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Write a short, objective summary about “The Land Ethic” by Aldo Leopold of 250-500 words which summarizes the main ideas being put forward by the author in this selection.


Reading Summaries should be a minimum of one page and a maximum of two pages long (250-500 words).

Reading Summaries require that you read the entire assignment, then write a short summary that identifies the thesis and outlines the main argument. Reading summaries are not about your opinion or perspective – they are expository essays that explain the content of the reading. (You will share your view when writing the Essay Discussion posts.)

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an area usable either for recreation, or for science, or for
wildlife, but the creation of new wilderness in the full sense
of the word is impossible.

It follows, then, that any wilderness program is a rear-
guard action, through which retreats are reduced to a mini-
mum. The Wilderness Society was organized in 1935 ‘for
the one purpose of saving the wilderness remnants in

It does not suffice, however, to have such a society. Unless
there be wilderness-minded men scattered through all the
conservation bureaus, the society may never learn of new
invasions until the time for action has passed. Furthermore
a militant minority of wilderness-minded citizens must be
on watch throughout the nation, and available for action in
a pinch.

In Europe, where wilderness has now reh·eated to the
Carpathians and Siberia, every thinking conservationist be-
moans its loss. Even in Britain, which has less room for land-
luxuries than almost any other civilized country, there is a
vigorous if belated movement for saving a few small spots
of semi-wild land.

Ability to see the cultural value of wilderness boils down,
in the last analysis, to a question of intellectual humility.
The shallow-minded modern who has lost his rootage in the
land assumes that he has already disGovered what is im-
portant; it is such who prate of empires, political or eco-
nomic, that will last a thousand years. It is only the scholar
who appreciates that all history consists of successive excur-

, sions from a single starting-point, to which man returns again
and again to organize yet another search for a durable scale
of values. It is only the scholar who understands why the

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raw wilderness gives definition and meaning to the human

The Land Ethic

When god-like Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy,
he hanged all on one rope a dozen slave-girls of his house-
hold whom he suspected of misbehavior during his absence.

This hanging involved no question of propriety. The girls
were property. The disposal of property was then, as now, a
matter of expediency, not of right and wrong.

Concepts of right and wrong were not lacking from Odys-
seus’ Greece: witness the fidelity of his wife through the

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long years before at last his black-prowed galleys clove the
wine-dark seas for home. The ethical structure of that day
covered wives, but had not yet been extended to human
chattels. During the three thousand years which have since
elapsed, ethical criteria have been extended to many fields
of conduct, with corresponding shrinkages in those judged
by expediency only.

The Ethical Sequence

This extension of ethics, so far studied only by philosophers,
is actually a process in ecological evolution. Its sequences
may be described in ecological as well as in philosophical

,/ terms. An ethie, ecologically, is a lirqitation on freedom of
action in the struggle for existence. An ethic, philosophically,
is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct. These
are two definitions of one thing. The thing has its origin
in the tendency of interdependent individuals or groups to
evolve modes of co-operation. The ecologist calls these
symbioses. Politics and economics are advanced symbioses
in which the original free-for-all competition has been re-
placed, in part, by co-operative mechanisms with an ethical

The complexity of co-operative mechanisms has increased
with population density, and with the efficiency of tools. It
was simpler, for example, to define the anti-social uses of
sticks and stones in the days of the mastodons than of bullets
and billboards in the age of motors.

The first ethics dealt with the relation between indi-
viduals; the Mosaic Decalogue is an example. Later accre-
tions dealt with the relation between the individual and

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society. The Golden Rule tries to integrate the individual to
society; democracy to integrate social organization to the

There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to
land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.
Land, like Odysseus’ slave-girls, is still property. The land-
relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not

The extension of ethics to this third element in human

environment is, if I read the evidence correctly, an evolu- /
tionary possibility and an ecological necessity. It is the third
step in a sequence. The first two have already been taken.
Individual thinkers since the days of Ezekiel and Isaiah
have asserted that the despoliation of land is not only in-
expedient but wrong. Society, however, has not yet affirmed
their belief. I regard the present conservation movement as
the embryo of such an affirmation.

An ethic may be regarded as a mode of guidance for meet-
ing ecological situations so new or intricate, or involving
such defened reactions, that the path of social expediency
is not discernible to the average individual. Animal instincts
are modes of guidance for the individual in meeting such
situations. Ethics are possibly a kind of community instinct

The Community Concept

All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that
the individual is a member of a community of interde-
pendent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his
place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to

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co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to
compete for).

/ The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the
community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals; or
collectively: the land.

This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for
and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the
brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly
not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter downriver.
Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function
except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage.
Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole
communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the
animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the
largest and most beautiful species. A land ethic of course
cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these
‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued exist-
ence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a
natural state.

In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens
from conqueror of the land-community to plain member
and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members,
and also respect for the community as such.

In human history, we have learned (I hope) that the
conqueror role is eventually self-defeating. Why? Because
it is implicit in such a role that the conqueror knows, ex
cathedra, just what makes the community clock tick, and
just what and who is valuable, and what and who is worth-
less, in community life. It always turns out that he knows
neither, and this is why his conquests eventually defeat

In the biotic community, a parallel situation exists. Abra-

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ham knew exactly what the land was for: it was to drip
milk and honey into Abraham’s mouth. At the present mo-
ment, the assurance with which we regard this assumption
is inverse to the degree of our education.

The ordinary citizen today assumes that science knows
what makes the community clock tick; the scientist is
equally sure that he does not. He knows that the biotic
mechanism is so complex that its workings may never be
fully understood.

That man is, in fact, only a member of a biotic team is
shown by an ecological interpretation of history. Many his-
torical events, hitherto explained solely in terms of human
enterprise, were actually biotic interactions between people
and land. The characteristics of the land determined the
facts quite as potently as the characteristics of the men
who lived on it.

Consider, for example, the settlement of the Mississippi
valley. In the years following the Revolution, three groups
were contending for its control: the native Indian, the
French and English traders, and the American settlers. His-
torians wonder what would have happened if the English
at Detroit had thrown a little more weight into the Indian
side of those tipsy scales which decided the outcome of the
colonial migration into the cane-lands of Kentucky. It is time
now to ponder the fact that the cane-lands, when subjected
to the particular mixture of forces represented by the cow,
plow, fire, and axe of the pioneer, became bluegrass. What
if the plant succession inherent in this dark and bloody
ground had, under the impact of these forces, given us some
worthless sedge, shrub, or weed? Would Boone and Kenton
have held out? Would there have been any overflow into
Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri? Any Louisiana Pur-

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chase? Any transcontinental union of new states? Any Civil
Var? .

Kentucky was one sentence in the drama of history. Ve
are commonly told what the human actors in this drama
tried to do, but we are seldom told that their success or the

‘ lack of it, hung in large degree on the reaction of particular
soils to the impact of the particular forces exerted by their
occupancy. In the case of Kentucky, we do not even know
where the bluegrass came from-whether it is a native
species, or a stowaway from Europe.

Contrast the cane-lands with what hindsight tells us
about the Southwest, where the pioneers were equally brave,
resourceful, and persevering. The impact of occupancy here
brought no bluegrass, or other plant fitted to withstand
the bumps and buffetings of hard use. This region, when
grazed by livestock, reverted through a series of more and
more worthless grasses, shrubs, and weeds to a condition of
unstable equilibrium. Each recession of plant types bred
erosion; each increment to erosion bred a further recession
of plants. The result today is a progressive and mutual
deterioration, not only of plants and soils, but of the animal
community subsisting thereon. The early settlers did not
expect this: on the cienegas of New Mexico some even cut
ditches to hasten it. So subtle has been its progress that few
residents of the region are aware of it. It is quite invisible to
the tourist who finds this wrecked landscape colorful and
charming (as indeed it is, but it bears scant resemblance to
what it was in 1848).

This same landscape was ·developed’ once before, but
with quite different results. The Pueblo Indians settled the
Southwest in pre-Columbian times, but they happened not

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to be equipped with range livestock. Their civilization ex,
pired, but not because their land expired.

In India, regions devoid of any sod-forming grass have
been settled, apparently without wrecking the land, by the
simple expedient of carrying the grass to the cow, rather
than vice versa. ( V’ as this the result of some deep wisdom,
or was it just good luck? I do not know.)

In short, the plant succession steered the course of his- /
tory; the pioneer simply demonstrated, for good or ill, what
successions inhered in the land. Is history taught in this
spirit? It will be, once the concept of land as a community
really penetrates our intellectual life.

The Ecological Conscience

Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.'”
Despite nearly a centmy of propaganda, conservation still
proceeds at a snail’s pace; progress still consists largely of
letterhead pieties and convention oratory. On the back forty
we still slip two steps backward for each forward stride.

The usual answer to this dilemma is •more conservation
education.’ No one will debate this, but is it certain that only
the volume of education needs stepping up? Is something
lacking in the content as well?

It is difficult to give a fair summa1y of its content in brief
form, but, as I understand it, the content is substantially
this: obey the law, vote right, join some organizations, and
practice what conservation is profitable on your own land;
the government will do the rest.

Is not this formula too easy to accomplish anything
worth-while? It defines no right or wrong, assigns no obliga-

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tion, calls for no sacrifice, implies no change in the current
philosophy of values. In respect of land-use, it urges only
enlightened self-interest. Just how far will such education
take us? An example will perhaps yield a partial answet.

By 1930 it had become clear to all except the ecologically
blind that southwestern Wisconsin’s topsoil was slipping
seaward. In 1933 the farmers were told that if they would
adopt certain remedial practices for five years, the public
would donate CCC labor to install them, plus the neces-
sary machinery and materials. The offer was widely ac-
cepted, 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.

This led to the idea that maybe farmers would learn more
quickly if they themselves wrote the rules. Accordingly the
Wisconsin Legislature in 1937 passed the Soil Conservation
District Law. This said to farmers, in effect: We, the pub-
lic, will furnish you free technical service and loan you
specialized machinery, if you will write you1′ own rules f01′
land-use. Each county may write its own rules, and these
will have the force of law. Nearly all the counties promptly
organized to accept the proffered help, but after a decade of
operation, no county has yet written a single rule. There
has been visible progress in such practices as strip-crop-
ping, pasture renovation, and soil liming, but none in fenc-
ing woodlots against grazing, and none in excluding plow
and cow from steep slopes. The farmers, in short, have
selected those remedial practices which were profitable any-
how, and ignored those which were profitable to the com-
munity, but not clearly profitable to themselves.

When one asks why no rules have been written, one is

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told that the community is not yet ready to support them;
education must precede rules. But the education actually in
progress makes no mention of obligations to land over and
above those dictated by self-interest. The net result is that
we have more education but less soil, fewer healthy woods,
and as many floods as in 1937.

The puzzling aspect of such situations is that the existence
of obligations over and above self-interest is taken for
granted in such rnral community enterprises as the better-
ment of roads, schools, churches, and baseball teams. Their
existence is not taken for granted, nor as yet seriously dis-
cussed, in bettering the behavior of the water that falls on
the land, or in the preserving of the beauty or diversity of
the fann landscape. Land-use ethics are still governed
wholly by economic self-interest, just as social ethics were a
century ago.

To sum up: we asked the farmer to do what he con-
veniently could to save his soil, and he has done just that,
and only that. The farmer who clears the woods off a 75 per
cent slope, turns his cows into the clearing, and dumps its
rainfall, rocks, and soil into the community creek, is still (if
otherwise decent) a respected member of society. If he puts
lime on his fields and plants his crops on contour, he is still
entitled to all the privileges and emoluments of his Soil
Conservation District. The District is a beautiful piece of
social machinery, but it is coughing along on two cylinders
because we have been too timid, and too anxious for quick
success, to tell the farmer the true magnitude of his obliga-
tions. Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and
the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience
from people to land.

No important change in ethics was ever accomplished

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without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis,
loyalties, affections, and convictions. The proof that con-
servation has not yet touched these foundations of conduct

/ lies in the fact that philosophy and religion have not yet
heard of it. In our attempt to make conservation easy, we
have made it trivial.

Substitutes for a Land Ethic

When the logic of history hungers for bread and we hand
out a stone, we are at pains to explain how much the stone
resembles bread. I now describe some of the stones which
serve in lieu of a land ethic.

One basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly
on economic motives is that most members of the land com-
munity have no economic value. Wildflowers and songbirds
are examples. Of the 22,000 higher plants and animals native
to Wisconsin, it is doubtful whether more than 5 per cent
can be sold, fed, eaten, or otherwise put to economic use.
Yet these creatures are members of the biotic community,
and if (as I believe) its stability depends on its integrity,
they are entitled 1o continuance.

When one of these non-economic categories is threatened,
and if we happen to love it, we invent subteifuges to give it
economic importance. At the beginning of the century song-
birds were supposed to be disappearing. Ornithologists
jumped to the rescue with some distinctly shaky evidence to
the effect that insects would eat us up if birds failed to con-
trol them. The evidence had to be economic in order to be

It is painful to read these circumlocutions today. We have

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no land ethic yet, but we have at least drawn nearer the
point of admitting that birds should continue as a matter of
biotic right, regardless of the presence or absence of eco-
nomic advantage to us.

A parallel situation exists in respect of predatory mam-
mals, raptorial birds, and fish-eating birds. Time was when
biologists somewhat overworked the evidence that these
creatures preserve the health of game by killing weaklings,
or that they control rodents for the farmer, or that tlrny prey
only on ‘worthless’ species. Here again, the evidence had to
be economic in order to be valid. It is only in recent years
that we hear the more honest argument that predators are
members of the community, and that no special interest has
the right to exterminate them for the sake of a benefit, real

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or fancied, to itself. Unfortunately this enlightened view is
still in the talk stage. In the £eld the extermination of
predators goes merrily on: witness the impending erasure
of the timber wolf by £at of Congress, the Conservation
Bureaus, and many state legislatures.

Some species of trees have been ‘read out of the party’
by economics-minded foresters because they grow too
slowly, or have too low a sale value to pay as timber crops:
white cedar, tamarack, cypress, beech, and hemlock are
examples. In Europe, where forestry is ecologically more
advanced, the non-commercial tree species are recognized
as members of the native forest community, to be preserved
as such, within reason. Moreover some (like beech) have
been found to have a valuable function in building up soil
fertility. The interdependence of the forest and its constitu-
ent tree species, ground flora, and fauna is taken for granted.

Lack of economic value is sometimes a character not only
of species or groups, but of entire biotic communities:
marshes, bogs, dunes, and ‘deserts’ are examples. Our for-
mula in such cases is to relegate their conservation to gov-
ernment as refuges, monuments, or parks. The difficulty is
that these communities are usually interspersed with more
valuable private lands; the government cannot possibly own
or control such scattered parcels. The net effect is that we
have relegated some of them to ultimate extinction over
large areas. If the private owner were ecologically minded,
he would be proud to be the custodian of a reasonable pro-
portion of such areas, which add diversity and beauty to his
farm and .to his community.

In some instances, the assumed lack of pro£t in these
‘waste’ areas has proved to be wrong, but only after most

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of them had been done away with. The present scramble to
reflood muskrat marshes is a case in point.

There is a clear tendency in American conservation to
relegate to government all necessa1y jobs that private land-
owners fail to perform. Government ownership, operation,
subsidy, or regulation is now widely prevalent in forestry,
range management, soil and watershed management, park
and wilderness conservation, £sheries management, and
migratory bird management, with more to come. Most of
this growth in governmental conservation is proper and
logical, some of it is inevitable. That I imply no disapproval
of it is implicit in the fact that I have spent most of my life
working for it. Nevertheless the question arises: What is the
ultimate magnitude of the enterprise? Will the tax base
cany its eventual rami£cations? At what point will gov-
ernmental conservation, like the mastodon, become handi-
capped by its own dimensions? The answer, if there is any,
seems to be in a land ethic, or some other force which as- /
signs more obligation to the private landowner.

Industrial landowners and users, especially lumbermen
and stockmen, are inclined to wail long and loudly about
the extension of government ownership and regulation to
land, but (with notable exceptions) they show little dis-
position to develop the only visible alternative: the vol-
untary practice of conservation on their own lands.

When the private landowner is asked to perform some
unprofltable act for the good of the community, he today
assents only with outstretched palm. If the act costs him
cash this is fair and proper, but when it costs only fore-
thought, open-mindedness, or time, the issue is at least de-
batable. The overwhelming growth of land-use subsidies in
recent years must be ascribed, in large part, to the govern-

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ment’s own agencies for conservation education: the land
bureaus, the agricultural colleges, and the extension s.ervices.
As far as I can detect, no ethical obligation toward land is
taught in these institutions.

To sum up: a system of conservation based solely on eco-
nomic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided. It tends to ignore,
and thus eventually to eliminate, many elements in the land
community that lack commercial value, but that are (as far
as we know) essential to its healthy functioning. It as-
sumes, falsely, I think, that the economic parts of the biotic
clock will function without the uneconomic parts. It tends
to relegate to government many functions eventually too
large, too complex, or too widely dispersed to be performed
by government.

An ethical obligation on the part of the private owner is
the only visible remedy for these situations.

The Land Pyramid

An ethic to supplement and guide the economic relation
to land presupposes the existence of some mental image of
land as a biotic mechanism. We can be ethical only in rela-
tion to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or
otherwise have faith in.

The image commonly employed in conservation educa-
tion is ‘the balance of nature.’ For reasons too lengthy to
detail here, this £gure of speech fails to describe accurately
what little we know about the land mechanism. A much
truer image is the one employed in ecology: the biotic pyra-
mid. I shall £rst sketch the pyramid as a symbol of land, and
later develop some of its implications in terms of land-use.

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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. A plant layer rests on 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 suc-
cessive layer decreases in numerical abundance. Thus, for
every carnivore there are hundreds of his prey, thousands
of their prey, millions of insects, uncountable plants. The
pyramidal form of the system reflects this numerical pro-
gression from apex to base. Man shares an intermediate layer
with the bears, raccoons, and squirrels which eat both meat
and vegetables.

The lines of dependency for food and other services are
called food chains. Thus soil-oak-deer-Indian is a chain
that has now been largely converted to soil-corn-cow-farmer.
Each species, including ourselves, is a link in many chains.
The deer eats a hundred plants other than oak, and the cow
a hundred plants other than corn. Both, then, are links in
a hundred chains. The pyramid is a tangle of chains so /
complex as to seem disorderly, yet the stability of the system
proves it to be a highly organized structure. Its functioning
depends on the co-operation and competition of its diverse

In the beginning, the pyramid of life was low and squat;
the food chains short and simple. Evolution has added layer

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after layer, link after link. Man is one of thousands of accre·
tions to the height and complexity of the pyramid .. Science
has given us many doubts, but it has given us at least one
certainty: the trend of evolution is to elaborate and divetsify
the biota.

( .Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of en~l’gy
:flowing tlu:ough a circuit of soils, plants, and animals. Food
chains are the living channels which conduct energy up-
ward; death and decay return it to the soil. The circuit is not
closed; some energy is dissipated in decay, some is added by
absorption from the air, some is stored in soils, peats, and
long-lived forests; but it is a sustained circuit, like a slowly
augmented revolving fund of life. There is always a net loss
by downhill wash, but this is normally small and offset by
the decay of rocks. It is deposited in the ocean and, in the
course of geological time, raised to f01m new lands and new

The velocity and character of the upward flow of energy
depend on the complex structure of the plant and animal
community, much as the upward :How of sap in a tree de-
pends on its complex cellular organization. Without this
complexity, normal circulation would presumably not occur.
Structure means the characteristic numbers, as well as the
characteristic kinds and functions, of the component species.
This interdependence between the complex structure of the
land and its smooth functioning as an energy unit is one
of its basic attributes.

When a change occurs in one part of the circuit, many
other parts must adjust themselves to it. Change does not
necessarily obsh·uct or divert the flow of energy; evolution
is a long series of self-induced changes, the net result of
which has been to elaborate the :How mechanism and to

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lengthen the circuit. Evolutionary changes, however, are
usually slow and local. Man’s invention of tools has enabled /
him to make changes of unprecedented violence, rapidity,
and scope.

One change is in the composition of floras and faunas.
The larger predators are lopped off the apex of the pyramid;
food chains, for the first time in history, become shorter
rather than longer. Domesticated species from other lands
are substituted for wild ones, and wild ones are moved to
new habitats. In this world-wide pooling of faunas and
floras, some species get out of bounds as pests and diseases,
others are extinguished. Such effects are seldom intended or
foreseen; they represent unpredicted and often untraceable
readjushnents in the structure. Agricultural science is largely
a race between the emergence of new pests and the emer-
gence of new techniques for their control.

Another change touches the How of energy through plants
and animals and its return to the soil. Fertility is the ability /
of soil to receive, store, and release energy. Agriculture, by
overdrafts on the soil, or by too radical a substitution of
domestic for native species in the supersh·ucture, may de-
range the channels of flow or deplete storage. Soils depleted
of their storage, or of the organic matter which anchors it,
wash away faster than they form. This is erosion.

Waters, like soil, are part of the energy circuit. Industry,
by polluting waters or obstmcting them with dams, may
exclude the plants and animals necessa1y to keep energy
in circulation.

Transportation brings about another basic change: the
plants or animals grown in one region are now consumed
and returned to the soil in another. Transportation taps the

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energy stored in rocks, and in the air, and uses it elsewhere;
thus we fertilize the garden with nitrogen gleaned. by the
guano birds from the fishes of seas on the other side of the
Equator. Thus the formerly localized and self-contained cir-
cuits are pooled on a world-wide scale.

The process of altering the pyramid for human occupation
releases stored energy, and this often gives rise, during the
pioneering period, to a deceptive exuberance of plant and
animal life, both wild and tame. These releases of biotic
capital tend to becloud or postpone the penalties of violence.

This thumbnail sketch of land as an energy circuit conveys
three basic ideas:

( 1) That land is not merely soil.
( 2) That the native plants and animals kept the energy

circuit open; others may or may not.
( 3) That man-made changes are of a different order than

evolutionary changes, and have effects more comprehensive
than is inten