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The Concept of Naturalness     |     home
        Title Page, Abstract, Acknowledgments           |           Table of Contents                 |              Introduction           |             Literature Review Part A: Cultural Aspects of Naturalness          |               Literature Review Part B: Ecological Aspects of Naturalness        |          Case Study          |             Conclusions and Recommendations          |              References Cited      


We would be unfaithful to the tradition of Western Civilization if we shied away from exploring what man can accomplish, if we failed to increase man's control over nature.

Edward Teller, quoted in Beginning Again:     
People and Nature in the New Millennium

We see in nature the appearance of spontaneous processes which we cannot control.

Ilya Prigogine, Science in a World
of Limited Predictability

We are what nature has always been trying to be . . .
To serve God is to increase the scope, power, beauty, and depth of technology.
Frederick Turner, The Invented Landscape

Taking dominion over nature, finally, means that we will have nothing left but our species-centered self-idolatry to be inspired by and to worship.
Robert Pack, Poems for a Small Planet

The greatest respect we can pay to nature is not to trap it, but to acknowledge that it eludes us and that our own nature is also fluid, open, and conditional.
Gary Snyder, No Nature

It seems unlikely that we can hope to `save nature' without first ascertaining just what it is we are attempting to save.

Neil Evernden, The Social Creation of Nature




The epigraphic quotations preceding this introduction point to the diversity of opinion which exists regarding both concepts of nature and naturalness, and concepts of the relationship between humans and the natural world.  It is worth noting that Teller and Prigogine are both physicists, while Turner and Pack are both essayists and poets; thus, their respective statements indicate that the divisions which mark these concepts are not only sharply divergent, but seem to cut across the influences of discipline or training as well.

"Nature" has been described as "the most complex word in the language" (Williams 1980), and the word "natural" has similarly been called "the ultimate essentially contested concept" (Meisner 1994).  Some have even suggested that each person has their own individual idea of what these terms mean; in the words of one author: "Nature might well be thought of as the original Rorschach.  Like the suggestive inkblots psychologists use to tap our innermost fears and longings, nature presents an open invitation to see what we want or need to see" (Dizard 1994).  

In fact, conceptualization of what constitutes "nature" or "natural" things has been the subject of unresolved philosophical and ideological debates throughout history (Collingwood 1945; Merchant 1989; Soper 1995).  Nevertheless, concepts of nature and naturalness can be seen to fundamentally underlie both culture (Merchant 1989; Worster 1993) and science (Evernden 1992; Pickett, Kolasa, and Jones 1994), and in this context the conceptualization of naturalness can also be seen as a fundamentally underlying aspect of natural resource management as well.  

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While the concepts of nature and naturalness may be regarded as problematic in their definition, they are also seen as central to environmental discourse (Meisner 1994) and scientific study (Heisenberg 1958).  It has even been suggested that the inherent ambiguity of these terms represents in itself one of the most significant problems facing ecology (Soper 1995).

It has been argued that the inherent ambiguity in concepts of nature and naturalness are such that these are terms which have no place in scientific discourse (Pollowy 1994).  And yet, a similar level of ambiguity exists in many terms used by science, especially in the case of ecologists and resource managers.  For example, ecological concepts such as those of "species" (Kiester 1980), "communities" (National Research Council 1986), and "ecosystems" (Pomeroy, Hargrove, and Alberts 1988) are all somewhat ambiguously defined and controversial, as are more management-related ecological concepts such as ecological "health" (Ehrenfeld 1993; Wright 1992), "sustainability" (Daly 1993a; Worster 1995), and "integrity" (King 1993).  

Likewise, while it seems unlikely that anyone would suggest we abandon the use of terms such as "efficient" or "good" in relation to resource management practices, they carry a similar ambiguity, and are equally open to interpretation and debate (Daly 1993b; Williams 1996).

Perhaps most importantly, despite the ambiguity met in trying to define naturalness, the literature of ecological and environmental science is inarguably rife with references to naturalness, in numerous contexts.  Examples include reference to: natural resources (Morrison 1994), natural objects (Sankovskii 1992), natural features (Apfelbaum and Aranow 1995), natural ecosystems (Barrett and Rosenburg 1981), natural environments (Johnson and Carothers 1987), natural areas (Cain 1966), natural diversity (Fosberg 1966), natural vegetation (Sprugel 1991), natural disturbance (Pickett and McDonnell 1993), and a natural range of ecological variability (Swanson et al. 1994).

Likewise, maintenance of natural ecological conditions (Sessions 1993), the overall dynamics of natural systems, (Bonnicksen and Stone 1985), the effects of specific natural processes (Hessburg and Everett 1994), or at least the appearance or

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experience of naturalness (Watson and Niccolucci 1995) may all at times be identified as resource management goals.  

However, even in areas managed to preserve natural conditions, manipulative actions may be viewed as necessary due to unavoidable human impacts or concerns with management of adjacent lands (Cole 1996).  Moreover, even when their long-term effects are deemed compatible with management goals, natural processes may be considered "ineffective" (Barrett 1995), or "inefficient" (Everett 1995) in achieving commodity production goals, thus requiring intervention to augment or enhance their effects.  And as often as not, natural processes or conditions may quite simply be in conflict with management goals (Agee 1993), in that "management," as such, implies their exploitation, suppression, or mitigation (Johns 1994).  

Regardless, however, of whether natural conditions and processes are seen as management goals, means, or impediments, the way in which naturalness is defined will obviously affect the course of management itself.  And opinions regarding this concept are diverse and often contradictory.

On the one hand, it is often argued that "nature," by definition, includes everything, including all artifacts of human activity; following this vein of thought, the management of natural systems is itself natural, although in a uniquely humanly creative way (Higgs 1993; Turner 1994).  

On the other hand, most human cultural activities can be argued as unnatural, with natural systems viewed as self-organizing and independent of human control (Katz 1991; Zuckerman 1990).  In this second vein of thought, human management of truly natural systems is by definition a technical impossibility (Ehrlich and Mooney 1983).  And somewhere between these two perspectives rests a plethora of others, seeing naturalness as a distinctive characteristic, but one which cannot be seen as entirely separating humanity from the rest of nature.

Given the deep-rooted ambiguity which resides in the very terms "nature" and "natural," it must be recognized that this issue is as much subjective and philosophical as it is objective and technical in character.  Contemporary concepts of nature and naturalness cannot be separated from our long history of philosophical, political, and scientific thought (Merchant 1989;  

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Worster 1993), nor from a multitude of ideological perspectives variously held and promoted in contemporary culture (McLaughlin 1993; Soper 1995).  And it must be further recognized that, just as our concepts of nature and naturalness drive the ways in which we respond to and manage our natural environment, so too are our scientific and cultural institutions influenced by the natural environments which form their context (Merchant 1989).  As Wallace Stegner put it: "even as we bend features of the landscape with our technology, still it is the non-human landscape which in turn directs our tinkering" (Stegner 1992).

It must be recognized that perspectives regarding naturalness are varied and complex, and that, practically speaking, there can be no one "right" answer to the question of what we mean when we describe some thing as natural.  And yet, the values, policies, and practices engendered by our concepts of naturalness may be at the root of how we define resources and their management, and hence may be at the root of much of the conflict which occurs as we wrestle with issues of resource allocation and the prescription of management actions.

Environmentalists often call for the preservation, or restoration, of wild natural ecosystems as a primary goal of resource management (Wuerthner 1994).  In contrast, resource management professionals often invoke a philosophy toward nature echoing the attitudes of "Manifest Destiny" (Foreman 1996).  As an example, a recent U.S. Forest Service document (an internally published workshop proceedings) suggested that resource managers post the statement "Nature is Dead" near their desk, considering that phrase a key concept for developing a proper attitude of land stewardship (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service 1996).  

Such divergent perspectives serve to emphasize a critical point: because the concept of naturalness lacks a single, clear, explicit meaning, individuals employ and rely upon diverse interpretations, which are often only implicitly defined.  And despite diverse and conflicting interpretations of what "naturalness" means, it is nonetheless a concept of common usage.  If this is the case, then only by seeking to understand these diverse interpretations, and seeking to identify areas of convergence and divergence among them,

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 can we hope to effectively develop goals and strategies for the management of "natural" resources, or understand the underlying assumptions upon which policy and practice are based.


The main focus of this study is an investigation into the concept of naturalness; the attitudes and beliefs that shape our understanding of the concept, the ways in which the concept is relevant to natural resource management, and the ways in which those specifically working in the realm of resource management define and employ the concept.   

More specifically, the issue of naturalness seems especially crucial to resource management in regard to the management of ecological resources; with this in mind, the management framework of "Ecosystem Management," and the ways is which naturalness underlies several aspects of this management approach, are especially relevant as a focal point of discussion.

Ecosystem Management is actually a broadly defined approach to natural resource management which emphasizes an inter-disciplinary approach, is inclusive of a variety of resources and resource-uses, and encompasses a substantial body of current thought regarding ecosystem ecology, landscape ecology, and resource planning (Grumbine 1994; Kaufmann et al. 1994); as such, it deals with the concept of naturalness on many levels.  Ecosystem Management also includes a substantial effort at addressing the relationship between humans and their own environment (Bormann et al. 1994; Daniels et al. 1994; McConnell et al. 1994), and in this respect represents a significant effort at defining a relationship between the management actions which humans impose upon their environment and the concept of that environment as having characteristics of naturalness.

For these reasons, both the literature review and case study portions of this project have focused to some extent on the framework of Ecosystem Management; however, it should be recognized that, for the most part, the central problem of examining the concept of naturalness was approached in the less narrow context of resource management in general.

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Study Goals and Objectives

The goal of this study was to clarify the concept of naturalness as applied ecologically within the context of natural resource management, specifically as related to the idea of Ecosystem Management.  Following from this goal, four study objectives emerged:

(1) To conduct a literature review summarizing:

(a) Historical, cultural, and ideological aspects of the concept of naturalness
   pertinent to the concept's use in resource management.

(b) Aspects of resource management and ecosystem management which
   explicitly relate to the use and definition of concepts of naturalness.

(2) To investigate implicitly held concepts of naturalness among people involved in
   natural resource management, by consulting with a wide range of specialists in
   various related fields, and by synthesizing their collective expert opinions regarding
   the concept of naturalness.

(3) To investigate the differing perspectives regarding naturalness which might exist
   among resource management experts, as potential causes of inter-disciplinary barriers
   to understanding.

(4) To identify key concepts and possible areas of general agreement for more explicitly
   defining naturalness as an ecological term.

Selection of Study Methods

Approaches to the Literature Review

As stated above, a literature review seemed the logical first step in attempting an understanding of the concept of naturalness and the ways in which it is employed in a resource management context.  Recognizing the ambiguous and elusive character of the concept of naturalness, the literature review focused on a series of sub-topics:

(1)  An examination of basic philosophical approaches to the meaning of nature and

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(2)  An overview of the historical trends and movements which have been particularly
   influential in shaping contemporary attitudes toward nature and naturalness.

(3)  An examination of the ideological, normative, and paradigmatic approaches to
   nature and naturalness which seem to represent the range of contemporary opinion,
   and which relate the concept of naturalness to planning frameworks used in resource

(4)  An examination of the Ecosystem Management framework, its origins, principles,
   and its use of ecological concepts of naturalness.

Although the literature review attempted to focus on concepts of naturalness as directly relevant to resource management issues, the character of the concept itself required a relatively broad-based approach in this regard, and thus touches upon several more general philosophical and historical aspects of the concept as well.

Approach to the Case Study Project

A difficulty in studying ways in which the concept of naturalness is defined and employed within the field of natural resource management lies in the fact that standard, formal definitions simply do not exist; for the most part, concepts of naturalness are used while remaining only implicitly defined.  Because of this, a literature review was helpful in understanding the underlying philosophical, cultural, and ideological principles which shape individual perceptions of naturalness, but it could not by itself clearly demonstrate the range of opinions which exist, nor identify any key areas of agreement or disagreement among these varied opinions.  

In considering these aspects of resource management, Neil Evernden has suggested that "what ecology is may be less important than what it is believed to be" (Evernden 1992).  The problem thus became one of determining the essence of a variety of individual opinions; and this is a task to which the Delphi method seemed particularly well-suited.

The Delphi method is a form of nominal group process, usually conducted through a series of iterative questionnaires (Delbecq, Van de Ven, and Gustafson 1986; Linstone and Turoff 1975), and has been described as "a method of using informed judgment in a structured manner . . . on questions to which there is no accurate answer" (Bradley 1977).  Delphi was specifically

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developed as a means of assessing and synthesizing expert group opinion (Linstone and Turoff 1975), and has been particularly promoted as a technique for assessing opinion based in personal values or value judgments (Dalkey et al. 1972).

The Delphi method has also been described as being a primarily phenomenological research approach (Scheele 1975), in that what is sought are both implicitly and explicitly understood meanings (Bruzina 1970), or an understanding of a priori convictions, based in personal experience, which serve as the "grounding for objective knowledge" (Hammond, Howarth, and Keat 1991).  

In attempting to clarify an ambiguously defined concept underlying scientific thought, this certainly reflects the needs of the current study.  As phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote, phenomenological methods are needed when "we want to subject science itself to rigorous scrutiny and arrive at a precise assessment of its meaning and scope" (Hammond, Howarth, and Keat 1991).  Given the complex and varied meanings assigned to the concept of naturalness, and the fact that the concept, although widely referenced, most often remains defined only in an implicit manner, Delphi seemed a logical methodology for the task at hand.


A complete understanding of what the concepts of "nature" and "naturalness" encompass appears to have eluded philosophers and scientists from the time of Plato and Aristotle to the present; it seems obvious, therefore, that this study could not aim to elicit some universally acceptable definition or delineation of naturalness.  Instead, the study was limited to attempting an understanding of the major issues associated with the concept and attempting to examine the range of opinions regarding this concept held by those persons involved professionally in various aspects of resource management.

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The Delphi method has most frequently been used in policy development and futures forecasting, applications which strive to forge some sort of group consensus based in collective opinion.  However, in this application, consensus as such was not a goal; rather, it was hoped to examine areas of both agreement and disagreement, and to examine the full range of participant behavior.  In this respect, although the study employed a group process and focused much of its analysis on collective group opinion, it should not be construed as having derived some sort of group consensus.

Finally, it must be acknowledged that, although a strong attempt was made to assemble a group of Delphi participants who represented a full range of disciplines and areas of expertise relevant to resource management, the number of participants and the complex, often conflict ridden character of the subject matter prescribe caution in extrapolating or generalizing the case study results to the field as a whole.  

Delphi in any application is not meant to represent a statistically valid polling or survey process; rather, it is meant to serve as an exploratory, interactive problem solving exercise.  In this context, the present case study represents a structured attempt at studying a complex and controversial aspect of resource management, not to seek some definitive solution, but rather to better delineate the issues and problems at hand.  Study results should be understood and applied from this perspective.

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