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Comparison between George Perkins Marsh and Aldo Leopold

1690 words (7 pages) Essay in Environmental Studies

08/02/20 Environmental Studies Reference this

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 It goes without saying that human beings have a responsibility to preserve the land in any way possible to save the natural functions that the ecosystem provides for us. Different people, though, have different opinions about the how to preserve the land, and how to deal with human interactions within nature. This is the tale of two influential environmental writers with differentiating opinions: George Perkins Marsh and Aldo Leopold. George Perkins Marsh is one to believe in the “balance of nature” metaphor where the interdependency of the organisms can bring the ecosystem back to a constant state, even after disturbances that can affect these organisms. Aldo Leopold, though, considers that there is a repeated cycle between these species (which can embody the biotic community) where the soils can provide nutrients to sustain life throughout earth. This essay will explain and compare Marsh’s views and his “balance of nature” metaphor to Aldo Leopold’s views and use of the “land pyramid,” and show how each author ultimately accepts or rejects different ideas and theories on how humans can be ethical to the land.

 First, the balance of nature is defined as a theory that describes the natural system in a state of equilibrium. When there’s a disturbance in the ecosystem, the interactions and interdependency of each of the organisms will eventually bring the ecosystem back to a stable state. Marsh uses this conception in his arguments in his book Man and Nature. Even though some organisms in the environment can be destructive, Marsh claims that there’s some type of compensation to this destruction, which ultimately reverses the ecosystem back to a stable state. He writes, “There are, indeed, brute destroyers, beasts and birds and insects of prey- all animal life feeds upon, and, of course, destroys other life,-but this destruction is balanced by compensations” (Marsh, George P, 2003, p.37). Although the organisms in the ecosystem may have the ability to transform back into a constant state, there is one problem that could affect this balance- human interaction. Marsh believes that humans are “disturbing agents” towards the environment and use the ecosystem for personal economic interests. He writes, “But man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords” (Marsh, George P, 2003, p.36). To Marsh, humans have manipulated and disrespected nature with our technological ways and have used it for our personal benefits from the materials that we can extract from different parts of the environment. Although Marsh believes that humans are disturbing agents in nature, he still supports the management that humans can have in nature. Human interaction and the use of nature for the human benefit is inevitable, but Marsh makes it clear that we must make informed and practical decisions while dealing with nature to keep the balance between the organisms. It is critical, as humans, to only use and receive the necessities to live a normal life. Anything else that is produced outside of our essential needs to live as a human being is where we become “disturbing agents,” and disrupt this balance within nature. Marsh’s theory of “balance of nature” and the impact of human interaction within the environment makes sense, but other environmentalist may see this conception as outdated, and have the urge to critique this concept in some ways.

 Aldo Leopold, on the other hand, is one who is well known for his influence on modern day environmental ethics. In one of his most famous works titled, The Land Ethics, Leopold labels the ecosystem as a “biotic mechanism” and a “biotic community.” Within this biotic community, there are several different components that work together to create an environment that runs smoothly and efficiently. Leopold, much like Marsh, explains how humans are not being ethical to the ecosystem and that we, as people, could be the deciding factor as to whether or not the biotic mechanism runs smoothly. On page 214 of The Land Ethic, Leopold brings in a new concept known as the “land pyramid,” where Leopold uses a visual representation to show where humans stand in the mechanism. This concept of a land pyramid is made up of various layers- from the base to the apex, we have soil, then plants, plant-eating insects, insect eating bird and rodents, herbivorous mammals, bird and rodent-eating mammals, and carnivores take the top of the pyramid. Leopold makes it clear that each layer is dependent on the layer below them for nutrition and other amenities (food chains), and as we reach higher levels in the pyramid, the organisms start to decrease in abundance. If one of the layers significantly decreases in number, each layer above that would also reduce. For example, if the soil were to be toxic and plants were not able to sprout, every layer above soil in the pyramid (insects, herbivorous mammals, etc.) would not be able survive. That makes soil essential to any life on earth, the home to countless organisms that provide nutrients to plants and animals so the layers above in the land pyramid can strive- essentially an energy source for the rest of the layers. As Leopold puts it, “Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals” (Leopold, 1964, p.216). Leopold uses this argument to show how every organism, no matter how small or insignificant, are crucial for the rest of the ecosystem, which is where the outdated “balance of nature” metaphor is rejected.

  Although Marsh and Leopold both believe that man should take care of the land, Leopold explicitly rejects the simplistic notion of the ecosystem having a “balance of nature.” Leopold writes, “The image commonly employed in conservation education is ‘the balance of nature… for reasons too lengthy to detail here, this figure of speech fails to describe accurately what little we know about the land mechanism” (Leopold, 1964, p.214). This is exactly where Leopold starts to explain the land pyramid and how the preserving the organisms in the ecosystem are crucial during and after the lifespan to keep the flow of energy moving throughout the system. Other than the differences between the “balance of nature” and the “land pyramid” metaphors, the stance of human beings within the ecosystem and the idea of conservationism is different between these two authors. Marsh believes that humans have a higher authority than any other life form- a destructive power that could disrupt the balance within the ecosystem. In the eyes of Marsh, humans have created a natural warfare between our allies here on earth. With the economic interests that come with the environment, we must learn to use good judgement on how to preserve the land if we want to keep the balance within nature intact. Leopold, on the other hand, realizes that man needs to love and respect the land to have an ethical relationship with it. He gives the audience the land pyramid as a visual representation of how the land functions, giving us a better understanding of where humans stand within the biotic community. Leopold even hints at the paradox of human interaction within the biotic community, seeing man as, “Man the conqueror versus man the biotic citizen” (Leopold, 1964, p.223). Here, Leopold gives us the vision of land essentially being a servant to human life. Humans have basically stood over the land, and used it in any way we have liked for our own interests. To be ethical within the land, though, we must become a biotic citizen- one who lives and cooperates within the land as a regular inhabitant that considers all living things as equal. This thought process ties into the idea of conservationism, which Leopold also rejects. As Leopold puts it, “Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect” (Leopold, 1964, p.8). There’s a belief that all living organisms, human or not, have the right to be treated with admiration and as a part of the biotic community regardless of the economic value involved. Conservation practices can also require the influence of the government, but Leopold believes there’s not adequate resources provided by the government to entirely conserve the land. With the individual responsibility to love and respect the land, Leopold believes humans can and should be the “biotic citizen” rather than the “conqueror of the land.”

 With two different environmental writers come two different opinions on how man can be ethical to the land. Marsh believes that man must conserve and even replenish natural resources when necessary. To Marsh, humans are “disturbing agents,” but can help manage and make practical decisions within the environment to help preserve the “balance of nature.” Leopold, on the other hand, rejects both the idea of conservationism and the “balance of nature” metaphor that Marsh uses in his argument, and uses a visual of a land pyramid to show how the land functions and where humans stand within the biotic community. According to Leopold, humans must learn to love and respect the land to be a moral ecological citizen. Every organism, including humans, play a role within the ecosystem (starting with soil) and the destruction of any layer within the pyramid can have drastic effects on the biotic community as a whole. With this knowledge of inter-connectivity between organisms, Leopold ultimately rejects the idea of conservation and the “balance of nature” metaphor within the ecosystem.


Works Cited Page

  • Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.
  • Marsh, George P. Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2003.



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