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"Faking Nature": A Review

Restoration and Management Notes 4/2 (Winter 1986), p. 55

Consider for a moment "the restoration thesis": that "the destruction of something of value is compensated for by the later creation (recreation) of something of equal value." Philosopher Robert Elliot, in an article with the arresting title "Faking Nature" (Inquiry 25 [March 1982]: 81-93), suggests that this thesis is false, at least about nature. He argues that "natural" areas have values that "artificial" or "restored" ones lack and that our "wilderness valuations depend in part on the presence of properties which cannot survive the disruption/restoration process." A restored area, then, since it cannot have such properties cannot be as valuable as a natural area. Elliot's main concern is with those who would use restoration to "undermine" preservationist arguments: if natural areas can be restored, why not use the resources on or under them as and when it becomes necessary to do so and restore them when we are through using them? His arguments, however, seem to apply as well to the restoration and reclamation of areas not used in this way. Why, then, think that the restoration thesis is false?

Elliot offers three arguments. First, "a [natural] area is valuable, partly, because it is a natural area; one that has not been modified by human hand, one that is undeveloped, unspoilt or unsullied." Now if you assume at the outset that the effects of modification by human hand are always bad ("spoiling" or "sullying"), then of course natural areas will be more valuable than ones modified by human hand. But why assume this? And why assume that not being modified by human hand is always a consideration in an area's favor?

Elliot's second argument borrows from aesthetics: "what the environmental engineers [read: restorationists] are proposing is that we accept a fake or a forgery instead of the real thing... They offer us something less than was taken away." Now in most cases a fake or forgery is less valuable than an original. But why think of the products of restoration as fakes or forgeries? Forging and faking are species of deception. But restoration is not deception. Elliot is simply exploiting the connotations of these words; if he had chosen more colorless words such as reproduction or facsimile, his case could not have been made. In fact, the restoration of a great work of art (the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, say) might be a better analogy for Elliot's purposes, but it would obviously not yield his conclusion.

Elliot's third argument fares no better. He concludes from the fact that some people value natural areas-or areas with certain kinds of genesis or origin-more than restored ones, that natural areas are more valuable than restored areas. This is a mistake. Not every word ending in "-able" or "-ible" behaves like "visible." From the fact that I see my desk it does indeed follow that my desk is visible. But from the fact that I desire something it does not follow that it is desirable; nor does it follow from the fact that I have contempt for someone that she is contemptible. More to the point, from the fact that I (or we) value something it does not follow that it is valuable or more valuable than something I (or we) do not value. Elliot's third argument, then, must be rejected.

I have not said anything yet about what seems to me the most serious issue raised by Elliot's piece. According to Elliot "'natural' means something like 'unmodified by human activity.'" Notice what this account assumes. Human beings are not part of nature; human activity and the products of human activity are unnatural ("non-natural" is no better). But why? We are not artifacts, or gods; we are humans, and humans (surely) are part of nature. For us, living involves modifying the world. Modification by human activity, then, is the price the world pays for having humans around. This is not to say -- nor is it to deny -- that everything we do is natural; "natural" has many shades of meaning, perhaps too many for it to be useful in this context. It is to say that some of what we do must (on any reasonable definition of the word) be natural. But this is exactly what Elliot's definition rules out.

Finally, suppose restored areas are not as "valuable" as undisturbed ones and, given the choice, we should (all else being equal) prefer the latter. Usually, however, all else is not equal. The value Elliot claims to have established is, he admits, "just one value among many," and it may well be outweighed by the value of using the available resources and restoring the disrupted land. Even if we deny the restoration thesis (and I have argued that to do so on the basis of Elliot's arguments would be premature), restoration techniques represent a way of salvaging values that would otherwise be lost. What could be wrong with that?

Peter Losin
Department of Philosophy
Gonzaga University
Spokane, WA 99258

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