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  • The Mountain and the WolfAldo Leopold's Uexküllian Influence
  • Jonathan Beever (bio)

"It was here that I first clearly realized that land is an organism."

Leopold, Companion to "A Sand County Almanac: Interpretive and Critical Essays"

What is the relationship between wholes and individuals? This question is of general philosophical interest for those interested in the metaphysical questions about the nature of the world and relationships within it. More specifically, however, it is of direct interest for the environmental humanities, whose scholars recognize the complex ecological relationships that influence and constitute the biotic communities whom they study. Whether the locus of moral worth lies with the individual or with the biotic whole matters greatly not only to academic theoretical accounts of the nature of the natural world but also to the practical ways in which we human moral agents live and act in it. This dichotomy of individuals and wholes is as much an epistemic problem as it is an ethical one. And it has driven the work of ecological science, environmental ethics, and the environmental humanities since the inception of those fields of study. The impulse of this individuals-wholes dichotomy is perhaps most readily evidenced in the genealogy of the work and writing of Aldo Leopold, the oft-cited father of contemporary ecology in the United States.

In this paper, I analyze an important shift in Leopold's developing thought about the moral worth of the natural world, arguing that his ethical attention turns from the conservation of biotic wholes (ecosystems) to living individuals. Leopold's now-famous "green fire" moment exemplifies this ethical turn. I then propose the controversial thesis [End Page 85] that this pivotal shift in thinking is best explained by the intellectual influence of German biologist Jacob von Uexküll, whose work theorizing Umwelt had lasting influence on biological and ecological scholarly communities across Europe. On this reading, Leopold can be counted among the first American environmental scholars to reflect Uexküll's paradigm in their work. I argue that an Uexküllian reading of Aldo Leopold's "Land Ethic" offers coherence and clarity to the concepts and arguments therein and that such a reading further develops Leopold's ecological focus.

I. Leopold's Land Ethic and the "Green Fire" Moment

What has become widely known as Leopold's land ethic was the result of a lifetime of observation, thought, and analysis that became codified in writing in the late 1940s. The "Land Ethic," captured in the last part of the posthumously published 1949 A Sand County Almanac, has become one of the most publically recognized treatises of environmentalism within the environmental humanities. In that statement Leopold writes, "The key-log which must be moved to release the evolutionary process for an ethics is simply this: quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethical and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. 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" (1949, 224–25). By the time of this writing, the land ethic had already subtlety developed in Leopold's thought from an initial focus on conservation in an earlier 1947 iteration to its current focus on questions of moral value. That 1947 statement claimed, "The practice of conservation must spring from a conviction of what is ethically and esthetically right as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right only when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the community, and the community includes the soil, waters, fauna, and flora, as well as people" (Leopold 1947). The move in expression from the language of conservation to the language of rightness marks the ethical turn in Leopold's otherwise empirical career as an ecological scientist. His lasting legacy has been, to the mind of most environmental scholars, the environmental moral holism that is nascent in his final statement of the "Land Ethic." This has been Leopold's key contribution to what became [End Page 86] the field of environmental ethics within the broader paradigm of environmental humanities...


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pp. 85-109
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