Natural versus Sustainable

Below is my article for the next issue of “Virginia Forests”.  It is based on an earlier blog post, so if you have a feeling of deja vu, that is why.

Everybody has his/her own idea about what is natural, and often thinks everybody else’s ideas are wrong.  What is a natural forest, for example?  Is it made up only of native species?  Does it feature only local species?   Is a tree farm natural? The distinction most often made is that “natural” is what the situation would be like absent human activity.  Of course, nobody has ever seen that.  The “natural” Virginia of 1607 was the result of thousands of years of human activity.  Natural is not an attainable or even a useful goal when talking about forestry.

I think the goal should be sustainable, not “natural.”  Natural is a slippery, arbitrary and often arrogantly used term.   It assumes also that an environment that results from random chance and the interactions of non-human animals and plants is somehow qualitatively different than one with human influences and implies that human interventions are always damaging. This is just not true.   Besides all that, some environments that are natural are not sustainable and some environments that are sustainable are not natural.  Many of the most productive, beautiful and sublime environments are the results of long term human interference and management.   They are not “natural” if that term implies human-free.   But they beautiful and productive and they are sustainable.  

That is why I also quibble with words like “recovery” or “damage” used too freely when talking about human interactions with the environment. They can sometimes be appropriate.  Humans do serious damage to the environment and recovery may be necessary, but they too often go too far.   Some radical misanthropes who call themselves environmentalist actually believe that somehow the earth would be better off without humans.  Of course, this is a very short-sighted and ironically very human-based point of view. 

We would not want most human-influenced, human created, environments to revert to a pre-human state, even if that was possible and even if we could determine what non-human even looks like, since there has not been such an environment in most of the world since the end of the last ice age or before.  The wonderful “natural” environments of pre-Columbian America were by no means natural.   They were created by Native American activities, especially the use of fire, for example.  Humans have changed the environment ever since there have been humans.  Other animals have done so too.  Change is written into the book of life and all life creates change.  Everything is always in the process of becoming something else. Natural environments come back quicker than we often think and The truth is that it takes a lot of human effort to prevent nature from obliterating the most of the works of humans. 

Sustainable is clearly the better concept.  It provides a wide variety of choices and varieties of human influence. We will always have human influence as long as we are here.  So let’s go with sustainable, which is achievable and good, rather than some hypothetical “natural” state.

A well-managed tree farm clearly meets the standards of sustainability and through the “ecological services” it provides, such as cleaning water, providing wildlife habitat and just making the world a prettier place, it helps make the rest of Virginia a sustainable environment.  The constant learning and experience sharing provided by organizations such as ATFS, university extensions, departments of forestry and others helps us all adapt to changes in the environment.  This is a sustainable ecological system and we can all be proud to be participants.