Texas Land Ethics

[ Regional/Texas ]

Texas Land Ethics

By Pete A. Y. Gunter and Max Oelschlaeger

Photos by Sharon Stewart

A new vision for living on the land, a "land ethic" that respects the stability, integrity, and beauty of the "land community."



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6 x 9 | 174 pp. | 7 b&w photos, 7 figures, 3 maps, 3 tables

ISBN: 978-0-292-72802-8

From the dense forests of the Big Thicket to the limitless vistas of the Davis Mountains, Texas is a land of astonishing diversity and natural beauty. Yet it is also a land where commuters endure endless traffic jams in the major cities and where pollution and environmental degradation threaten the most essential elements of our common living space—the land, air, and water.

In this thoughtful, practical book, Pete Gunter and Max Oelschlaeger offer a new vision for living on the land, a 'land ethic' that respects the stability, integrity, and beauty of the "land community." Avoiding harsh rhetoric that seeks only to place blame and foretell doom, they discuss how economic and environmental goals may be reconciled so that Texans can continue to enjoy a reasonable prosperity while living in a land free of pollutants and scars, where some wild lands still exist and animals range freely.

In presenting their land ethic, the authors draw on the ideas of Aldo Leopold, whose A Sand County Almanac persuasively urges human beings to respect the land—with all of its animal and plant inhabitants—that supports us. This is an ethic to take Texas into the twenty-first century, in which the wise choices we make now will create a stable and sustainable future.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. What Is a Land Ethic?
  • 2. Texas: The Land and Its Communities of Life
  • 3. Texas: A State of Neglect
  • 4. Land Ethics and Economics
  • 5. Are Land Ethics Practical?
  • 6. The Big Thicket
  • 7. A Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Texas has been and in some ways still is a frontier society, though the frontier ended in the early 1900s. Somehow the frontier mentality, the notion that nature's bounty is unlimited, virtually free for the taking, must be put behind as we enter the twenty-first century. This myth configures itself in many ways, such as in the belief that new resources will always be found to meet the expanding demands of a physically growing, materialistic society.

The frontier mythology also lingers on in the belief that economy and ecology, or jobs and the environment, are at odds. Even if this idea were true, which it is not, Texans would lose out in the long run: devastated environments have invariably ruined the societies that depended on them, most tellingly by destroying their economies.

Like it or not, this generation faces a challenge every bit as real as did the frontiering people who first inhabited the state. Their challenge was physical survival, making an often recalcitrant land yield a living. Ours is sustainability, the building of a way of life that draws from the land without degrading it or impairing basic ecological processes. Can we shape a sustainable tomorrow? A tomorrow where economics and ecology have somehow been reconciled, and where Texans have some rational expectation that their daughters and sons and future generations might prosper, yet live in environments free of pollutants and scars, where some wild lands still exist and animals range freely? Such are the questions we explore here.

As Texas nears the twenty-first century, a few citizens are beginning to favor a different way of thinking about the interrelations of nature and culture, one that helps them to perceive the relation as less oppositional than cooperative. Texas Land Ethics is a small contribution to that effort. In this regard we are optimistic: we believe that men and women of good will who have shared interests, whatever their differences, can forge an ecologically sane and economically viable tomorrow.

In another way we are less optimistic. Our considered opinion is that if Texans, as we will try to make clear, continue to live in the mythology of the past, then at some point, perhaps within the next two or three decades, the die will have been cast. It will be too late. Our argument is rooted in almost overwhelming evidence that Texas has gone well past the point where it could continue with business as usual. When it comes to the land, Texas is a state of neglect. Consider just a few relevant facts.


Since World War II, the population of Texas has increased by more than 10 million. We will likely gain another 7 to 10 million in the next twenty years. Thus Texas will have an estimated 22 million people by the year 2010, most of them located in the so-called Texas triangle, with the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex at the top and Houston and San Antonio at the base. Ironically, one reason for our meteoric population growth has been the quality of life in the Sunbelt. Yet as the human population expands, the quality of life declines. Roads become increasingly crowded, property taxes rise to build the infrastructure necessary to sustain urban growth, and pollution fouls air and water.

More than half of all Texans breathe air that does not meet present quality standards. And more than 5,600 violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act occurred in Texas from 1989 through 1991. Texas ranks thirty-eighth nationally in spending on water-quality protection programs (approximately $3.7 million/year compared to the national average of $33.5 million). Texas also ranks near the bottom among states on overall spending for environmental programs as a percentage of total budget (0.6 percent compared to the national average of 1.89 percent). And we lead the nation in emission of greenhouse gases (whose function we will explain later). Our yearly per capita average is 27.26 tons of greenhouse gas (measured in terms of CO2 equivalent). For comparison, consider that California, another industrialized, geographically vast state that, like Texas, is heavily dependent on private transportation, has a per capita average of only 15.65 tons per year.

Of course, some actions have been taken to address past environmental mistakes. One is CERCLA, the Superfund law. But cleaning up the toxic messes left behind by corporations is a very expensive business. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates costs of between $420 and $450 million to clean up the thirty Texas Superfund sites. That's only the tip of the iceberg. Compliance with environmental laws--and these laws address only the worst problems--is precipitating a budgetary crisis in city government. Property owners in most Texas cities are going to be forced to foot the bill for environmental protection and cleanup, more often than not for problems they did not create. And the "unfunded mandates" of the 104th Congress imply that either local taxpayers are going to have to dig deep in their pockets to safeguard environmental quality or that large parts of the Texas landscape will come more and more to resemble the ecologically devastated environments of Eastern Europe.

Finally, we must recognize that population growth does not just adversely affect people. The Texas list of "species in trouble" (waiting for placement on the U.S. endangered species list) includes 67 species of birds, 48 of mammals, 38 of fishes, 32 of reptiles, 24 of mollusks, 18 of amphibians, 15 of crustaceans, 6 of insects, and 4 of arachnids. Plants at risk are found in 142 of our 254 counties--76 species in Big Bend National Park alone.


As our story unfolds, we look at some of the root causes which have led to the state of neglect. Our primary concern, however, is not so much with assigning blame, so that good guys in white hats can be distinguished from the bad guys who are despoiling the earth. (When it comes to ecology, there are few if any saints. All of us, including the authors, are culpable.) The issue is simply to begin changing things, the way we live and work, manage our land, secure our food, transport ourselves, build our houses, and so on. We make no claim to occupy the moral high ground, pronouncing judgment on ordinary citizens and commercial enterprises. Instead, as the title of our book suggests, we offer a different way of thinking about the "hard facts" outlined above and of designing appropriate responses, an ecological way of thinking. We are convinced that if enough of us came to perceive the world and our relations to it through a land ethics frame, then sustainability would be within reach. We could live lives of freedom, avoiding the ruin of our environment without destroying our economy.

We are well aware that the very idea of Texas land ethics will be labeled by many as radical, utopian. In truth, whatever labels are assigned, our claims are conservative in the truest sense of the word. Texas land ethics do not presuppose the overthrow of either democratic government or a market economy. Our hope is that the practice of land ethics will lead to the renewal of the democratic process and a truly free enterprise system, one that provides meaningful work without destroying the ecological basis of economic life. No doubt we offer analyses and make claims that are critical of some present public policies. We also criticize certain kinds of business practices and commercial enterprises. Big government and big business are part of the state of neglect. But the idea of Texas land ethics recognizes that government and business--and the public--are also part of any realistic discussion of solutions.

The Lay of the Land

As students of Texas history know, our state has been built on abundant natural resources. At one time the land, air, and water appeared to be nearly inexhaustible, capable of sustaining the Texas economy and citizens indefinitely. Texas seemed infinite; the scale of human activities seemed finite. The frontier always beckoned, just beyond the next horizon. Today that perception is changing: Texas is neither so vast nor so infinitely resilient to human insult as we have imagined.

The land crisis to which we refer is usually termed an "environmental crisis." Yet that phrase is problematic. One reason is that it connotes mainstream environmentalism and its agenda, an agenda that is largely anthropocentric, driven primarily by considerations of efficiency and human health. The notion of a "land crisis" has a broader sweep. It involves, in addition to human health and efficiency, considerations like the ecological footprint of human populations, ecological integrity, and the beauty of the land. What is the carrying capacity, in terms of population, of the state of Texas? How many people living for how long could continue to live like the present generation? What are the implications of human population growth for the rest of the land community, assessed in terms of habitat modification, water utilization, and biodiversity?

In comparison to the term "land crisis," "environmental crisis" is remote, abstract, and perhaps too scientific--devoid of any sense of people who are involved with Texas places. Many Texans have had a lifelong love affair with the land: its forms and features, its flora and fauna. Texas litterateurs and poets, ballad singers and historians, painters and photographers have celebrated the land in all its diversity and beauty. The land is something that often brings to mind a specific location, perhaps a mysterious place associated with childhood memories, a beautiful spot visited on a vacation or hunting trip, a familiar family homestead. Regrettably, as Texas has become increasingly urban and industrial, too many Texans have learned to ignore the land; even more abuse it.

Finally, the term "environment," in a technical sense, refers only to abiotic, that is, nonliving, aspects of the landscape; the biota, the plants and animals, are not involved. Talk about land ethics, however odd this may seem on the surface, involves the idea of a land community in which human beings are members. The very idea of a land community brings to mind something that is social, interactive, and cooperative. In contrast, environment connotes a material entity: passive, inert, even dead.

We will make our case for the validity of this way of looking at things in seven installments. The first chapter goes into the specifics of Texas land ethics, beginning with the vision of the ecologist Aldo Leopold. Originally a mainstream utilitarian conservationist, whose guiding credo was to extract the last measure of economic value from the earth in the most efficient way possible, he ended his career as a proponent of an alternative orientation to business as usual. How is it, he wondered, that human beings can live on the land without spoiling it? His experience in the American Southwest and Midwest as a game manager and forester forced Leopold to answer this question in an unexpected way. In order to treat land effectively, he concluded, it is not sufficient to discover through the joint efforts of science and common sense that we are abusing it. We need an ethic through which we can both value the land and extend to it the ethical concerns that we have used, and broadened, in the past. The three fundamental features which, on Leopold's terms, we are obligated to sustain are: integrity, stability, and beauty. We discuss these in terms of their meanings and in terms of how they relate to each other.

Chapter 2 surveys the Texas landscape itself. Three factors seem to us to describe this landscape: diversity, frontier, and limits. Diversity is evident to anyone who has traveled the state, though often not to outsiders, whose image is often formed by movies and TV Brownsville is as far south as Miami, Florida. Dalhart, 800 miles due north, has, by contrast, the climate of eastern Colorado. It is not uncommon in winter for Brownsville to bask in 80ºF sunlight while Dalhart is hit by snow and biting winds. West to east the contrasts are equally dramatic. Southeast of El Paso the Chihuahua desert garners 8 inches of rain per year while Orange, far to the east, averages 56 inches: parched desert at one extreme, deep forest and cypress swamp at the other. Between the four points of the compass the land varies endlessly. No two of the state's eight major regions have the same resources or the same problems.

Traditionally all of Texas' diversity has fallen under a single heading: Frontier. As long as any American state (nearly a century), Texas was a land frontier, offering new soil to plow, trees to cut, prairies to ranch. When the land frontier ran out around the turn of the twentieth century, the state discovered a windfall in oil and natural gas, and underground water, and entered into a resource frontier. These frontiers are in the past. The present reality is one of limits. As sprawling urban areas ("Slurbs") stretch across the eastern half of the Lone Star State, underground waters dwindle in the Panhandle. As rivers are dammed to provide water for the Slurbs, estuaries and barrier islands are threatened along the Gulf Coast. All this challenges an inherited frontier mentality which promises endless rewards without prior caution, which decrees that serious problems of depletion and pollution cannot exist, and which breathes an aura of anti-intellectualism.

Chapter 3 offers more details concerning the problems that constitute the Texas land crisis. There we offer a broad survey of the "state of neglect" while also paying attention to bioregional problems, such as the overdraft of groundwater that is exhausting the Ogallala Aquifer and the toxics that pollute Lavaca and Galveston bays. Our overview is organized under six headings: population growth, habitat modification, biodiversity, air, water, and waste. While facts that detail the land crisis are important, we are also concerned to show how the land communities that existed historically have been dramatically changed, and with assessing the near- and longterm ecological and social implications of those changes.

Chapters 4 and 5 at first move away from issues of water, species, regions, and waste. They are, directly or indirectly, about economics. We believe that a discussion of economic issues is inescapable, however, if land ethics are to have a chance of being understood. Land and economy, economics and ecology are profoundly interrelated subjects. In interrelating them we will try not to become too abstract, or too far removed from the texture and the landscapes of the Lone Star State. A certain amount of theory is inescapable. But we will attempt to escape it by relating our skirmishes with mainstream economics to specific issues, and places, in Texas.

Chapter 4, on land ethics and economics, discusses the possibility of incorporating land ethics into public policy making and commerce in ways that lead toward sustainability (as distinct from sustainable development). Today we know that the so-called Environmental Impact Hypothesis is incorrect and that a healthy and sustainable economy cannot be built on a faulty ecology. And we know that state economies built--like our own--on the extraction of resources are doubly challenged. The idea of land ethics does not imply a revolution in our political economy. Texas land ethics must largely occur within the existing institutional structure. There is little chance that Texans can forestall and perhaps avert the land crisis unless we begin now, within the framework that already exists. Markets can be adjusted to reflect the true costs-the ecological and social costsof doing business. And the good news is, as a number of studies have shown, that although ecological economics will change things, it does not portend economic ruin.

Chapter 5 considers the practical issues, primarily questions concerning the institutionalization of Texas land ethics. Clearly, land ethics would change things. Just as clearly they do not presuppose utopia, but rather ecologically informed and ethically leavened transformation of business as usual. We make two specific suggestions for implementing land ethics: getting the price right and land-use planning. A book of this length cannot hope for comprehensive coverage across the broad array of issues affected by land ethics. Our aim is simply to illustrate how land ethics relate to making public policy, public policy that is not radically utopian, but practical, in both an ecological and a social sense. A citizenry guided by the land ethic avoids either extreme of "locking the land up in perpetuity" (although it protects unique ecosystems from development) or "using it all now." We favor a sustainable approach.

Chapter 6 is a case study in land ethics, focusing on the Big Thicket. The Big Thicket is arguably among the most important examples of ecologically inspired conservation in the United States. Stretching across hundreds of thousands of acres of Southeast Texas from Conroe, on what is now Interstate 45, to the Louisiana border, the Big Thicket has been celebrated as one of the biologically richest and most diverse areas in North America. Tupelo swamps, bears, orchids, roadrunners, alligators, champion trees: the list of its life forms seems endless, as the catalogue of its plant growth associations seems remarkable. Events have not dealt well with this cornucopia, however. Lumber company cutting and oil field destruction have reduced the old wilderness to a fragment of its former self, and recent clearcutting has threatened to destroy its very identity.

In the face of this onslaught conservationists have struggled to preserve at least some minor portions of the original land in its original condition. Their efforts have resulted in a curious and unexpected situation. The creation of state parks, a national biological preserve, corporate donations, a national wildlife refuge, and an apparent shift in lumber company attitudes toward clearcutting open up the possibility that interlocking portions of wilderness might be sustained into the foreseeable future: sustained without depleting the region's economy. This situation is still only a possibility, which might be lost. It is a possibility, however, which only a generation ago appeared impossible.

Finally, the concluding chapter explores the prospects for Texas tomorrow, attempting to avoid either utopian or dystopian claims which are characteristic of, on the one hand, the frontier mentality and, on the other, doomsday environmentalism. Our argument is that enlightened citizens, committed to place, might be guided by the land ethic in building the new Texas. In any case, today's citizens will either respond or suffer the consequences. The state of neglect will not spontaneously ameliorate. We either build the new Texas or face increasingly severe and costly environmental consequences.


By Pete A. Y. Gunter and Max Oelschlaeger

Both authors are professors of philosophy at the University of North Texas in Denton. A long-time environmentalist, Pete A. Y. Gunter was instrumental in the creation of the Big Thicket National Preserve. Max Oelschlaeger is the author of The Idea of Wilderness and Postmodern Environmental Ethics.

"This is an important book for Texans to have in their hands at the earliest opportunity."

—Paul B. Thompson, author of The Spirit of the Soil: Agriculture and Environmental Ethics

Citation Award, 1998
San Antonio Conservation Society