This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more information.
In the last installment of Land Ethic 101, we spent some time discussing Aldo Leopold, introducing the idea of the land ethic, and wrapping our heads around what that is. We left off right before digging into why we need a land ethic, which is what we’ll cover in this post.
We’ll start with a question that a lot of folks might be asking at this point, which is…
Do I really need a land ethic?
The answer is, “Yes.”
If you think that you don’t, you likely fall into one of two categories. The first is someone who generally does the “right thing” as far as taking care of the outdoors. You don’t litter, you take care not to damage plants or disturb wildlife, and you make sure you don’t burn the forest down. The second is someone who doesn’t care — you want to have a good time and it doesn’t matter to you if you damage the places you recreate or if you disturb others.
If you’re the former, I think after this post you’ll understand why it’s worthwhile to adopt a land ethic, or at least to be influenced by the idea. If you’re the latter, you’re an asshole.
Three reasons why we need a land ethic
I think when we look at the way we use the outdoors in general, more specifically wilderness and public lands, it can be helpful to dig into three reasons why we need a land ethic.
1. Rights don’t exist in a vacuum.
Public lands are ours, at least in the US. They are held in the public trust by federal, state, and local governments. You have the right to explore and enjoy these places. But the thing that we often forget is that rights come with responsibilities. If you’re going to enjoy the land, you have to ensure that it’s taken care of, not only for yourself but for others who wish to use it. Otherwise we’ll love it to death, and then, within a few more generations they’ll be gone. In other words, your right to roam means nothing if there’s nothing left to explore. Once public lands are gone, it is extremely unlikely that they will be restored. Being responsible ensures that the land will remain healthy for generations to come.
2. We’re part of a community.
I’ve said it before, adventure is a community, but land ethic isn’t limited to that. When it comes to “the land” we’re part of a bigger community. That is, the world. It sounds like new age mysticism, but we’re all connected. We humans remain part of a worldwide biotic community. When we screw up one piece of it, another piece of it suffers and could potentially collapse. We’re talking habitat loss, deforestation, and climate change. Oh yeah, those problems that are very real and very serious. You know what can help ameliorate these problems. More people having and exercising a land ethic. By making a land ethic part of our outdoor culture, we make caring for the land a priority for those that use it and love it.
3. It’s not all about you.
It’s easy to look at what we do individually and say, “this isn’t hurting anyone.” And if it was just you doing it, you’d be right. But who among us hasn’t gotten frustrated walking along the first mile of a trail that’s littered with dog shit? Who hasn’t been frustrated by seeing green limbs cut off living trees to build a campfire? Who hasn’t had to clean up somebody else’s mess on the trail? The actions that we take on the land affect everyone else who wants to use the land. You may know the best, safest, most sustainable way to build a campfire in the back country, but if someone without that knowledge and experience happens upon your fire ring a few days later, they will accept that campfires are standard practice in the area, and they may not be as safe as you. Is it fair that some burden of responsibility is upon you? Probably not, but that doesn’t change the fact that we all bear some of that responsibility, even if we’re not creating the direct action.
Why we need a land ethic: the tragedy of the commons
Reflecting on these reasons, my mind always moves to the tragedy of the commons, and I think it would be useful to reference to it here. If you’re not familiar with this phrase, it refers to a situation in which a group of individuals, all having access to the same resource without a specific rule regulating it, will act in their own best interest as opposed to the interest of the group, and thereby deplete the resource.
Let’s use a campsite as an example. Imagine a cool campsite in the middle of nowhere. At first only a few people know about it, so it’s no big deal that they set up their tents and collect firewood. As more people find out about the awesome spot, the ground starts getting compacted by multiple tents, which begins to create mud-filled holes when it rains, leading to erosion. Despite this, the site is still pretty cool, so more people continue visiting. Multiple fire rings spread throughout the small area, and visitors who don’t know much about building fires start cutting down green saplings, and even a few small trees to burn, leaving half charred chunks of wood scattered about. Still, the view of a neighboring mountain is still pretty great, and more campers visit. Bluetooth speakers pump out loud music. Beer cans and cigarette butts start become common. People who have never learned how to relieve themselves in the woods start peeing directly behind tents, which makes the campsite stink. Worse yet, they leave their feces and toilet paper under bushes and behind trees, which soon contaminates the nearby water source.
Before long, maybe in just a season or two, that cool campsite is pretty much destroyed. It could potentially take decades to restore the area, and that’s if there isn’t fragile vegetation and people don’t continue to wreck the spot. That’s the tragedy of the commons, and that’s why we need a land ethic.
It’s important to remember that a lot of people that have a negative impact on the land aren’t doing it because they’re bad people, or because they’re selfish or apathetic. Those people exist, but I think more people are simply ignorant of the impact that we have on the land. If you’re reading this, you probably don’t want to see wild places trammeled or lost. The best way to prevent that is to develop, implement, and be an ambassador for a land ethic.
So now you know why you need a land ethic, but where do you start? Not to worry. In the final installment of Land Ethic 101, I’ll introduce you to one of the simplest land ethics to adopt and implement. Best of all, you don’t have to be perfect to make it work. Want to make sure you don’t miss it? Subscribe to my mailing list below and I’ll let you know when it’s live on the site.