    I don’t know of any philosopher who would say that an animal has equal importance to human beings. Even Peter Singer has a justification for satisfying human interests above the interests of other animals.

  2. 2 Rev Andy Little
    February 5, 2009 at 2:13 PM

    I agree to the extent that land ethic should be part of the discussion. It is the balance of nature, which by “design” swings somewhat, that creates a healthy environment. Humans do tend to mess up the balnce when they simply remove “dead” rock, gravel and sand.

    As far as philosophers, I think I’d agree – although i can’t claim to ahve read them all. It is some, not all, in organizations like PETA that make the claim that ht einterests of other animals should carry as much weight as humans. I would that humans have more importance because they ahve a responsibility to care for creation, and that it is their importance that gives them that responsibility. That would, of course, be a circular argument, but …

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... or, preaching from both ends


That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

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