The Naturalness versus Wildness Debate: Ambiguity, Inconsistency, and Unattainable Objectivity


  • Ben Ridder

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    1. School of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Tasmania, Private Bag 78, Hobart, Tasmania 7001, Australia.
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The naturalness versus wildness debate has gained some prominence in recent years and has seen considerable discussion of issues akin to those that have generated such tension between restorationists and preservationists. This debate is hampered by the terms in which it is framed. The primary meaning of both naturalness and wildness relates to the description of processes or behavior that lack human intervention. This enables human activities and artifacts (such as childbirth, food, and medicine) to be rated according to naturalness. However, when the terms are applied to the description of species and ecosystems, process-oriented definitions are forgotten in favor of historical benchmarks. This can result in serious inconsistencies between those who adhere to the different interpretations, exemplified by the tendency of conservationists to view “naturalness” as being consistent with human intervention in natural processes. The choice of one or the other interpretation is motivated by whether one prioritizes the conservation of biodiversity or minimizing human intervention. There have been claims that naturalness provides an objective measure for assessing biodiversity and calls for value-laden terms to be avoided. Yet, the values are central, and the best that can be hoped for is that the debate be framed using terms that are more indicative of these underlying values. It is suggested here that naturalness versus wildness be recast as “protecting biodiversity” versus “respect for nature’s autonomy.” Not only do these terms avoid the ambiguities of their forebears but they also expose the debate as the result of slight shifts in value priorities rather than fundamentally opposed worldviews.