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The myth of Eden

Nature's Keepers: The New Science of Nature Management by Stephen Budiansky Weidenfeld, pounds 20; A brave ecologist argues powerfully that nature can never return to its pre-human state. By Richard D North
Man is very uncomfortable about his power to wreck nature. Indeed, nature was famously declared to have come to an end by the environmental writer Bill McKibben in 1989. McKibben declared that man had got into two of the engine-rooms of life: we had altered the climate and were altering the genetic make-up of life. No longer could nature be seen as the great Other, immutable and separate. Man had lost one of the great constants, which - like God - served as a model both moral and practical for our busy but uninformed works in and on the world.

This gloomy thinking was built on a particular reading of a relatively new science, ecology. This new amalgam of biology, ethology (the study animal behaviour) and mathematics implied to many of its most famous and widely-revered adherents that nature exhibited three main characteristics: it was stable, it was fragile, and it was co-operative. There was much discussion about the idea that plants and animals formed communities headed for a sort of steady-state perfection, and man was all that interrupted and destroyed a state which was truly natural and to be admired.

This is such a beautiful set of ideas, so morallyinstructive, that it seems a sort of sacrilege to suppose that it might be flawed. It is the value of writers such as Stephen Budiansky to be able to show that very few real ecologists have ever held them, and that the pseudo-ecologists (as one must call many conservationists) have usually taken a particular moment in history, described it as perfect, and sought to return us to it, simply on the grounds that they believe that that is the moment when a particular habitat was untainted by the white man.

Thus, conservationists see an African savannah with lots of wild animals and few humans and think we should make African parks like that. They forget that white men saw Africa at a moment when disease had whacked the human population to rare lows. The same whites did not realise that Africans had burned and reburned the savannahs into the grassy expanses which were taken to be God's work.

Fire is Budiansky's biggest single theme. Inmany North American woodlands, it has both been natural (it pre-exsited human interference) and deeply human: the Native Americans burned prairies and forests. In Scotland, fire made the grouse moors, whose gamekeepers Budiansky dares to eulogise as preservers of both grouse and raptors.

For Budiansky, it is important to understand that man has for ever and ever been an intrusive feature. Our ideas of the natural - the primordial and pre-existing - often enshrine a paradisical scene which has usually, had we but known it, been vastly altered by the simple, primitive, tribal peoples we are enjoined to admire as existing alongside nature without damaging it. But they also ask us to re-read the ecological writings of the great founders of the discipline, such as Arthur Tansley, who by 1935 was trying to derail the machine which had already mythologised almost all the wrong ideas in ecology and ignored almost all its truest lessons.

Budiansky is a science journalist and a mathematician: he is a numerate as well as a literate revisionist, and relishes his role. He weighs into conventional thinking with a will, but without bile. He roots his argument in research material ranging over 100 years. He is not saying that anything goes; he is not celebrating any and all actions of mankind: his re-writing of what is natural does not condone crassness. He is, rather, saying that man's hand is everywhere and has been for so long that we cannot imagine, let alone recreate, a pre-human world. Nor can we ever know quite enough to manipulate the world's habitats and all their denizens into any paticular desired earlier state.

But we can, he says, study the natural world with such an eye for detail that our management of it will preserve vast variety alongside our own big and legitimate demands for farms, roads and factories. This may not be an attractive agenda for romantics, but this book goes a long way to explaining whythere is no practical alternative to it.