Collision: nature as domain or nature as process?

The crisis of sustainability is the central drama of our time. Are humans part of nature, or somehow separate?

There are two views or perspectives on nature, and as a result there is little listening/communication between people who hold differing views. What follows is an attempt at description, parody, or stereotyping of these two belief systems. Corrections and amplifications would be welcome.

1. The view of what I will call “mainstream environmentalism” or “modernism”

for lack of a better term. The three sectors or domains of Civilization (industry, technology, knowledge, consumption, economic and social structures), Nature, and Agriculture are arranged as follows:

Civilization is the largest, nearest, and quite obviously the dominant sector. (This matches the view from our office window.) The other sectors are defined in terms of Civilization, which is seen more negatively as consumption rather than as quality of life.

Nature obviously provides us with air and water, and serves as an (increasingly ineffective) sink for industrial wastes. Nature is where we often go on vacation (often Nature represents the goal, our quality of life). Biodiversity and conservation are important for aesthetic and spiritual reasons, and also because we might find cures for cancer in vanishing rainforest species. And nature is under assault by civilization — which, with its huge population and massive technology, is mining it, damming it, logging it, ploughing it, spraying it, grazing it, and paving it for short-term economic gain. (But nature bats last, and could topple us.)

Nature is more or less defined as what Civilization is NOT. Nature is not so much a process or collection of processes, but a collection of native species that have evolved together. Ecosystem health is defined as the absence, minimization, or removal of Civilization’s influences. And because Nature is defined as a domain rather than a process, there is no need to monitor process once ecosystem health has been achieved — you just have to guard against contamination and interference.

Agriculture, in this view, is a declining frontier industry and an increasingly minor sector of the economy, much less important than the health-care sector for example; perhaps even smaller than the entertainment industry. We view agriculture and other natural resource activities as “extraction.” Agriculture is what we drive past on our way to vacation in Nature; it is Nature corrupted by Civilization. To varying degrees it is an ecological and economic sacrifice zone — and, to a segment of the population at any rate, it is a social sacrifice zone as well. It seems to need subsidies to remedy its chronic overproduction. Farmers suffer natural disasters periodically, but the supermarket shelves always seem to be full. Overall agriculture is destructive to nature, but occasionally some farmers heroically give up chemicals and farm the old way.

New York City is a source; eastern Oregon is a sink. Rural communities need high-tech to get on their feet.

In this view, because Civilization is the dominant and controlling element, to fix problems we tamper with Civilization: we regulate environmental, social, and financial technology. We adopt “top-down” systems and management schemes to fix Agriculture and Civilization’s corrupting influence on Nature (e.g. organic food labeling, eco-labeling, prohibition of management tools in natural areas, etc.). And we set aside preserves where Nature can survive. “Ecosystem management” (as well as Farm Bill debates) consists of gerrymandering the boundaries of these overlapping domains. The widely perceived problem of a disconnect with Nature is addressed through “education” programs (cardboard rainforest curriculum).

In short, Nature is increasingly threatened by, and dependent on, Civilization and Agriculture. In order to sustain Nature (which is our goal) we have to reform and control Civilization (e.g. consumptive lifestyle) and Agriculture. These are expensive and uphill battles.

2. The viewpoint or perspective of holistic managers

Civilization, Nature, and Agriculture are not so much domains, as processes. Sustainability is not a regulatory balance between dissimilar domains, but a decision framework that results from a recognition of what we would like to sustain, along with a recognition of what sustains what.

In this view, Civilization is utterly dependent on Agriculture, as without food there would be neither Microsoft or the Sierra Club. And Agriculture is utterly dependent on Nature, which holistic managers tend to view as process rather than as domain. In other words, Agriculture depends on the water cycle, mineral cycle, energy flow, and community dynamics.

(This view of Nature is confusing and unfamiliar to most mainstream environmentalists, for whom it may seem like an upside-down pyramid. It is likely to remain so, because there are few real, tangible opportunities for urban people to try, practice with, or invest money in ecosystem processes — whereas opportunities abound to experience and to invest in preservation and in gerrymandering.)

On the left, a view popular with many mainstream conservation organizations: wilderness is preserved by regulating civilization, including its subsidies and incentives to agriculture (which is often thought of as an ecological, economic, and social sacrifice zone). On the right, a holistic view: civilization can only be maintained by effective management of ecosystem function, upon which all else depends.

Here, the solution to sustainability issues is not to fix and regulate from the top down, but to manage the ecosystem processes in ways that genuinely sustain our physical and spiritual needs–which are indeed various and diverse (decision making according to holistic goals). To the mainstream environmentalist, the claim of many holistic managers that ecosystem management (of processes) can happen in a backyard is a patent absurdity.

The civilization (quality of life) that in turn would be sustained by this kind of diverse stewardship would probably have relatively little need for cardboard rainforests or the Sierra Club, or for blanket rules and regulations. (This sounds freaky and utopian to mainstream environmentalists, because they believe the decision making framework described in 1. above reflects the only reality or possibility.)

Conflicts between belief systems

In sum, the two belief systems about Nature prevent much listening, when we are not aware of the duality. And we cannot expect “Science” to decide which is “right.” There are scientists who see mainly classifications, and others who describe process. I believe we need to listen carefully and be highly aware of what others mean when they talk about Nature and goals, and to make clear what we mean. What each side is proposing has little to do with what the other perceives as reality or as a problem.

Reflecting on these two different beliefs has clarified for me the often emotional debates over native and nonnative. If you think of nature as ecosystem processes, whether a species arrived in 1500 or 1900 makes little practical difference. If you think of nature as a domain or state, these kinds of distinctions are vital to your definition of the domain.

The perspective of nature as a domain or state puts the focus on tools, which are classified as good (e.g. rest, National Monument designation) or bad (e.g. cows). People tend to be committed to tools or processes rather than results. To suggest that you can get good results using bad tools, or bad results using good tools, is, at best, stylistically incorrect; at worst it is damnable heresy.

The focus on nature as process puts the emphasis on management and decision making. Tools and technologies are neither good nor bad in and of themselves.

(The domain view is given psychological support by the interpretive signs often posted in “natural areas” and parks: Stay on the path, do not step on the fragile native vegetation, do not feed the wild animals, do not feel bad about the 10,000 acre burn to the left as it was caused by lightning. Keep the domains of nature and civilization as separate as possible. The outdoor equipment manufacturers are basically in the business of supplying membranes to do this: fire blankets, water filters, tents, kayaks, plastic bags of all kinds.)

Nature as domain

1. Nature or the ecosystem is regarded primarily as an assemblage of components (native species, for example sagebrush/bluebunch wheatgrass, Douglas-fir/hemlock).

2. Knowledge of nature is acquired by experts, who study the components and their interactions. Knowledge is subdivided into specialties to study the components: vertebrate zoology, geology, atmospheric sciences, entomology, hydrology, etc.

3. Over vast areas, civilization has removed or altered key components, resulting in enormous destruction to natural ecosystems. Nature is now a tattered remnant of what it was in 1850.

4. Polarization between humans and nature; nature is increasingly defined in terms of what civilization is not (John Muir).

5. Species, tools, technologies divided into good and bad.

6. Sustainability: Management of nature consists of gerrymandering and maintaining boundaries between the domains.

Nature as process

1. Nature or the ecosystem is fundamentally regarded as operating in a holistic fashion, as overlapping wholes that have properties different from the sum of their parts. The fundamental processes through which the ecosystem operates, rather than individual species or individual branches of scientific study, are the focus of management.

2. Knowledge of nature is acquired by managers, who learn through experience how to improve ecosystem function in particular environments or places. Their knowledge crosses all boundaries — academic, business, psychological.

3. Over vast areas, human agriculture and civilization have damaged or degraded ecosystem processes ever since the dawn of the Neolithic if not before. The resulting floods, droughts, and losses of biodiversity have been responsible for the collapse of nearly every single civilization prior to ours, and may be in the process of causing the collapse of ours.

4. The ecosystem processes support agriculture, which in turn sustains civilization. It is not a matter of opposition or polarization, but of learning to work with rather than against nature.

5. Species, tools, and technologies are chosen according to whether they will move ecosystem processes in the right direction for what we want and need.

6. Ecosystem management can be practiced on a small scale. It depends on the ability to monitor what is going on with ecosystem process, and correct management as needed. Humanity is an element within nature.

After 150 years of management by the “nature as domain” paradigm, the Earth’s overall biological health continues to decline, even within some areas set aside as “nature reserves.” After several decades of management by the “nature as process” paradigm, the biological health and economic and social viability of what is managed (such as regeneratively managed landscapes) continues to improve.