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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      

          Conclusions and Recommendations       



The literature review portion of this project documents that contemporary perspectives on concepts of "nature" and "naturalness" are extremely varied, and are derived from numerous cultural trends and influences.  These varied conceptualizations are often quite contradictory, and are often based in deep-rooted ideological assumptions and beliefs.  Nevertheless, concepts of nature and naturalness are apparently important components of human psychology, enabling us to interpret our environments, and seem to represent a universal constituent of all human cultures.  

Attempts to categorize ideological approaches to an understanding of nature and naturalness have been numerous, resulting in a complex body of literature which is helpful in describing specific ideological perspectives, but does little to provide a means of generalizing the range of existing opinion.  In response to this problem, the philosopher Kate Soper (1995) has proposed that all ideological perspectives regarding nature and naturalness can be viewed as variously combining elements which are either fundamentally nature-endorsing, or  nature-skeptical: "nature-endorsing," meaning endorsing of the reality of nature and the usefulness of distinguishing phenomena which are natural from those which are not, and "nature-skeptical," meaning skeptical of the reality of a distinct natural world and of the usefulness of the concept of naturalness.  These binary concepts provide a simple and yet very useful approach to understanding the broad range of ideological perspectives held regarding nature and naturalness.

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The literature review further found that, despite its ambiguous and contested meaning, the concept of naturalness appears frequently in the literature of both ecological science and resource management.  In particular, terms such as "natural ecosystems," "natural areas," "natural processes," "natural range of variability," "natural disturbance," "natural biological diversity," and "natural"  or "native species," appear to be fundamental constituents of contemporary ecological theory and natural resource management policies, especially within the Ecosystem Management framework.  Obviously, all of these terms refer directly to, and are based in, an underlying concept of naturalness.  In regard to the decision making aspects of resource management, much of the literature likewise makes reference to concepts of naturalness, particularly in the context of defining a relationship between natural ecosystems and both the means and goals of management.

While these terms referencing a concept of naturalness appear to be widely influential and commonly employed, the underlying concept of naturalness nevertheless appears to remain largely ambiguous, and is most often only implicitly defined.  In light of the apparent concomitant importance and ambiguity of naturalness as a concept in resource management, it presents the problem of being a concept that is widely invoked, but for which a commonly shared meaning is not readily apparent.  This represents a potential source of miscommunication, confusion, and conflict.

This situation raises several important questions for resource management: (1)  Given that resource managers employ the concept of naturalness in a narrower context than that of general usage, is there some common understanding of the concept shared by specialists in the field?  (2)  If so, what is the basis of that common understanding, and can it be made more explicit?  (3)  If there is not a common understanding, what are the major points of disagreement, and what are the implications of the term naturalness having common usage without a common definition?


The case study portion of this project sought to address the above questions by directly investigating opinions regarding concepts of naturalness held by experts in various subdisciplines of resource management.  This was accomplished through an

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application of the Delphi process, tapping the expertise of panelists representing a wide range of disciplines within the management, research, and planning aspects of natural resource management.  The case study findings can be summarized by the following observations and conclusions:

(1) Categorizing Initial Participant Input.  As analyzed through thematic content analysis, the Delphi statements generated by participants in response to the first-round questionnaire encompassed only a modest level of diversity--amounting to less than one unique content theme per participant.  This suggests that the group size used in this case study was probably sufficient to elicit a full-range of applicable concepts warranting peer evaluation.  Additionally, the relatively low frequency of occurrence of several thematic categories, which nonetheless received high final mean group ratings of importance, indicates that the process was further able, through that peer evaluation, to bring some concepts which had constituted a minority view to the favorable attention of the larger group.  Conversely, several thematic categories, which arose with relatively great initial frequency, ultimately received low mean group ratings of importance, indicating that some more widely held opinions may become discounted through iterative evaluation.

(2)  Identifying Key Concepts.   Despite a general level of disagreement on both the philosophical and ecological aspects of naturalness, the case study results also indicate that certain suggested attributes or indicators of naturalness might serve as the basis for some common understanding of the concept.  While it does not seem reasonable to expect that all underlying ideological differences can be resolved, a few specific ideas were endorsed by at least a majority of the case study participants, indicating that these may represent the most promising means of developing a broadly acceptable conceptualization.

For example, most participants, regardless of how they more specifically define naturalness, seem to accept the premise that naturalness should be viewed in terms of relative degrees, along a continuum, rather than as a discrete quality which is either completely dominant or completely lacking.  Likewise, certain concepts of ecosystem theory, such as an emphasis on understanding systems as based in both composition and process, seemed generally regarded as having a high level of importance.

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Specifically, those suggested attributes or indicators of naturalness which were most widely endorsed by the case study participants (as inferred by high mean group ratings of importance) were the following:

The concept of ecosystem integrity.
The idea that naturalness is best described as forming a continuum.
The concept of ecosystem self-organization.
The concept of ecosystem resilience.
The importance of a lack of human subsidy of ecosystem processes.
The concept of co-evolution among ecosystem components.
An emphasis on understanding ecosystems through their processes.
An emphasis on understanding ecosystems through their composition.
The concept of species being native to specific ecosystems.
The idea that some human actions are natural while others are not.

The importance of these concepts, however, must be tempered by the wide range of opinions held by individual participants, opinions which remained divergent even in regard to these most highly rated concepts.  Nonetheless, even if differences of opinion persist, focusing on these most-widely accepted concepts might offer the means for developing a sufficiently common understanding of the issues involved to at least enable an intelligible dialogue among those holding conflicting perspectives.

(3)  The Range of Individual Participant Opinion.  The case study substantiates that the complex and diverse perspectives generally held regarding concepts of naturalness carry over specifically into the field of natural resource management.  Among the case study participants, opinions regarding characteristics of naturalness or the description of natural systems and areas varied over a full range, and true consensus was lacking for any given idea put forward for defining a characteristic of naturalness.  

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It therefore appears that those working in the field of resource management must recognize the likelihood that assumptions they may make concerning the meaning, characterization, and importance of naturalness and related concepts will not be widely shared, even within the ranks of an individual's own profession or subdiscipline.

(4)  Differences Between Participant Subgroups: Managers, Scientists, and Planners.  The case study participants were divided into three subgroups, representing natural resource managers, researchers, and planners, respectively.  A question of interest was whether these three subgroups, tending to focus on different aspects of resource management, and thus having differing orientations toward natural resources themselves, might differ in their interpretations of naturalness.  And indeed, patterns of difference in opinion between the three participant subgroups were found.
As a general trend, resource managers seemed to adhere to a definable group mindset.  To a much greater degree than scientists and planners, managers showing a marked skepticism toward nearly all attributes or indicators of naturalness suggested by participants in the Delphi case study.  Managers applied this skepticism widely, even toward those ideas initially proposed by their own subgroup peers, but were especially unreceptive to ideas suggested by members of either the research scientist or planner subgroups.

Research scientists, on the other hand, regarded several specific suggested attributes of naturalness as having a high level of importance, especially those which tied the concept of naturalness to concepts of basic ecosystem theory.  On the whole, researchers also seemed fairly receptive to suggested attributes regardless of whether they had originated from manager, scientist, or planner subgroup participants, though there was a tendency to be less endorsing of ideas put forth by planners.  

Planners were quite open to the ideas put forth by both managers and scientists, even though their own perspectives were often not shared by either of these other two groups.  The planner subgroup often assigned the highest ratings to specific statements originating from all three subgroups.  Planners also seemed to hold the most flexible opinions, often endorsing somewhat contrasting or conflicting statements with equal ratings of importance.

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The case study analysis also identified specific areas of disagreement between the participant subgroups, comparing mean subgroup scores with ANOVA and Sheffé post-hoc analysis.  Although a number of statements showed statistically significant differences, these differences appeared to hinge on two basic points:

(1)  Managers seem to differ from scientists and planners, not so much in how they define naturalness, but more fundamentally in that they do not see a distinction between natural and culturally managed ecosystems as real.  Although not universal, this underlying skepticism seems prevalent among those participants with a management orientation.  In contrast, research scientists generally seem to readily accept the idea of natural systems being distinct from those in which ecosystem processes are manipulated by human control.  In essence, the research scientists seem to comfortably endorse the idea that natural ecosystems are the basic object of ecological science.  Planners, differing from both the managers and scientists, seem to often attempt to find some middle ground in this regard: they seem to endorse the reality of natural systems, but are also skeptical of our ability to delineate between the natural and  non-natural aspects of humanity's ecological role.

(2)  The other key difference between the participant subgroups seems to arise from differences in the degree to which basic concepts of ecosystem theory are endorsed.  Managers show a strong skepticism toward concepts of self-organization, co-evolution, system resiliency, and the idea of ecosystems being open systems subject to allogenic subsidy and exploitation.  Scientists, and to a more moderate degree planners, seem to comfortably endorse these concepts, and to endorse their application to defining naturalness as an ecological characteristic as well.

Plainly, there is a high potential for conflict between these subgroups, especially in regard to managers, who on the whole are likely to reinterpret information given to them by researchers and planners through their own more "nature-skeptical" ideological perspective.  Just as individuals in the field of resource management must be aware of the likelihood that their own personal

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perspectives regarding issues of naturalness may not be shared by their peers, managers, research scientists, and planners should in general recognize that those working in resource management from these three orientations are likely to view issues related to the concept of naturalness from fundamentally different perspectives.  

(5)  Effects of the Delphi Process on Participant Opinion. The case study design, as is typical of Delphi process applications, focused on an iterative evaluation of key concepts by the participants.  Given the wide range of opinions held regarding the concept of naturalness, a question arises as to whether this kind of interdisciplinary exercise might be able to narrow those differences of opinion, and perhaps help in developing a more widely acceptable understanding of the concept.  In fact, the Delphi method has been used in other projects specifically to build consensus among participants.

While the overall range of participant opinion as a whole remained about the same, there was indeed a consistent trend of convergence of opinion, represented by a narrowing of standard deviations among scores as statements were reevaluated in successive questionnaires.  Thus, it does appear possible that simply facilitating this kind of interaction between resource management professionals may help to decrease the degree of conflict which exists in interpretations of naturalness.

However, it is important to note that, in most cases, the convergence of opinion which occurred resulted from individual participants moderating their adherence to specific concepts.  In other words, the opinions of individual participants moved closer together, but this generally occurred by participants becoming more skeptical of the importance of various statements or concepts which they had previously more fully endorsed.  Thus, it seems likely that exercises like the case study project may indeed offer a means of reducing the degree of conflict between opposing perspectives, but it seem less likely that such efforts could help in developing a widely acceptable conceptualization of naturalness.

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It should be acknowledged that the underlying philosophical differences among various perspectives regarding naturalness cannot generally be resolved.  Nevertheless, it should also be recognized that these differences need not preclude some level of common understanding in the way concepts of naturalness are used specifically in describing and managing both ecosystems and the resources they contain.

Since concepts of naturalness underlie many of our assumptions regarding both the management of resources and the ecological sciences upon which that management is based, an understanding of naturalness, in both an ideological and an ecological sense, may in turn be regarded as a necessary starting point in understanding resource management's methods and objectives.  Thus, while defining and describing ecological characteristics of naturalness may prove difficult, that does not alter the importance of making concepts of nature and naturalness as explicit as possible.  The prospect of resource management professionals, as well as the public in general, referencing a concept as basic as that of naturalness--without sharing a common understanding of what that concept implies--does not bode well for the future of our management of resources, nor for the ecosystems upon which we depend.  These observations lead to the following recommendations:

(1)  There is a need to make more explicit the linkages and differences between ideological and ecological concepts of naturalness.  Central to any attempt at sorting out commonality and difference of opinion regarding concepts of naturalness, there is a need to distinguish general, underlying approaches, which are basically philosophical or ideological in character, from those approaches which are more programmatically specific to identifying the ecological aspects of natural systems or landscapes.  Too often, it seems that concerns related to the ultimate social value placed on natural versus non-natural systems are allowed to cloud the more basic process of delineating the ecological characteristics of naturalness or  non-naturalness themselves.

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Many of the ideological differences involved in evaluating naturalness can perhaps be set aside when the issue of naturalness is addressed specifically in the context of ecological analysis--at least if it is acknowledged that those ideological concerns will play their own substantial role within the decision making and resource allocation aspects of management.  In this respect, the realms of resource allocation and decision making should be recognized as entailing value judgments, founded in social, political, and economic factors, regarding the relationship between humans and the natural world.  In contrast, the realm of ecosystem analysis, including identification of characteristics of naturalness, should be regarded as primarily entailing application of ecological science.

(2)  The fields of resource management, ecology, and land use planning must focus more explicitly on ecological aspects of naturalness, and more rigorously apply concepts of ecosystem ecology and hierarchy theory.  Confusion in the literature of resource management, particularly in regard to the Ecosystem Management framework, between landscape and ecosystem level processes indicates that concepts of ecosystem ecology, landscape ecology, and hierarchy theory are often incompletely or improperly applied.  

Similarly, the reluctance of managers in the case study to endorse the importance of basic concepts of ecosystem science reinforces this apparent need for a more thorough grounding in the system implications of ecological theory, as well as the functional and scale implications of hierarchy theory.  The failure to properly apply these theoretical constructs may result in improper selection of scale in evaluating ecological conditions, and thus obscure functional ecosystem relationships or patterns of cause and effect pertinent to delineating natural processes or states.

In regard to properly applying elements of ecosystem theory to a conceptualization of naturalness, ecosystems themselves should be understood as open systems subject to external subsidy and exploitation, and the distinction between allogenic versus autogenic disturbance and stress should be emphasized.  Likewise, ecological concepts such as self-organization, autopoiesis, and co-evolution should be a central focus in determining what constitutes or deviates from ecological naturalness.

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(3)  There is a need for further work in developing both conceptual continua of naturalness and specific indices of ecologically natural conditions.  The works of Sukopp (1976), Van der Maarel (1976), and Anderson (1991, 1992) represent substantial efforts in this regard, but further work is required in order to develop a continuum concept which could be used in evaluating relative effects of management or incidental human impact, along with an index or series of indices which would evaluate specific characteristics of ecological naturalness.  

As discussed in the literature review, descriptions of ecologically natural conditions, such as a natural range of variability, are essential to developing a sound descriptive understanding of ecosystem function.  Efforts at this level of ecological research will ultimately be stymied unless some generally acceptable approach to defining the underlying concept of natural conditions is developed.

(4)  There is a need to develop planning and decision making models which address the relationship between the goals and objectives of management and the ecological capacities and resiliencies of ecosystems.  Efforts in this regard described by Vink and Davidson (1983), Naveh and Lieberman (1984), E.P. Odum (1983), and Bormann et al. (1994), represent substantial contributions useful at the policy making and programmatic levels.  These kinds of planning models must be more fully elaborated and refined in order to provide direction at the project level.  Essentially, models which define the relationship between human society and natural ecosystems will in turn define our management approaches, and thus guide resource management prescriptions and allocations.

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(5)  Explicit recognition must be given to the diversity of opinion which exists regarding concepts of nature and naturalness, both within the field of resource management and among society in general.  Much of the conflict which exists in regard to issues of resource allocation and management can be traced to divergent underlying ideological perspectives regarding nature and naturalness--and the assumptions they engender.  The general distinction between nature-endorsing and nature-skeptical attitudes is a useful approach to understanding various conceptualizations of naturalness, but it is also important to recognize, and attempt to understand, more specific ideological perspectives held by various key groups and individuals.

Managers, scientists, planners, and members of their public constituencies, all tend to avoid direct reference to ideological beliefs, attempting to frame discussion of resource issues in purely "objective" terms.  In Neil Evernden's words, what results is "conceptual imprisonment" (Evernden 1992), in which we reduce the natural world to an abstract concept.  This, however, is perhaps a bit disingenuous; such attempts only mask ideological assumptions, rather than eliminating them.  By explicitly acknowledging the existing diversity of opinion, barriers to communication may be lowered, and the true "nature" of disagreements may become better understood.  While conflicts in resource management may be difficult to resolve, their resolution is certainly not furthered by allowing a fundamental and yet poorly understood concept to be obscured or ignored.

While the concept of naturalness may be ambiguous and controversial, it is no more so than are concepts of what is "efficient," "sustainable," "fair," or "good."  Defining what we mean by "good" resource management is itself difficult and elusive, but that doesn't and shouldn't stop us from trying: and much the same can be said for the concept of naturalness as well.  

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