"Conventional 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)



German Version:
   Nature vs. Culture and artificiality   
   Change in consciousness in the perception of nature and culture
   The projection of alternative worlds - a flight from reality
   Natural vs. cultural landscapes
   Biodiversity and stability
   Species diversity, consequences of hemeroby and of other natural disturbances
   Site stability and ecological equilibrium: the fatal illusions
   Conclusions and recommendations

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.



Nature 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?

Despite this implication that, as an organizing and orienting concept, "nature" is unusually imprecise and ambiguous (in other words it is something of a portmanteau concept), with the development of the conservation movement and NGOs whose goal is the protection of the environment, nature has nonetheless come to have substantial argumentative weight in the conservation debate, both nationally and internationally. Because the nature conservation movement in particular has postulated a dichotomy between culture and, as its romanticized counterpart, the idealized realm of nature, a critical analysis of the concept of nature is imperative for any pragmatic and efficient implementation of environmental protection.

A general distinction can be made between two definitions of nature: on the one hand a dualistic-anthropocentric (speculative) definition with a philosophical-religious background, and on the other a definition that is gaining ever more ground these days, a scientific (hypothetical-deductive) propositioninfluenced by modern epistemology (e.g. Karl Popper). This investigation is essentially based on the latter definition.

In the Kantian sense 1* nature is the entirety of all abiotic and biotic factors and actions in a perceptible world, which is to say exclusively a construct of human cognition. Nature exists of its own accord and has brought humans into existence as an "accident of evolution," as it were (Gould 1989). 2* In Thomas Huxley's epochal and disillusioning work, Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863), and in Darwin's The descent of man and selection in relation to sex (1871), humanity is characterized as inseparable from nature. According to the biologist Hubert Markl (President of the Max Planck Society, Germany) these works introduced a kind of "sobering iconoclasm" (Markl 1998). Following Darwin and Huxley we are obliged to admit that we humans are nothing more than manifestations of nature, standing in a vital metabolic and interactive relationship with our various environments. This manifests itself in, among other things, our symbiosis with an immense number of microorganisms in our organism - for example we have around 70 billion bacteria in our colons (Gleich et al. 2000 and Blech 2000) - but also in the functioning of our cell system, and in the fact that our sense organs are capable of reflection and action. All this is pure nature. Likewise all of our verbal articulations, whether of thoughts or of feelings, are expressions of nature. The fact is, human beings do not inhabit two worlds. Owing to aspects of evolutionary biology and the relation between our organic regulatory and cognitive processes - now increasingly defined by cybernetic models - we are still an integral part of nature and nothing more.


Again 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!"

Hence, in the evolution of the human species, humanity's cultural history is an unequivocal factor, albeit one which in evolutionary terms only became possible through the development of a highly complex neural system and which may well be unique in nature. In the end, human communication strategies are the result of evolution, like those (which we often find incomprehensible) belonging to the other life forms that share our biosphere. Without the development of culture or of special capabilities for anticipating action such as are found in means of communication and expression, humanity would be incapable of survival. These capabilities are almost prerequisites for our current existence, and they permit us to manipulate our world in an instrumental way, in order to ensure our continued existence. They are in effect vital to the optimization of our reproductive fitness. The name Homo faber ("man the maker") is significant only in pointing up the phenomenal, hitherto unprecedented, scale of humanity's impact and its highly complex manipulations of its own environment, i.e. of nature.

In the eyes of the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (1996), and of the winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for physics, Gerd Binnig, nature comprises not only the molehill and the termite mound but also such phenomena of human endeavour as the Petronas Towers, as well as metropolitan New York and the sum of everything that happens there. An environment as shaped by humans is not in the least unnatural, nor is it artificial, either. In line with this way of thinking, in this investigation culture is not considered to be the antithesis of nature, but rather the expression of human existence in nature.


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.


The concepts of "unnaturalness" and of "closeness to nature", which require a knowledge of an unprovable historical "primal condition" of nature, suggest the possibility of external observation. They are, however, nothing more than the indirect - dualistic, natural-philosophical - attempt to distance humanity from an immensely species-rich nature, from its environment, or, with the help of a kind of "consciousness clause", to exclude us by definition from the realm of nature. In this context "back to nature" means no more than the return to a pre-human (and unknowable) primal condition of nature; paradoxically, this is reminiscent of the very "human" concept of Paradise but minus the humans. The question then becomes: for whom this Paradise?

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?

Once 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.

We should of course remember that the fear of a life-threatening environment has always been paired with the knowledge that we are essentially dependent on nature's resources. The subjugation and stewardship of nature have been postulates of many religions since early times. Faced with apparent catastrophes or with threats to essential resources, custodianship of nature is high on the list of human priorities. Or is it just the fear of too many people and their activities, i.e. too much culture? Our task now is to devote ourselves to that environment in nature which is humanity's habitat, characterized by hate and love. An environment within such a multi-faceted nature, which humans strive in the most varied ways to master and to control; from which, to this end, we endeavor to exclude ourselves philosophically by definition; from which, in spite of all our efforts, we can never escape.

There is no doubt that a paradigm shift in the understanding of nature is on the horizon, even for professional conservationists. Lack of orientation seems to be on the increase - myths are dying as it becomes clear that nature never has been good or bad. Morality and ethics have only ever existed for us; good and evil are exclusively human categories. In fact, according to the philosopher Tomas Metzinger (1999), the "I" itself is an illusion, and the best "discovery" of evolution. Even free will is now up for grabs. 7*


Inevitably, 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.

For example, in spite of the alarmist scenarios propounded by Greenpeace for political reasons and for its own survival, it would have been entirely sensible, ecologically speaking, to dump the Brent Spar oil platform in the North Sea. Australian Aborigines and Native Americans, who were portrayed by the media not so long ago as inviolate models of environmental awareness, are also falling from their pedestals, 8* and by the same token animals previously held to be exemplary creatures now look to be monsters - for example Dolphins who kill their young and Bonobos who violate their young. The positive strokes given the slimy frog, when viewed at close range unveil themselves as expressions of pure egotism on the part of pseudo-conservationists, and human altruism is exposed as a means of massaging one's own sense of well-being. If we're concerned about the survival of the allegedly threatened tiger but we consider sharks to be frightening monsters - though apparently they kill all of six humans per year (admittedly causing a stir in the media), whereas humans kill far more than a million sharks per year (c.f. Gleich et al. 2000) - then it's high time we tested our "nature awareness", which would appear to be alienated from reality and controlled by desires for wish fulfillment.

Let's not deceive ourselves: an ideologically assaulted ecology as a surface on which to project utopias has had its day; extreme positions are gaining ground. Herzog et al. (2000) postulate that "disposing of greenhouse gases - depositing carbon dioxide in the earth or in the depths of the ocean […] would probably be a more cost-effective way of achieving climate protection than switching to renewable energy sources." In fact, increasingly the question is being asked as to whether the importance of CO² in climate changes as postulated by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is scientifically verifiable (e.g. Friis-Christensen and Lassen 1991, and Berner and Streif 2001).

In any case an increase in energy efficiency is seen as the best solution (World Energy Council). The radical environmentalist Peter Huber (2000) of the highly respected Massachusetts Institute of Technology considers fast economic growth, the use of nuclear power for energy, genetic technology in livestock farming, industrial food design and concentrated urbanization as ecologically more sensible (even for reasons of global demographics) and therefore more environmentally sound than, for example, sun and wind energy (which are based on lower efficiency and use of sophisticated technology), organic agriculture, and so-called species-appropriate livestock management, with its extensive land requirements. In line with this way of thinking, well-meaning contributions of food to the starving in highly fragile and overpopulated ecosystems in the Ethiopian highlands of Ogaden are just as counterproductive as drilling wells in areas of low precipitation like the Sahel zone. 9*

Even if extreme positions provoke dissent, they also point to a core question in the issue of our correct behavior toward the environment. How can environmental protection be realized most efficiently when the objective, next to stability and productivity of the ecosystem, must be increased biological wealth? Nature conservancy, stewardship of landscapes and ecosystem management demand reliable orientation. Often these are historical circumstances which are usually classified as better, "more natural", by comparison with the current "artificial" conditions. But can a firm basis be found for this idea? An inevitable prerequisite for the clarification of this issue is above all a detailed knowledge of

  • (a) the history of the landscape in question,
  • (b) the productivity and the resources of the landscape, and
  • (c) of the historical and current function of the objects to be protected, which are also subjects, seen from the various perspectives of the different interests involved.

Here 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.

A quick glance back over the history of landscapes should make it plain that even reconstructed, so-called natural landscapes in which supposedly ahemerobic 11* conditions existed are in reality an illusion, however carefully tended. For even the open post-glacial landscapes of Europe were criss-crossed by hunters and gatherers, who had a serious influence on the flora and fauna. Wildfires, though we can't be sure whether they were anthropogenic or started by lightning, are proven to have existed in the Boreal period. With the increasing stability of human populations at the end of the Atlantic period (late Mesolithic to early Neolithic), 12* human effects on the environment increased through fire clearing, livestock farming, and the establishment of field systems. Expansive agrarian landscapes were developed as early as Roman times, especially in Western Europe. There can therefore be no doubt that Europe's landscapes in post-glacial times, and especially since humans began establishing settlements, were under a varyingly intensive and, over the course of history, increasingly anthropo-zoogenic influence. Decisive parameters were the increase in density of settlement populations, advances in the production of foodstuffs through the introduction of newer cultivation techniqes, and the modification of "unproductive" sites. Following the transition from a subsistence to a market economy and explosive increases in population numbers at the end of the 19th century, the current situation reflects the industrialization of productive arable land and a wide-ranging technologization of the remaining 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, 13* it should be clear that prehistory is irrelevant for the assessment of modern landscapes.

If our culturally formed landscapes differ solely by the degree of human influence visited upon them, we should ask what the criteria are for the determination of difference, and define the reference base for our criteria from a historical and/or current perspective. Every arbitrarily chosen reference point (for example from a historical perspective, the agricultural landscapes of the end of the 19th century) taken as reference base leads to a certain arbitrariness in the assessment of a landscape's "naturalness."

With the ranking scale (see below) developed by the finnish botanist Jaakko Jalas (1955) and expanded by the german ecologist Herbert Sukopp (1968, 1977), for degree of hemeroby 14* in landscapes or in terrestrial ecosystems - a reciprocal measure of naturalness - substantial progress was made in the definition and assessment of human impact on the environment:

  • ahemerobic (not influenced by culture - extremely rare)
  • oligohemerobic (weak cultural influence)
  • mesohemerobic (moderate cultural influence)
  • euhemerobic (strong cultural influence)
  • metahemerobic (excessive and one-sided cultural influence)
According to this conceptual analysis, human influence is defined as a location-specific factor, and the question of the actualistic or historical nature of that influence does not arise. Ingo Kowarik (1999) made a clear distinction between the concept of hemeroby and historically ordered concepts. 15* This approach has the advantage of excluding the hypothetical historical point of origin - the original (and therefore unknown) ahemerobic condition. The point of reference here is the presumed final stage in a succession, with consideration taken for the current potential of the location (including irreversible changes), whose features, given the climatic conditions, would occur without direct human influence, although they would also be influenced indirectly by human activity.


3 - Biodiversity and stability 

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).


As concerns the development of species generally, 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.


It wasn't so long ago (and for some environmentalists it is still the case) that wildfires, forest grazing of livestock, cyclones, storm tides, floods, avalanches, and even heat waves were considered damaging to the ecology. Today we understand that a stable site is a stagnating site; that there is such a thing as a fruitful disaster. The creation of new and diverse site conditions is the predictable precondition for high levels of species density, but also for evolution itself. Astonished nature conservators have had to acknowlege the dramatic way species' numbers have increased after allegedly 'catastrophic' forest fires in Yellowstone National Park or avalanches in the European Alps.

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

From 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.

Very generally, though, a pragmatic conservation - that is, the kind that ensures the protection of basic resources necessary for human survival - requires above all that we evaluate and establish what we want to protect with a comprehensive regime of laws and ordinances, without burdening it with ideology or attempting to achieve its transfiguration. A strictly scientifically based view of the ecosystem does away with an explicit anthropocentrism and metaphysical transfigurations. Concepts like "near-natural" and "naturalness" are misleading and should not be used, since they suggest a knowledge of unknown conditions, especially when these concepts are backward-looking and speculative.

Environmental conditions today can best be represented as an expression of various degrees of human influence. The "why" of conservation is postulated roughly by the objectives formulated in Agenda 21, e.g. the terms of the Convention on Biological Diversity put forward at the Earth Summit in Rio. 20* Direct and indirect social economic aspects are given priority there.

It cannot be stressed enough that actual attainment of even the relatively modest Earth Summit objectives will be possible only through well-founded knowledge of ecosystems. By the same token, ideologically influenced values and nature mystification, as well as unverifiable claims to truth are counterproductive. In this vein, Hubert Markl (1991) asked, in a contribution to Science and Ethics, "Where shall we obtain knowledge of reality as defined by the natural sciences, that is, the environment in which we live, if not from the experts who, free of special interest and above all of personal interest are committed only to scientific reliability in their research? "


Although 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?

For this reason the power of a sensation-seeking media to make an impression on public awareness should not be underestimated. The versions of reality that they simplify and propound are the ones that define the state of things for big segments of the population (most certainly not just for the "simple, modest folk"). 21* In the effort to use every available catchword they come up with absurd reports. For example, when nature is portrayed as being catastrophic for nature - to be precise, when for example a storm out of the West comes over the North Sea and shrinks the Frisian islands, or when volcanos bury the "unspoiled" countryside (!) beneath them.

It is not the objective of this paper to question the value of the nature conservancy movement of the last century, which was responsible for enlightening the general public as to environmental problems. However, as it gains entry into the political establishment and (in Germany at least) assumes governmental responsibility, the arguments as to the viability of specific goals have been growing ever more factious, especially within the movement itself: beween proponents of environmental realpolitik [practical politics] and environmental "fundamentalists" whose understanding of nature is often suffused with ideology, especially as regards their assessment of the state of the environment and of the dynamic of human-induced environmental change. The views of the two camps diverge radically when it comes to the assessment of the use and redesignation of space, energy production and genetic technology.

Causes and prognoses, and especially the steps necessary to ensure sustainable use of our environment, energy production and gene technology are the subjects of heated arguments in scientific circles as well. Lay folk will have a hard time finding their way if even the specialists regularly tone down or even withdraw their prognosticated dire prognoses. In the context of such ideological battles, less agitated proposals for environmental management based on a sound understanding of the disciplines of ecology are generally not accorded much attention by the sensation-hungry media.

Among the most laudable goals for a serious conservancy is the sustainable economic use of natural resources. The changing sensibilities in the experience of environment must also be considered, for if the environment is unwell society's productivity is reduced. Therefore aesthetic criteria, too, number among the elemental survival interests of humanity (and humanity alone) - criteria that are a part of human nature, but that are not the same everywhere. Similarly, the Convention on Biological Diversity takes into account the aesthetic and cultural-religious aspects of life as well as the primary economic ones. Here, however, perceptions can diverge: one person's council tree is another person's welcome shade. Far be it from us to minimize the cult value of Australia's Ayers Rock, but we are not capable of holding it in such awe as are the Aborigines. Ethical and aesthetic aspects of a landscape are the very aspects that are not generally verifiable and not at all transferable to other cultures or value systems. 22*


Therefore, 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 ensure success.

The practice of conservation or environmental management from the point of view of sustainability therefore requires that we recognize and gather evidence that ecosystem interdependencies and abiotic and biotic environmental parameters are vital for our own survival, so that these interests can be represented with equal vigor against competing ones. In evaluating the more recent functions of habitats, conflicts are likely, especially when we're assessing traditional cultural landscapes. For example the European landscapes of the 19th century having a mosaic structure and high species diversity are especially valued today. But why should it not be instead the rather monotonous landscapes with markedly less species diversity of over 8,000 years ago? There is room for splendid arguments as to whether the landscapes that were formed by grazing or farming practices (whether around the Mediterranean or on dry to moist savannas of Madagascar) are to be preferred over the returning sparse forests (which are usually rather monotonous around the Mediterranean). But the outcome of any such argument will depend a great deal on the prevailing public mood and somewhat less on the degree of hemeroby of the habitat in question. Should we not be asking instead how we may derive maximum long-term benefit (in contradiction to 'short-term' entrepreneurial profit maximization) from that habitat?

If a compromise between ecology and economy is considered by some not to be realizable because it is too idealistic, nonetheless, because of the fact that humans are part of nature, a reconciliation between these two aspects of the human experience (which are not in fact opposites) is unavoidable. From the human point of view, sustainable management of the limited resources of nature's "economy" is identical with a sustainable human economy.

Thus, efficient conservancy calls for:

  • the removal of ideology from and the demystification of the phenomena of nature and culture, with a resulting departure from an anthropocentric-dualistic view of nature;
  • pragmatic-sustainable exploitation of ecosystem control structures with the simultaneous preservation of the stability and sustainable productivity of the environment;
  • scientifically and economically based conservation strategies and promotion of biodiversity;
  • protection of regions, functions and processes to attain the goals that were outlined in the "Convention on Biodiversity";
  • transparency of ecosystem management and informed participation of all stakeholders (individual interests at grass-roots levels and contrary interest groups involved);
  • public relations work to build an identity for a sustainable, economically exploitable environment.


5 - Bibliography

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  1. According to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) nature is epistemologically (i.e., not in natural-philosophical terms) the entirety of what is given; it is the epitome of all physical and nonphysical objects of the senses. Equally, "nature" is (chaotic) "sensation", ordered and guided by the rules of reason (which are governed by the laws of nature). This circumstance alone gives us the capacity to understand nature, for its principles form the basis of our being.
  2. Philosophically speaking, this removes from humans all right to mastery over nature. Thus humans develop teleological arguments for the claim that everything has meaning: ultimately, to bring humanity into being so that it could have dominion over nature.
  3. Even in large conservation areas with limited human influence, the dynamics of ecological systems become a product of management through their limitedness. A limited habitat is assigned to the living inventory, a habitat to which it is restricted because of competing interests. Even in the designation of landscapes to be placed under protection, human dominion manifests itself in the form of cultural entitlement.
  4. Scholarly, social and individual realities are created by virtue of the fact that we always approach what we suppose to be objective reality with certain basic assumptions which we consider to be objective aspects of reality, whereas they are only aspects of our search for reality (cf. Paul Watzlawick, 1984, ed. Invented reality: How do we know what we believe we know?).
  5. Originally a protected, enclosed (!) region without dangers, where nothing is lacking.
  6. At the end of the so-called "Little Ice Age", in the middle of the 19th century when temperatures were rising again, "the burden placed on society, through floods, avalanches and storms [was] the greatest. […] This helps to explain why society at that time decided in favour of using all available means to restrain and tame a nature turned savage." (Christian Pfister 1999, p. 263).
  7. Thus, Holm Tetens, Lecturer in Philosophy at the Free University of Berlin (Germany), speaks of: "The enlightened machine - the neuro-cybernetic model of humanity", and Wolfgang Prinz, Director of the Max Plank Institute for Psychological Research in Munich (Germany), claims that "We do not do what we want to do, rather we want to do what we do."
  8. For example the destruction of forests in Australia by the Aborigines and the Native Americans' practice of running entire buffalo herds over cliffs, killing many more than they could use.
  9. Even if these views seem cynical, they do oblige us to confront the hard ecological facts. Above all, semi-arid landscapes with sparse basic resources will only ever be able to support a very limited number of people who, in addition, are often capable of making a living only using traditional forms of economy (e.g. following a yearly migratory path in keeping with the rhythm of the changing seasons).
  10. Through long distance effects, human influence on the atmosphere is currently demonstrable throughout the biosphere with varying intensity. However the intensity of direct and indirect consequences of human activity on the landscape varies substantially. From the inaccessible high mountain landscape of the Himalayas to the parking lot of a big city, the range of conceivable situations is vast. In addition, it is continually changing.
  11. I.e., not influenced by humans.
  12. In fact recent research suggests that in northern Germany permanent settlements are likely to have occurred before 8,000 BC
  13. Even Homo neanderthalensis, who was displaced by Homo sapiens and who settled Western Asia and Europe until about 30,000 years ago (cf. Ian Tattersall 2000) was a hunter and understood the use of fire. Doubtless the capacity to create fire through the deliberate use of an appropriate technology was a milestone for human development. Although humans have demonstrably been using fire since the Middle Pleistocene period (especially in Europe - e.g. the Pannonian landscapes in Southern Central Europe - humans have distinguished themselves from the other inhabitants of their environment at least since that time), the deliberate use of fire is datable from the end of the Acheulian period (300,000 - 75,000 BC). The Prometheus myth demonstrates that at least modern humans were conscious of the Janus-faced nature of this success. The acquisition of fire is celebrated to this day by the Bushmen, for example.
  14. The intensity, duration and extent of the effect on the site (cf. Herbert Sukopp 1969), from the Greek hemeros, meaning tamed, cultivated, and bios, meaning life.
  15. Kowarik 1999, p. 87: "Hemeroby is a measure of human cultural influence on ecosystems. The degree of hemeroby is gauged according to the measure of the effect of those influences that pose an obstacle to the full development of the ecosystem."
  16. E.g. 5 x 5 km (cf. Eddy van der Maarel 1971). This method often led to results showing alarmingly high rates of extinction. Therefore in general researchers should take into account the areas on which these results are based.
  17. Archeophytes (adventive plants or non-native plants that arrived or were introduced by humans during pre- or early history) and neophytes (adventive or non-native plants, introduced during historical time, especially since the discovery of America by Europeans at the beginning of the 16th century) that were able to establish themselves during the course of the history of the anthropo-zoogenic landscape only when new environments were created. Animal species that were found to be threatening were generally expelled or completely eradicated. Others, like the bustard, formerly of eastern Europe, arrived on the scene with the creation of suitable habitats. From the end of the 19th century the increased anthropogenic influence - the industrialization of agriculture, the clearing of fields, the creation of agricultural areas where there had been wetlands, the straightening of rivers, and the sealing of the soil through increased infrastructure where settlements were growing - led to a reduction in species density through the impoverishment or elimination of (often island-like) biotopes with higher species diversity, though this did not lead to a reduction of the total numbers of established species in Germany until the middle of the 20th century. In settlement areas an increase in anthropogenically determined biotopes with higher species diversity was observed. There is also the fact that animals that used to live only outside settlement areas (wild boars, foxes, raccoons, etc.) are nowadays often seen on the edges of settlements, and conurbations are among the places with the highest biodiversity.
  18. These evolutionary processes also have nothing to do with a teleologically conceived "adaptation" to sites (for these exist only ontogenetically); instead they they are attributable solely to the fact or existence of genetic variability, and are therefore an indispensable precondition for the continued existence of information carriers (the various species) in changing environments. Besides, there can be no doubt that the very principle of life is not conducive to the preservation of species (of which, over the course of the history of life, 99% have died and will die in the future, though they live on or will live on in successor species); instead, it represents the implementation of the preservation of genetic information in changing transport and reproduction units.
  19. "Every time you walk on the ground you step on billions of microbes ...Each gram of soil may contain up to 1,000,000,000 or more microbes ... Some scientists estimate that each gram of soil may contain 10,000 different species of microorganisms! That's more biodiversity in one gram of soil than all the different types of mammals in the entire world." (Michigan State University, Center for Microbial Zoology).
  20. U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), Rio de Janeiro, June 1992.
  21. Newspapers would have had to consider above all the "capacity […] of the biggest crowd in the world", the motto (over 250 years ago!) of the publisher and editor Dietrich Christian Milatz in Germany.
  22. Just as much as the imposition of economic systems on developing and threshold countries, without consideration for traditional socio-economic premisses, missionary ecologism easily turns into cultural imperialism.


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