The coming schism in ecology

At this year’s Aspen Environmental Forum, there was a dust-up between ecologist E.O. Wilson and writer Emma Marris. At the heart of their disagreement is how we define nature. Wilson prefers what I’ll call the pre-industrialized version, for lack of a better term (people have been modifying their environments for so long that we can’t say there’s a “pre-human” condition). Marris, author of Rambunctious Garden, is more inclusive, arguing that what Wilson calls degraded ecosystems should be considered for preservation.

Michelle Nijhuis, writing for The Last Word on Nothing, thinks this schism will eventually pass:

The deepest divide may be generational. Wilson, now in his 80s, has explored some of the most biodiverse places in the world. He knows, from long firsthand experience, how much effort it’s taken to protect and begin to restore just a handful of them. He may worry that Emma is leading younger conservationists into a kind of moral relativism, asking them to bestow equal value on vegetable gardens and old-growth forests. Emma, in her 30s, doesn’t want to do that — but neither does she want to simply inherit her predecessors’ endgame, and watch the few remaining places free of human footprints change, shrink, and disappear.

As an ecologist in my 30s, I feel torn between the two viewpoints and not altogether sure that ecology will ever place degraded systems on the same level as wilder ones. Still, I agree with Marris that “pristine” ecosystems don’t exist, and that those with humanity’s fingerprints on them should still be considered for conservation. But instead of debating the metaphysical definition of nature, I think applied conservation should focus on ecosystem function and stability.

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