Domesticating Nature…and Ourselves


I work on the ecosystem services team at The Nature Conservancy, which strives to find ways to protect and strengthen the services that nature provides that are crucial to human well-being while also protecting biodiversity.

But there are at least two definitions of “ecosystem service” floating around the conservation community. And within the tension between the two lies a larger, philosophical choice: between the domestication of nature and the preservation of something wild, in the world and within ourselves.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment — a 2005 UN report that assessed the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and what it would take to conserve and sustainably use those systems — used what might be called the broad definition of ecosystem services, where agriculture and forestry were both included in the concept.

From talking with folks who were “present at the creation” of the MA, however, there was even then a sizable number of ecologists who preferred to restrict the term to more natural services, excluding agriculture and fiber provision.

This argument over a broad versus a narrow definition of ecosystem services recapitulates the classic argument between Pinchot-style environmentalism (referring to Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the U.S. Forest Service) and Muir-style environmentalism (referring to John Muir, the naturalist and wilderness-preservation advocate).

The Pinchot style emphasizes utilitarian use of natural resources and the wise use of them to satisfy a suite of human demands, while the Muir style emphasizes the intrinsic worth of the natural world quite apart from any utilitarian considerations.

Sometimes it seems to me that philosophic arguments never are decided, they just are renamed! The broad definition of ecosystem services is squarely focused on human well-being, and raises the possibility that human’s demands on an ecosystem might reduce its biodiversity. The narrow view of ecosystem services is focused on using ecosystem services as a rationale for protecting some of the Earth’s last great wild spaces.

In a paper, my colleagues and I once argued that mankind is engaged in the domestication of nature. As we alter the landscape we are selecting for specific ecosystem services, often at the expense of other ecosystem services and biodiversity. There area of course occasional unintended consequences, but overall we have shaped nature in a form that is to our liking.

Philosophically, our paper was clearly using the broad conception of ecosystem services, and yet as I reread it today, I realize that even we kept the ghost of Muir in the paper, when we write about maintaining the remaining slivers of wild nature, places not yet fully domesticated.

The wonderful science program Radiolab had a recent show that speculated that humans are in fact domesticating ourselves. The idea is that traits that are not consistent with our urban, civilized life are selected against, and so either genetically or culturally we are as a species becoming more urbane (or tame, depending on your perspective). There is good evidence that something like this is happening: slavery, once commonplace in human societies, has disappeared from the vast majority of the Earth.

Whether this ongoing domestication of nature and ourselves is a good or bad thing depends very much on which side of the philosophical divide you sit on. I have ended up uncomfortably straddling it. The romantic in me is horrified with the thought of a tame world and a tame species running it. There is something deeply special about close contact with wild nature. But the pragmatic in me wants to help make sure we are protecting human well-being, ecosystem services in the broad sense, which I recognize is a utilitarian quest.

There is some poetic justice in the idea that humans will get exactly the world they deserve; wild nature will only exist in the future if we choose to allow its continued existence.

Similarly, if Radiolab’s theorizing is correct, humans will become exactly what we decide to be; if we don’t cherish the wild within us, we will become more fully tame.

(Image: Cheetah at the Cincinnati Zoo’s Mast Farm Breeding Facility. Credit: JasonBechtel/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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