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Thinking Like a Mountain: Toward a Sensible Land Ethic

by Julia Ahlers

Julia Ahlers is working on a masterís degree in land ethics at United Theological Seminary in New Brighton, Minnesota, and is a writer and editor for St. Maryís Press in Winona. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 25, 1990 pp. 433-434, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf," writes Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (1949) Leopold reports what happens to a mountain when all the wolves, who are predators, are exterminated. The rancher wants to protect his cowherd, the hunters want to protect the deer population, and so the wolves are eliminated. Without the wolves, the deer population explodes. Too many deer means that the mountain cannot keep pace in its task of providing food for the deer. The deer herd begins to die "of its own too-much."

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps better the cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.

So also the cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

The many articles I read these days on animal rights and on the need to extend ethics to include all of creation lack Leopold’s understanding of the ways of nature, of basic ecology and of what it means to live intimately on the land. Instead, I find increasingly within the animal rights movement and within discussions of environmental ethics (although less so there) a perspective that illustrates just how alienated from the rest of nature the human species has become.

This perspective is one that does not know how to think like a mountain or even what such a directive means. It does not understand the process of life and death. It says simplistically: All killing is wrong; therefore, it is morally wrong for humans to eat meat. Furthermore, if we eat lower on the food chain, we will live in harmony with the earth. This perspective distorts the principle of the sacredness of life to a point where it threatens life itself, for it does not understand that one species supporting or being supported by another is nature’s way of sustaining life.

Predation is a fact of life too often confused with cruelty -- the malicious intent to do harm for harm’s sake and without regard for the rights of the victim. But cruelty to animals is morally different from human predation on animals -- eating animals’ flesh and using their hides and other parts for clothing, food or shelter. In our contemporary affirmation of Native American spirituality, we often overlook the fact that Native Americans hunted animals for food and other necessities. They respected the rights of nature while relying on it for sustenance.

Cruelty to animals is a manifestation of human sinfulness; it is one more sign that our relationship with God, ourselves and the rest of creation is in need of healing. Scripture says that Christ came to restore all of creation. But evil and sinfulness are the consequences of human actions and decisions. The plants and animals and the earth itself are not co-conspirators in evil (as those who see predation as evil must logically claim) but are victims, sufferers of the consequences of human evil. In other words, it is inappropriate to call the downing of a buck by a wolf cruel.

Leopold offers us a useful review of basic ecology. He defines a "land ethic" as a guide for human action toward and in the created world. According to Leopold, the basic source of knowledge for a land ethic is the biotic pyramid of which the human species is a part:

Plants absorb energy from the sun. This energy flows through a circuit called the biota, which may be represented by a pyramid consisting of layers. The bottom layer is the soil, an insect layer on the plants, a bird and rodent layer on the insects, and so on up through various animal groups to the apex layer, which consists of the larger carnivores.

The species of a layer are alike not in where they came from, or in what they look like, but rather in what they eat. Each successive layer depends on those below it for food and often for other services, and each in turn furnishes food and services to those above. Proceeding upward, each successive layer decreases in numerical abundance. . . . The pyramidal form of the system reflects this numerical progression from apex to base. [Humankind] shares an intermediate layer with the bears, raccoons, and squirrels which eat both meat and vegetables.

Those who claim that it is morally wrong for human beings to eat meat because it involves killing an animal must logically claim that predation itself -- in all contexts -- is evil. But predation is part of nature as created by God. If it were evil, even those who eat strict vegetarian diets of only organically grown foods would be guilty through association. Biological control of pests and diseases by definition requires predators, and healthy, life-sustaining soils are not possible without predation.

The human species should not apologize for its predatory role in the biotic pyramid. When the pyramid is functioning properly, nature is in harmony with itself. The disharmony comes when things get out of balance -- as when the mountain lost it wolves and was taken over by its deer. Therefore, the vision of lions lying down with lambs is a gross misunderstanding of harmony in nature; it assumes that harmony within nature, the biota, should be identical with harmony among humans.

To affirm the existence of predation in nature, however, is not to espouse a philosophy of social Darwinism. Predation is part of the way nature functions and humans are indeed part of nature, but there is something wrong with the form of predation that is inherent in unbridled economic or social competition among humans. To make such a leap of logic is to commit the other glaring error often made by proponents of animal rights and environmental ethics: they fail to see that the rights endowed to animals are not identical with the rights of human beings. Yes, we are an animal species, but we, by our ability to think and reason, are also different from the wolf, the deer, the cow and the rest of creation. To deny this reality is to run from the responsibilities it carries. No other species can alter its habitat with the deliberation that the human species can. And human beings are the only species capable of self-determination; we do not function solely out of instinct.

Recognition of our solidarity with all other living things cannot erase our distinction from them. In Imaging God: Dominion as Stewardship (1986) , Douglas John Hall addresses this reality and relates it to the commandment to love. Hall first reminds us that love of God and love of neighbor, while inseparable, are not the same. The neighbor is not God, nor are we ultimately accountable to our neighbor. Furthermore, God’s "needs" are not the same as my neighbor’s. Thus my relationship with God is different from that with my neighbor.

This is also true with respect to the third counterpart of my being, the extrahuman world. It is not the same thing -- though it is never an entirely different thing either -- to love my own kind and to love the otherkind.

Thus God, neighbor, and nature confront me with different responsibilities just as they each offer me different gifts. This difference . . . must be honored.

Our failure to recognize the differences between humankind and extrahuman creation is but one more manifestation of our alienation from nature: we don’t even know enough about nature to see the differences within it. Perhaps this is why North American culture is so uncomfortable with the reality of death. Perhaps it is our inability to face the prospect of our own death, our own intimate participation in the ways of nature, that causes us to be uncomfortable with killing animals to meet human needs. If this is the case, then proposing that all farm animals be set free so they will not be killed for human consumption reflects not so much a concern for the rights of those animals to live as a need to quiet one’s own conscience, a conscience so alienated from nature that it does not understand that one species getting its food from another is part of the way nature functions.

How, then, do we develop an appropriate land ethic? Just as social ethics directs intrahuman activity and is based on what it means to be a human being, a land ethic directs our actions toward the land and must be based on the needs of the land to support life. In Leopold’s words, the land is not merely soil, "it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants and animals." The land has a right to be what it is meant to be to the fullest extent possible, given the rights of that with which it shares existence. The latter part of this previous statement is important because even my rights as a human being are by definition limited by the very fact that my fellow human beings have rights as well. (Human goals and the needs of the biotic pyramid are not nearly as much at odds with each other as our industrial, mechanical culture would have us believe.)

Hall’s point is that different criteria -- different ethics -- characterize and direct our relationship with God, with other human beings and with the rest of the created world. While all three relationships are interconnected and inseparable, the differences need to be recognized in order to understand what it means to be in right relationship with the other, whether that other is God, our neighbor, or the biota -- the earth. Being in a state of connection with nature should not stop us from carrying out our role as predator, but instead teach us what it means to be an appropriate predator, one that contributes to the proper functioning of the biotic pyramid.

An example of appropriate human predation is the Heifer Project International -- a nonprofit development organization that uses livestock projects to help poor people achieve self-sufficiency. It recognizes that poor people need animal protein in their diets. Raising livestock such as a small flock of chickens greatly increases food security for a poor family. Chickens eat both plants and insects and a host of other food sources that humans cannot eat. Not only do the chickens provide the family with a source of meat, but the family can also eat the eggs or hatch them out to maintain or increase the flock. Such use of livestock by humans is not the least bit cruel nor does it violate the animal’s rights -- it’s simply practicing good land ethics.

The way most livestock sold for meat is raised under the American industrial model of agriculture is morally reprehensible. It is unethical to raise a chicken in such a way that a hen must share a tiny cage with a half dozen other hens and never once see daylight or set her feet upon the grass -- much less delight in the catch of a juicy grasshopper. But it is one thing to say we should not eat this factory chicken on the grounds of the immoral means by which it is raised and quite another to equate all meat eating with cruelty to animals.

Those of us who are concerned with the rights of extrahuman creation would do best to listen to what nature has to teach us about itself and its needs before we venture to determine its rights. Only then can we know what it means to live in right relationship. To assume that we can know this without consulting nature is not only ethically irresponsible, it is the ultimate example of our anthropocentricity and alienation from nature.


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