In 1948 Aldo Leopold published A Sand County Almanac, a series of short essays describing particular features of the land at different seasons of the year. Published along with the Almanac was his essay “The Land Ethic,” which has been anthologized in countless volumes dedicated to applied and environmental ethics. That essay was the inspiration for the development of “ecocentrism,” an ethical viewpoint that makes obligation to the environment as a whole the foundation of all other ethical obligations, including obligations to other human beings.
However, despite the success of “The Land Ethic” in developing a more robust environmental ethic, his key insights, I will argue, regarding how ethical views are shaped and subsequently spread, have been largely ignored and/or misunderstood. Those insights are best expressed by reference to the ways in which virtues are acquired, through a process of perceptual habituation followed by intellectual discernment. Miles Burnyeat, in “Aristotle on Learning to be Good,” explains this in terms of the “that” preceding the “why” in the process of moral development.
Leopold wrote that “nothing so important as an ethic is ever written…it evolves in the minds of a thinking community.” An ethic may be given expression in words, but it is only when that expression is found suitable to a certain way of living in and perceiving the world that the ethic is adopted. That is why he chose to have “The Land Ethic” follow the descriptive essays in A Sand County Almanac. Leopold understood that in order for readers to find an ecocentric expression of obligation persuasive, they had to first fall in love with the land. An emotional conversion had to precede rational assent.
The emotional conversion Leopold hoped to accomplish through his essays took place through detailed and heartfelt descriptions of the land. (By “land” he meant to include “soils, waters, plants and animals.”) By helping readers to perceive the beauty in their everyday natural surroundings, he hoped that they would begin to sense their place in the natural world and feel themselves to be members of the biotic community. Only then would they understand what it means to assent to the claims of his philosophical essays.
In this essay I will argue that those who wish to advocate for a robust environmental ethic that goes beyond the professional boundaries of environmental study and practice, must take Leopold’s lessons to heart. This includes paying attention to how and where ethics is taught—for example, indoors or outdoors, in an urban or rural setting, in a building with or without windows. It would include paying attention to the ways in which buildings and cities are designed. Do they allow for regular interaction with the natural world? Do they shape the perception of their inhabitants so that the inhabitants feel themselves to be part of the biotic community?
The essay will conclude with discussion of two examples of architectural and landscape designs that encourage an ecocentric sensibility: buildings designed using whole trees as key structural components and a nature park built on the edge of a marsh.
Richard Kyte, Viterbo University, USA
Harvard Citation Guide: Kyte, R. (2012) “Love, Land, and the Ethics of Place”, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 20 May 2012, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2012].