Nature Conservation Philosophy

What is the role of nature conservation, and why is it inherently conflicting with interests of individual people? A little bit of philosophy explaining why we need nature conservation and what it should be doing. 

We are not part of nature!

Of course, we are part of the world we live in. We have just one earth and we evolved here. But we are not a part of nature. The reason for this lies in semantics: we invented the word nature to distinguish between everything which exists because of us and our human influence and everything which exists without us and outside of human influence. If we say that we are part of nature, we no longer need the word nature. We then say nothing different than that we are part of the world. 

A deer’s view of nature

Every animal species is influencing it’s living area. Deer graze and influence the vegetation. They can also grossly overgraze an area. If deer would speak, they would use the word nature for everything which exists outside of their influence. Nature, for a deer, would be everything where deer can’t go and everything which grows regardless of their grazing activities. A thorn bush which deer can’t graze on, would be nature to a deer, as would be a fenced motorway. Both the thorn bush and the motorway are there regardless of what the deer do. 


Not human presence but human numbers are the problem

Humans have a rather long history, longer even when we consider that Neanderthal’s were people, just as well as we are. This means that Europe is for at least 300.000 years inhabited by people. The fact that many animal and plant species exist in Europe today, proves that they have the ability to survive with and regardless of humans. It is not a problem that there are humans in Europe. It is a problem that there are so many of us. Just like it would be a problem if there were so many deer. Very large numbers of deer overgraze their living area in such a way that the forest disappears and only low grass and herbs remain. Very large numbers of humans overuse their living area so that only intensively cultivated and urbanised areas remain. 


The role of nature conservation

In a world which is populated by very large numbers of humans, we automatically have less nature. Regardless of that, we have only one world. When we lose a part of nature from our world, we lose it forever. We cannot rebuild a mountain, recreate a bog or make an extinct species alive again. And even if we could, would it be the same as it was before? I don’t think so. Nature is threatened because nature is everything which exists without human influence. More people in the world equals more human influence which means less nature. It is really that simple.  The role of nature conservation is therefore to limit human influence and, in some cases, to compensate for human influence. Nothing more, nothing less. The moment nature conservationists are doing anything else, they create a park or a zoo, not nature. If a beautiful place exists because we made it, it cannot be nature, by definition!

River Tagliamento in Italy is one of the most natural rivers in Europe. We sometimes make a stopover here, on the way to nature areas in Slovenia!

An act of self-limitation

Nature conservation means limiting human influence. It means doing less of what we would otherwise do, for the benefit of everything which exists outside of our influence. No wonder that nature conservation is inherently a conflicting activity! It just means saying no, you and I can’t do this here, because you and I have done this in so many places already


What do we do to nature?

Humans influence the world in many ways. Examples are urbanisation, pollution, agriculture, hunting, fishing, regulating streams and draining marshes and transporting animal and plant species over the world – the Invasive Alien Species problem. So conserving nature means limiting and compensating for all of the above. Clearly, we can’t do this everywhere because then we would have nowhere to live and nothing to eat. So, nature conservation is also inherently making compromises. We can only decide to limit human influence up to a certain degree. 


Do we need nature?

We have not yet invented a space-bubble with life, which can exist apart from the rest of the world. And if we ever do: who wants to live in there? It would be a boring prison without the great diversity of animals and plants! Not so long ago, I asked a new “facebook-friend” to name a wild animal or plant species which she saw that day. She couldn’t. I pity such people because they don’t know what the world, what life has to offer! The diversity of nature is the only true source of inspiration for science and art alike. Without nature, we would only be copying each other’s thoughts. 

More practical, we need nature because it cleans our waste, tempers our influence on the earth’ climate and provides resources like food, water and raw materials for our industry. The world is an utterly complex place to live and we have not invented any way to exist without this complexity. Unfortunately, we have invented many ways to alienate ourselves from it. 

When an artist sees a white flower, he can imagine a red one or a blue one. But who could imagine something as intricate as a bumble-bee orchid, which exploits the sexual desire of insects to achieve its own pollination? Nature is the ultimate source of inspiration …

Setting Priorities for Nature Conservation

If a deer would make a planning for nature conservation, he would limit grazing in some parts of the world to allow trees and other plants to grow there. Likewise, when we make a planning for nature conservation, we need to limit human influences to some parts of the world to allow other species to flourish. This gives us a definition of a protected area = a place where we limit human influences for the benefit of plant and animal species as well as geological features. We cannot do this everywhere, so we have to set priorities. Tho do this, we can not start by drawing protected areas on a map. We have to start with a good knowledge of the natural diversity of plants, animals and geological features. Of these, we have to list which ones are more influenced by our actions, and which ones do well either because of or in spite of what we do. Basically, this is what red lists are for: they provide overviews of those plants and animals which do not do well because of us. I am not sure if similar lists for geological features exist as well, but probably they do. 


The ideal way of nature conservation

Ideally, we should select protected nature areas so that as many as possible of the red-list plants, animals and geological features will be included. Then, we should list what these plants, animals and geological features need to exist. From this, we can make a plan on how to manage an area. It is a trap to focus on some very visible species and forget about the rest, but it is also a trap to focus on whole landscapes and forget about needs of individual species. One of the greatest challenges in nature conservation is to integrate all this and also to take current and future human use of an area in account. 


In Practice

In practice, the world is less ideal. Nature areas are sometimes designated because of hunting interest of a (past) elite. Or they are planned in the least populated areas because they will meet the least resistance there. Fortunately, the least populated areas are often also the ones which were least altered by human actions. Because of this, they harbour some of the most sensitive plant and animal species. However, by focussing these areas, it is easy to forget about other species, which can only live in area types which are used by people. Extensively used meadows for instance. These are nowadays home to species from forest edges, from mountains, from regularly flooded riverine areas and from areas which were in a distant past grazed by wild cattle and horses. When we no longer mow extensive meadows, many meadows species may go extinct. When we intensify the use of the same meadows, these meadow species will also disappear. Sometimes, the best way to manage a nature area, is to continue traditional use. 


The other way round: planning in an existing protected area

When an area is already designated “for nature”, planning should go the other way round. First, a thorough overview should be made of all plant and animal species, as well as geological features in the area. This should not be limited to certain groups which are more visible (protected species, birds etc). Instead, this overview should include everything possible. Then, priorities should be selected. Not only on basis of legal requirements but on the basis of which species and geological features are most under pressure of human influences on a regional or even worldwide scale. The management of the area (= which human actions should be limited or compensated for!), follows from the requirements of all the species and geological features which are under pressure. 

A touristic infrastructure in a nature area, like this path, can compromise what we aim to protect.

Tourism brings risks

In a way, it is contradictory to take people to areas where we think that human influence should be limited. This is more so when areas are adapted for visitors, for instance by making a “touristic infrastructure”, like paths, information plates and bird-watching hides. At the same time, a cleverly-made infrastructure can direct people away from the most sensitive areas. Also, it can permit them to experience places while at the same time limiting human impact. For nature conservation, public support is essential. In practice, the best protected areas are those which many people come to see and which have a positive impact on the local economy. However, there is a risk that people are attracted to general landscape features rather than to species which they will never see. Management could easily move away from protecting species and features which are under pressure in favour of making an infrastructure which allows many people to enjoy the landscape.  


A role for ecotourism

Ecotourism often based on seeing specific animal and plants species as well as geological features, in addition to an overall nice landscape. In this way, it can act as an eye-opener for area managers and local people alike: when people travel over half of the world to see something special, perhaps that is also worth protecting? 


Our ecotourism philosophy

When planning tours, we consider the impacts which we may have on nature. We aim for small groups, which have less impact than larger groups. We do not avoid most sensitive places, because of the eye-opener effect which the enthusiasm of our guests can have.  However, we instruct our guests how to behave, for instance, to admire areas from the edge or by walking single-file through a sensitive vegetation. During our tours, we do, in some cases, catch animals for identification of species. Knowledge of species is a basic requirement of nature conservation and presenting species is an important part of ecotourism as well. However, we release all animals unharmed and we do not collect entire plants. Rarely, we make exceptions for licenced researchers who may join us at some excursions and who may collect individual animals or plants in the framework of ongoing research. We believe in being honest about what we show and will not present a managed landscape as unspoilt nature. Above all, we believe that enjoying nature is the basis for caring for nature. 


The enthusiasm of small groups of ecotourists can be an eye-opener to local people and nature managers alike.

2 Responses
  1. Hendrik

    If nature, as you write, is everything “which exists without us and outside of human influence” – one might also conclude that nature does not exist. Think of DDT condensation in the arctic, microplastic in the ocean… let alone that the european landscapes we perceive as “nature” was profoundly shaped by human activity. The whole concept of the anthropocene (as megalomaniac as it sounds to me) has a truth to it. Often i ask myself, if it wasn’t precisely that nature/culture split (where nature is degraded to a mere resource to be exploited) creating our harmful and persisting attitude towards planet earth? Resulting also in bespoke sad disconnection, where many can´t remember a plant or animal species they saw today?

    …no pun intended, these questions just keep nagging on my mind.

    1. Paul

      Hi Hendrik,

      Thanks for your reaction! Perhaps I have not been as clear as I thought I was. I wrote about a definition of nature and a definition of a nature reserve. These are different things. I fully agree with you that there are no areas where there is no human influence. Therefore, I define a “nature reserve” as a place where we intentionally limit human influences. The degree to which we limit human influences differs between nature reserves. A city park can be a nature reserve, because we limit urbanisation there. A strictly protected area is nature reserve where nobody is allowed to do anything. Here, we limit human influences a lot more. But even when we put a fence around an area and allow nobody in there, we still influence the area to a certain degree, as you correctly point out with the DDT example.

      No single area can be defined as “nature”, but many areas can be defined as a “nature reserve”.

      “Nature”, as defined in my blog, is not an area or a region, but is anything which exists regardless or independent of us humans. A polar bear is part of nature, as is the grass between the tiles of the pavement.

      Some 25 years ago, one of my university mentors asked me “what is nature”. Now, I came to a definition which satisfies me. I found that, with any other definition, you run into very big differences in perception between individual people.

      I hope that this clarifies my text,

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