By Dr Tony Whitbread
Should we control nature or should we let it control us? This is more than a question about practical conservation management.
On the one hand is control. This may relate to our sense of responsibility and making best use of assets in our care. Control means we need to be clear about our objectives, make plans and then recognise when have achieved them. This, however, breeds the presumption that everything must be under our control.
On the other hand is nature out of our control. The word “nature” is hard to define but it generally relates to that being outside the human. It relates to the wild, Wold and Weald – the non-human, and also to “forest” which in one sense means “outside enclosure”. If we bring nature under our control it stops being nature. From this we may develop a view that we need to understand nature and work with it. Help it, maybe, but not control it. Sharply defined objectives are not relevant. We need to recognise when good things are happening and allow nature to take its course. It teaches us to appreciate surprise.
The first is about working logically towards a pre-determined outcome. The second is about building a system and allowing properties to emerge.
In a practical sense the first approach may be (for example) to plant trees in order to create a planned wood. The second would be to put in place the processes of regeneration and natural disturbance, let nature run and we then appreciate the habitat that emerges.
Neither is right or wrong, each may be preferable in different circumstances. We may need to take a very controlling approach where we have a rare or sensitive habitat which might disappear if things go wrong. However, we may take a far more hands-off approach in low risk, perhaps degraded areas where there is less to lose, and a lot to gain.
This could reflect two different attitudes for life in general, not just our relationship to nature. On the one hand is the need for control – the Controllers. On the other is the idea of putting good things in place and letting the future just happen – let’s call them Arcadians. The two different attitudes can drive two different mind-sets, which find it difficult to understand each other. “Untamed wilderness” to the Controllers is the worst form of insult, but to the Arcadians it is the very deification of nature. Controllers want to know the objective and the plan. Arcadians want to put good stuff in place and see what might happen.
Modern society is tuned more towards control. This is probably essential – with our population levels and expectations we cannot just leave things alone and hope it will all be ok. But the need for control may lead to a view that success is only achieved through complete control. The 1987 storm reminded us that we are not the masters of the environment. It humbled us. And, what is more, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Out of control does not mean “wrong”. Nature out of control can be brilliant!
Like so many extremes, their value is when they are complementary rather than conflicting.
Control implies responsibility, care and sustainable management. Sustainable management means we need to understand nature, working within critical limits and so recognizing limits on our ability to control. So, in a few steps, we move from controlling to realizing the limits of control. Working in the other direction, appreciating nature for itself reflects a wish to understand nature, how nature can be restored and if not restored then managed. So in a few short steps we move from appreciating nature to managing it
We need to allow nature to work for itself and then learn about natural processes in order to better understand how management (or control) can be done more effectively. The two approaches are different sides of the same coin.