Is Aldo Leopold's 'Land Community' an Individual?

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Millstein, Roberta L.
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conference paper description
Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic has often been interpreted as ascribing intrinsic value to what he calls the biotic community. But what is the biotic community? Is it actually an entity at all, which might seem necessary (albeit not sufficient) for it to be intrinsically valuable; more precisely, is it an individual? Some authors equate Leopold’s “biotic community” with “ecosystem.” It is true that Leopold’s concept of “biotic community” is similar to that of “ecosystem,” since like an ecosystem it includes abiotic components and like an ecosystem it is at least partially characterized in terms of energy flow. However, Leopold also emphasizes that a biotic community is composed of interdependent parts. By underscoring the interactions between species and the way in which changes in some species affect other species, his concept of “biotic community” sounds a bit more like the concept of “community” studied by community ecologists. So, perhaps Leopold’s “biotic community” blends the concepts of “ecosystem” and “community” in some fashion. But this blending raises a complication, which is illuminated nicely by considering a recent essay by Jay Odenbaugh. Odenbaugh invokes a “causal relations” criterion of individuality; the relevant causal relations for communities are interactions between species whereas the relevant causal relations for ecosystems consist of nutrient and energy cycling. If this is right, what sense can be made, if any, of a blended community-ecosystem? Would it be an individual as well? I explore answers to these questions, considering, e.g., recent attempts to integrate community and ecosystem ecology. My goal is to shed light on what an integrated community-ecosystem might look like and how to make sense of the relationship between a community-individual, an ecosystem-individual, and a community-ecosystem-individual, helping to provide a solid basis for Leopold’s Land Ethic.