Concepts of Nature vs. Pragmatic Conservation:
An irreconcilable Conflict?"
Assoc. Prof. Dr. Harald Kehl
Formerly Berlin Technical University, Institute of Ecology
Originally given in longer form as a lecture to the Evangelical Academy of Iserlohn (Germany), on the occasion of the conference: "Nature under Pressure - Cooperative Paths for Conservation, From Landscape Consumption to Landscape Use," Feb. 29, 2000.
(This article - shortened for publication - was translated by Joanna Sheldon, Cornell University)
For some time the debate over the "right" sort of environmental protection has been steered by ideologically burdened debates over nature conservation, species diversity and maintenance, as well as the often postulated incompatibility of ecology and economy. Nature and "naturalness" have been enjoying great popularity and are gaining in political importance. A polarization of the environmental movement is occurring with, at one end, conservation focusing on preservation and at the other, economically driven sustainable environmental protection.
An understanding of the history of landscapes and species is necessary for both orientations. However, preservationist conservation tends to underestimate the importance of the human influence on terrestrial ecosystems and the fact that even current environments are dynamic quite independently of human beings, that species themselves undergo continual transformation, and that stability exists nonetheless.
Since "nature" is an emotionally laden term that can best be understood in a philosophical-religious context but is not scientifically useful, the term "environment," a word that is unburdened with philosophical implications, has been used here to indicate the particular reference quantity of individual creatures, since from this perspective it is easier to define what can and should be sustainably protected, how this should be done and with what aim (economic or intrinsic).
By analyzing basic assumptions concerning "nature," "culture" and "artificiality" as well as stability and biodiversity the following article will attempt to overcome contradictions in the discussion concerning practicable environmental protection. This investigation also advocates at least a partial review of a posteriori reality, i.e., a paradigm change - in fact a change in our awareness of nature - as necessary condition for the solution of environmental problems. Since traditional assumptions and ahistorical methods which also lack proper quantification have proven to be unviable, the ever more popular advocacy for "pristine nature" should be called into question.
IntroductionNature conservancy is of course concerned with nature, a phenomenon for which there are as many and as contradictory definitions as there are philosophies and projected realities. Accordingly, it is impossible to preclude conflicts between those who try to implement an ideology-free, pragmatic, efficient conservancy (of nature or environment) and those who advocate the natural-philosophical or 'ecologistic' world views. In order to avoid misunderstandings, I would like to point out that the pragmatic attitude taken in this investigation is not at all indifferent to normative values. Nevertheless it very much opposes transcendental certainties and demands that a posteriori realities be recognized.
This critical analysis of basic assumptions about "nature," "culture" and "artificiality," as well as stability and biodiversity is designed to overcome the contradictions inherent in the discussion of a practicable form of conservation. In addition it states the need, in some part at least, for a new perspective on reality (a paradigm shift) accompanied by a reappraisal of our understanding of nature, as a prerequisite to the solution of environmental problems. When traditional assumptions are revealed to be obsolete, and when inadequate, quantifying and ahistorical methods are demonstrably no longer tenable, new orientations are inevitable.
Something else that will be questioned here is the ever more frequently expressed demand for "unspoiled nature".
In the discussion of environmental conservancy, the concepts of nature and the natural have been enjoying increasing popularity, and they currently have far-reaching political implications. But how is it possible that the concept of "nature" - so frequently the subject of policy - embellishes so many national and international laws, decrees and declarations and yet remains undefined? What is it that we intend to sustainably protect, and how are we to do it and with what objective, when it is not at all clear what we mean by "nature"?
1 - Nature vs. Culture and Artificiality
In the current debate nature is commonly understood first
and foremost as the antithesis of culture. According to this view, culture
and artificiality are an exclusively human domain, expressions of human
will. They are perceived as the defining features of the environment
in which we live. At this point it is useful to ask in a general way:
in what context is the concept of nature useful, and to what degree
are culture and artificiality not simply expressions of nature itself?
according to Hubert Markl (1998), if we view
the kind of "human behavior that harms nature" or our environment
as "contrary to nature", then it is "flawed reasoning
to perceive these excesses of nature's development as unnatural. If
there is one thing that genuinely belongs to the natural character of
our species, it is our capacity for culture; and doubtless our intellectual
efficacy, too, promotes the implementation of the principle of conservation,
and is therefore a continuation of biology by other means!"
1.1 - Change in consciousness in the perception of nature and culture
The strict distinction, widely made in the nature conservancy movement, between nature on the one hand, and culture as unnatural on the other, being the expression of a cultural-historical change in consciousness, has primary significance for the definition of realities, and has paradoxical results. Contradictions are especially evident in the concepts of nature conservancy, environmental conservancy or landscape conservancy and their consequences. That is to say, as Rolf Peter Sieferle remarks (1997), when something needs protecting because it is endangered but worth saving, a common perception is that "The threat to nature comes from human culture itself, and protection of nature is demanded from this same culture." But if nature is seen as the antithesis of culture, isn't it true that nature, in being protected by culture, becomes culture? 3* The demand for nature conservation therefore heralds a complete victory of culture and the final annihilation of nature."
The often desperate effort to mark a division between nature and culture shows itself for what it is: the fallacious attempt by nature-altering humankind to distance itself from its defining (epistemological) problem: that it remains a part of nature. A uniquely reflective part of nature, to be sure, but in the end only one parameter in a multi-dimensional and multi-causal nature. Still, we can claim that we have been one of the most influential variables in the environments we have occupied and, with the arrival of space travel, we have moved into regions beyond the biosphere we inherited.
Still, the definitions and assessments of the human spectrum of action within nature vary greatly. Environmental realities are perceived exclusively subjectively - by any individual that can perceive other living beings The perception of environmental realities is entirely subjective - for humans as for any other sentient creature. 4* We can know only a segment or a snippet of nature, with its multicausal interrelations, from various (and, unavoidably, "biased") perspectives. In this, both the breadth and quality of an environment differ substantially in their effect on the subject - depending on the subject's position in nature and an underlying normative appraisal of his or her surroundings.
Hence if by "environment" we understand a definite part of nature from a particular perceptual perspective, then the entirety of all environments is, from both a causal analytic and a human ecology point of view, identical with nature itself. In any case they are relational concepts and correlates of human cognition and human actions. In this sense the distinction between natural and artificial environments is not only pointless, it is also counterproductive, since, in the case of both phenomena, we are dealing with sensory objects perceived and assessed by human beings. Nonetheless, making this distinction (though it is bound to incite misunderstandings) serves to define human action and the human impact on the environment.
Very early on, Paradise was set in opposition to the incalculable and hostile environments over which people had little influence, as a vision of the protected "Garden of Eden." 5* Of course this was an artificial construct, an expression of the longing for protection, a fiction of security; at the same time it was a condition that it was possible to attain only in a battle with "nature" (as entity) by means of a conquering culture. A nature that was life-threatening and that was therefore felt to be cruel was the opposite of secure. The point was to tame nature, to master it, to "cultivate" it. But humans seem to have distanced themselves from nature as well, through self-cultivation or humanization, which is to say through the process of their own "de-savaging" or "de-brutalizing."
Today nature and naturalness are often alternatives, almost vanishing points for romantic natural philosophy; above all they are seen as alternate worlds to culture, to so-called artificiality or the "technosphere." In our culture this is probably a consequence of the belief in original sin, an inescapable (and even cultivated!) sense of guilt. Our flight from our own success is mingled with a longing to shuck our ties and return to our origins, rejecting governmental regimentation - probably as a reaction to social obligations and other unavoidable aspects of social life.
1.2 - The projection of alternate worlds - a flight from reality?
again the "Garden of Eden" - much aspired to, deceitful chimera
- reveals itself in truth to be a mere projection of forgiveness, innocence
and goodness. But this time the objective (primarily of nature conservancy
groups) is a world of species-rich and small agri-cultural landscapes
of the kind that characterized the Europe of the end of the 19th century.
Knowledge of that hostile environment appears to have been lost, 6*
and from the security of a nature tamed by culture the current industrial
landscape is now understood as a nature violated by humans, a nature to
whom we should apologize. As indicated above, what the transformation
of the meaning of nature and culture reveals is probably nothing more
than the search for an untainted alternate world, in some sense even a
rebirth of Romanticism's "blue flower." This is doubtless a
flight from a present that is felt to be repressive, that appears to have
lost its spontaneity and innocence.
extreme positions have clashed with one another, often apparently irreconcilably.
The catch phrases, "habitat destruction" and "species extinction"
serve to emotionalize the issue and enhance the image of humans as the
enemies of nature. Demands put forward by nature lovers are therefore
often - if we exaggerate slightly - like prophylactic witch burnings.
The transfiguration of nature on the one hand and pragmatic functionalism
on the other hand polarize the discussion. Then, too, lovingly nurtured
images of the world are being supplanted by new valuations of ecosystem
connections, and ethologists are demystifying the animal world.
there are not only elementary deficits in the ecosystem and socio-economic
evaluation of the "actual state", but also very general tensions
in the representation of what is considered to be "natural,"
"artificial" or even "near-natural" in our environment
- in other words, of those parts of nature that we consider to be more
or less intensively anthropo-zoogenically influenced.
2 - Natural vs. Cultural Landscape
Today there can
be no doubt that, for large areas of Europe (see above), no landscapes
have been non-anthropogenic in recorded time, and certainly none exist
at the present time.10*
Accordingly, our notions of so-called natural landscape are completely
hypothetical. At least in the cultural area of Europe all the landscape
conditions described up to now are the products of a plethora of (human)
activities. They have resulted from the most varied forms of husbandry,
which served the most efficient production of food for each area. If
most landscapes were agricultural until the end of the 19th century,
in the last 100 years we have been witnessing rapidly changing "transition
landscapes" or industrial landscapes.
When an attempt
is made, based on assumptions about the vegetation and soils of a given
climatic zone, to re-establish a completely hypothesized landscape that
has very little anthropogenic influence, normally no consideration is
taken for the fact that wide fluctuations in temperature were usual
in the post-glacial Holocene period, variations that continually changed
the floristic composition of the vegetation, even in assumed ahemerobic
conditions. Besides, we must ask what point in the development of post-glacial
vegetation should be considered the measure or the reference point for
desirable landscapes. The reconstruction of an original state of nature
in our landscapes is speculative, from the standpoint of both climate
and cultural history, and is always hypothetical and subjective. We
may therefore conclude that all of Europe's post-glacial landscapes
have been more or less influenced by the "cultural animal",
Homo sapiens. Although it can be assumed that during the Holocene period
ahemerobic landscapes did exist, in which humans would have had very
little more influence on their surroundings than other animal species,
it should be clear that prehistory is irrelevant for the assessment
of modern landscapes.
3.1 - Species diversity, consequences of hemeroby and of other natural disturbances
The continual increase in human activity over the course of the centuries, and the alteration and efficiency of pre-industrial use strategies did not lead to a decrease in species diversity, but rather to its constant increase, especially during cultivation phases. The intense fragmentation of the forest, agrarian and garden landscapes of the end of the 19th century led to the highest density per area unit in plant (as well as animal) species. Without human influence the flora of Germany would have been (at least) 50-60% poorer at that time.
With the intensification of agriculture, and especially with the enlargement of fields for the economic operation of modern agricultural machines at the beginning of the 20th century and, later, the input of pesticides, the species density, measured as the number of species by the frequency of occurrence per defined area unit, 16* appeared to decline rapidly. Following this data collection method, the evidence often indicated a decline in many populations or the elimination of species altogether from strongly impacted landscapes. This assessment method, however, did not take into consideration the overall population size, which led to the fact that often species that had been considered "extinct" were later discovered in adjoining biotopes. This is a completely normal phenomenon which occurs, in exaggerated form, among the pests in our houses as well, when we take away their food sources or attack them with pesticides.
When speaking of frightening reductions in species numbers or even of the danger of the death of a species, the world generally used in the media is "loss" and rarely is reference made to "reduction", a shrinking or a shift of the population. If we consider the facts, at least in the region of the Federal Republic of Germany the numbers are still positive. The proven number of established taxa in Germany is around 2,682 plants, including non-native species, i.e. the species introduced by direct or indirect human involvement. 17* According to the 1997 report by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) only three plant species can be counted as having become "phylogenetically" extinct. One of them is a subspecies of the amphibian Saxifraga on the shores of Lake Constance (Bodensee) - Saxifraga oppositifolia ssp. amphibia. This is a relic of the ice age, confined to an extremely small area of South West Germany, a landscape that also enjoyed the country's very warmest average temperatures. Claims made in the 1970s that up to 80% of the spontaneous species in highly industrialized areas would be extinct or endangered by 2000 had no basis in reality.
Many new taxa compensate for the three that were lost. This is because, for one thing, many neophytes (non-indigenous plants) have become firmly established, and for another, species have developed from those neophytes that could not have developed except in the secondary habitats where they were introduced. Some of these newcomers became established to the detriment of native plant populations (for example, the well-known giant hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum, Himalayan balsam, Impatiens glandulifera, and various Japanese knotweed species). Herbert Sukopp made the point in 1976 that, "The processes of evolution are continually in progress." Their speed is dependent on the ever changing conditions in a given location, i.e. in the available resources and the dynamics of the relevant gene pools. 18*
Even today, ecosystems with great species diversity are often associated with a high degree of inner stability. But the diversity - stability hypothesis was contradicted as early as the 1970s. Though they cannot be enumerated here, the functional capacities of ecosystems can be shown to be greatly variable. In general, though, influences on ecosystems should be judged by whether they generate irreversible or reversible changes, and also by whether - weighing the various interests involved - these changes are intended to satisfy only the demands made by process-oriented environmental conservancy for the inclusion of productivity, stability and biological-ecological wealth in a comprehensive landscape concept, or whether other concepts of land management should be brought to bear - for example those that lie in the direction of an aesthetically or ethically based public interest.
In the discussion of the species diversity of our landscapes it is easy to see that, often, the intention in Central Europe is to safeguard landscape aspects that belong to the very highest level of pre-industrial culture. We might ask ourselves, as others have done before us, what sorts of attitudes would have reigned more than 7,000 years ago if the people of that time had had today's consciousness? We should be aware of the fact that forest clearance was the precondition for the development of our cultural landscapes with their current species diversity. Why should this be denied to the populations of developing countries? Couldn't people living in the tropical rainforest zone demand with equal justification that we take our cultural landscapes back to at least oligohemerobic (and therefore relatively species-poor) forest landcapes? Who owns the moral right to demand preservation or change?
In any case species and biotope protection should not and cannot be looked at for the sake of conservation; a high level of species diversity cannot be promoted for its own sake. Conservation should be observed exclusively against a backdrop of human needs, encompassing the necessary use of the most diverse resources. Those who want to preserve ecosystems as they are must make an evaluation according to the function that is to be preserved, following economic principles of sustainability.
3.2 - Site stability and ecological equilibrium: the fatal illusions
The fear of hostile changes and the concern for what is endangered in our environment are by no means exclusive to this century; rather they are elemental components of human history. We can find proof of this in the first written testimonials of the earliest cultures, for example the first city cultures of Asia Minor. Herewith an example from relatively recent history: The concept of "sustainability", which today is once again topical as a crisis concept was invented about 300 years ago in baroque Saxony by Carl von Carlowitz, in his "Sylvicultura Oeconomica". But 100 years later, in 1791, the Königl. Württembergische Oberforstrat [chief commissioner of woods of the royal house of Württemberg] Georg Ludwig Hartig in his "Notes on timber plantation" bemoaned the evils of unsustainable forest management.
Apocalyptic horror scenarios that involve nature annihilating both people and their culture have a long tradition. These were always the gruesome counter-images to a society necessarily fixated on security and continuity, i.e., on the preservation of advantageous environmental conditions. Indeed, fragile dikes were built along fertile but vulnerable river floodplains and coastal flats in order to secure and exploit valuable agricultural resources. What is generally overlooked is the fact that those very resources - the fertile soils - were the result of repeated flooding over the course of many centuries. This is true for the Nile region as well as for the low-lying land along the Mississippi, the Chang Jiang, and the Po. It was only the fertile mud deposits, often meters thick in the floodplains, that permitted high-yielding agriculture. The density of settlements is especially high in these regions. The existence of dike breaches along the Rhine, the Oder and the Danube have always given evidence of the inhabitants' tendency to arrogantly underestimate the risk, of a lack of understanding of ecosystem connections. Such catastropic events are not "natural disasters", however. They are often a direct outcome of culture, which is to say of the taming of nature. The philosopher Karl Popper (1997) complained with some justification that the "loud public outcry over the evil world" of catastrophes had become the "dominant religion of our time," in spite of the fact that this stood "in contradiction to known facts."
Nonetheless, rivers spilling over their banks, powerful storm tides that flooded broad stretches of coastline, wildfires, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes were as much a part of what was felt to be a hostile environment as were heavy snowfalls or avalanches of boulders in the mountains. Thus, for example, the present-day coastline of Netherland (Holland) and Germany was only formed in the 11th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th centuries by the storm tides of 1099 (100.000 dead on Thames and the Netherlands), 1212 (306.000 dead in the Netherlands, 1362, 1421 (100.000 dead in Zuydersee) and 1570, partly according to H.H. Lamb (1972, 1977) . The conditions that generated the extent of the coastal flooding were the post-glacial elevations in sea level and sinking of land masses, dynamics which are still in effect today. Hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) lost their lives in the course of these floods. Famine, mass migrations, and even the partial settlement of Greenland by Normans are events that were determined by global climatic changes. All these incalculable natural events are a basic part of human history. They have advantaged some and disadvantaged others, but there's no question that they represented completely normal - or should that be natural - environmental changes for both plants and animals.
Independent of anthropogenic influence, local and temporary fires of varying intensity (99 per cent of them started by lighting), storms, floods, climate variations, have always been among the site factors that have determined the dynamics and character of landscapes. Stable ecosystems are desirable only for the preservation of human cultural goods. If the protection of living conditions by safeguarding the greatest possible number of resources for use counts among our most basic motives for action, in evolutionary biological terms we have the dynamism of the environment to thank for our genetically determined capacity for adapting to new conditions (and therefore to natural disasters, both great and small), as do all other organisms. It is deeply human to consider that habitat changes are catastrophic, i.e., threatening to security. But we need to change our thinking in this regard - to acknowledge that the conditions that are fundamental to all ecosystems can no longer be ignored.
Alterations and uses of our environment (preferably sustainable), effected in order to ensure our survival, can only be evaluated from our own point of view and not from the frog's perspective. This is not to say that the survival of the frog population can't be significant for our well-being, for example in terms of economics, ethics, and aesthetics.
Until recently, for example, it seemed irrefutable that we were going to consume all our environmental resources, with inevitably catastrophic results. But today we are increasingly sure that it is not in fact possible for us to use up our resources by using them; that they are more likely to undergo a qualitative change through use. In this connection the French ecologist, René Dubos (1998), spoke of adapting our exploitation of the environment to our changing biological needs. He expressed his opposition above all to the idea that humans are always the aggressors and nature the victim, and emphasized the unity of humanity's interdependence with the environment.
In the future, priority must be given to the kind of environmental management whose objective is the sustainable, which is to say forward-looking exploitation of functioning ecosystems that can support human life. Of course it is natural in this context to want to protect the various species by every possible means. But as long as our walks in the woods are not disturbed by the awareness of the certain death of thousands of small organisms 19*, as long as only individual or collective sympathies decide on the well-being of the various species (remember the tiger!), without an understanding of function in the ecosystem, all conservation efforts are for nothing.
4 - Conclusions and recommendations
the perspective of the natural sciences and their application, and especially
given the philosophical-ideological baggage surrounding current discussions
of nature, the use of the concept of environment for the description of
the habitats of the most varied species in the biosphere is less value-laden
and therefore to be preferred over the metaphysical burdened nature. Humanity
is not in the least responsible for all of nature (which includes much
more than our planet), but without a doubt we are responsible for our
environment which includes - directly or indirectly - all parts of the
biosphere. Responsible action, that is to say forward-looking action (which
necessarily brings with it modifications of the most varied environments)
presupposes the knowledge of those very environments, i.e., the knowledge
about the mores different external and internal functional connections
of their ecosystems, as well as their socio-economic meaning in the present
and the (at least near) future. For the biologist as well as the ecologist
this means the knowledge of potential (genetic and ontogenetic) capacities
for adaptation and multiplication of significant environment-changing
species (e.g. the neophytes), as well as the knowledge of the breadth
in variation of the abiotic and biotic qualities of the sites that have
been colonized by these species.
at the beginning of the last century numerous scientific publications
pointed to drastic environmental problems being created by industry and
agriculture, these issues only entered into public awareness through the
actions of citizen groups and NGOs. Even though these groups should doubtless
be credited with having performed an important function by uncovering
offences against conservation, and the endangerment of animal and plant
species and their environments, we should still take a critical stance
and ask: Who legitimizes them and how serious or professionally competent
are they? And isn't it the case that media reports of impending environmental
catastrophes often have the opposite of the desired effect - that is,
that they inure the public to environmental problems that are already
matters of fact?
ecologically based landscape management should concern itself with the
multidimentional functions of sites and call for the protection of functions
and processes rather than for the preservation of landscapes and habitats.
The formulation of a pragmatic conservation requires on the one hand that
we clarify its premisses, and on the other that we maintain transparency
throughout planning processes and convey some understanding to all participants
of the kind of management that is necessary. There is no other way to
5 - Bibliography
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updated on 3-10-2020