Conserving Nature? But What Is “Nature”?

Imagine you were given the possibility to meet with the world’s leaders. Someone entrusted you with the task of talking to them and informing them on the future of conservation. As you walk up to the meeting room, they welcome you in. You greet them. They jump straight to the point – they have no time to waste – they ask you: “What do you want us to conserve”? So, in the rush of the moment and the excitement but also the pressure, you reply: “Nature. I want you to conserve nature in a planet that is losing it at unprecedented rates”.

The leaders, sitting at their panel, look at each other. They seem interested. Then one of them replies: “What exactly do you mean by ‘nature’?”

You didn’t think about preparing an answer to this question – but after all you had no clue they were going to ask it. What are you going to say? The pressure builds up.

— Let’s pause for a minute, since we can —

Let’s explore our options and help your virtual You give an answer to the world’s leaders.

The idea of nature is at the core of science. However, it is an abstract concept and its definition remains ambiguous and contested to date. Many have tried to propose an unequivocal definition of nature, but with no luck. For example, the renowned French philosopher René Descartes considered nature to be “matter itself”1, while the father of the ground-breaking book “On the Origin of Species” Charles Darwin thought of nature as the “aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and by laws the sequence of events as ascertained by us”2. Attempts to define this word span millennia. Even the Greek philosopher Aristoteles lost sleep over it, over two thousand years ago.

While the word nature is widely used in science and the professional world, users do not all share a definition of this concept. But without a clear definition of nature, how can we go on about conserving it?

We can deconstruct the idea of protecting nature as mainly resting on two separate concepts3. The first one foresees nature as a series of material things devoid of human influence. In this case, people are not seen as part of nature, and protecting it would consist of preserving it free from anthropogenic corruption. For the second definition, nature is a dynamic process of change. In this case, the dualism is not between people and everything else, but rather between the living (including people) and the non-living. According to this idea, protecting nature would involve maintaining or ensuring the continuation of such change.

In practical examples, if the virtual You were to accept the first definition, she/he would then proceed to encourage the world’s leaders to restore ecosystems to an agreed baseline, using a time in the past when human interference was marginal or even absent as a reference point. The leaders would be informed about conserving a pristine nature. Non-native species would be eradicated, and people would be evicted from natural landscapes for the establishment of protected areas and national parks.

If the virtual You embraces the second definition, then she/he would tell the world’s leaders to conserve functioning ecosystems, regardless of the types of species that compose them. From this perspective, non-native species would be protected and conserved if they were found to enhance local biodiversity or ecosystem productivity. Species could be moved around according to their ecological function rather than their native range. For instance, the virtual You would be enthusiast about the idea of replacing extinct fauna with today’s (non-native) species that resemble their ecological role. Future ecological landscapes under this conservation scenario would be ever-changing, though they would still retain their productivity and/or functionality.  

There are pros and cons of adopting either vision. We actually embraced and adopted the first viewpoint throughout most of the last few centuries, during which people weren’t considered part of nature and were forcibly evicted from their homes to make space for protected areas. To some extent, this issue still occurs to date under the name of neo-colonialism, and particularly affects countries in the Global South. This definition is also problematic because human influence on the environment is pervasive and far-reaching. Several experts suggest naming the current geological era Anthropocene, as humans have now become the driving force of change in the world. By altering the climate, we are affecting the way species behave and where they live, and we are accordingly causing unprecedented changes to ecosystems. Choosing a baseline would also be very problematic, as our impact on the planet pretty much began when our species Homo sapiens first emerged, ca. 200k years ago. Moreover, even protected areas set aside for nature may still require forestry management by people. Therefore, the whole idea of pristineness may only exist as a concept rather than as a concrete possibility. On the other hand, pursuing conservation through this vision would ensure that future generations would still get to experience nature in a very similar way that we have, and that species that have been roaming Earth since long before humans would be safeguarded from abrupt extinctions.

In contrast, from the lenses of the second viewpoint we are part of nature and our influence on the environment should not be perceived as intrinsically bad. This definition also allows us to acknowledge the diversity of ways through which different human communities perceive nature, which vary widely between different cultures. For instance, according to this vision, we would be less prone to fall into the trap of imposing western values on other communities, in a neo-colonialist fashion. Failing to recognise that different peoples have different values has often led to, and continues to lead to, conflict and injustice, whereby indigenous tribes and rural people are commonly on the receiving end4. Embracing this standpoint would also allow us to experiment with nature in ways that we have never done before, including through crafting novel, productive and biodiverse ecosystems, making use for instance of non-native species5. Nonetheless, advancing this concept of nature would also mean that the biodiversity that is present on Earth today will inevitably change, and some species may inevitably disappear. From this perspective, we would abandon the idea that future generations will find the same natural world and build the same connections with it that we have in our lifetime.

— Now we can resume the meeting of the virtual You with the world’s leaders —

“What exactly do you mean by ‘nature’?” they ask.


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  1. Descartes R., 1664. Le Monde, ou Traité de la lumiere. Théodore Girard, Paris
  2. Darwin C., 1861. On the origin of species. John Murray, London
  3. Ducarme, F. and Couvet, D., 2020. What does ‘nature’ mean?. Palgrave Communications6(1), pp.1-8.
  4. Ginn, F. and Demeritt, D., 2009. Nature: a contested concept. Key concepts in geography, pp.300-311. Sage
  5. Marris, E., 2013. Rambunctious garden: saving nature in a post-wild world. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Cover image credits: Christian Darkin

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