The Ethics of Land Use

The Ethics of Land Use by Elizabeth Anne Phares

Important Aspects of Nature


In our distant past we lived within nature. Paleolithic man asked for the forgiveness of the animals he killed because he knew he was connected to them, dependent on them for survival (Disch, 92). However, our ideas about the world around us have changed drastically. Since at least the time of Copernicus, "civilized" man has had the false view that the universe revolves around humans. The domestication of plants and animals has distanced us from the natural world. There has been a false sense that we are not subject to the same laws that govern every living thing, from bacteria to our closest cousins, the chimpanzee. Christianity dealt with this idea by claiming that man has dominion over nature, it exists only to serve us. Humans were created in the image of the supreme being, which made them different from the rest of the animals. During the Renaissance this was taken even further by a belief that human power should be celebrated by conquering nature. Machiavelli said we should be "building dykes and barriers to hold back natures furry." At that time people viewed the natural world as a threat that man, as a superior being, was obligated to keep at bay.

These beliefs were carried with us to the New World by Puritan settlers. To them, nature and the wilderness were where evil lurked. It was full of heathen Indians and all sorts of ungodly creatures that threatened their existence. They sought to tame the land and convert everyone to Christianity to maintain their idea of order. They viewed themselves as soldiers of God, driving evil from the land and making it serve the greater purpose.

After hundreds of years we have reached a point at which it is next to impossible to find anything resembling wilderness in many parts of the country. Most of the trees were cut down to make room for wasteful farming practices, even on steep mountain slopes were there is the potential for the greatest damage. The result is a land with vast areas devoid of nature. A study at Cornell which examined the mental health of people living in Manhattan, the classic example of an urban setting, showed that 20% of them were indistinguishable from mental hospital patients and that 60% of them showed evidence of mental disease. This is not the case for people living in rural settings (Disch, 23). Thoreau believed that both civilization and wilderness were necessary for the health of people, that "The savagery of urban man, untempered by wilderness discipline, was savagery for its own sake". Daniel Martin has said that our problem is that we no longer feel like we belong the same way the animals and the plants do. We see ourselves as isolated, as "souls from another realm who are passing through an alien and unfriendly land" (Hull, 43). We created this alien land through our own destructive practices.

In addition to feeling lost and ruining our own health, we are damaging the earth at an alarming rate. We pump billions of tons of harmful gasses into the atmosphere, pour sludge and chemicals into our waterways and bury radioactive material in our soil. We cut down our trees, kill the animals and erode the soil faster than it can be formed. "If the earth does grow inhospitable towards human presence, it is primarily because we have lost our own sense of courtesy toward the earth and its inhabitants..." (Berry, 2). We now face a decision that will affect the lives of every organism yet to come into existence on this planet. We can either return to our place in nature and take only what is ours, or we can destroy ourselves, selfishly consuming and polluting everything within our reach.

The Solution

According to Ian McHarg, we must learn that we are subject to natural laws. We will abide by them or we will die. Indeed, if we continue on the path we are on we will destroy not only ourselves, but the world around us. Paul Shepard has said that we first separated ourselves from nature because we believed ourselves to be unique, the only species capable of kindness, compassion, love and understanding. This separation has led to violence and hostility towards ourselves and our world. He compares our skin to the surface of a pond, it does not separate us from nature because it and every other part of us is nature. The web of life, he says, is not adequate to describe the real connections. We are within nature as we are "in a room or in love." We are to the environment what an organ is to a body, neither can survive without the other. We must realize that we and everything around us are a critical part to a whole, and that killing other parts like a cancer attacks organs will, in the end, kill us as well.

Our first goal is to gain a respect for the world around us, down to the most insignificant seeming organism. In our past we have treated nature as our tool, and this must change. Lewis Mumford has said that we are "training...a race of young exterminators" by using nature without a second thought at to its value. Why, he asks, should we expect adults to want to save the environment when they grew up dissecting frogs as if they had no more value than a diagram? We must instead raise our children with an understanding that all life deserves our respect.

The next step according to Aldo Leopold is to come to the realization that material goods do not make us happy. Our minds are polluted by capitalism, a system that seeks to make us believe that we need something we can actually live quite easily without in order for someone else to make a profit. These ideas spill over into conservation, causing people to keep a field only to graze livestock or preserve a forest purely for its value in timber.

In America, Leopold says, we are obsessed with property rights and ownership. This gives us the false sense that the land is something we can use up until it is no longer valuable. This, however, is not the case. He says that there are no boundaries to nature, it is all connected as part of the same "fabric." Because of this we have a responsibility as stewards of the land, to preserve it since it is connected to everyone around us. To damage our little piece of this earth is to hurt everyone. "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect." It is the duty of every land owner in the country to care for the little bit of earth they have the privilege of owning.

This stewardship must extend to all lands, not just pristine wilderness. Aldo Leopold valued every place as an equal part to the whole. To him, "wilderness was a state of mind rather than a description of a place" (Knight and Riedel, 58). Although much of New England was once cleared for farming, the current inhabitants love the damp forests and sunny meadows as wild places. This is true of our own Nature Preserve. The wetlands were once bulldozed to make way for an athletic field and the trees were not there too long ago, cut down to allow dairy cows to graze. Regardless of the history of the area, it is valued as our own place to connect with nature.

As stewards of the Nature Preserve and surrounding wild lands, Binghamton University must protect an area cherished by thousands and owned by everyone. We are an educational institution that must learn an important lesson from someone else. The "earth, as the primary educational establishment...with a record of extraordinary success over some billions of years" is crying out to us (Berry). If evolution has a direction of simple to complex then symbiosis and altruism are the apex (Dish, 30).


  • Disch, Robert. The Ecological Conscience. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1970.
  • Berry, Thomas. The Dream of Earth. Sierra Club Books, San Fransisco, CA, 1988.
  • Hull, Fritz. Earth and Spirit. The Continuum Publishing Company, New York, NY, 1993.
  • Knight, Richard and Suzanne Riedel. Aldo Leopold and the Ecological Conscience. Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2002.