Pope Francis’s Land Ethic, Part 2

The encyclical Laudato si’ lays out what I called Pope Francis’s land ethic, back in part 1. I use that term because, from its earliest pages, I felt strong parallels between the environmental ethic advanced on behalf of the Catholic Church and the writings of pioneering American conservation biologist Aldo Leopold. Compare this passage from Laudato si’:

When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behaviour patterns, and the ways it grasps reality.

to this, from Leopold’s opus, A Sand County Almanac:

A land ethic…cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources’ [soil, water, plants, animals], but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state.

In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from a conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.

Leopold later adds, in language echoed in Laudato si’:

To sum up: a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided. It tends to ignore, and thus eventually to eliminate, many elements in the land community that lack commercial value, but that are (so far as we know) essential to its healthy functioning. It assumes, falsely, I think, that the economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts. It tends to relegate to government many functions eventually too large, too complex, or too widely dispersed to be performed by government.

An ethical obligation on the part of the private owner is the only visible remedy for these situations.

The full essay containing that chunk is called “The Land Ethic,” a supremely influential work in the history of environmental ethics.

Leopold was, by all accounts, not a religious man (he was raised as a Lutheran, but the Freedom From Religion Foundation notes that he only attended church for his daughter’s wedding, and before that for his own wedding to a Catholic woman). Even so, it’s hard not to see Leopold’s ideas shaping the Pope’s encyclical.

“There is as yet no ethic dealing with [hu]man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it,” Leopold wrote, in laying out his own sense of what such an ethic might look like. “Authentic human development has a moral character,” answers the Pope. “It presumes full respect for the human person, but it must also be concerned for the world around us and ‘take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system.’”

Such systems thinking is key to Leopold’s land ethic. Leopold envisioned a land ethic extending the circle of ethical community, continuing an expansion of ethics beginning in the depths of human history. The commandments at Mt. Sinai generally focus on the relations of one person to another. The Golden Rule broadens that by considering one’s relations to all others, modern liberal democracies regulate the dealings of the collective with the individual, making all humans part of the community bound by a shared ethic. To these, Leopold strove to add and articulate a new ethic which would bring all of nature into an ethical relationship with individuals and society:

The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations. The extension of ethics to this third element in human environment is, if I read the evidence correctly, an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.

All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise; that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in the community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.

Compare that to Pope Francis’s observation:

Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation. But the cost of the damage caused by such selfish lack of concern is much greater than the economic benefits to be obtained. Where certain species are destroyed or seriously harmed, the values involved are incalculable. We can be silent witnesses to terrible injustices if we think that we can obtain significant benefits by making the rest of humanity, present and future, pay the extremely high costs of environmental deterioration.

Aldo Leopold also wrote about the importance of far-sightedness, most notably in his essay on thinking like a mountain. If any human institution is equipped to adopt that mindset, it’s probably one with the long history and ample resources of the Catholic Church. In part 3, I’ll explore why thinking like a mountain is so essential, and what it would look like.

Josh Rosenau
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Josh Rosenau is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.

We can't afford to lose any time when it comes to the future of science education.

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