Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Is There Any Difference Between a Land Ethic and a Garden Ethic?

Here's Aldo Leopold on the land ethic; think about how it relates to gardening, in both public and private landscapes.

"The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.... That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.... A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of land.... We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.... A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such."

And I found this definition of ethics interesting: 

People tend to use the term "ethics" in two different ways.

1) Ethics help us decide how we ought to live. In their most general form, we might say that ethics are standards we employ (among other factors) to determine our actions. They are prescriptive in that they tell us what we should or ought to do and which values we should or ought not hold. They also help us evaluate whether something is good or bad, right or wrong. 

Leopold's example: "A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such."

2) Ethics explain why things are important to us. Ethics are also concerned with how and why we value certain things and what actions properly reflect those values. In this sense, ethics appear more descriptive. Just as it is possible for taste to be a neutral and descriptive term -- appreciation for a work of art can be a matter of taste -- ethics can operate the same way.

Leopold's example: "Sometimes in June when I see unearned dividends of dew hung every lupine, I have doubts about the real poverty of the sands... do economists know about lupines?"


I think we need to do a much better job of applying Leopold's land ethic to the garden. Too often the garden is a place mostly for us -- our desires, our vision, our life; it's there to serve just us. This is not an ethical garden, and I don't think it truly reflects how we act or think of ourselves as part of a human or planetary community. At least I hope not. Thinking deeper, as part of a community of all life, frees us from the false ethics of self-privileging.

When we breed plants for traits we want, is this ethical? When we buy a plant that sees few insects using its blooms or leaves, but that we find beautiful, is this ethical? If we value ourselves above all else in the natural world, what will inevitably happen to us? These are hard, penetrating questions that disturb what we believe and shake the foundation of our perceived free will. This is how ethical thinking begins. 


Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Yes, exactly. Issues I've I've been meditating on much of my life. Right now, my general question when working in my own garden is, "will it help the pollinators?"

Benjamin Vogt said...

Just reading a quote from a landscape architect I admire who says the native / exotic debate is a tired one, and that as ecology comes to the forefront in landscape design we need to use any plants that work. So many exotics don't work, we don't even understand our natives and their interactions above and below the soil, and the philosophical ramifications that highlight our hubris are deep and important as gardens are at the apex of navel gazing solipsism.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Excellent, thought-provoking post, Ben! Thank you for posing the question(s). I hope you don't mind if I do a post soon as a riff on yours....

I, too, read that quote you're referring to in your comment above and it bothered me as well. I'm a biologist and I'm only beginning to understand the connections between plants and animals and the health of the community in my gardens. There is no way that the "native/exotic debate is a tired one"! The importance of native plants has barely been explored at all! To me, aesthetics needs to take a back seat to function in the garden. That doesn't mean we can't think about it and aim for aesthetics that please us, but the bedrock of garden health (and planetary ecosystem health) is function.

Benjamin Vogt said...

GG -- Please riff on mine, especially if you want to link back. :) I so agree, the native / exotic conversation is just beginning, especially because it underscores deeper issues we really need to address as a culture. I often hear the native plant advocate ideology is a tired one, but I think when compared to the "plant whatever you want" ideology we have much catching up to do. It's time we think out the nature we manipulate in more meaningful ways if our species is to survive.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Of course I'll link back! :) Exactly - how can someone say that the native plant ideology is "tired" compared to "plant whatever is pretty" ideology! That's been the standard essentially since gardening moved away from pure food production and into aesthetics. Talk about a tired and worn out ideology!

Anonymous said...

I think it's an evolution in one's mind, that land and garden ethics end up being inseperable. At least in my life, in how I've slowly moved in that direction more since I changed majors, choosing my field!

The only thing tired to this landscape architect are how so many still embrace habitual exotics, dismiss natives, and do that non-stop.

DeAnna B said...

Benjamin, I love your style and your passion! You tell it like it is! This is not a tired topic, and many people still don't get it! Lately there's been a debate about native Milkweed vs non native exotic Tropical Milkweed. This has been addressed on many facebook garden pages,and on mine as well. To me there is no debate, always plant native to your area! Tropical MW has been shown to disrupt the migration, but people disregard that and continue to plant it! Selfish! I have learned so much from you! Planting native is the right ethical choice that I have made and will continue to make!

Benjamin Vogt said...

DeAnna -- Yes, that milkweed debate is raging. I think it comes from the idea that we thought we were doing good, but it turns out it's more complicated. People internalize then, feel like their being shamed, shunned, or guilted instead of illuminated and empowered -- set free. I get lambasted a lot for being a 100% native plant proponent, and some days I almost do come to tears, but some days I know, I just KNOW what the larger issue is even if others can't see it, hoping they will some day.