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Since there is no goal or end state toward which any particular ecosystem is heading, who is to say that landscapes and ecosystems modified by human activities are somehow inferior, sick even, and in need of healing? In his 2001 BioScience article, “Values, Policy, and Ecosystem Health,” Robert Lackey, a fisheries biologist at Oregon State University, pointed out that “ecosystems have no preferences about their states.” How do we know whether or not an acre of land would “prefer” to be a swamp or a cornfield? As Lackey notes, either of them could be considered “healthy” depending on what human preferences are being implemented. “To a conservationist interested mainly in biodiversity, we have degraded nature, but to an agronomist, we have altered wild land to make it better serve humans,” noted the Nature Conservancy’s Peter Kareiva and his colleagues in their 2007 Science article, “Domesticated Nature: Shaping Landscapes and Ecosystems for Human Welfare.”
PERC fellow Daniel Benjamin made the salient point that for all landscapes and ecosystems “management is not the issue. The issue is who will do the management? Everything is managed.” The fact of the matter is that in an Aristotelian sense nature moves less and less spontaneously. Instead, landscapes and ecosystems are shaped by human preferences and efforts and increasingly take on the character of Aristotle’s “makings.”
The Yellowstone wolves are a case in point. Wolves in the park were managed into local extinction by bureaucratic fiat (stand-ins for the omnipotent “we”) in 1926 when park rangers deliberately killed the last two known wolf pups. Wolves were managed back into existence in the park when “we” decided they should be deliberately reintroduced in 1995. We may be saddened to hear of the death of wolf 832F, but her presence on the landscape was the product of human preferences, not a consequence of unprompted nature. And so was her removal from it.
Even if one grants the doubtful premise that humanity was sometime in the past separate from nature, the reality is that we no longer are. All landscapes and ecosystems have been shaped in accordance with human preferences. Scientific insights derived from ecology will certainly help us better manage ecosystems. But the central question remains: What institutions are best for balancing our conflicting desires and goals when it comes to the various realities we each may crave? However ecosystems will be managed, Yellowstone and all other landscapes are and will increasingly be artificial constructions created by human minds. That is as real as it gets.
Readers can go to PERC Reports here to read about other aspects of the Reconciling Economics and Ecology Conference including articles by Rational Optimist author Matt Ridley and biologist Daniel Botkin.
Disclosure: I want to thank PERC for inviting me to participate in the Reconciling Economics and Ecology conference and for paying my travel expenses.