Four Land Ethics: Order, Reform, Responsibility, Opportunity

Article excerpt


The term "land ethics"(1) has found a prominent place in environmental literature ever since Aldo Leopold rather casually and cryptically coined it in the 1930s.(2) If one defines the phrase to mean a system of thought that relates land to ideas of right and wrong, one can identify many prior systems which have achieved prominence at some time or place.

Leopold's hope that Americans' thinking would converge toward a single land ethic has not been realized. To the contrary, our debates about land are ever more intemperate and ideological as they reflect increasingly divergent views about the appropriate role of land in American society. The discussions of property taxes, public land policies, and environmental regulations, for example, often seem to involve parties who are not really listening to each other because they hold their opponents' views in such disrespect. These debates will become more rational and less abusive if we attempt to understand how the varying roles that land has played in Anglo-American historical traditions have influenced Americans' attitudes toward land.

We have inherited deeply ingrained ethical ideas about land that we can not easily cast aside even if we choose. Any search for a new land ethic needs to understand and play off of our different historical attitudes toward land. We need to develop an understanding of land's role in Anglo-American historical traditions to help us create dispute resolution mechanisms that take into account the deeply held values that land represents to different people. Many different land ethics exercise an important influence over the way people regard land in the United States and I do not intend to postulate an ideal land ethic. Rather, by showing the deep-seated historical origins of four different land ethics, I hope to demonstrate that the search for a single consistent land ethic, for which Leopold hoped, may be futile.

Each part of this article focuses on a single individual whose ideas serve as a prototype for a particular land ethic. In Part II, Sir Thomas Malory's semi-legendary King Arthur represents the land ethic of medieval England, in which land symbolized order. In Part III, David Ricardo reflects the changing land ethic in post-Water-loo England, where land was seen as the vehicle for reform. In Part IV, John Muir serves as the spokesman for nineteenth-century preservationists, to whom land represented responsibility. Finally, in Part V, Justice Antonin Scalia expresses the views of modern American utilitarians, for whom land means opportunity. I conclude that only a pluralistic process in which multiple land ethics are debated will be a satisfactory basis for the resolution of many of the current bitter conflicts over land in America.


King Arthur, the idealized British ruler(3) served as the symbolic embodiment of the land ethic of medieval England--the land ethic of order.(4) In the fifteenth century,(5) Sir Thomas Malory wrote the most famous version of the story of King Arthur,(6) illustrating that a strong monarch symbolized the end of anarchy because the monarch ruled those who controlled the land. The story of King Arthur reflects the essential role that the control of land played in the maintenance of order.

In order to maintain order, the monarch had to ensure that land would be controlled indefinitely by those who owed their loyalty directly to him. The monarch used medieval legal institutions, such as entailment, the "real writs," and the uniqueness of land in equity to do so. However, as English society moved gradually away from a purely agricultural society to a mercantile one, the monarch's control of those who controlled the land decreased.

A. Malory's Story of King Arthur

In Malory's day, a monarch had the power to allocate land to favored individuals, but with that power the monarch also assumed the duty to impose and maintain order within the nation's social structure. …