The Land Ethic

Light of truth

“When god-like Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy, he hanged all on one rope a dozen slave-girls of his household whom he suspected of misbehaviour during his absence. This hanging involved no question of propriety. The girls were property. The disposal of property was then, as now, a matter of expediency, not of right and wrong. Concepts of right and wrong were not lacking from Odysseus.” Greece: witness the fidelity of his wife through the long years before at last his black-prowed galleys clove the wine-dark seas for home. The ethical structure of that day covered wives, but had not yet been extended to human chattels. During the three thousand years which have since elapsed, ethical criteria have been extended to many fields of conduct, with corresponding shrinkages in those judged by expediency only” wrote Aldo Leopold in The Land Ethic A Sand County Almanac. He considers how shortsighted are our ethical valuations and how foresighted it should evolve to be. The first ethics dealt with the relation between individuals. Later accretions dealt with the relation between the individual and society. But the Golden Rule tries to integrate the individual to society. There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. Like in Odysseus’ slave-girls, land is still property. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing only privileges but not obligations. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively which is the land. Leopold further says: “The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack: supply, demand, and transport all neatly organized. To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear.” Leopold’s strategy, then, is not to overawe us with the immensity of the story in which we are involved. Rather, he seeks by the very “smallness” and “everydayness” of his petit narratives to lure us, to seduce us into a deeper attentivenes and, finally, care for our world. This strategy allows a more complex and nuanced naming of the cosmos and our place in it, in the same way that the biblical interweaving of a variety of, at times, competing narratives, along with other genres of law, prophecy, wisdom literature, and lament, allows a more nuanced naming of God.

For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The sportsman who shot the last pigeon thought only of his prowess. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned. Leopold adds, “To love what was is a new thing under the sun, unknown to most people and to all pigeons. To see America has history, to conceive of destiny as a becoming, to smell a hickory tree… Not all moral patients— objects of moral considerability—need to be moral agents… The point is not to force nonpersons into a person’s framework (by construing them as subjects, for instance) but to explore whether nonpersons warrant moral consideration as nonpersons by persons, thus having a framework appropriate to them.” The Moral Status of Other is a new kind in Christian Ethics in Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-being of Earth and Humans. Is the Christian story not a grand narrative that deserves correlation with a story from science that operates on the same scale? Christian faith is, to be sure, committed to the claim that history—human and cosmic—is meaningful, that this meaning is rooted in the faithful love and saving will of God, and that, that meaning has, in turn, been revealed in Jesus Christ. Yet, Christian faith is equally committed to the claim that our knowledge, even the knowledge of faith, is incomplete. “We know only in part and prophesy only in part,” Paul insists, “for now we see in a mirror, dimly” (1 Cor 13:9, 12). During Christianity’s first centuries, when it had to answer the question of what Athens has to do with Jerusalem, it deployed a full range of such practices, and did so in a way that is instructive for Christian theology today. This kind of theological imagination was crucial for coming to terms with the Hellenistic thought-world; mutatis mutandis, it is required for a similar productive reading of the book of nature in light of the histories emerging from modern science.

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