The Art of Managing Nature

A report from PERC's Reconciling Economics and Ecology Conference


Everything on planet earth is now managed.

“People in this world today crave something real, and our society is lacking that and they could come to Yellowstone and see real nature unfolding in front of their eyes with this very unique personality of a wolf and they loved her. They thought it was great,” said biologist Douglas Smith in December on a NPR program. Smith was mourning the death of the famous female alpha wolf 832F of the Lamar Canyon pack that had been legally killed by a hunter outside of the park. I, too, was thrilled when I got to watch members of that particular wolf pack wandering the landscape of Lamar Valley.

Smith’s claim that people “crave something real” gets at the heart of PERC’s recent Lone Mountain Forum, “Reconciling Economics and Ecology.” Smith is asserting that wolves wandering the landscape of Yellowstone Park are more real than… what exactly? When it comes to nature and landscapes, what is real and what is fake? And what is the “real nature” that Smith believes people are craving?

Nature as a Social Construct

The Oxford Dictionary defines nature as “the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations.” In his Metaphysics, ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle observed, “Of things that come to be, some come to be by nature, some by art.” Regarding those objects produced by “art,” which Aristotle called “makings,” he asserted, “All makings proceed either from art or from a faculty or from thought.” In contrast, according to Aristotle, natural entities have internal spontaneous sources of movement, whereas artificial objects are created by activity outside themselves.

Another oft-heard word in connection with nature and landscapes is pristine, which connotes an Edenic state of being “not spoiled, corrupted, or polluted.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “belonging to the earliest period or state.” The idea is that an earlier state of nature, before humanity came along and ruined it, was somehow superior, and perhaps, to use Smith’s concept, even more “real.”

In her book, Rambunctious Garden, conference participant Emma Marris explains, “For many conservationists, restoration to a pre-human or a pre-European baseline is seen as healing a wounded or sick nature. For others, it is an ethical duty. We broke it; therefore we must fix it. Baselines thus typically don’t act as a scientific before to compare with an after. They become the good, the goal, the one correct state.”

Marris opened her session, “Can Ecology Guide Policy?,” by observing that the science of ecology is telling us that ecosystems are dynamic, not stable. Thanks to climate change (glacial advances and melting) and anthropogenic alterations there are no ecosystems that have the same set of players they had even 12,000 years ago.

Nature Unbalanced

The dynamism of ecosystems has not always been recognized by ecologists. However, science has now resolved the great early 20th century debate between “balance of nature” ecologist Frederic Clements and ecosystem dynamist Henry Gleason in favor of Gleason. Clements believed that ecosystems developed through a deterministic and orderly sequence of serial stages until they reached a stable climax that, once achieved, was perfectly balanced unless disturbed. For Clements, each participant in the climax ecosystem fitted tightly into niches as a result of coevolving together.

Gleason countered that ecosystems were assembled by chance depending on what species got there first and were successful in competing with other species as they arrived. For most of the 20th century, most ecologists adopted Clements’s balance of nature views. At the conference, biologist Daniel Botkin noted in passing that most ecologists still instinctively believe in the balance of nature. Scientific evidence, however, shows that Gleason was far more right than Clementsâ€"ecosystems are largely assembled by chance. For example, northern temperate forests are composed of an assemblage of species that mixed together as they raced northward out of various refugia as the glaciers retreated.

Instead of trying to force landscapes and ecosystems back toward earlier and notionally more Edenic states, Marris proposed that the right question is “What do we want for the future?” She suggested that since future generations will be richer than ours they might be able to afford and want more natural space. In addition, when thinking about modifying a piece of land, Marris suggested that a person should ask herself, what do you want this piece of land to be in 20 years, 200 years? At the conference table, a lot of the conversation about who gets to decide about the futures of landscapes turned on the pronouns, “we” and “you” in Marris’s two questions.

Who Decides?

Just who “we” is can be problematic. Marris prefers what she believes to be a more democratic process in which stakeholders get to decide how landscapes should be managed and used. Thomas Bray, a former PERC board member, suggested that people who prefer an ecosystem to remain relatively undisturbed could buy a conservation easement. Marris rejected this proposal, saying, “we’re broke.”

As a counterpoint to Marris’s implication that stakeholder democracy is a better and fairer way to decide the future of landscapes, George Mason University Law professor Henry Butler asserted that, in fact, the “we” more often than not turns out to be wealthy environmentalists who prefer to federalize environmental decisions because they don’t trust local people. Given their greater access to distant bureaucratic decision-makers, environmentalists often succeed in imposing the costs of pursuing their aesthetic landscape preferences on poor people.

PERC’s Terry Anderson neatly summarized the central dilemma of the conference when he asked, “Do humans impose costs on nature or just on other humans? Can we think of nature in any other way than imposing costs on other people?” For example, the return of wolves certainly imposed costs on local ranchers and hunters in the form of predated livestock and game animals like elk.

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.”

Who Manages?

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.

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  1. Can we think of nature in any other way than imposing costs on other people?

    When considering public policy? No.

    As Ron notes, though researchers have moved on to Gleason’s ecological model, the public is still stuck on Clements’ version. In addition, philosophically or qualitatively based forms of environmentalism still dominate the popular landscape. (Who was taught about the concept of the niche in a science class over the past 30 years? I sure was.)

    Therefore, any public debates regarding landscape or wildlife management are going to necessarily be filled with appeals to emotion and inapt understandings of environmental dynamics. In a democratic system, there will always be the risk of choosing policy based on these voices, rather than rational ones.

    Since an ongoing policy debate is not the time to put people through Ecology 101, human cost is the most effective counter-argument.

    SLD – I have no problem with groups purchasing chunks of land to suit their purposes, and ideally would prefer this method of environmental management.

    1. as Lee explained I didnt even know that a mom can profit $7996 in a few weeks on the computer. have you read this site…

  2. Sounds like a very serious plan to me dude, I like it.

  3. ?When it comes to nature and landscapes, what is real and what is fake??

    The answer to this question is not all that difficult. Real is not artificial. Artificial is man made. A zoo, or zoological garden, is an artificial environment, and a place like Yellowstone is real. The degree of reality in a given wolf depends on the environment where it lives. A wolf that lives in a den with its pack and hunts, plays and mates largely outside the purview of humans is more real than its counterpart that is kept in a cage in a zoo, fed, groomed and cared for by humans employed as zookeepers.

    Human soldiers and prisoners also sometimes refer to the world beyond the bars of their cage as the ?real world? so the use with respect to animals like wolves is not such a stretch.

    1. Yellowstone has been managed by human intervention, for good or ill, since it was established in 1872. It is surely, on many levels, as artificial as the Bronx Zoo.

      1. I think the Bronx Zoo is more artificial than Yellowstone park, but I do take your point. I suppose if you want the really real, you have to look to the oceans. They are chaotic, diverse, dynamic and dangerous – everything you?d expect from a wilderness. No wolves but wolffish fish.

        The article is a little weird in going to pains to tell us the nature of a wilderness that defies management, yet ?manage? it we must. Any management we impose on the wilderness will be at the cost of diversity, dynamism and danger.

        The author also states that all (?) ecosystems and landscapes have been shaped in accordance with human preferences for some reason misses out on the obvious corollary that human preferences are shaped by the their ecosystems and landscapes. Introduction of mono-cropping and industrial techniques to unploughed prairies in USA, CCCP etc have been accompanied by an enormous transformation in human civilization – urbanization and fantastic population growth to name but two of the most significant changes.

    2. The answer to this question is not all that difficult. Real is not artificial. Artificial is man made.

      Monkeys and apes make and use tools but those are “real”. Humans make tools but those are “artificial”. Got it.

      1. Artificial means man-made. Don?t like it? Find yourself another language.

        You?ll find a monkey and his tool in Bronx Zoo, but you won?t find one in Yellowstone park. You won?t find his tool either. One of these places is real and the other is artificial. Now put down your tool and find yourself a dictionary.

        1. Artificial means man-made.

          You appear to have missed the point. The distinction is in itself artificial.

          1. ?The distinction is in itself artificial.?

            Your, let?s be generous, ?point? is frivolous unless it is that monkeys, apes and other tool using members of the animal kingdom deserve a place at the table alongside humans when it comes to hashing out the future of ecosystems. In that case you graduate from the frivolous to the ludicrous.

            1. …deserve a place at the table alongside humans when it comes to hashing out the future of ecosystems.

              The earth was here long before humans and will be for a long time after were gone. When the next ice age decends upon the earth humans will have no “place at the table” in “hashing out the future of ecosystems”. We will simply have to adapt like every other species.

              1. What you?re saying here is true. My concern is that unlike other species, ?adapt? for man can be a transitive verb, and we can take an environment and shape it or try to shape it according to our plans. That?s where environmental management comes in. Unfortunately, this almost always leads to a lessening of the diversity and dynamism that characterizes the wilderness.

              2. Greg F| 3.2.13 @ 6:33PM |#
                …”The earth was here long before humans and will be for a long time after were gone.”…
                Which is true of every life form, most of which I’m sure you define as “natural”.
                I’m tired of listening to religious idiots.

        2. “Artificial means man-made. Don?t like it? Find yourself another language.”

          In which case the “real” versus “artificial” distinction is superfluous. Unless you want to claim that man is in and of himself a pollutant or a detraction, a thing’s origin from man is irrelevant and there’s no particular value in preserving the real versus the artificial.

          1. ?a thing’s origin from man is irrelevant?

            I think it is relevant. As I repeatedly state, if man?s contribution to the environment comes almost always at the cost of diversity and dynamism, this is a fact that deserves to be recognized. What purpose is served by refusing to recognize the difference between bronx zoo and yellowstone? In a discussion of environmental management, no less.

    3. mtrueman| 3.1.13 @ 8:44PM |#
      ?When it comes to nature and landscapes, what is real and what is fake??
      The answer to this question is not all that difficult. Real is not artificial. Artificial is man made.”

      You really don’t want to post that, do you?
      How do you propose ‘man’ to be separate from ‘nature’? Do you presume ‘man’ to be deposited in the universe from some extra dimension?
      Nothing man does is “artificial” and as Bailey points out, that which you claim to be “natural” is produced by man.

      1. The distinction between natural v. artificial is not mine. It?s not new either, though I concede it?s not without problems as you point out.

        Maybe a better way of putting it is managed v. unmanaged environments. In any case you must agree that a meaningful distinction exists between the following environments:

        cage of lab rat
        bronx zoo
        yellowstone park
        bottom of ocean

        All natural and all real, but increasingly wild and less artificial.

        How is man separate from nature? Good question. Taking a stab at an answer, I?ll say that man is separate to the degree that he sees himself as the manager of nature as opposed to part of it.

  4. One of the constant themes throughout the history of government management of land is that the current crop of managers will tend to disparage the management techniques of the past, while maintaining that although most previous attempts to manage the land were bollocks, THEIR system is altogether different.

    1. Sounds suspiciously like urban planners…

  5. As a start, privatize all land. As things stand, politicians exploit ignorance of ecology and the irrational fear of wolves in order to favor special interests, i.e., ranchers (“cowboy socialists”) and some benighted hunting groups. Private owners of wild land could respond to the widespread public interest in restoring and conserving wildlife.

    1. …or they could mono crop it, which would have the advantage of causing aneurisms among the Sierra Club crowd.

  6. No systems of metaphysics exist in the state of nature.

    1. Russell| 3.2.13 @ 3:29AM |#
      “No systems of metaphysics exist in the state of nature.”

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  9. mtruman: “I?ll say that man is separate to the degree that he sees himself as the manager of nature as opposed to part of it.”

    So I guess when a beaver builds a dam the critter is managing nature but since we can not know if Bucky “sees himself” as the manager, we can not know to what degree the varmit is “separate from nature.” (Whatever that means.)

  10. ?So I guess when a beaver?

    There?s no need to guess what a beaver is thinking when it builds a dam. It?s silly and pointless.

    I think I have a more illuminating approach to the matter, and I?ve been banging away at it here for days now, and nobody seems to understand. Maybe you, Bernieyeball, can be the first.

    Does the beaver?s dam building activities lead to a more dynamic and diverse environment? Or does the beaver?s activities lead to the opposite? We really don?t have to concern ourselves over what is going on inside the beaver?s brain, just look at the fruits of their labours. That goes for humans too.

    When humans look at nature as object to be managed and manipulated, that is separating man from nature; to objectify means to put some distance between, or to separate. I?m not telling you anything you won?t readily find in an English dictionary.

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