WHAT IS “NATURAL”? – A CONCEPT ANALYSIS
Presented at the Ninth Annual Meeting of the International Association for
Environmental Philosophy, Salt Lake City, Utah -- October 23, 2005
This paper is adapted from Sections 3, 4 and 5 of an unpublished essay,
“Nature for Better or Worse. (At this website). Research for the essay
and for a projected book now in progress was supported by a grant the
National Science Foundation (Grant number: SES-9819617), which I
Two common interpretations of “natural” are examined and rejected. A
third is accepted for its heuristic value to ecological science, and for
its uses in dispelling popular misconceptions about nature and ecology.
The first interpretation: “Everything is natural.” This view is expressed
by former Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner, Floyd Dominy, as told to
John McPhee: "Nature changes the environment every day of our lives - why
shouldn't we change it? We're part of nature." Accordingly, since human
beings are natural, everything that humans do is natural.” This
interpretation of “natural” abolishes the natural/artificial distinction,
and conveys the suggestion that human activity can not “harm” nature.
The second interpretation: “Nothing on the surface of the Earth is
Natural.” This follows from the realization that the atmosphere is an
“artifact” – i.e., its composition has been altered by human activity. And
if this is true of the atmosphere, it is equally true of climate. Thus if
the atmosphere and climate are “artificial,” so too is everything affected
by climate. Bill McKibben says as much in his book, The End of Nature: .
“We have changed the atmosphere, and thus we are changing the weather. By
changing the weather, we make every spot on earth man-made and
artificial.” While the first interpretation effectively abolishes the
concept of “artificial,” this interpretation denies an exemplification of
The third interpretation: A natural (“wild”) area is a place where natural
forces are allowed to act and evolve, undisturbed by artificial
interference. (Because “natural forces” are identified and defined
independently by the physical and biological sciences, this interpretation
is not circular). By this account, “naturalness” is a quality that admits
of degrees: absent in an inner-city parking lot, and present in the
interior of the Amazon rain forest. The interpretation also preserves the
natural/artificial distinction. Granting McKibben’s argument that even
Amazonia is affected by anthropogenic alterations of the atmosphere, it is
still possible to determine how “natural” ecosystems function and evolve.
Even if “pristine nature” no longer exists on the earth’s surface, the
concept remains available to ecological science as an extrapolation from
empirical data. In this sense it is similar to the concepts of
“frictionless machine” “perfect vacuum” and “perfect vacuum” in physics:
also nowhere exemplified in “real” nature, but nonetheless essential to
the theoretical structure of this “exact” science.
WHAT IS “NATURAL”? – A CONCEPT ANALYSIS
Can natural areas be degraded, or conversely, can "damaged" areas be
"improved" and even "restored" to a "natural condition"?
To most untrained ordinary citizens, professional conservation biologists
and environmental ethicists, these questions are "no-brainers." Of course
natural areas can be harmed. Life communities -- ecosystems -- can be judged
to be "stable," "healthy," "integrated," and conversely, "endangered,"
"injured" and "disintegrated."
The very concepts of "environmental protection," "wilderness preservation,"
and "conservation biology" presuppose that environments -- ecosystems,
landscapes, wilderness areas, lakes and rivers, the ocean -- can be judged
to be in "better" or "worse" condition, and thus, in identifiable instances,
worthy of "protection," or in need of "restoration."
And yet, according to some interpretations of “nature” and “natural” now in
vogue, these normative concepts might be regarded as meaningless.
I -- IS EVERYTHING NATURAL?
"Nature changes the environment every day of our lives - why shouldn't we
change it? We're part of nature."1
This remark of Floyd Dominy (ex-Commissioner of Reclamation), recorded by
John McPhee in his book, Encounters with the Archdruid, typifies an evasion
familiar to most environmental activists and scholars. "Human beings are
natural," goes the argument, "therefore everything humans do is 'natural.'"
It then follows that human projects cannot "harm nature," and thus the
qualms of the environmentalists are without meaningful foundation.
No less an environmental philosopher than Baird Callicott has been enticed
by this ploy, as he writes: "we are part of nature, so our recent habit of
recycling sequestered carbon [i.e., through the consumption of fossil fuels]
is not unnatural."2
(In fairness to Callicott, I must also
note that he acknowledges that some human interventions in "nature" are
In an identifiable sense of the word "natural," both Dominy and Callicott
are entirely and indisputably correct. But this is not the only, or even the
most relevant sense of "natural" found in environmental debates. And this
equivocation is at the root of a great deal of rhetorical mischief in
environmental debates and policy.
The sense of "natural" apparently intended by Dominy and Callicott in the
above citations is this: "a condition in accordance with natural law." By
implication, "unnatural" can only mean "contrary to natural law," which is
to say physically impossible.
It follows, as Dominy suggests, that everything that human beings create and
do is "natural," including transuranic elements, DDT and chloro-fluorocarbons,
atomic reactors, genetically modified organisms, exponential population
growth, etc. The "unnatural" includes perpetual-motion machines, time
travel, faster-than-light velocities - unless and until, that is, these
sci-fi notions are found to be possible, whereupon they are acknowledged to
"Artificiality" is thus abolished by semantic fiat, and with it all cause
for concern about the warnings of the environmentalists. "If it can be done,
go ahead and do it - don't worry, be happy, after all it's natural." To
repeat Dominy's cheerful reassurance, "nature changes the environment every
day of our lives - why shouldn't we change it? We're part of nature."
This argument, which I have heard from numerous students throughout my
twenty-five years of teaching Environmental Ethics, has a superficial
plausibility, accompanied by a suspicion that there is some sort of logical
hocus-pocus at work at a deeper level.
The "all-is-natural" argument is reminiscent of another, familiar to most
students who have taken an introductory course in ethics: psychological
egoism. This theory is simplicity itself: All human action is selfishly
motivated. The immediate rejoinder is obvious: what about saints and heroes?
- what about the soldier who falls on a live grenade to save his buddies, or
of a Martin Luther King or Mohandas Gandhi who willingly accept
imprisonment? Surely their voluntary acts were not selfish!
"Oh yes they were," replies the psychological egoist. "King and Gandhi and
all the rest, did what they did because they wanted to - these were their
The dissolution of this nasty bit of sophistry is simple: the maxim, "all
voluntary human acts are selfishly motivated " is "true" because it is a
plain tautology - i.e., it is "true by definition," and thus devoid of any
empirical content. "Selfish motivation" is defined by the egoist as
equivalent to "preferred by the agent" which is equivalent to "voluntary."
Ergo: by substituting equals with equals, we find that psychological egoists
simply state that "all voluntary acts are voluntary." Big Deal!3
The capper then is straightforward: Ask the psychological egoist, "if what
you say about human motivation is true - 'all acts are selfish' - then what
would it be like, contrafactually, to encounter an unselfish act?" If, as we
contend, psychological egoism is a tautology, there is no answer to that
challenge because the theory is empty of empirical content.4
In other words, because all imaginable behavior is so indicated
(denoted), no particular behavior is described (designated). In the jargon
of the Philosophy of Science, Psychological Egoism is empirically
meaningless because it fails "the falsifiability test."
The crucial challenge to the egoist then is this: "what is to be gained, and
what is to be lost, by abolishing the distinction between "selfish behavior"
and "unselfish behavior" Do we gain or lose moral insight by examining and
contrasting, for example, the motives and behavior of a self-serving
scoundrel on the one hand, with lives and ideals of saints and heroes on the
other hand? I suggest that if the lives of Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth,
Galileo, Jefferson, Gandhi, King, Mandella, Sakharov and endlessly more,
have nothing to teach us (since, allegedly, their lives were entirely
"selfishly motivated"), then we are in a sorry moral state indeed.
Time now to "cash in" our comparison between psychological egoism ("all
human motives are selfish") with the naturalism evasion ("all human
activities and products are natural").
In a similar mode, we should ask such technocrats as Floyd Dominy, "what is
to be gained by abolishing the distinction between "artificial" (conditions
and substances of human origin) and "natural" (conditions and substances not
of human origin)?" Granted, all human acts and products are "natural" in the
sense of being constrained by natural law (call it "natural1").
But within this category of "all-things-possible" there is a distinction,
essential to science, technology and public policy, not to mention common
sense - a distinction between conditions and substances of human origin
(e.g., antibiotics, genetically modified organisms, nuclear waste, CFCs,
etc.) and conditions and substances not of human origin (e.g., old-growth
forests, plate tectonics, solar flux, DNA, thermodynamic laws, etc. - call
It is true that Dominy's triumph, Lake Powell of the Colorado, along with
genetically modified organisms and atomic power, is "natural1".
So too was the Black Plague which consumed one third of the European
population, as well as any and every ecological devastation that we might
bring upon ourselves and our planet. If, like the dinosaurs, we are
annihilated by a collision with a comet or asteroid, this too will be a
"natural" event. "Natural1" makes no moral or value
It is within the semantic domain of this second sense that the environmental
scientists and activists make their warnings - the sense that utilizes the
familiar distinction between the artificial ('of human origin") and "natural2"
(not of human origin). With this essential distinction as part of our
conceptual arsenal, we can meaningfully raise questions about the practical
and moral implications of our "artificial" interventions in "nature2,"
and thus make informed choices among the alternative futures before us.
Environmental scientists tell us that global population growth, atmospheric
carbon loading, loss of biodiversity and tropical forests, are all
proceeding at unsustainable rates. All this activity is "natural1"
- namely, according to natural law. But are these anthropogenic alterations
any less worrisome, if we choose to ignore the common-sense
II -- IS NOTHING (ON THE SURFACE OF THE EARTH) NATURAL?
The very idea seems outlandish on its face. And yet, on reflection, it is
not easily dismissed.
The contention that there is nothing natural on the surface of the earth
follows directly from the assertion that the earth's atmosphere is not
"natural" -- that it is an artifact. And if the atmosphere is an artifact,
then so too is climate. Thus, if that "artificial" atmosphere touches and
interacts with the entire surface of the earth, then nothing on that surface
is entirely "natural."
What, then is "natural?" Isolated ecosystems at the thermal vents at the
deep ocean floor are completely natural. Strata below the surface of the
earth are natural. Events totally independent of human control -- e.g.,
earthquakes, tsunamis, volcano eruptions -- are natural..
But life forms and communities at the surface? None of these are "totally
This, briefly, is the contention of Bill McKibben in his popular book
End of Nature.
In the years since the Civil War, and mostly in the years since World
War II, we have changed the atmosphere -- changed it enough so that the
climate will change dramatically... [Formerly] man's efforts, even at
their mightiest, were tiny compared with the size of the planet -- the
Roman Empire meant nothing to the Arctic or the Amazon. But now, the way
of life of one part of the world in one half-century is altering every
inch and every hour of the globe.5
The atmosphere an "artifact?" How can this be? This is so, simply because
industrial civilization has changed the chemical composition of the
atmosphere. The amount of CO2 in the pre-industrial atmosphere is
believed to have been about 280 parts per million.6
Today it is in excess of 370 ppm.7
Methane, a greenhouse gas thirty times
more powerful than CO2, has increased in concentration from 730
parts per billion in 1750 to 1843ppb in 2003. Add to that chemicals unknown
250 years ago, notably the ozone depleting chloro-fluorocarbons (CFCs).
Not even the oceans are unaffected, for ultra-violet radiation, increased by
ozone depletion, is deleterious to phytoplankton, the base of the oceanic
Accordingly, McKibben concludes:
The idea of nature will not survive the new global pollution -- the
carbon dioxide and the CFCs and the like... We have changed the
atmosphere, and thus we are changing the weather. By changing the weather,
we make every spot on earth man-made and artificial. We have deprived
nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning. Nature's
independence is its meaning; without it there is nothing but us.8
"Every spot on earth man-made and artificial?" Perhaps, but equally so?
Does the "touch" of the artificial atmosphere render every spot on earth
totally artificial -- just as the law of the State of Mississippi once
classified as "negro" anyone with "a drop of negro blood" (i.e., any negro
Surely not. The center of the Amazon rain forest, the tundra of the Arctic
National Wildlife Reserve, the interior of the Australian outback -- all
these are surely more "natural" than an abandoned and eroded farm in
southeastern United States, a clear-cut forest in the Pacific Northwest, or
the saline wasteland that was once the lake-bed of the Aral Sea.
Totally pure and pristine nature is gone -- the artificial atmosphere and
climate have accomplished that much. In that "wildest" of regions, the
central Amazon forest, the increased atmospheric carbon dioxide has
variously altered the growth rates of the flora, resulting in a different
composition of the forest community. So too the altered acidity of the
rainfall and the changes in numbers and types of the in-migrating and
colonizing species -- changes brought about by advancing edge of
deforestation and settlement.
And yet it is surely more "wild" than the cut, tilled, and abandoned
laterite wasteland beyond the forest border, that was once a part of that
By identifying all of the earth's surface as "equally artificial," we
stipulate the abolition of a concept and a distinction that is essential to
science, public policy, and ordinary discourse.
Far better that we treat "artificial" and "natural" as end-points of a
continuum. McKibben's point, then, is that the extreme totally "natural" end
of that continuum, due to the consequences of industrialization, no longer
exists on the face of the earth.
Nonetheless, landscapes and ecosystems can be more or less "natural" -- or,
as I would prefer now to call it, "wild."
Our next task, then, is to present and defend criteria of "wildness" --
properties by which we might assess the degree of wildness of a landscape,
region, or ecosystem.
My proposal will be startlingly obvious, even simple-minded. But I can think
of nothing better.
III -- DEFINING "WILDNESS"
Based upon what we know from the physical and life sciences:
A wild area is a place where natural forces are allowed to act and
evolve, undisturbed by artificial interference.
By "natural forces" I mean action describable by innumerable physical and
chemical laws: gravity, precipitation, erosion, oxidation and reduction, the
conduction, convection and radiation of energy, and most fundamentally to
The solar flux provides abiotic energy and its consequences: wind,
precipitation, flowing and collected water (streams and lakes).
Photosynthesis provides "life energy. "Life energy" is nothing more than
solar energy captured by photosynthesis and bonded into complex organic
molecules -- combining the simple molecules of free oxygen, free nitrogen,
carbon dioxide, water plus other elements from the atmosphere, soil and
water into hydrocarbons which "fuel" the trophic pyramid that rises "above"
basic biotic "production" -- the "producers," which feed the herbivores,
then the primary carnivores, then the higher-order carnivores, then the
decomposers, back to the producers.
The fundamental distinction between abiotic activity and biotic activity is
that the former is entropic and the latter is negentropic. Abiotic
activity leads to chemically simple and "probable" substances -- it is
entropic. Biotic activity produces chemically complex and improbable
substances -- it is negentropic.9
(An apparent exception: atmospheric
nitrogen and oxygen, biotic products, are both the simplest forms of these
elements and improbable -- their "natural tendency" is to combine with other
elements. These free elements exist in the atmosphere as both the byproducts
of and the resources for biotic activity). Biotic substances, and the energy
contained within, fueled by the solar flux and fed by chemical nutrients,
evolve into ever-more complex and improbable life forms and life
communities. Life, in short, is an "entropy pump" and life communities are
"entropy eddies," locally reversing the universal entropic flow toward
disorder and "heat-death."
The energy in ecosystems "drives" the system toward complexity. This
phenomenon is evident in all regions that recover naturally from
devastation, for example from fire, flood (tsunami), or volcanic eruption.
Complexity and diversity are the result of the struggle for survival, as
organisms evolve or immigrate to occupy and sometimes create viable niches
(ecological functions). Failing that, they become locally extinct. The
proliferation of ecological niches, and reciprocally of species, manifests
the negentropy -- the evolution from simplicity to complexity, from
probability to improbability -- that is driven, ultimately, by the energy of
Regions that are recovering from catastrophic "setbacks" (fire, flood,
earthquakes, volcanoes -- very rarely, asteroid impacts) pass through a
succession of staged development to achieve a stable and persistent state,
called a "climax" stage, at which the pace of further evolution of the
ecosystem composition and structure would radically diminish -- given, of
course, constant climate, no migrations, and no further natural disruptions.
But, as disequilibrium ecologists persistently and correctly remind us,
these "constants" never occur in nature. Thus, like the concepts of perfect
vacuum and absolute zero in physics, the "climax stage" is an "ideal type"
-- a theoretical abstraction, possibly approximated but never fully achieved
And why do these natural forces, in various chemical (nutrient) and climatic
environments, develop in one direction rather than another? (Note
that phrase!) Why deserts rather than hardwood forests in Nevada? Why
prairie rather than desert in South Dakota? Why forest rather than prairie
Were mankind not to interfere, what life community (rather than another)
might arise from the lateritic wasteland at the exploited and abandoned
outskirts of the Amazon forest? What life communities might similarly arise
from artificial wastelands of the Pacific Northwest clear-cuts, and the
similar and adjacent natural wasteland of the north slope of Mt. St. Helens?
Given the climate, geomorphology, and available nutrient resources of a
region, what options of community development are open, and what other
options are closed -- and for what reasons? Just what is the meaning of
"community development"? Presumably, this would include proliferation of
life forms, patterns of interaction (competition, symbiosis, co-evolution,
etc.), paths of energy flow and nutrient recycling.
These questions suggest a response to those who are disinclined to regard
ecology as a science.
The foundational "natural forces" are described and measured by the "exact"
sciences of physics and chemistry. Photosynthesis is similarly studied by
the science of biochemistry.
Ecology is the study of the life communities: of the life forms that
proliferate from the base of photosynthesis and that interact with each
other and with their abiotic environment. The above phrase, "rather than
another," indicates that ecological science is comprised of falsifiable
propositions -- a logical requirement of all empirical science.
Generalizations ("law-like statements") drawn from field and laboratory
studies, that simultaneously describe and, by implication, exclude
conditions in life communities, predict confirming or refuting conditions in
Thus, for example, ecological science can predict the succession of life
communities that will take place on the devastated northern slope of Mt. St.
Helens, given a constant climate. But how was an account of this particular
succession arrived at? This was accomplished by examining the stages of
restoration found today on the slopes of other Cascade Range volcanoes, the
past eruptions of which are accurately dated by volcanologists. And how is
this account of ecological succession at Mt. St. Helens confirmed when, in
fact, it must take place over many centuries? By predicting what sequences
will be found in other, yet unexamined, successional sites, as well as by "paleo-ecological"
examination of soil strata -- some, no doubt, at and near Mt. St. Helens
itself – which will yield evidence of successions following previous
To sum up: The words “nature” and “natural” are ambiguous, and some senses
of these words are manifestly more insightful and seminal than others.
Preferable definitions preserve the familiar and crucial
“natural/artificial” distinction. Definitions that abolish this distinction
by stipulation – e.g. by pronouncing that “everything is natural” or
“nothing on the earth’s surface is natural – are mischievous, since by
implication they also undermine the concepts of “harming” and “improving”
landscapes and ecosystems, which might further imply nothing less than a
refutation of the foundation of environmental ethics. The indispensable
concepts of “artificial” and “natural” are found in ordinary discourse, and
thus are simple and accessible. Artificial: of human origin. Natural: the result of natural forces (independently defined),
undisturbed by artificial interference.
1. John McPhie, Encounters with the Archdruid,
(Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1971), p. 173.
2. J. Baird Callicott, "Do Deconstructive Ecology and
Sociobiology Undermine Leopold's Land Ethics?" Environmental Ethics 18
(1996), p. 371. In the Summer, 1999 issue of the same journal, Max
Oelschlaeger replies with an argument similar to mine ("On the Conflations
Humans and Nature"). However, the ideas that I express in this piece, and
have routinely presented to students over the past twenty years, extend back
at least to the publication of McPhee's book in 1971.
3. Psychological Egoism ("all acts are selfishly motivated")
should not be confused with Ethical Egoism ("one's primary moral obligation
is to oneself"), notoriously championed by Ayn Rand. The arguments against
Ethical Egoism are subtle and complicated, and far beyond the scope of this
piece. While I have not published lengthy arguments against this ethical
theory, my dissent is evident in "Why Care About the Future?," (in Partridge
(ed), Responsibilities to Future Generations, Buffalo: Prometheus Books,
1981), and Sections V - VII of "Nature as a Moral Resource." (Environmental
Ethics, 6:2 (Summer, 1984).
4. A similar argument may be made against George Berkeley's
subjective idealism, also familiar to most students of Introductory
Philosophy: "to be is to be perceived," i.e. all that exists are mind and
their ideas - matter is illusory. But that too is beyond the scope of this
5. Bill McKibben:
The End of Nature, (Random
House, 1989), 45-6.
6. D.M. Etheridge, L.P. Steele, R.L. Langenfelds, R.J.
Francey, J.-M. Barnola and V.I. Morgan. 1998. “Historical CO2 records from
the Law Dome DE08, DE08-2, and DSS ice cores. In Trends: A Compendium of
Data on Global Change. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center,” Oak
Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn.,
7. “Current Greenhouse Gas Concentrations,” T.J. Blasing and
Sonja Jones, Updated November 2003.
8. McKibben, op. cit., p. 58.
9. See “The Entropy Trap” section of my
(This Website) . Originally, “Gefaerlicher Optimismus,” Natur und Kultur, Summer, 2001 (in German). Reprinted as “The Perils of Panglossism,”
Global Dialog, Winter, 2002.