Frontier Ethic

Ethical attitudes and behaviors determine how humans interact with the land and its natural resources. Early European settlers in North America rapidly consumed the land’s natural resources. After they depleted one area, they moved westward to new frontiers. Their attitude towards the land was that of a frontier ethic. A frontier ethic assumes that the earth has an unlimited supply of resources. If resources run out in one area, more can be found elsewhere, or alternatively, human ingenuity will find substitutes. This attitude sees humans as masters who manage the planet. The frontier ethic is completely anthropocentric (human-centered), for only the needs of humans are considered.

Most industrialized societies experience population and economic growth based upon this frontier ethic, assuming that infinite resources exist to support continued growth indefinitely. Economic growth is considered a measure of how well a society is doing. The late economist Julian Simon pointed out that life on earth has never been better and that population growth means more creative minds to solve future problems and give us an even better standard of living. However, now that the human population has passed seven billion and few frontiers are left, many are beginning to question the frontier ethic. Such people are moving toward an environmental ethic, which includes humans as part of the natural community rather than managers. Such an ethic limits human activities (e.g., uncontrolled resource use) that may adversely affect the natural community.

Some of those still subscribing to the frontier ethic suggest that outer space may be the new frontier. They argue that if we run out of resources (or space) on Earth, we can simply populate other planets. This seems an unlikely solution, as even the most aggressive colonization plan would be incapable of transferring people to extraterrestrial colonies at a significant rate. Natural population growth on Earth would outpace the colonization effort. A more likely scenario would be that space could provide the resources (e.g., from asteroid mining) that might help to sustain human existence on Earth.

Sustainable Ethic

sustainable ethic is an environmental ethic by which people treat the earth as if its resources are limited. This ethic assumes that the earth’s resources are not unlimited and that humans must use and conserve resources to allow their continued use in the future. A sustainable ethic also assumes that humans are a part of the natural environment and that we suffer when the health of a natural ecosystem is impaired. A sustainable ethic includes the following tenets:

  • The earth has a limited supply of resources.
  • Humans must conserve resources.
  • Humans share the earth’s resources with other living things.
  • Growth is not sustainable.
  • Humans are a part of nature.
  • Humans are affected by natural laws.
  • Humans succeed best when they maintain the integrity of natural processes and cooperate with nature.

For example, if a fuel shortage occurs, how can the problem be solved consistently with a sustainable ethic? The solutions might include finding new ways to conserve oil or developing renewable energy alternatives. A sustainable, ethical attitude in the face of such a problem would be that if drilling for oil damages the ecosystem, that damage will also affect the human population. A sustainable ethic can be either anthropocentric or biocentric (life-centered). For example, an advocate for conserving oil resources may consider all oil resources as the property of humans. Using oil resources wisely so that future generations can access them is an attitude consistent with an anthropocentric ethic. Using resources wisely to prevent ecological damage follows a biocentric ethic.

Land Ethic

In his book, A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold, an American wildlife natural historian and philosopher, advocated a biocentric ethic. He suggested that humans had always considered land property, just as ancient Greeks considered enslaved people property. He believed that mistreatment of land (or of enslaved people) makes little economic or moral sense, much as today, the concept of slavery is considered immoral. All humans are merely one component of an ethical framework. Leopold suggested that land be included in an ethical framework, calling this the land ethic.

“The land ethic simply enlarges the boundary of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals; or collectively, the land. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen. It implies respect for his fellow members, and also respect for the community as such.” (Aldo Leopold, 1949)

Leopold divided conservationists into two groups: one that regards the soil as a commodity and the other that regards the land as a biota, with a broad interpretation of its function. If we apply this idea to the field of forestry, the first group of conservationists will grow trees like cabbages. In contrast, the second group will strive to maintain a natural ecosystem. Leopold claimed that the conservation movement must be based upon more than just economic necessity. Species without discernible economic value to humans may be integral to a functioning ecosystem. The land ethic respects all parts of the natural world regardless of their utility, and decisions based upon that ethic result in more stable biological communities.

“Anything is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends to do otherwise.” (Aldo Leopold, 1949)

Hetch Hetchy Valley

In 1913, the Hetch Hetchy Valley – located in Yosemite National Park in California – was the site of a conflict between two factions, one with an anthropocentric ethic and the other with a biocentric ethic. As the last American frontiers were settled, the rate of forest destruction started to concern the public.

Yosemite valley
Figure 1. Yosemite Valley, California, USA.

The conservation movement gained momentum but quickly broke into two factions. One faction, led by Gifford Pinchot, Chief Forester under Teddy Roosevelt, advocated utilitarian conservation (i.e., conservation of resources for the public’s good). The other faction, led by John Muir, advocated the preservation of forests and other wilderness for their inherent value. Both groups rejected the first tenet of frontier ethics, the assumption that resources are limitless. However, the conservationists agreed with the rest of the tenets of frontier ethics, while the preservationists agreed with the tenets of the sustainable ethic.

The Hetch Hetchy Valley was part of a protected National Park. Still, after the devastating fires of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, residents of San Francisco wanted to dam the valley to provide their city with a stable water supply. Gifford Pinchot favored the dam.

“As to my attitude regarding the proposed use of Hetch Hetchy by the city of San Francisco…I am fully persuaded that… the injury…by substituting a lake for the present swampy floor of the valley…is altogether unimportant compared with the benefits derived from its use as a reservoir.

“The fundamental principle of the whole conservation policy is that of use, to take every part of the land and its resources and put it to that use in which it will serve the most people” (Gifford Pinchot, 1913).

John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club and a great lover of wilderness, led the fight against the dam. He saw wilderness as having an intrinsic value, separate from its utilitarian value to people. He advocated the preservation of wild places for their inherent beauty and for the sake of the creatures that live there. The issue aroused the American public, who were becoming increasingly alarmed at the growth of cities and the destruction of the landscape for commercial enterprises. Key senators received thousands of letters of protest.

“These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the Mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar” (John Muir, 1912).

Despite public protest, Congress voted to dam the valley. The preservationists lost the fight for the Hetch Hetchy Valley, but their questioning of traditional American values had some lasting effects. In 1916, Congress passed the “National Park System Organic Act,” which declared that parks were to be maintained in a manner that left them unimpaired for future generations. As we use our public lands, we debate whether we should be guided by preservationism or conservationism.

The Tragedy of the Commons

In his essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, Garrett Hardin (1968) looked at what happens when humans do not limit their actions by including the land in their ethics. The tragedy of the commons develops in the following way: Imagine a pasture open to all (the ‘commons’). Each herder is expected to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. As rational beings, each herder seeks to maximize their gain. Adding more cattle increases their profit, and they do not suffer any immediate negative consequences because all share the commons. Therefore, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course is to add another animal to their herd, another, and so forth. However, this same conclusion is reached by every rational herder sharing the commons. Therein lies the tragedy: each person is locked into a system that compels them to increase their herd, without limit, in a limited world. Eventually, this leads to the ruination of the commons. In a society that believes in the freedom of the commons, freedom brings ruin to everyone because everyone acts selfishly.

Hardin applied the situation to modern commons: overgrazing of public lands, overuse of public forests and parks, depletion of fish populations in the ocean, use of rivers as a common dumping ground for sewage, and fouling the air with pollution.

The “Tragedy of the Commons” applies to what is arguably the most consequential environmental problem: global climate change. The atmosphere is a commons into which countries dump carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. Although we know that the generation of greenhouse gases will damage the globe, we continue to burn fossil fuels. As a country, the immediate benefit from the continued use of fossil fuels is seen as a positive component (because of economic growth). All countries, however, will share the negative long-term effects.

Suggested Supplementary Reading

Blankenbuehler, P. 2016Why Hetch Hetchy is staying under water. High Country News. <>


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Introduction to Environmental Sciences and Sustainability Copyright © 2023 by Emily P. Harris is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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