When it comes to nature, scholars have been talking past each other for decades: one side declares nature to be in more trouble now than ever, while the other says the trouble is with the very concept of nature. I’m writing a chapter where I hope to resolve this impasse, in part by taking the former group seriously—while sticking to my conviction that nature is a Big Word in need of a better one. Earlier, I posted on Half-Earth (Wilson 2016), a sort of broad brush stroke exemplar of this nature-in-trouble group; here I’ll consider more detailed work in the context of the world’s forests.
First, the ground rules. The ontic and epistemic fallacies were originally proposed by Roy Bhaskar and key to his philosophy of critical realism (Bhaskar  2008). The ontic fallacy collapses knowledge onto reality, so that the complexities of constructing knowledge are ignored. The epistemic fallacy collapses reality onto knowledge, so that reality is sidelined in scare quotes given these complexities. Both must be avoided. Here I want to avoid the epistemic fallacy, which is typically how theorists sidestep reality claims.
This has gone on for a long time. In Bill Cronon’s famous essay “The trouble with wilderness; or, getting back to the wrong nature” (1995), Cronon made clear that he is not attacking wilderness areas, but rather the idea of wilderness:
My criticism in this essay is not directed at wild nature per se, or even at efforts to set aside large tracts of wild land, but rather at the specific habits of thinking that flow from this complex cultural construction called wilderness (p. 25).
His argument is thoroughly grounded in history, well framed—and, to his detractors, guilty of the epistemic fallacy. Here’s a representative critique:
Cronon may be correct that ideas of nature don’t exist outside of cultural understanding, but Nature in all of its self-governing complexity most certainly does (Willers 1996, 61).
So, it’s easy to dismiss nature as a Big Word given its considerable conceptual/cultural baggage (Williams 1980), but I want to examine nature in terms of its claims on reality. Most conservationists use the word nature to refer to certain landscapes with minimal anthropogenic alteration; I’d like to consider the example of intact forest landscapes, or IFLs (Potapov et al. 2008). One definition describes an IFL as
An unbroken expanse of natural ecosystems within the zone of current forest extent, showing no signs of significant human activity and large enough that all native biodiversity, including viable populations of wide-ranging species, could be maintained [emphasis mine].
and, more technically,
A territory within today’s global extent of forest cover which contains forest and non-forest ecosystems minimally influenced by human economic activity, with an area of at least 500 km2 (50,000 ha) and a minimal width of 10 km (measured as the diameter of a circle that is entirely inscribed within the boundaries of the territory).
So, here is nature, defined more carefully than in Half-Earth. The global extent of IFLs has been mapped (Potapov et al. 2008) and remapped; roughly one-third of all forests in the world are IFLs, with the vast majority in tropical/subtropical and boreal regions. Results have been used by Greenpeace, Global Forest Watch (World Resources Institute), and other organizations to advocate for IFL preservation. IFLs have been the basis for scientific research at global and regional scales (e.g., Heino et al. 2015; Kleinschroth et al. 2016).
Are IFLs in trouble? Yes: if you trust the scientific literature, there has been significant loss and fragmentation. Here are sample recommendations:
Our findings reinforce the need for improved understanding of the reasons for the high forest losses in PAs [protected areas] and IFLs and strategies to prevent further losses (Heino et al. 2015, 1).
We recommend that forest management policies make the preservation of large connected forest areas a top priority by effectively monitoring—and limiting—the occupation of space by roads that are permanently accessible (Kleinschroth et al. 2016).
But IFLs are only a slice of reality. How to define and measure that slice in a manner applicable to all regions of the world is in some dispute (Lee 2009; see also Smith & Cheng 2016); this is a common challenge in remote sensing-based assessment of global forest cover (e.g., Hansen et al. 2013; Tropek et al. 2014; Hansen et al. 2014). When you get into the methodological weeds of this research, you find that forests are a highly diverse thing, and as much as we want to come up with a Big Word—nature, or here, IFLs—to capture reality in a powerful way, we are always capturing a particular slice of reality.
IFLs suggest what I call a flashlight view of reality: you are definitely seeing reality, but not all reality. IFLs are a particular slice of the world’s landscapes, highly applicable in some areas (e.g., upper-latitude North America and Eurasia), and not at all in others, where forest cover has long been transformed. And there’s trouble going on across all these forested landscapes, whether soil erosion or habitat simplification or threats to human access and livelihood. We need a Big Word big enough to remain mindful of all forested landscapes: if nature in the context of forests is defined as IFLs, then ironically nature is not a big enough Big Word to capture this manifold reality.
Since nature is, definitionally, the absence of culture—here, IFLs—nature is actually a Little Word: a conceptual vehicle that will only navigate certain terrains. This is the recurrent problem of essentialism in nature, whereby its supposed greatest strengths—purity, authenticity, wildness, etc.—lead to its greatest limitations. And indeed, this problem has long been pointed out in the context of wilderness. One of the inspirations behind Cronon’s essay was a wonderful pre-foodie era Michael Pollan book titled Second Nature (1991). Pollan captures this Little Word-iness of nature qua wilderness well:
We have divided our country in two, between the kingdom of wilderness, which rules about eight percent of America’s land, and the kingdom of the market, which rules the rest (p. 189).
In my own contribution to the volume in which Cronon’s essay appeared, I consider Pollan in the context of the forested landscape of the U.S. Pacific Northwest:
If [environmentalists’] claim is correct that perhaps only ten percent of the ancient forest remains in the region, what are we to do with the remaining ninety percent—the millions of acres of forests which have already been logged? Are they all to be restored to ancient forests? Perhaps the ancient forest campaign has also suffered from too limited a view of nature, one in which places modified by humans cease to be natural anymore (Proctor 1995, 286).
That’s my conclusion here. Nature (pure, untouched, authentic) is indeed in trouble…and non-nature too. Even if the wildest dreams of, say, Half-Earth prove true, we may win that battle and lose the larger war. It’s time for conservationists and theorists to work together to craft better Big Words, better frameworks for the multiple, beautiful, maddening realities unfolding in our world, while not allowing any particular Little Word to displace other realities. Like I said in that post: reality is a messy business these days.
- Bhaskar, Roy. 2008. A Realist Theory of Science. Taylor & Francis US.
- Cronon, William. 1995. “The Trouble with Wilderness; Or, Getting back to the Wrong Nature.” In Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, edited by William Cronon, 69–90. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
- Hansen, M. C., P. V. Potapov, R. Moore, M. Hancher, S. A. Turubanova, A. Tyukavina, D. Thau, et al. 2013. “High-Resolution Global Maps of 21st-Century Forest Cover Change.” Science 342 (6160): 850–853. doi:10.1126/science.1244693.
- _____. 2014. “Response to Comment on ‘High-Resolution Global Maps of 21st-Century Forest Cover Change.’” Science 344 (6187): 981–981. doi:10.1126/science.1248817.
- Heino, Matias, Matti Kummu, Marika Makkonen, Mark Mulligan, Peter H. Verburg, Mika Jalava, and Timo A. Räsänen. 2015. “Forest Loss in Protected Areas and Intact Forest Landscapes: A Global Analysis.” PLoS ONE 10 (10): 1–21. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0138918.
- Kleinschroth, Fritz, John R. Healey, Sylvie Gourlet-Fleury, Frédéric Mortier, and Radu S. Stoica. 2016. “Effects of Logging on Roadless Space in Intact Forest Landscapes of the Congo Basin.” Conservation Biology. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.12815/full.
- Lee, Peter G. 2009. “Caution against Using Intact Forest-Landscapes Data at Regional Scales.” Ecology and Society 14 (1): r1.
- Pollan, Michael. 1991. Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. 1st ed. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press.
- Potapov, Peter, Aleksey Yaroshenko, Svetlana Turubanova, Maxim Dubinin, Lars Laestadius, Christoph Thies, Dmitry Aksenov, Aleksey Egorov, Yelena Yesipova, and Igor Glushkov. 2008. “Mapping the World’s Intact Forest Landscapes by Remote Sensing.” Ecology and Society 13 (2): 51.
- Proctor, James D. 1995. “Whose Nature? The Contested Moral Terrain of Ancient Forests.” In Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, edited by William Cronon, 269–297. New York: W.W. Norton. http://faculty.washington.edu/stevehar/Proctor.pdf.
- Smith, Wynet, and Ryan Cheng. 2016. Canada’s Intact Forest Landscapes Updated to 2013. Ottawa, Canada: Global Forest Watch Canada. http://globalforestwatch.ca/sites/gfwc/files/publications/GFWC%20IFL%20bulletin%202016%20July%20Final_0.pdf.
- Tropek, Robert, Ondřej Sedláček, Jan Beck, Petr Keil, Zuzana Musilová, Irena Šímová, and David Storch. 2014. “Comment on ‘High-Resolution Global Maps of 21st-Century Forest Cover Change.’” Science 344 (6187): 981–981. doi:10.1126/science.1248753.
- Willers, Bill. 1996. “The Trouble with Cronon.” Wild Earth 6 (4): 59–61.
- Williams, Raymond. 1980. “Ideas of Nature.” In Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays, 67–85. Verso.
- Wilson, Edward O. 2016. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. First edition. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of WWNorton & Company.