Deciding What to Conserve


Rambunctious Garden. Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World . Marris, E. 2011 . Bloomsbury , New York . 224 pp. $25 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1-60819-032-4 .
Authenticity in Nature. Making Choices about the Naturalness of Ecosystems . Dudley, N. 2011 . Earthscan , New York . 256 pp. $34.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-84407-836-3 .

Nature is said to be the most complicated word in the English language. The concept of natural underlies most work in conservation and is so thoroughly engrained in the history of conservation science that its vital influence has until recently remained little recognized by practitioners. The rise in understanding of the substantial effects of climate change combined with the increasingly difficult questions raised by restoration ecologists are opening for examination our assumptions about what is natural.

Into this significant discussion step two books of great importance to the practice of conservation. Together they make a strong case for a serious rewiring of much of what we have always assumed was immutable in our field. I suggest that you read them both one right after the other, starting with Marris’ book. Then plan a long walk or kayak trip and have a good long think about what the authors said and how they recommend changing the practice of conservation.

Emma Marris is a lucid, cheeky science writer who pens my favorite articles in the journal Nature. In her book, Marris expands on a number of these Nature articles, weaving them into her thesis that through its focus on natural, pristine, or wilderness areas conservation has lost its way. She encourages us to become “rambunctious gardeners” who embrace all places where nature occurs, from burrow pits and strip mall medians to areas dominated by non-native species and novel ecosystems created with pieces from around the world. By exclusively focusing our attention on protected areas and native species, we have hidden the rest of nature from ourselves and are losing sight of the bigger picture—as well as losing the natural places themselves.

Marris’ point is not a new one. She revisits many of the places and themes other authors have written about, such as the establishment of Yellowstone National Park as the origin of the conservation movement, the role of non-native species in structuring ecosystems, and the influence of Bill McKibben's book The End of Nature. But she also writes about a little known set of places and activities, such as the Bialowieza ancient forest in Poland and the rewilding work in Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands, which she uses well to build her case for the rambunctious garden. She finishes with a chapter on new general goals for conservation that she maintains are necessary once the “pristine wilderness” ideal has been thrown out.

The book is a pleasure to read and will be accessible to a broad audience. However, I have a few criticisms: there is an unrecognized Western bias throughout, a marked innocence about the contested terrain surrounding use of the word we when referring to conservation, and a final set of goals that are not new and will be very difficult to achieve as stated, no matter how eloquently they are phrased. Marris’ book has already met with some enthusiastic support from those who find in its message a buttressing of their desire to reorient conservation toward parts of the world that are highly affected by humans—particularly urban areas.

Nigel Dudley's book is different, yet addresses similar concepts on conservation's use of terms such as wild and natural. His provides a richer, more personal, and more nuanced argument based on his decades in the conservation trenches working on a range of issues from organic food, to European forest conservation, to protected areas worldwide. He argues that we must reexamine the usefulness of the concept of naturalness, rather than discard it as Marris argues, in a world dominated by humans. But, Dudley maintains, accepting the fact of human domination is not to say that naturalness does not exist to varying extents in different parts of the world or that active restoration cannot help push ecosystems to a more natural state. He suggests that the term naturalness be replaced with authenticity, a word that would better reflect the elements of naturalness in both fairly pristine and radically altered ecosystems.

I am not convinced the world needs another term, but I agree with Dudley's arguments that conservation must change to keep pace with a rapidly changing world. Both Dudley and Marris argue convincingly that we as conservation professionals need to discard many of the concepts we hold most dear. Marris falls short in offering a realistic way of reframing the field. Dudley works hard to provide a new future for conservation, but finds the process hard—as would any of us. Providing a new future for conservation is a very difficult, but imperative task.

So what are we to do? At present, too many of us in the conservation community are coiled around a set of assumptions, attacking anyone who questions them. Yet we are guarding something that few others believe—just read the significant critiques on the meaning of natural that have been created by historians of science, geographers, anthropologists, and others. Then read the climate-change literature. Then recall what you have learned from Marris and Dudley.

Many of our most cherished beliefs and engrained assumptions are at best being questioned and at worst have been demolished. Our once-thriving practice has been taken apart, and we sit surrounded by the pieces. I suggest this is a good thing: the world has changed, our understanding of the world has changed, and we need to practice conservation differently. We should respect our founders and our founding assumptions, but we also need to be prepared to remake conservation for the decades to come. Ours is a value-strong pursuit. We must rebuild our practice and proceed with even greater urgency.