Thinking Like a Mountain During a Silent Spring

Thinking like a mountain is a concept used by Aldo Leopold to emphasize the ethical premise that every individual is a part of a larger interdependent biotic community, and right action can be judged by how it affects the environment. Thinking like a mountain is meant to personify the land in a way that encourages ethical consideration of the entire biotic community (animate and inanimate) that occupies a mountain, lake, or other natural environment. Leopold saw all the Earth and its occupying life collectively as a “complex organism functioning through the interaction of its components.” More simply, he viewed the Earth as literally alive, each component essential to healthy function of the whole. This premise would be the basis for an ethical system, informed by science, that could be applied to “nature as a whole” in order to ensure the continued health of natural systems. Today, Leopold would likely look upon the anthropogenic disruption of the reef-zooxanthellae symbiosis an injurious stab to a significant earth organ—which we rely on.

In order to support their claims about environmental ethics, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson relied on observations of the natural environment, informed by scientific study and analysis. Leopold explained that the extermination of the wolf in New Mexico was ethically wrong for several reasons: they exerted a stabilizing influence over populations such as deer, their loss destroyed the integrity of the biotic community, and their populations were in severe decline. In another apt example he pointed out that the potato bug ends its own existence when it eats all the potatoes. This was a concept he applied when observing that humans, with no predators or population limiter to speak of, had developed the ability to modify the environment in ways that threatened its own survival—and that of other species as well. Carson relied heavily on ecological science and anthropocentric arguments in order to support her (less public) environmental ethics claims. Based on scientific observations of the harmful impact of lingering insecticides on food webs, Carson was able to effectively argue that products such as DDT were persistent environmental threats to humans and many other species we consider beneficial. She saw a fundamental flaw in the human desire to dominate and control nature, and was succinct in pointing out through science that this tendency could easily prove counterproductive.

Leopold and Carson follow paths of thought closely straddling the divide between conservationists and preservationists; however, they position themselves fundamentally as conservationists when arguing to the public. While the ethical considerations of their arguments extend well beyond humans (in a similar fashion to John Muir), both essentially acknowledge that a give and take between humans and the environment is necessary. In her book Silent Spring, Carson implores for “a reasonable accommodation between people and insects,” while Leopold’s writings emphasize the interdependence of man and the environment. Leopold and Carson recognize the diversity of value wilderness provides to humans beyond the economic or aesthetic. Leopold posits that understanding the land ethic is important for the future of human existence, and that understanding the fundamental characteristics of nature is an important key to human health. For their time, Leopold and Carson were able to effectively leverage science to reveal the benefit of preserving important facets of nature, and the potential costs of attempts to dominate and control the environment.

Nash, Roderick, Wilderness and the American Mind. 4. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. Print.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring; Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1994. Print.
Leopold, Aldo, and Tom Algire. A Sand County Almanac Illustrated. Madison, Wis: Tamarack Press, 1977. Print.


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