The Consistency of Leopold’s Land Ethic by B. J. Norton

The central theme of the article of Norton (1988) is the analysis of Aldo Leopold’s land ethic evolution through the period of his activity in the sphere of land management and conservation of the environment. This outstanding activist became famous in the 1920s due to his policy of predator eradication for the sake of economic consistency of resources’ usage. At that early period of his activity, Leopold claimed that his work could be considered consistent only at the moment the last wolf would be caught in the territory of New Mexico and Arizona (Norton, 1988). However, more than a decade later, becoming an experienced forester, Leopold claimed different arguments in the work “Conservation as a Moral Issue”, stating that the land he exploited was the living organism that stood no human intrusion (Norton, 1988).

The evolution of Leopold’s ideas and the instigators of the philosophical and ethical change that occurred in Aldo Leopold is very significant from the point of view of the development of ecological science on the whole and conservation management changes in particular. The outstanding significance of the research conducted in the present paper is the exploration of the change in ecological thinking from utilitarian anthropocentrism to biocentric non-anthropocentrism on the example of Leopold’s theoretical and practical work. The 20th century was marked by the emergence of ecology as real science, which could not help instigate the division of ideas and philosophies that would govern it and would define its direction. Thus, the present paper looks at the utilitarianism of economic ecology contrasted to the morality of resource exploitation in the perspective of biocentrism (Norton, 1988).

There is enough theoretical material to assert the author’s credibility of judgment – there are many works of the three authors that are said to have influenced the activity and perception of Leopold cited throughout the article with further discussion of the quotations. Norton (1988) pays much attention to facts that stand to reason and distinguishes them from his personal suppositions, which surely adds credibility and believability to the entire work. All in all, the works of Ezekiel, Ouspensky and Hadley are cited and analyzed in the work in the chronological order of their influence on Leopold (Norton, 1988).

Leopold is a vivid example of the environmental activist, the forester who kept to one type of ideas that longed to pragmatism more at first, and then, in the process of studying literature, seeing the impossibility of human interactions with the land, enriched his knowledge on ecology that finally evolved in a more ethical, moral, preservation-directed trend. The main influence detected to have been produced on him was literature by Ezekiel (claiming for respect of ancestors’ wisdom), A.T. Hadley (who was a utilitarian, economic ecologist calling to use natural resources according to their economic utility) and Ouspensky (the biologist who recognized the earth is a single, interconnected living organism standing no human interventions). As a result of those multiple influences the philosophy of Leopold evolved and acquired the following form:

“Leopold combined pragmatism with Ouspensky’s organicism and arrived at a form of home-grown perspectivism, a view that metaphysical conceptions of the world are projections of human perceptions which depend, in turn, upon cultural practices” (Norton, 1988, p. 96).

Finally, concluding everything that has been said, it is possible to note that the initial question of Norton (1988) still has not been answered. Speculating on whether Leopold was anthropocentric or not the author states that both a positive and a negative inference will be correct:

“Leopold never questioned the right of humans to alter nature, provided these alterations were consistent with ecological knowledge and would protect, in the long run, human life and the living land on which it depends” (Norton, 1988, p. 100).

As Leopold noted in his latest works, humanity would learn to treat its natural resources correctly only in case it would survive, so this matter acquires global importance. Under the modern conditions of urbanization and overall exploitation of economic resources the question of natural preservation becomes extremely burning, so knowing the foundations of ecology, its main assumptions and directions will considerably simplify the correct path for conservation so necessary for the present community.


Norton, B.J. (1988). The Consistency of Leopold’s Land Ethic”. Conservation Biology. Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 93-102.