Ecosystems Are Worthy of Preservation for Their Own Sake

Instructor: Dr. Jan Garrett

This page was last updated November 14, 2001.

The "land ethic," as Aldo Leopold calls his environmental ethic, essentially states:

A practice is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, beauty, and stability of the multi-species biological communities. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. (This is a slightly modified version of the classical statement by Aldo Leopold in Sand County Almanac [Oxford University Press])


The land ethic is an ethic that attributes inherent value to both ecological systems and species. These things are valuable in themselves, not merely for their use in supporting the lives of individual animals or plants.

Preservation of species is compatible with, and always has been compatible with, the death of individuals, provided also that there are enough births to more or less balance the number of deaths and preserve the species.

This ethic is not primarily about individuals. It does not say that it is necessarily wrong to hunt and kill a deer or a harp seal.

It is true that when the quantity of individuals in a species falls below a certain number, the species will probably not recover but will go extinct. In circumstances where there is a risk that the species will fall below that critical number, the land ethic says that it would be wrong to kill individuals, for that would hasten the extinction of the species.

Species play the same role in ecological systems as essential job classifications play in a human economy. Just as a human community needs, say, farmers, homebuilders, and doctors (though it would not collapse if Jason Jones gives up farming or Sherry Smith gives up the practice of medicine) , so an ecological system needs plants, herbivores, and carnivores (though it will not necessarily collapse when a given rabbit or hawk dies). Because species preservation and ecological preservation are interdependent, they may be treated together from an ethical perspective. Here I concentrate on preservation of ecosystems.


This argument uses an analogy between an ethically defensible patriotism and devotion to the biotic community of which we are a part. Love of and loyalty to species and ecological systems is similar to, yet possibly more important than love of and loyalty to country.

Much that we value in terms of liberty, security, and respect for personal property comes from the invisible but intelligible habits of respect for good laws that are part of our national culture. Similarly, much that we value (the material conditions for our survival and for our social and political lives) depends upon the system of natural conditions that exist here on earth. Ecological study reveals that these natural conditions consist of animal and plant species that coexist in what has been called a biotic community.

Just as we have a duty to protect what is admirable and valuable in our national cultural heritage, so also we have a duty to protect what is beautiful and valuable in the natural communities to which we belong.

Some persons value ecological systems as mere means for the purposes of animals or even humans alone, but this is an immature attitude similar to the attitude of a person who values the laws of his country only because she thinks she benefits from the laws more than she loses. A person can grow also to admire the just institutions of a country in their own right. This is a more mature and stable position than favoring these institutions merely for personal benefit. The same thing can be said for the person who has come to admire the structure of the natural community in which we live and have our being.*

A fuller statement of this argument for eco-patriotism would note that this method of reasoning can be used, and has long been used, to defend a general loyalty to the human species and its cultural and moral institutions. This anthropocentric argument would start from and include a defensible patriotism but go beyond it. The case for eco-patriotism would regard this extension to the human species as an intermediate step, to be followed by a final step that would extend our ultimate loyalties to the ecological well-being of the community of life on earth. It would then argue that for reasons similar to those that justify a loyalty to the human community and its lasting achievements and even more basic ones (for example, that the human community owes its very existence to the natural community of which it is part), we have a duty to preserve and defend the values embedded in the biological community.


Contrary to what some people think, value is not merely subjective, something that human beings create when they perceive something that they like or wish to use. Value is found in the nature of things, and it can increase over time. Roughly, value corresponds to the complexity of a thing, and the presence in a thing of life, self-movement, perception, and intelligence.

While we may be tempted to think that these attributes--life, self-movement, and so forth--are attributes only of individuals, this is erroneous: they are also attributes of the entire biological community that has evolved these individuals. The great art or deep philosophy of an important artist or thinker is not merely the achievement of the individual artist or thinker, but an achievement of the entire culture out of which that artist or thinker emerges. Similarly, the qualities of life and intelligence that we find in individual animals are products not merely of those individuals but also and especially of the biological community in which they "live and move and have their being."

From this perspective, nature and the evolutionary process have been creating value here on earth for millions of years. The complex ecological systems that were here in North America when the non-Indians arrived from the Eastern hemisphere were the product of many millions of years of evolution and ecological emergence.

To destroy things of inherent value without sufficient reason is wrong. It would be wrong even if we were not also working against our own interests in survival. Therefore it is inherently wrong to destroy species and ecological systems.

We could restate this argument as a religious or theological argument from the divine creation of natural value. The theological version of this argument would start from the premises that

(1) God is at work in the evolutionary development of ecological systems

and that (2), as Genesis in the Jewish and Christian Holy Scripture suggests, God's creation is good.

Note. Some people feel that this is a merely illusory difference, that the eco-patriot may love the biological community merely because of its usefulness or the combination of its usefulness with its capacity for causing, say, aesthetic pleasure in those who contemplate it. You have not really abandoned anthropocentrism, or human-centered thinking, they will argue.

The answer is that the shift from understanding something as useful to understanding something as inherently valuable in its own right as well as useful is real. It shows itself in the pleasure people take in thinking about the preservation of nature even after they are gone, even after human beings may be gone (if it comes to that). On the other side, it shows itself in the displeasure people may take in thinking about the damage to nature that will last after the human individual and any offspring he or she will know are gone. It also expresses itself in the sense of gratitude that persons may feel toward the larger whole that has produced them. If the attitude were merely that nature is useful to us, that would be compatible with disdain for it insofar as it is not useful to us (even where it is not harmful to us either).