We are living in a moment of crisis, both environmental and philosophical. The green philosophy about what to do with land, and how best to feed ourselves, is somewhat up for grabs. There’s a growing acknowledgement that the old ideas about "saving nature" or "returning the land to its original state" are misguided. There is no "original state," just a lot of different landscapes, depending how far you turn back the clock.To take a simple example that I have written about before, consider deer in the eastern woodlands. Ecologists think that the high deer populations we have now in some eastern areas have never been seen before in the history of the world. Does that make them unnatural? High deer populations are bad for certain other organisms, including oak trees, possums, and rare plants like the small whorled pogonia. Should we care about that, or by intervening to protect biodiversity are we reshaping nature according to our own ideas of what is natural? Since humans have been the primary predators of deer for the past 13,000 years, by ceasing to hunt are we returning things to nature, or interfering with nature? Since deer hunters mostly come from rural areas, are restrictions on deer hunting a sort of urban imperialism?
Saving nature sounds objectively honorable — above the sway of human desires — but it’s not, because people define what "nature" means. And the land we save almost always ends up being the type of nature that the people with political power happen to like. If we were capable of making non-anthropocentric decisions to preserve biodiversity, we’d be converting habitat to foster a thriving diversity of slime molds and dedicating national parks for bacterial mats.
Without the ideal of pristine nature as our lodestar, many greens are groping awkwardly for a new goal. Should the aim be justice — working with the land in whatever way most effectively reduces inequality and human suffering? Should the aim be beauty — preserving the species and landscapes that inspire us? Or should we double down on trying to find an objective, non-anthropocentric way to define nature — even if that means nurturing landscapes that we find ugly and uncomfortable?
How should we manage fires? Should we even try?
Should we be trying to eradicate or restrain invasive species? If so, how far back should we go in defining "invasive"?
If we can, should we try to bring back species that we once exterminated?
All of these questions circle back to the issue Johnson raises, the loss of scientific faith in any single "natural" order. Leaving any particular part of the world alone will not return it to a state of pristine wilderness, if such a thing can be said to exist.