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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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),
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,
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
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:
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.
ahemerobic (not influenced by culture
- extremely rare)
oligohemerobic (weak cultural influence)
mesohemerobic (moderate cultural
euhemerobic (strong cultural influence)
metahemerobic (excessive and one-sided
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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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.
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.
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.
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?).
Originally a protected, enclosed (!) region without
dangers, where nothing is lacking.
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).
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."
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.
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).
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.
I.e., not influenced by humans.
In fact recent research suggests that in northern
Germany permanent settlements are likely to have occurred before 8,000 BC
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.
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.
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."
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.
(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.
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
"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).
U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED),
Rio de Janeiro, June 1992.
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.
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.