The Land Ethic Revisited: Individualism vs. Morality

Aldo Leopold (right) with Art Hawkins and Alice Harper Stokes in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1946.

Aldo Leopold’s concept of the land ethic, introduced in 1949 in his A Sand County Almanac, has steadily gained momentum over the years and now inspires successive generations of students of the environment. It states simply that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.” Though simple and compelling, the concept of the land ethic offers no explanatory mechanism for how it can be achieved. Instead, it assumes that an inevitable force of ethical progress will guide the transition from domination to respect of land.

The cover of Aldo Leopold's 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac, which features the essay The Land Ethic.

I was surprised, then, when economist Daniel Bromley in a recent public lecture described Leopold’s land ethic as a wrongful attempt to impose moral obligations on people. If the land ethic has no specific mechanism, how can it impose obligations? If anything, people find the land ethic attractive because it seems to require so little group organizing, and so little obligation. Each individual coasts downhill on the slope of inevitable ethical progress.

Bromley, Emeritus Professor of Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has written extensively about institutions, like property rights, that govern land use. He argues that we no longer live in a world where we can call on an accepted authority like God to make our moral obligations about land use binding. Yes, Leopold aptly conveys his love for the land-based community of animals, plants, and soils. But does it follow that the rest of us have an obligation to love the land also? According to Bromley, bringing up a moral obligation, however slight, threatens to provoke and alienate people. Rather, we are all individuals now. Arguments in favor of protecting the environment must, he believes, convince individual citizens by providing them with compelling reasons for action.

I see Bromley’s point. Lots of people act like independent individuals. To me, though, these are fictional performances full of contradictions. Many of us agree, at least in the abstract, that people are interdependent and “other regarding” and not independent. Oddly, then, we bristle when someone explicitly asks that we act morally, with regard for others (whether other people or other beings like plants and animals). Why? Why this distaste for moral obligation? Morality—and in fact multiple moralities, or moral pluralism—is inevitable in social life. Moral obligation is not itself a problem; rather, it is a ubiquitous fact, tied to a person’s memberships in different groups. Problems arise when we deny this fact and refuse to do the work of setting out mutually acceptable moral obligations.

As I was listening to Bromley talk about the futility of moral obligations and the primacy of the individual in modern life, I was thinking about the lecture forum itself and the web of invisible rules surrounding us. Such rules tell us what to wear, when to speak, where to sit, how to ask questions, even when and how to make eye contact. Similarly, Bromley’s lecture, like any story, was full of normative signals about what is to be valued (e.g. precise language), what is to be denigrated or dismissed (morality), what obligations to our fellows are legitimate (the obligation to be reasonable and explain ourselves), and so on. I was not asked to agree to these things, nor was I convinced of them by any compelling reasons. These signals precede reasoning. In this sense, Bromley’s lecture was, in the first instance, a normative project within multiple other normative projects.

Detail from the promotional poster for the lecture by Daniel Bromley on March 13, 2017, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Detail from the promotional poster for the lecture by Daniel Bromley on March 13, 2017, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

To deny morality is to throw a veil over its fibrous rules, making them invisible, elusive, hard to grasp and manage. Layers of rules nonetheless become apparent when I break them—for example, if I removed my shirt and pants during Bromley’s lecture and jumped up and down in the aisle. Or, rules might appear if I posted something about the lecture that was unacceptable to an online political community. Similarly, interdependencies become apparent when our human partners in life and our plant and animal partners in ecosystems start to fail. Then our dependence on them, and our unfortunate disrespect, is lying at our feet.

Discussions about morality are ancient. Leopold takes old ideas and applies them to modern problems of land use like soil erosion. The land ethic carries forward a religious theme of mutuality, that “no man is an island,” or that a person in a community should treat others as he or she would like to be treated. I could refer as well to the Bantu idea of “Ubuntu,” that I am an individual only through others, that I become myself through reciprocal exchanges. Through the land ethic this mutuality can be extended, such that we recognize all beings in an ecosystem as mutually constitutive and worthy of respect. Here also the land ethic reiterates other ideas, as for example the attitude attributed to Native Americans that we “belong to” the land (rather than the land belonging to us).

Interdependencies become apparent when our human partners in life and our plant and animal partners in ecosystems start to fail.

Leopold does not explain the mechanics of the land ethic, but by implication the ethic requires community consensus about right and wrong action and some enforcement of obligations against those who violate them. He states expressly that he is building on old traditions of community cooperation, in which individuals make sacrifices, or take on “obligations over and above self-interest,” to further a collective enterprise.

During fieldwork in Meru, Kenya, I went looking for a more specific mechanism for the land ethic. I was following the lead of Elinor Ostrom and other researchers of the commons, who detail the regulations that small groups use to manage common-pool resources like shared forests or pastures. My research asked how state law might facilitate or impede any local rules of cooperation relating to land and resource use. Meru farmers in the 1960s and 70s went through land law reforms that forced them to shift from group control over land to individual ownership. This upended the rule of clan elders, who previously made important decisions about how people could access and use land and resources. Now, many farmers insisted, everything had become individualized. Each individual made decisions about his or her own land.

This individualism, like that expressed in Bromley’s talk, was partly contradicted in practice. Smallholder farmers, like anyone living in a neighborhood, had an intense regard for what their neighbors were doing. Instead of imposing land use rules through local councils and social groups as in the past, however, farmers were left mostly to sort through traditions and social expectations on their own. Moral authority did not disappear. It was made more diffuse at the neighborhood level, and more intense at the household level. The head of the household now controls land use decisions, like when and where to plant crops and how to allocate land to the next generation. Similarly, households now have much of the responsibility of disciplining and raising children and transmitting general norms of behavior. If there is a change, it is from explicit morality, discussed and applied in neighborhood social forums, to implicit morality, channeled through households (and harder to see and grasp).

One particular elders’ forum in Meru, the Njuri Ncheke council, survived the transition to individual landownership. The Njuri seems to be an ideal mechanism for implementing a land ethic. The Njuri Ncheke is thought of in Meru as a traditional government. Unlike clan elders and age-set councils, which have lost much of their organizing capability, the Njuri continues to exert its influence. Although researchers have been predicting its imminent demise for over 60 years, the Njuri still convenes at many of its local houses and at regional and pan-Meru levels. These Njuri councils make decisions by consensus and in accord with many folkways, some of which are secret.

A meeting of the Njuri Ncheke, Ntunene, Meru County, Kenya. Photo by the author, 2014.

A meeting of the Njuri Ncheke, Ntunene, Meru County, Kenya. Photo by the author, 2014.

An area of particular concern for the Njuri is the environment. The Njuri has long protected certain sacred springs, as well as the forests where they meet. Local farmers, who on the one hand claimed the right to do what they wanted on their land, at the same time accepted Njuri authority to intrude on household land use decisions. Most significantly, the Njuri banned the use of pesticide on miraa trees (a local stimulant crop) and enforced the ban against private owners. As masters of some powerful oaths and curses, the Njuri can impose order where state law cannot reach, like on widely dispersed smallholder farms. Curses have a collective impact on everyone surrounding the wrongdoer. This creates tremendous peer pressure: a person’s activities might be monitored even by family and friends who fear falling under the curse’s shadow.

The Njuri’s local law, like state law, might have the unpalatable iron flavor of discipline and punish. As in so many other places in the world, this is something that people have come to hide rather than advertise. Meru people respect their traditions, but many also say that they are all individuals now. There is no happy position to take on group morality. If it is oppressive to embrace morality, then it is wishy-washy to advocate moral pluralism. What kind of person switches moralities depending on the group that he or she is with?

But morality and pluralism are the realities that we live in. When people deny moral obligations and yet nonetheless enforce normative codes, they limit the options for community governance and avoid doing the serious work of consensus building. I suspect that this is one of the reasons why people have come to dislike morality so much, even the morality of protecting the environment. Moral obligations are being called upon before people have agreed to the underlying moral principles on which the obligations are based. In order to agree on moral principles, people need forums where they meet one another on a regular basis, and institutions to bring their moral imaginings into existence. This is what the Njuri Ncheke is—a forum and an institution where people undertake a famously long process of consensus building (a process that annoyed the heck out of British colonial administrators attempting to impose new laws).

The author planting a maria tree on a smallholder farm. Photo by Isaac Mwenda Mauta, 2014.

The author planting a maria tree on a smallholder farm. Photo by Isaac Mwenda Mauta, 2014.

What Bromley and Leopold lack, and what the Njuri exemplifies, is a practical mechanism for achieving individual restraint in the interest of the entire land-based community. I emphasize this mechanism not to replace the arguments made by Leopold and Bromley, but to fill in a hole that I feel they are ignoring. Leopold rightly emphasizes mutual respect—individuals are co-equal creators of community obligations. And Bromley is right that compulsion—either legal or ethical—is not going to move people in the absence of some underlying agreement on terms. But the mechanisms that we need, more than reasoned appeals to individuals or faith in inevitable ethical progress, are local institutions capable of building moral consensus. Thus Leopold’s forward path of ethical progress might lead through some traditional indigenous mechanisms like the Njuri.

Feature image: Aldo Leopold (right) with Art Hawkins and Alice Harper Stokes in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1946.

James S. Krueger teaches and researches land use and natural resource law and policy. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin–Madison (Ph.D. in Environment and Resources, 2017), he is starting a postdoctoral fellowship at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell University. Much of his research experience comes from Ethiopia, where he taught international and environmental law as an Assistant Professor at Haramaya University, and from Kenya, where he did his doctoral research on legal pluralism and sustainable land, forest, and water management. He also holds a law degree (2006) from the College of William and Mary, and a B.A. in History and Anthropology (2000) from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Contact.

6 Responses

  1. Mauta mwenda says:

    Good work Dr James. I agree with your findings about meru sir.

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