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.

Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform