Where the Wild Things Aren’t

Our ecosystems deserve more balanced management.

Watercolour images of an octopus, dragon fly, cora and toucan Artwork by Momoko Metham

A conservationist’s conundrum: lantana and fairy wrens. Lantana, once an ornamental flowering shrub, is a noxious, invasive weed, which competes with native understory plants. Inconveniently for efforts to remove the weed, it also provides valuable shelter to small native birds like fairy wrens, and its removal leaves them vulnerable to threats from predators. This problem means the process of protecting and preserving native flora and fauna populations is no simple enterprise. ‘Pristine’ ecosystems inevitably require a significant amount of human involvement. This is something of a paradox: the most pristine natural areas today may be the results of vastly more human interference than environs choked with weeds and facing erosion. What is ‘natural’, ‘pristine’ and ‘wild’ is constructed and up for debate.

Social, cultural, and political processes shape what we see as ‘pristine’. Western imagery of the ‘noble savage’ frames Indigenous people as nomadic wanderers who lived without impacting the land, suggesting that nature pre-colonisation was untamed and untouched; this is very clearly a construction when we understand how significantly Aboriginal people altered the landscape upon which they lived, controlling forest ecosystems to their advantage, sustainable through fire and cultivating productive plant species. Wealthy white conservationists living in cities see environmental damage as a tarnishing of a nature previously unscathed; this ignores both the history of land management present in that environment, and that ecosystems are constantly changing. Conservation, in this construction, is the practice of creating stasis in nature, of freezing it at a set point in time. Secondly, natural places themselves are constructed, set aside and protected through the creation of national parks, trails, regulations of their use, entry fees, and so on. The ‘nature’ that we see has been shaped by efforts to preserve it.

If nature is constructed, it complicates conservation efforts and makes us ask, what are we actually trying to conserve? It might be tempting to conclude that human impacts on the environment are inevitable and irreversible, so there’s no point in dedicating time and resources to conservation. We could take the classic Western conservationist route of struggling to keep ecosystems static and pristine, despite overwhelming natural and human-induced forces of change. Alternatively, we might conclude that biodiversity does matter, at least in some respect, because humans can extract value from it: diverse ecosystems have a huge range of benefits, from the pharmacological to the environmental or agricultural. Perhaps putting a price tag on nature might finally compel humans to protect it. None of these options seem ideal.

Writing off the project of protecting biodiversity altogether is clearly inappropriate. The desire to conserve the ecosystems of the past as we remember them might be futile, but losing diversity in species is very tragic. Quite apart from the many benefits that the environment offers to humans, species have a moral right to exist. We should want to safeguard endemic species and mitigate the damage humans cause to their ecosystems purely because extinctions represent a loss to the world that goes beyond human needs. For the same reason we might protect artefacts of ancient human civilisations, it’s important to ensure relics of the natural world live on. Flora and fauna add profoundly to earth’s beauty and diversity, making their loss decidedly something to mourn. Sacrificing the complexity and functionality, as well as the more intangible value of our ecosystems for humanity’s material interests is unjust.

So we have to do something — but what something? The desire to capture nature at one point in time and defend it (probably futilely) against change is based in unrealistic and colonialist understandings of nature. This ideal of pristine wilderness is a mirage, fetishising something which has never existed: some pre-civilisation, perfectly stable vision of nature, untouched. It misconstrues history, framing pre-1788 Australia as untarnished by human machinations. But in reality, the Australian landscape which European invaders surveyed when they arrived on the continent was the product of extensive management. Aboriginal science had developed effective land management mechanisms which delivered what early colonists like Elizabeth Macarthur described as “an English park…commonly attached to the habitations of people of fortune”. Not such an untamed wilderness after all.

Land management as stewardship, then, is a necessity. Some conservationists engage with this need by pointing to market-based solutions as the way to save biodiversity, believing that putting a price tag on the natural world might incentivise preserving it to capitalism-addled humans. This is still not quite right. Although it is correct to point to the undeniable human detriments of environmental destruction (we need only look to the way water shortages in the Murray Darling Basin have simultaneously threatened both natural and human inhabitants), and true that land management should not sacrifice human interests entirely (especially the needs of marginalised groups). But putting a price tag on the natural world is reductive of systems which are colourful, multifaceted, and not just there to serve human interests. Our ways of valuing ecosystems generally prioritise the immediate desires of humans; it is easy to see neoliberal corporations choosing to value short-term profits over long-term environmental conditions. And imperial capitalism doesn’t have a great track record with promoting biodiversity: looking at early colonial records suggests our planet has about 10% of the natural abundance and diversity it had before the dominance of capitalism.

So it’s unprincipled to neglect ecosystems altogether, it’s unviable to revert to a non-existent past, and it’s unrealistic to expect neoliberal capitalism to deliver radically different environmental results than it usually does. What now? The answer is decolonisation. Ultimately, capitalising on nature puts a price tag on something which isn’t ours to value. We don’t have to look back to the pre-colonial world as a benchmark for the pristine Eden to which we should return; rather, we should hope to create new abundance like that prior to the ecological impoverishment caused by capitalism. Rejecting corporate bodies and prioritising Indigenous knowledge of the land will allow us to manage natural systems both actively and responsibly. It’s important to defend the autonomy of original peoples and counteract the colonial erasure of their scientific processes.

In the end, our attitudes towards nature and biodiversity need to change. The idea of the ‘rambunctious garden’ is a pleasing one, which permits us to actively manage nature (like a garden) to safeguard endangered species and create broader social and environmental benefits. However, the rambunctiousness of nature as a garden means we are allowed to accept flux in nature and let natural systems adapt to change. As constructed as ‘nature’ is, its occupants deserve considered, passionate conservation from the human world.