I'm sitting on the patio of a home in Colorado Springs looking west at Pikes Peak. The mountains stretching to the north and south of the peak make up part of what is known as the Front Range. It's a beautiful view, and the patio on which I am sitting is designed to take advantage of it.
The view is not without discomfort, however. The casual visitor to the area cannot help but notice what many of the residents seem to overlook: that one of the mountains, just a little east and north of Pikes Peak, has had its top third removed, so that it presents to the viewer a large flat surface, like an upturned face, geometrically inconsonant with the neighboring peaks. An inquiry to my host reveals that a mining company holds a lease on the property, and that the mountain was strip mined to acquire a pink colored rock known as Pikes Peak granite, used for landscaping in the region. In fact, the patio on which I am sitting is bordered by this very same rock, which may have been mined from the mountain we are viewing.
This is the sort of thing Aesop might have written a fable about: building a house to look out over the mountains but destroying the mountains to build the house.
Most of our assaults on the natural world are not as directly illogical as this, but many are close: using boats to catch fish in the Gulf, but killing the fish with the oil used to power the boats; creating a resort in the wilderness, but cutting down the forests to make room for more lodging; building a cabin on a remote northern lake, only to discover that the lake has more weekend traffic than the street at home; putting up feeders to attract birds because we've destroyed all their natural food sources with herbicides.
What kind of ethical obligation do we have towards mountains - or lakes, rivers, streams, forests and meadows? In Aldo Leopold's famous essay "Thinking Like a Mountain," he describes the thought that came to him while working for the U.S. Forest Service in Arizona: Our efforts to shape the natural world to our liking are often done out of narrow-minded interests and an inability to appreciate the far-reaching consequences of our actions. What results is frequently counter to our own interests.
He recounts the time he shot a wolf and her cubs on the side of a mountain, a common practice at the time in the effort to increase the size of the deer herd: "I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes - something known only to her and to the mountain. ... I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades."
Leopold's enduring lesson for us is that the basis for living ethically in the world is to see fully - and accurately - the relationships among things. In "A Sand County Almanac," he sums it up this way: "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."
Selective perception comes easily to most of us. We tend to see what we want to see and not to see the things that are inconvenient. What really requires effort is unselective perception - seeing what is actually there to see. It's hard because it may force us to change the way we live. But that's what we do when we love someone - or something. We adapt to preserve the relationship, and ultimately our lives are richer because of it.
The Ethical Life is a twice-monthly series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.