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Copyright © 2002 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance.
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Hull, R. B., D. P. Robertson, D. Richert, E. Seekamp, and G. J. Buhyoff. 2002. Assumptions about ecological scale and nature knowing best hiding in environmental decisions. Conservation Ecology 6(2): 12. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol6/iss2/art12/


Assumptions about Ecological Scale and Nature Knowing Best Hiding in Environmental Decisions

R. Bruce Hull1, David P. Robertson1, David Richert2, Erin Seekamp1, and Gregory J. Buhyoff1

1College of Natural Resources, Virginia Tech2Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation--Division of Natural Heritage


Assumptions about nature are embedded in people’s preferences for environmental policy and management. The people we interviewed justified preservationist policies using four assumptions about nature knowing best: nature is balanced, evolution is progressive, technology is suspect, and the Creation is perfect. They justified interventionist policies using three assumptions about nature: it is dynamic, inefficient, and robust. Unstated assumptions about temporal, spatial, and organizational scales further confuse discussions about nature. These findings confirm and extend findings from previous research. Data for our study were derived from interviews with people actively involved in negotiating the fate of forest ecosystems in southwest Virginia: landowners, forest advisors, scientists, state and federal foresters, loggers, and leaders in non-governmental environmental organizations. We argue that differing assumptions about nature constrain people’s vision of what environmental conditions can and should exist, thereby constraining the future that can be negotiated. We recommend promoting ecological literacy and a biocultural approach to ecological science.

KEY WORDS: biocultural, communication, conceptual models, conflict, ecological buzzwords, ecology, environmental quality, forest, human–nature dichotomy, nature, public participation, public perceptions, public perceptions, social construction.

Published: November 25, 2002


Assumptions that “nature knows best”—that it is somehow goal-directed toward diversity or a “correct” ecology—are, and will continue to be, difficult obstacles. These beliefs lie at the core of many people’s fundamental conceptions of the world. They are exceedingly difficult to examine openly and rationally....(Borden 1993: 301)

Negotiating desired future conditions for natural areas is a glorious yet frustrating task. It is glorious because people possess keen spiritual, cultural, and economic connections to nature. They feel and speak passionately about their god, their love, and their livelihood; and nature is all these things and more. Negotiations are frustrating because natural conditions are so hard to define and discuss. Nature’s infinite complexity and social construction make its definition ambiguous and contingent (Botkin 1990, Cronon 1995, Ingerson 1994, Macnaghten and Urry 1998, Merchant 1980, Sagoff 1988). These frustrations are particularly evident in the negotiation train wrecks caused by the preservation/intervention dichotomy. This dichotomy polarizes and thus paralyzes environmental decision-making (Ingerson 1994, Peterson 1995, 1997, Senecah 1996). Examples of this can be found in the classic debates between preservationist John Muir and interventionist Gifford Pinchot, and in Leopold’s famous A–B cleavage (Huth 1957, Leopold 1949, Norton 1991, Oelschlaeger 1991). Preservationists’ strategies for environmental problems seek to minimize human-caused change to the finely tuned workings of nature while interventionist strategies seek to improve nature’s inefficiencies.

Previous research has clarified some of the differences between preservationist and interventionist rationales. These two lines of argument emphasize different outcomes: for example, the preservationist might seek spiritual connections to the Creator or exhibit aesthetic wonderment of natural marvels, while the interventionist might seek to sustain production of merchantable resources at minimal cost. They differ over whose rights take precedence. For example, the preservationist assumes nature to be living, soulful, and deserving of respect, while the interventionist assumes nature to be mechanical and subservient to human rights. They also differ in the faith placed in technology. Preservationists bemoan human arrogance and worry that technology may cause more harm than good, while interventionists look to human ingenuity as Earth’s ultimate resource. Less well known are the effects of these assumptions about how nature works. People’s conceptual models (intuitive understanding) about how nature works may be as important a source of difference between interventionists’ and preservationists’ positions as are the better-known differences in assumptions about outcomes, rights, and faith in technology. This paper attempts to examine these assumptions about how nature works and, also, it attempts to examine how they are used to justify preservationist and interventionist positions.

A number of scholars have examined how assumptions made within ecology, the science of nature, shape the content of environmental debate. Worster (1994) demonstrates how changing assumptions changed scientific theories and methods. A familiar example is the Clements–Gleason debate that shaped ecological theory for the first half of the 20 th century. Clements assumed ecological communities (e.g., ecosystems) possessed organismic qualities: the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Gleason assumed the parts of a community were much more independent. He argued that the metaphor of a community’s successional march toward a predetermined climax was misplaced and it might be more appropriate to think of nature as changing continuously and aimlessly. Ecological researchers who followed Gleason’s deductions found a more dynamic and chaotic nature than those who followed Clement’s tenets. More recently, Callicott et al. (1999) show how specific scientific terminology used in conservation science, such as ecological integrity and biodiversity, reflect a “compositionalist” bias and are used in arguments to advocate the protection of nonhuman environmental conditions, whereas terms such as sustainability and ecosystem health reflect a “functionalist” bias and are used in arguments to advocate management of ecosystem functions for human benefit. Assumptions about scale also shape the debate. Angermeier (2000), Norton (1995), Demeritt (1994), and others argue that scale is one of the more fundamental means by which nature, ecology, and environmental quality are organized and understood. Spatially, an environmental change can affect a few square meters, a watershed, or the entire globe. Temporal changes can occur quickly or slowly and can last moments or eons. Organizationally, an environmental change may be examined from the perspective of a cell, an organism, a population, a species, a lake, or some other ecologically significant unit. Which spatial, temporal, or organizational scales are employed will determine how an environmental change is evaluated. These findings suggest that differences in our understanding of nature have significant implications for conservation policy, even within the objectivist realm of science.

A few studies have specifically examined how lay understandings of nature shape environmental management and policy. Dunlap (1999) contrasts the different environmental policies resulting from different understandings of nature found in four anglophone cultures: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the US. Looking specifically at US history, Weiner (1996) illustrates how policies that encouraged distribution and exploitation of natural resources dominated when people assumed that nature was stable and resilient, whereas policies of wise use and conservation emerged when assumptions changed to suggest nature was fragile and finite. Dizard (1994) examined the controversy over forest-management policies for the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts. The reservoir managers believed that overgrazing by a protected deer herd was preventing forest regeneration and thus threatening the soil stability, water quality, and water-retention capabilities of the reservoir. Many people who opposed active management (in the form of a deer hunt) used “balance of nature” arguments. These stakeholders argued that preservation was more desireable than intervention because nature knows best and, if just left alone, the forces of nature would regulate the deer population to a “proper” level.

The study by Kempton et al. (1995) is similar to the effort reported here, in that they interviewed experts and members of the public about environmental understandings and policies. In their case, they studied global warming. They found that people who don't believe in a balanced nature were more comfortable with interventionist solutions, whereas people who believe that nature is balanced and/or frail would rather not intervene to solve environmental problems. People typically offered one or more of three explanations for why they think nature knows best and thus why preservationist rather than interventionist strategies are warranted: (1) nature has homeostatic or self-healing properties; (2) nature is vulnerable to large-scale disturbance and might collapse if greatly disturbed by humans; and (3) nature is too complex and unpredictable for humans to safely modify it without the risk of causing more harm than good.

This paper builds on these prior research efforts, particularly those of Kempton et al. (1995), and on other studies described in the extended literature review (Appendix 1). The empirical research reported below examines how different assumptions about nature are embedded in the preferences for policy and management of forest landscapes.


We identified 44 people intimately involved in the science, policy, and management of forests in southwestern Virginia. We purposely sought to represent a broad range of the values, concerns, and understandings of nature held by people within the forestry community in this region. We interviewed private consulting foresters, academic scientists, public agency planners and managers, environmental organization leaders, loggers, and forest owners. Our sample was not intended to be statistically representative of the general population; rather, this research is expected to be generally applicable to similar communities with related natural resource management issues in other locales. We conducted in-depth interviews using a semi-structured interview guide with specific questions. These interviews were transcribed into a database of 230,000 words. Through multiple analyses, we identified the discursive themes presented in this manuscript. We asked our selected individuals to define conditions that produced good environmental quality (“How do you define good environmental quality?”). To expose assumptions about how nature works, we asked people to explain the rationale behind their definitions (“How do these conditions produce environmental quality?” and “Why can or why can’t humans do better than nature in producing environmental quality?”). Although our method of data collection and analysis was guided by the work of numerous discourse scholars, a valuable reference text is the work of social psychologists Potter and Wetherell (1987). Publications with a similar purpose and methods include Peterson's (1997) work on sustainable development, Takacs’ (1996) work on biodiversity, Scarce's (2000) work on salmon, and Kempton et al.’s (1995) work on global warming. Appendix 2 contains the complete interview guide and more details about the analysis.


People’s assumptions about how nature works fell into two opposing camps: (1) Nature knows best how to manage itself and (2) Nature does not know best and needs human management. A third cluster of assumptions pertained to scale. People recognized that nature exists at different spatial, temporal, and organizational scales. It is important to understand at the outset that individuals hold multiple and changing assumptions about nature. We observed the same people using different assumptions at different times during an interview. We discuss and illustrate people’s assumptions about nature by using direct quotes from the interviews. Shorter quotes made by multiple speakers are indicated in the manuscript by quotation marks. Longer quotes are set in indented paragraphs and are attributed to a specific speaker. We also provide related insights from the literature (typically in the Appendices).

Why nature knows best

Twenty-five of the 44 people, at some point during the interview, argued that nature knew best. They reasoned that, all other things being equal, forest management practices should minimize “human intervention,” “closely mimic” nature, and “let nature take its course.” In other words, “Mother Nature, knows best.”

... I think in all instances Nature does a better job than we do ... [laughs] we might convince ourselves, or talk ourselves into, or justify with science that what we are doing is improving on Mother Nature, but no, I hardly think ... that you can improve on it.” (Forest advisor 3)

The purpose of the research reported here is to go beyond this simple statement of faith in nature by exploring specific assumptions people made about how nature works. Some of the people we interviewed could not articulate the rationale that justified their nature-knows-best beliefs. They simply defined natural conditions as “normal,” or as environmental conditions that “belong” and are “supposed to be.” By refusing or being unable to be more specific, they merely made a rhetorical switch of one ambiguous term for another—normal for natural. Most people were able to explain why they think nature knows best. Four types of explanations emerged from analysis of these assumptions about nature: (1) nature has self-regulating processes that produce a delicate balance; (2) evolution is progressive, such that more recently evolved conditions are objectively better than previous conditions; (3) nature is unpredictable, and (4) an all-knowing supernatural being created a perfect nature.

Delicate balance: More than half of the respondents (23 of 44) employed, at some point during their interview, a “balance of nature” argument. They suggested that nature was “balanced” or in “harmony” or that there exists an “equilibrium” in nature due to “forces” that “heal,” “improve,” or otherwise guide nature towards some balanced or healthy state. Most believed this balance was fragile and easily disrupted by human intervention, and that management should therefore be avoided. Some people offered an organismic metaphor to explain how nature maintains a balance. An ecosystem, it was suggested, functioned like an organism with “self-perpetuating,” “self-maintaining” processes that allow it to “heal itself” (see also the literature reviewed in Appendix 1). Some interviewees explained that nature’s balance results from the “interconnections” among environmental factors, species, populations, ecosystems, and ecological processes. That is, the complex interconnections in the “web” of life produce some force that “holds things together.” The common, but contentious, assumption that diversity leads to stability provides a case in point.

....generally the more diversity you have in the biologic world, the better able and more resilient the ecosystems are to respond to different stresses and not collapse because of monocultures and things like that. (Forest Service 9)

The belief that nature has balance encompasses both static and dynamic visions of nature. The most restrictive understanding of balance, referred to here as a static balance, occurs at a relatively small spatial scale. A nature that is both static and balanced is assumed to exist for each geographical point in the forest. Each and every acre has a specific ideal, balanced state defined by the forces of evolution, succession, and other environmental conditions and processes that produce balance. If disturbed from that state (within the bounds of natural resilience), then these forces work to recreate the balanced conditions: “although it might be changing, it’s going through a process that is repeatable [and] inherent to the system.” The length of time it takes to rebound depends upon the degree of disruption, but it was typically defined in human time (several to dozens of human generations), rather than geological time (tens of millions of years).

The least restrictive understanding of balance, referred to here as dynamic equilibrium, has larger spatial and longer temporal scales. Variability may characterize the small scale, “...but on a larger scale, you have to have that stability.” Somewhere within the larger spatial extent of the forest, a specific set of conditions (i.e., climax) is expected to occur, but the exact location where this set of conditions occurs depends on unpredictable and indeterminate factors, such as ice, fire, and other natural perturbations, wind direction during pollination, and migration by animals, etc.

Evolution: At least 16 respondents reasoned at some point during the interview that species or other ecologically significant units produced by “evolution” were “best” because they have survived the “test” of time or because “natural selection” had “improved” them. People rationalized letting nature (in this case operationalized as evolution) take its course because they assumed natural selection knew better than humans what was right and good. For example, people suggested that native species were better than exotic or domesticated species because the processes and pressures of natural selection ensured that the native species had adapted to “local conditions.” Many of our interviewees made this point by arguing that “exotic” or “alien” species were “bad” or “wrong” for an area because they “change[d] ... the natural processes” or were otherwise “out of control” and thereby “muck up the ecosystem.” (See also the literature on “evolving nature” reviewed in Appendix 1.)

Limited Human Technology: Twenty respondents argued that the environment is “incredibly complex,” that humans “lack...control over [the] natural influences” causing landscape change, and that the “unpredictability” of disturbance and evolutionary events makes forecasting future conditions difficult or impossible. Expecting and planning for annual sustained yields over an extended planning horizon is thus an exercise in wishful fancy. Some people used this reasoning to recommend preservationist policies. Others recommended caution (i.e., careful testing and regulation of new technology). Several people argued against hubris and paraphrased Aldo Leopold’s caution that “intelligent tinkering” requires that we “save all the pieces.”

Personally I think that man tends to be enormously arrogant and we ought to be humble enough to understand that we have a very limited grasp on what goes on in natural ecosystems. (Environmental organization leader 1)

Supernatural created perfect nature: Six people explained that nature knows best because the supernatural force creating it knows best. “God” or “Mother Nature” has set in motion a perfect system and humans must tend and keep that system in the condition in which it was received (see also the literature on “supernatural nature” discussed in Appendix 1). Environmental quality is assumed to be highest when human intervention is minimized or mimics perfected nature, thus the preferred management option is to minimize or mimic nature.

We've tried to force our way upon what Mother Nature, or the Lord, the Creator.... the way the cycles that He set for this earth and stuff, and we've always tried to enforce our ways upon the different things, and it's never worked, and I don't think it ever will work. (Environmental organization leader 3)

Why nature does not know best

Almost half (20) of our interview participants indicated at some time during their interview that they believed that nature does not know best. They used this reasoning to justify the necessity of human intervention and control over nature. They discounted preservation as illogical because they assumed untouched nature was random, misanthropic, and inefficient. Detailed analysis of their arguments identified three different assumptions about nature. These were: (1) nature is dynamic, it is constantly changing, and many possible natures can exist and indeed have existed, therefore, selecting one of them as a guide for management would be arbitrary and capricious; (2) nature is robust and resilient, therefore, human manipulation will not necessarily damage it, so we might as well manage nature for desired outcomes; and, (3) nature is inefficient and ruthless, human technology can improve and control it.

Nature is dynamic: Some people explained that nature is neither balanced nor stable but rather it is dynamic and frequently “disturbed” by “human” or “natural” causes such as “fire, storms, volcanoes” as well as “roads,” “clearcuts,” and “invasive species.” These perturbations create conditions of constant flux. People used phrases such as “changing,” “disturbance regimes,” “dynamic equilibrium,” “cyclical,” and “growing, changing, maturing, dying, re-growing” to describe forests. These people conclude, in essence, that change is the norm, that there is “no such thing as the balance of nature,” and that there exists no ideal condition of nature that can serve as an unbiased goal for management or justification for preservation. Because nature is dynamic, there exists no single condition that is objectively better than any other condition. Nature offers an arbitrary and capricious guide for management.

Rather than let nature wander along some random course, humans should manage nature to produce conditions that meet human needs. (See also the literature on “dynamic nature” noted and discussed in Appendix 1.)

.... anybody who knows a great deal about forests knows that they are constantly changing. That there is no such thing as that kind of permanence. It's a myth. (Environmental organization leader 6)

Nature is robust: Earlier we described how some people justified preservation by using assumptions about the balance of nature. We must also point out that nature’s balance was used to justify intervention. At least 12 people reasoned that nature’s self-regulating properties make it stable and resilient. They argued that trees “grow back,” “clearcuts will come back to be valuable timber,” and that we can see all around us the “forest that has recovered, that has come back.” These respondents explicitly discounted nature’s frailty, arguing instead that nature’s robust resilience provides reason to actively manage the forest. “Species have been going extinct ever since the ... life arose on earth ...” and life goes on. “I don't think that the world's gonna end because a couple of little critters in minute niches of the environment have become extinct” (see also the literature reviewed in Appendix 1).

For example, a hurricane....Hurricane Hugo might come through here and blow down a hundred acres of poplar and that’s a change and it’s going to take some time to grow back, but it would more or less with the same species and same processes. (Forest Service 6)

Nature is inefficient and ruthless: People argued that nature is inefficient and that humans can improve upon it by manipulating, improving, and creating the building blocks of life. For example, one respondent stated that “...engineering wise, there are things you can do for the forest that the forest can't do for itself.” Human creativity and resourcefulness can improve upon what nature does. Humans can “control” or “manage” the dynamics of nature that otherwise disrupt the regular flow of desired goods and services: “we can just manage the way that it [nature] changes in a more productive, scientific manner.” One landowner specifically described how silvicultural thinning practices “help” the forest recover from its “naturally” overcrowded condition.

That new forest, if you let it go promiscuous, it's not going to work. Nature will crowd it [deleted three lines] ... and you've got to recognize that and you [humans] have to do something to help that tree out ... (Landowner 1)

Several people (6) used similar logic to suggest that intervention is required to produce goods and services valued by humans. Life is difficult and human survival requires the management of nature. We live in a competitive world and “Nature on its own is just purely ruthless.” Humans, just like other species, need to eke out their existence. Nature does not nurture human existence. Rather, it is harsh and unforgiving and, if we don’t manipulate it, it will “manipulate us” (note the literature we review in Appendix 1).

Life exists on this earth not because of nature, but in spite of it, and now for the first time in the 5 billion years this planet has been in existence, there's a species in existence on this Earth that can change that, and for the better, and that's us. Unfortunately, a lot of us change it for the worse....well that's....what we've got to stop. But this bit about....this [expletive deleted] about....if that's the way it is in Nature, that's the perfect way—nothing could be farther from the truth. (Logger 2)

Assumptions about temporal, spatial, and organizational scale

Our interview data suggest that people’s understanding of nature varies according to temporal, spatial, and organizational scales. Different scales produce very different concerns about environmental management and policy. Time is at the core of many conceptualizations of environmental quality. Sustainability, for example, requires specifying a timeframe over which forest conditions are deemed sustainable (e.g., a “rotation,” “my lifespan, or my children’s lifespan,” “forever”). People often spoke of “change” and “resilience,” which have implicit temporal dimensions. The conditions of the forest after logging or other forest disturbance were expected to be different “10, 20, 30 years down the road” compared with what would “happen in hundreds of years’ time.” Short-term change (i.e., “2 to 5 years”) was more acceptable than long-term or “permanent” change. “Natural” changes were typically described as having longer timeframes (e.g., “geological changes,” “evolution,” “ice age,” and “hundreds and hundreds of years”) while human-caused changes occurred more rapidly, hence making them less acceptable: “... most plants and animals can’t deal with change that is too fast.”

Geographic scale also produces different concerns for environmental policy. Changes caused by logging, insects, ice, fragmentation due to roads or houses, or other factors that occur “on a broad enough scale” were of more concern than the same events occurring over a smaller geographic scale. Respondents talked about “cumulative impacts” that show up “a little bit here, a little bit there, 40 acres here, 100 acres there.” Individually these changes may be of little concern. But, collectively and cumulatively they are of great concern. The environmental quality of a large forest or ecosystem may be “resilient” to and perhaps even benefit from small-scale disturbances, but will be vulnerable if these disturbances affect a region. Those involved in the US Forest Service Plan revision were particularly sensitive to geographic scale, recognizing that their forest is divided into “stands,” and “zones,” and “districts” and that even the whole forest fit within the larger “Southern Appalachian Planning Region.” Their recommendations for planning varied with this geographic scale.

Finally, many of the respondents’ explanations of how nature works exhibited differences in what we term organizational scale. Nature has many ecologically significant units, including “cells,” “organisms,” “populations,” “species,” “habitat,” “ecosystems,” “energy” flows, “nutrient cycles,” “diversity,” etc. The organizational strategy adopted determines the ecologically significant unit of concern, which, in turn, determines preferences for environmental policies. For example, definitions of environmental quality depended upon whether the person was focusing on individual species (“trees” or even more specifically “pines”), collectives of species (e.g., “ecosystems” or “biodiversity”), collectives of collectives (e.g., “forest” or “biosphere”), or individual organisms (i.e., a “tree”).

I mean dead trees are a part of forest health and ecosystem health. Insects, diseases, fire, windstorms, ice, glaciers, I mean all of that fits into a healthy forest. Certainly if you look at tree health, I view tree health much differently because a tree is like a human being. It's born, it matures, grows old, and it dies. [Three lines of a similar vein are deleted here]....So tree health is a very specific thing to me. I mean you can look at a tree and you can tell if it is healthy or not, but in a healthy forest there are going to be unhealthy trees. (Forest Service 9)

Demonstrating how the choice of an organizational unit influences the understanding and discussion of nature can be illustrated by examining how interviewees defined “diversity.” At least two different strategies surfaced: structural and species diversity. Structural diversity refers to diversity in “age-classes,” “habitat types,” “communities,” “ecosystems,” canopy structures (e.g., “understorey, mid-storey, and overstorey”), and “successional stages” (e.g., “early, middle, and late”). Species diversity refers to diversity in “species types,” “species abundance,” “species richness,” species rarity (or “commonness”), as well as “exotic” and “native” qualities of species. The goals of management may be to maintain or enhance diversity. However, dramatically different actions would result from the two different interpretations of diversity. This distinction between structural and species diversity parallels Callicott et al.’s (1999) distinction between functionalists and compositionalists. Scientific literature includes yet other definitions of diversity (Heywood 1995, Takacs 1995).

Obviously, preferences for environmental policies depend upon scale. The degree of concern an environmental change elicits, for example, depends on the spatial and temporal scale of the change. We observed this dependency, in one form or another, in most descriptions and explanations of environmental quality. People differed from one another in the scales they used and the same person often used different scales within the same interview. For example, one respondent began speaking about “silt that washes off of [this] roadway” and how it could be a problem because it “eventually dumps into the Chesapeake Bay.” In a matter of a few sentences, the discussion of environmental quality evidenced a dramatic increase in spatial scale—from the road he was walking on, to a watershed that encompasses several states. This is not a problem or a criticism so much as it is an observation of the complexity of people’s understandings of nature.


We found that people explained why nature knew best using four assumptions about nature: nature is delicately balanced; evolution is progressive; technology is limited; and a supernatural being created a perfect nature that cannot be improved. We found that people justified that nature does not know best by using three assumptions about nature: it is dynamic, inefficient, and robust. People in our study who assumed that nature knows best argued with conviction that environmental quality is best “without human influence” and that human management only “degrades” or “destroys” environmental quality. Using these assumptions about nature, people argued that environmental policy should seek to minimize human intervention or to mimic nature in the cases where intervention is unavoidable. People in our study who believed that nature does not know best argued the opposite position, also with conviction: only through “good” or “scientific” management can the forest be made “productive,” “achieve sustainability,” possess “health” and have “diversity” greater than the “non-action alternative” of removing human control. A companion paper describes the considerable ambiguity and value biases embedded in key terms used to define environmental quality, such as health, sustainability, biodiversity, and the like (Hull et al. 2001, 2002).

These findings confirm, but also extend, findings from previous research. Dizard (1995) found that people use a “balance of nature” rationale to justify their positions against management intervention. Kempton et al. (1995) also found people using a “balance of nature” rationale and, within that rationale, he found assumptions about nature’s fragility and unpredictability. We found these same assumptions being used by our sample but several other assumptions were also noted and defined.

It is also important to note that we found no general consensus and much contradiction within and between the individuals we studied. That is, most people employed multiple assumptions about how nature works, and some employed contradictory assumptions. Illustrations of contradictions within an individual’s definition of environmental quality can be found in (Hull et al. 2002).

Finally, we found that discussions about environmental quality and environmental policy are scale dependent. People must and do make assumptions about temporal, spatial, and organizational scales.


How do we negotiate environmental policy in the context of hidden and embedded assumptions? Being precise about the geographical and temporal scales embedded in different definitions of nature is one solution. It may improve communication and eliminate some misunderstandings. Although this approach may work for scale, assumptions about whether nature knows best typically lie deeper below the surface. As a result, these assumptions are harder to expose or change. They have a polarizing effect that can paralyze negotiations, eliminating opportunities to explore potential common ground (e.g., Ingerson 1994, Peterson 1995, 1997, Senecah 1996).

Science-based education about how nature works is a logical response to this dilemma. It may be possible, through improved public education, to eliminate or expose assumptions that contradict what science currently tells us nature is and is not (e.g., that evolution is not progressive, that diversity need not produce stability, and that ecology is characterized by chaos and dynamism at least as much as by balance and stasis). By questioning potentially polarizing assumptions, public educational efforts may open up some middle ground upon which environmental negotiations can occur. In some cases, such an approach may prove to be an uphill battle. Assumptions about nature’s balance and the presumed link between diversity and stability seem deeply embedded in our history, our science, and our language (Ingerson 1994, Glacken 1967, Worster 1994). Sagoff (1985), for example, reviews how the diversity–stability hypothesis justified numerous important conservation legislation victories well after it became suspect in scientific communities. That is why it is intriguing for us to note that nearly half of our interviewees questioned assumptions about a balanced nature. Perhaps change in public sentiment is in the offing or, more likely, the professional training of our interviewees is responsible for their current set of assumptions. In any case, research such as that reviewed and reported here might help target areas where science-based education is missing or needed, and where it may be most effective.

On the other hand, precise terminology and exposed assumptions may not produce the desired outcome of improved negotiations. Peterson (1997) explains how ambiguity and confusion in environmental negotiations confer the benefit of creating room for stakeholders to find common ground as they struggle through negotiations to understand each other’s language and agendas. Norton (1991) argues that stakeholders with seemingly opposing agendas frequently share a great deal of common ground in their preferences for land use and policies. Although stakeholders may differ in why they want a particular outcome and in how they think nature works, they may nonetheless agree on desired future conditions. Many preservationists and interventionists are interested, for example, in keeping forest cover on forest lands rather than clearing such lands for housing developments. If negotiations focus on differences in foundational assumptions, then the potential for finding common ground may decrease. Being explicit about these assumptions may only hasten the polarization and further exacerbate already difficult negotiations by causing people to agree to disagree more quickly.

The challenge of future environmental debates will be to negotiate policies consistent with contemporary ecological understandings of a dynamic, chaotic, and humanized nature. We must transcend the polarization and paralysis produced by competing assumptions about whether nature knows best. Bioculturalism is an emerging view of nature that strives to transcend these issues. It encourages stakeholders to recognize human society as an integral component of ecological systems and to find ways for people to interact and live with nature. A biocultural approach to the study of human ecosystems is increasingly evident in mainstream environmental science, in particular, the growing field of urban ecology (e.g., Collins et al. 2000, Pickett et al. 1997). In addition, bioculturalism is increasingly accepted by the international conservation community, which has long recognized the limited effectiveness of conservation strategies that privilege biological diversity over cultural diversity (Droste et al. 1995, Western and Wright 1994). For bioculturalism to be an effective conservation strategy, people must first recognize the conceptual limitations imposed by the intervention/preservation dichotomy and accept humans as integral, functional, and adaptive members of the natural landscape. Toward this end, new ideas and directions can be found in the works of contemporary bioculturalists such as Ashworth (1999), Jordan (1994), Turner (1994), and Pollan (1991). These thought-provoking writers are among a growing contingent of biocultural activists who are designing creative approaches to the human–nature relationship based on the belief that humans can be artful agents of landscape change. Backyard Edens, sunflower forests, the biocolonization of neighboring planets, and the cultivation of a new garden are among bioculturalists’ visions of healthy human ecosystems that transcend the intervention/preservation dichotomy.


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a comment, follow this link. To read comments already accepted, follow this link.


This work was supported, in part, by a cooperative research agreement with the USDA Forest Service North Central Experimental Station.


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Address of Correspondent:
R. Bruce Hull
College of Natural Resources
Virginia Tech
Blacksburg, Virginia 24061 USA
Phone: 540-231-7272
Fax: 540-231-3698

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