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Water Scarcity and Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic”

photogrpah of cattle at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains

On March 2nd, the journal Nature Sustainability published the results of a multi-layered study that explored the effects of human behaviors on water flow patterns in the western United States. Overall, in addition to cities diverting river waters for public use and the evaporative effects of global climate change, the study’s authors pointed to one particularly large culprit responsible for water resources shrinking in the west: the cattle industry. As they explained, the data indicates “irrigation of cattle-feed crops to be the greatest consumer of river water in the western United States, implicating beef and dairy consumption as the leading driver of water shortages and fish imperilment in the region.”

To anyone with a passing familiarity with environmentalist conversations, this news might be unsurprising; the resource-intense requirements of industrialized agribusiness have been well-documented, but this study is the first of its kind to demonstrate an empirical connection between specific business practices and specific, localized environmental effects. But the news fits well with well-known facts: agricultural irrigation accounts for as much as 90% of water use in many western states and at least a third of that is devoted to the raising of livestock – the study’s connection between beef/dairy products and increasing water scarcity problems makes sense. Much of the concern for developing ‘sustainable’ agricultural practices is precisely to counter the looming shortages of necessary resources as various interests and industries continue to compete for ever-dwindling supplies of water, land, and the like.

Solving this puzzle about resource-competition is complicated, particularly given the size of the economic supply chains involved in these industries. As environmental engineer Megan Konar explains, it is not enough to simply scold hamburger-eaters in Florida about the ramifications of their dinner on fish habitats in Colorado, “This is a collective action problem; we can’t leave it up to individual consumers to solve it.” Although it is true that widespread personal divestment from meat and dairy production chains might provoke bigger, structural change, such individual commitments are unlikely to be coordinated into sufficiently powerful statements. Instead, say the study’s authors, organized political action is required.

Interestingly, the temporary solution that the Nature Sustainability study’s authors call for might also be familiar to environmentalists: “offering financial incentives for the voluntary, temporary, rotational fallowing of farmland as a means for reducing consumptive water use.” The notion that, rather than farming via methods known to cause environmental degradation, farmers should be paid by the government to not farm (or to farm in more environmentally-conscious ways), is a long-standing element of American agricultural policy, both specifically regarding western water stocks and generally in a variety of other areas. By providing economic incentives via governmental subsidies, policymakers seek to encourage better farming habits overall.

Unfortunately, it’s unclear that such incentives actually work – or, rather, it’s never been clear that their positive effects last once the money runs out.

Writing in 1949, Aldo Leopold reflected on a five-year policy enacted by the Wisconsin legislature over a decade earlier to pay farmers to adopt various practices designed to rehabilitate regional topsoils; as Leopold explains, “…the offer was widely accepted, but the practices were widely forgotten when the five-year contract period was up. The farmers continued only those practices that yielded an immediate and visible economic gain for themselves.” From this and other examples, Leopold developed his now-famous contrast between ethical rules predicated on economic values and those built on what he called “value in the philosophical sense.”

To Leopold, any sort of policy operating from the assumptions of the former could never truly motivate genuine perspectival change because it cannot cultivate the sort of ethical and aesthetic appreciation of the land as a thing to be valued for its own sake. If natural lands aren’t viewed as valuable in-themselves, then Leopold was convinced that economic debates about their use will inevitably allow for all manner of incremental, self-interested arguments about the ‘usefulness’ of a particular resource to trump the overall importance of the system of which that resource is an inextricable part. Against this, Leopold argued for a “land ethic” that would limit how people could act in various ways regarding natural areas and habitats; much like how we cannot ethically murder one innocent human simply to make the lives of several other people better, Leopold insists that we cannot desecrate natural environments simply for the purpose of making the lives of people marginally better in arguably unnecessary ways.

So, although financially incentivizing western water-users to seek out alternative production methods might function as a temporary stop-gap measure for limiting the current ecological impact of the beef and dairy industries, it is impractical to think that such policies would promote the sort of environmentally virtuous outlook – what Leopold called “the ecological conscience” – that could promote genuinely sustainable practices over the long haul. And, ultimately, this is the same conclusion that the Nature Sustainability study draws: long-term “water security and river health in the western US will depend on the willingness of urban and rural water users to collaborate in design of demand-management strategies, the ability of political leaders to secure funding to implement those strategies, and the willingness of beef and dairy consumers to reduce their consumption or select products that do not depend on irrigated cattle-feed crops health.” That is to say, economic incentives on industries won’t have lasting effects: we all must do our part, individually (via our consumption choices) and collectively (through policy making and other socially-regulative measures), to promote ideal sorts of non-destructive environmental outcomes.

In the mid-20th century, Leopold prophetically warned that “By and large, our present problem is one of attitudes and implements. We are remodeling the Alhambra with a steamshovel, and we are proud of our yardage. We shall hardly relinquish the shovel, which after all has many good points, but we are in need of gentler and more objective criteria for its successful use.” Here at the start of the 21st century’s third decade, Leopold’s call for a “Land Ethic” is as pertinent as ever.

Fixing What We’ve Broken: Geoengineering in Response to Climate Change

underwater photograph of reef

Extending over 1,200 miles, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest reef system on the planet. It is the only system of living beings visible from space and is one of the seven wonders of the natural world. The reef is home to countless living beings, many of which live nowhere else on the planet.

The Great Barrier Reef is valuable in a number of ways. It has tremendous instrumental value for the living beings that enjoy its unique features, from the creatures who call it home to the human beings that travel in large numbers to experience its breathtaking beauty. One also may think that functioning ecosystems have intrinsic value. This is the position taken by notable 20th century environmentalist Aldo Leopold in his work Sand County Almanac. Leopold claims that “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.” The idea here is that the ecosystem itself is valuable, and ought to be preserved for its own sake.  

When something has value, then, all things being equal, we ought to preserve and protect that value. Unfortunately, if we have an obligation to protect the Great Barrier Reef, we are failing miserably. The culprit: anthropogenic climate change. As David Attenborough points out in his interactive series Great Barrier Reef, “The Great Barrier Reef is in grave danger. The twin perils brought by climate change – an increase in the temperature of the ocean and in its acidity – threaten its very existence.” One result of this process is what is known as “coral bleaching.” Coral has a symbiotic relationship with algae. Changes in ocean temperatures disrupt this relationship, causing coral to expel algae. When it does so, the coral becomes completely white. This is more than simply an aesthetic problem. The algae is a significant source of energy for the coral, and most of the time, coral does not survive bleaching. Devastatingly, this isn’t just a problem for the Great Barrier Reef — it’s a global problem.

One general category of approach to this problem is geoengineering, which involves using technology to fundamentally change the structure of the natural world. So, as it pertains specifically to the case of coral bleaching, geoengineering as a solution would involve using technology to either cool the water, lower the acidity levels, or both. For example, one such approach to rising ocean temperatures is to pump cooler water up from the bottom of the ocean to reduce surface temperatures. To deal with acidity, one suggestion is that we use our knowledge of chemistry to alter the chemical composition of ocean water.

Geoengineering has been proposed for a broader range of environmental issues. For example, some have suggested that we send a giant mirror, or a cluster of smaller mirrors, into space to deflect sunlight and reduce warming. Others have suggested that we inject sulfuric acid into the lower stratosphere, where it will be dispersed by wind patterns across the globe and will contribute to the planet’s reflective power.

Advocates of geoengineering often argue that technology got us into this problem, and technology can get us out. On this view, climate change is just another puzzle to be solved by the human intellect and our general propensity for using tools. Once we direct the unique skills of our species toward the problem, it will be solvable. What’s more, they commonly argue, we have an obligation to future generations to develop the technology that will give future people the tools they need to combat these problems. Preventing climate change from happening in the first place requires behavioral changes from too many agents to be realistic. Geoengineering requires actions only from reliable scientists and entrepreneurs.

Critics raise a host of problems for the geoengineering approach. One of the problems typically raised concerns the development of new technologies in general, but is perhaps particularly pressing in this case: How much must we know about the consequences of implementing a technology before we are morally justified in developing that technology? The continued successful function of each aspect of an ecosystem depends in vital ways on the successful function of the other aspects of that ecosystem. There is much that we don’t know about those relationships.  In the past, we’ve developed technologies under similar conditions of uncertainty; we tried to control the number of insects in our spaces through the use of pesticides to devastating and deadly affect. We don’t have a great track record with this kind of thing (as the phenomenon of anthropogenic climate change itself demonstrates). There is potential for good here, but also the potential for great and unexpected harm.

Another problem has to do with which parties should be responsible for implementing geoengineered approaches. Who should get to decide whether these approaches are implemented? All life on earth will be affected by the decisions that we make here. Should such decisions be made through a mechanism that is procedurally just, like some form of a democratic process? If so, representative governments might be the appropriate actors to implement geoengineered strategies. That may seem intuitively appealing, but we must remember that our actions here have consequences for global citizens. Why should decisions made by, say, citizens of the United States have such substantive consequences for citizens of countries that, for either geographic or economic reasons, are more hard hit by the effects of climate change? What about the sovereignty of nations?  

An alternative approach is that entrepreneurs could pursue these developments. Often the most impressive innovations are motivated by the competitive nature of markets. This approach faces some of the same challenges faced by the governmental approach—it is counterintuitive that people who have primarily financial motivations should direct something as critical as the future of the biosphere.

Finally, critics argue that the geoengineering approach is misguided in its focus. What is needed is a paradigm shift in the way that we think about the planet. The geoengineering approach encourages us to continue to think about biosphere as a collection of resources for human beings to collect and manipulate any way that we see fit. A more appropriate approach, some argue, is for human beings to make fundamental changes to their lifestyles. They must stop thinking of themselves as the only important characters in the narrative of the planet. Instead of focusing on fixing what we break, we should be focusing on avoiding breaking things in the first place. Toward this end, they argue, our primary focus should be on reducing carbon emissions.