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Moving from human-centeredness to a land ethic

David Hinton:

Within the West’s epochal cultural transformation, [Robinson] Jeffers held a crucial place. Although caught in the terminological limitations bequeathed him by his pantheistic forebears, he was a radical step beyond them. His vision was fundamentally post-Christian, for it was not at all human-centered. He valued wild earth in and of itself, for its own self-realization—not for how it can benefit or inspire humanity. And from this came Jeffers’ earth-based ethics—that we should love the whole, not the human alone—an ethics that led him to say “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk.”

Aldo Leopold’s widely influential “land ethic” (from his essay “The Land Ethic” in The Sand County Almanac, 1949) proposes a philosophical principle consonant with Jeffers’ spiritual vision, locating primary ethical value in ecosystem and earth:

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

In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from 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….

…Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of social conscience from people to land.

These principles led Leopold to a concise ethical imperative: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” This is, of course, wild mind acting as integral to wild earth.

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