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Science, People & Politics, Volume 1, 20.07.06, 0020 gmt.

At odds over the management of Planet Earth

by Fred Pearce.

Infinite Nature by R. Bruce Hull; Chicago UP; £16.00 (cloth);
ISBN 0-226-35944-1

What is nature? Is it apart from us, and if so, what should our relationship with it be?

These are hard questions to answer, and go to the heart of our sense of ourselves as humans and as inhabitants of planet Earth. And, of course, they go to the heart of environmentalism.

Broadly, there are two sorts of environmentalists. On the one hand are the preservationists, who see almost any human intervention in the natural world as some kind of a Fall, an expulsion from Eden. On the other, are those who might be summed up as the sustainable developers, who regard the natural environment as a sort of service industry for humanity, albeit one that needs careful nurture. Nature, for them, is a garden, rather than a wilderness.

Different societies have different takes on this divide. Europeans, accustomed to living on a densely populated continent, are more likely to make their accommodations with nature. They are today sustainable developers, albeit with fixations about certain species such as whales or pandas. American environmentalists, with their wide open spaces, are often more fundamentalist preservers. These differences are refected most obviously in national parks. European parks are overt compromises; US parks like Yellowstone are intended to be wilderness.

It is the preservationists that Bruce Hull, a professor of natural resources at Virginia Tech, takes as his target. Calling himself a "rebound romantic?, he says this fundamentalist position has marginalised thought about the environment and made people feel powerless about how to live on a planet full of both people and nature. If every move made by humans is seen as inevitably destroying nature, he reasons, we can have little hope in making a fruitful accommodation with it. "Our tendency to polarize issues as supporting either humans or nature saps our will to act,"he says. It puts economics and nature, biodiversity and development in perpetual conflict.

Better, he reasons, a "pluralist"approach. By this he means a measured realism. It means recognising that naturalness is not some single idyllic state, with an ecologist's nirvana of "climax vegetation"at its heart. It means seeing nature as a more dynamic, versatile and capricious phenomenon, capable of responding in unexpected (and sometimes even fruitful) ways to our activities.

It is worth taking a few instances of how the conventional fundamentalist view of nature and humanity in permanent combat, the latter to the detriment of nature, often fails to fit the facts. We are mistaken, for instance, in imagining the densest, most biodiverse rainforests to be entirely natural. Before Europeans arrived and decimated local tribes with their diseases, the Amazon had been heavily cleared and planted with fruit trees and other economically valuable crops that would today be called "agroforestry?.

Most other rainforests are far from primeval. They are the result of past accommodations between humans and nature. A millennium or so ago, much of the Central African jungle was cleared for palm oil growing and to make charcoal for copper smelting. Even the "wilderness"national parks of the US are largely the result of depopulation of native America after the arrival of Europeans.

Similarly, however much the planet's overall biodiversity may be declining, humans have been so good at moving species around, both by accident and by
design, that any given locality probably has more species within it than ever
before. Certainly the gardens of England are far more biodiverse than ever before. So indeed are many cities, often because of the bizarre ecological niches created by industry. (A few years ago, not two miles from my house, a derelict industrial site in south London was found to contain 300 species of plants. In its previous state as a meadow on the banks of the Thames it would never have contained anything like so many species.)

I'm not sure what Hull means by the book's title: Infinite Nature. It confuses more than illuminates. If the phrase has any meaning, it is to encapsulate the anti-environmentalist notion that nature will always find a way, and that we humans will always find a way without nature. But Hull objects to this techno-optimistic stance as much as he does that of the fundamentalist ecologists with their narrow vision of a finite nature.

While his attempts at a new green lexicon sometimes come unstuck, Hull's central arguments -- for which he persuasively lines up the grand old men of American environmentalism like Aldo Leopold and Henry Thoreau -- are strong and useful.

He attacks the contradictory myths of nature as both fragile and unchanging. Most environmentalists seem to hold both views instinctively without considering them an unlikely combination. He argues instead that nature can be both robust and dynamic. But nowhere does he suggest we should take it for granted.

He attacks the narrow visions of both sides by arguing that, in nature as in human society, "change is the norm and surprise is inevitable?. That does not mean we have no responsibility for our actions; but it does give us a responsibility to be both scientifically rigorous in our analysis of nature and imaginative in our relations with it.

Most usefully of all, he is pro-people. There is no trace here of the pernicious and potentially fascist idea of "people pollution" here. (And if you don't believe me on the fascism front, just take a look at recent arguments in the US, where anti-immigrant groups have attempted to take over mainstream environmental bodies like the Sierra Club on the not-so-subtle grounds that immigrants will trash the all-American environment.)

"I believe human creativity can improve, refine, and enhance many natures, "Hull concludes. We must be wary of hubris and "admit that we can destroy as well as create. But, nonetheless, "we can be prudent innovators, inspired visionaries and loving partners in the odyssey of evolution." It is a life-enhancing vision.

And good for nature, too.

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