What is Your Land Ethic?

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"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." –Leopold 1938

What is your land ethic? It is a question to ask of us humans these days. Our ethic toward the land determines how we view it as either good or bad. We exert so much of our will on the landscape, forming it in what we believe to be good.

My parents naturally shaped my land ethic. As a boy, we traveled across the United States, where I saw the glitz and glam of the city and rugged serenity of natural areas. With my travels, I learned many things about our country, namely, Illinois is a pretty good place to live. No alligators or packs of wolves and I don't have to check my shoes for scorpions in the morning.

There are others that influenced my land ethic, namely Aldo Leopold (who mainstreamed the phrase "land ethic") and Carl Sagan, astrophysicist and science communicator. These two scholars in their respective fields seem a bit juxtaposed. One was known for looking at the stars while the other at the land.

For each, Leopold and Sagan, their knowledge is impressive, but their prose is enchanting. If you have not read A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold, pick up a copy today. Leopold is considered the father of modern conservation. Born in 1887, Leopold grew up in Burlington, Iowa. The book and documentary follow Leopold through his life as a forest ranger managing lands and eradicating wolves out west, then to his tenure as a professor at Wisconsin, contemplating his past and what it means to be a steward of the land.

"Perhaps no one but a hunter can understand how intense an affection a boy can feel for a piece of marsh…. I came home one Christmas to find that land promoters, with the help of the Corps of Engineers had diked and drained my boyhood hunting grounds on the Mississippi river bottoms... My hometown thought the community enriched by this change. I thought it impoverished" - Aldo Leopold, 1947

It is compelling when exploring space, to turn the camera back on ourselves. Apollo astronauts whose focus was the Moon set their camera toward Earth to capture our planet rising over the Moon's horizon, and we saw ourselves for the first time through the lens of space. Likewise, as Voyager 1 completed its mission in the Outer Solar System, Carl Sagan proposed the idea to turn the probe around and take a picture of Earth before powering down the cameras forever. That picture became known as the Pale Blue Dot, which Sagan expounded during a lecture at Cornell.

"…you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings […] in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam." –Carl Sagan, 1994

Future generations will yield adventurers, scholars, and innovators who will return to the stars and build our knowledge surrounding the complexities of life on Earth, propelling the human species to our greatest challenges and accomplishments. But, our science fiction notions of traveling between stars and living on distant planets is far off. Our species evolved on this planet. Earth is where we are adapted to live, not on Mars or a space station. We are stuck on this planet for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. We will not simply be able to up and relocate to Proxima Centauri should things go bad on Earth.

With our eyes toward the future, we must presently answer the question, "What is our land ethic?" This answer will change with time and generations. An ethic is not an idea set in stone, rather a notion of a "thinking community" that ebbs and flows with our life's experiences and the needs and wants of society.

What is your land ethic? What does the Pale Blue Dot signify? These are bigger questions than one may realize, but can be answered quite simply by most. In this instance, my explanation would expound another thousand words. Therefore, in closing, I will leave it to Carl Sagan, to sum up my attitude toward the land, in one short sentence.

"[…] To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known." –Carl Sagan, 1994