Lester Brown's Call for a New Land Ethic

Fred Harrison

[Reprinted from Land & Liberty, September-October, 1983]

LAND will acquire an "energy collection value" in the post-petroleum era.

Renewable energy - wind, hydro and solar - will gradually replace non-renewable resources, and transform the value of land that is now written off as useless.

This prediction was made by Lester Brown at the Second World Congress on Land which was staged at Harvard University in June.

"It takes space to collect solar energy," declared Mr. Brown, who is President of the Worldwatch Institute, which has published authoritative studies of the way in which Man is abusing and depleting his natural resources.

"In the post-petroleum era we will be even more dependent on land than we are today," he said.

But Mr. Brown conceded that a great deal more research needs to be done to define the elements of a new land ethic.

"In our technological, urbanising society, we have lost sight of our dependence on land. A world that will soon have five billion inhabitants desperately needs a land ethic, a new reference for land and a better understanding of our dependence on it," he said.

THE NEED for a new ethic was highlighted by new research now being carried out at the Washington, D.C.-based institute, which will be published next year.

Mr. Brown cited the evidence on soil erosion. The U.S. is suffering a net loss of 1.9 billion tons of topsoil every year. In India, the figure is 4.7 billion tons; China is losing 3.3 billions., and the USSR is losing 2.9 billions.

The preliminary estimate for the world as a whole, revealed Mr. Brown, was a net loss of 24.6 billion tons of food-bearing topsoil.

This was an alarming loss of a vital resource base, which at present amounts to 3.2 billion acres of cropland covered by 7" of topsoil.

"The erosion of soil is the erosion of productivity," explained Mr. Brown.

Fourteen studies on the relationship between soil erosion and corn yields revealed that the loss of an inch of top-soil reduced corn yields by six per cent.

We have been substituting energy for land: "Fertiliser factories have become the new frontiers," declared Mr. Brown, but substituting energy for land is probably not the "winning ticket" in the long run.

And that was one reason why we had to develop a new land ethic, to preserve resources and ensure institutional changes that would lead to a society that could be sustained long into the future.

ONE OF the future changes can even now be seen in the windy mountain passes of California.

  • Windmills are springing up to "harvest the wind".
  • Scrubland that could not sustain a few cattle - and was therefore marginal (i.e., could not yield a rent for the landowner) - is suddenly valuable.
  • Twenty-six wind firms have been established in California. Nine hundred commercial-scale generators are now in operation, 85 per cent of them built last year. The process has been described by Janet Hopson:

    "Wind-energy entrepreneurs are rushing to lease 'wind rights' on the land all over the Altamont, a funnel-shaped zone of dry hills in California where the annual average wind speed amounts to more than 27 kilometres per hour.

    "Figuratively speaking, wind is the latest crop to be 'harvested' in the Altamont; although there is some cattle grazing, the area's dryness makes it the epitome of marginal land for many agricultural purposes."[1]

One landowner, Joe Jess, has leased access-to-wind rights to John Eckland, who runs a small wind-energy firm, and he sells the power to the Pacific Gas & Electric at a rate equivalent to the cost of producing electricity from the most expensive fuel.

Of the future, Eckland predicts: "I foresee a day, maybe 10 years from now, when the entire Altamont area will be covered with wind machines."

BUT HOW will society adjust its land tenure arrangements to these future developments?

The Institute is well-aware that a profound problem exists.

"Farmers are being pushed up the hillsides almost everywhere in the world," acknowledged Mr. Brown, a migratory process which is accelerating the flow of topsoil from the continents to the oceans, via the rivers and air.

He does not doubt that all the demographic and economic pressures on Man's ecological base is bound up intimately with our land tenure system.

He concluded his speech with this prospect: "Almost all the important issues that we concern ourselves with in development - productivity, income, distribution of income - are influenced by land tenure patterns.

"My guess is that over the long term, as the employment problem worsens, it is going to either directly or indirectly lead to a lot of soul-searching in national capitals on the land distribution question.

"What is not clear to me is whether the reforms will come as a result of enlightened public policy and strong political leadership, or indirectly as a result of civil war and political instability, overthrow of governments.

"There is not much question but that land reform is going to come in the world. The question is how."

Citing the case of El Salvador, Mr. Brown acknowledged that political problems could not be separated from the issue of land ownership.

UNFORTUNATELY the Worldwatch Institute, while excellent in documenting the scale of the ecological crisis, has not been able to define the elements of appropriate land reforms.

This is because its analysis of the social origins of the problem is superficial, leading it to a vague condemnation of capitalism as the source of evil. This in turn leads to nebulous conclusions such as the following:

"Whether in the form of legislation, government decrees, or such incentives as differential tax rates, the only defences against the ultimately destructive opportunism of the marketplace are land-use planning and restrictions."[2]

Deeper research may, however disclose that the marketplace offers the best prospect of solutions to the problems that now face Mankind.

That this research has not been conducted is affirmed by Mr Brown, who traces the analytical difficulties to the fact that the necessary research would cut across many academic disciplines.

In the end, however, more work will have to be undertaken if we are to realise the ambition of a new land ethic.


  1. Janet L. Hopson, 'Harvesting the Wind', Economic Impact, No. 42, 1983.
  2. Lester R. Brown and Pamela Shaw, Six Steps to a Sustainable Society, Washington, D.C.: Worldwatch Institute, 1982, p. 25.