Can we ever replace nature?

Can a new, human-created landscape ever be as valuable as the original?
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Your heart sinks when you see the plaque, half-hidden under a pile of dead leaves. You wish you hadn’t noticed it, that you’d just walked past the unassuming bump in the ground.

But now you have, and it’s changed everything.

It’s hours since you stepped off the train into the cold morning mist, your rucksack heavy with supplies for a day’s hike. Soon the tarmac underfoot turned to soft leaf litter and you’d felt relaxed almost immediately. You’d breathed in the leafy, sour smell of the forest and noticed the tangle of lives around you, the oaks and holly and birch and rowan jostling for space, the white bell flowers knocking together silently on the forest floor, flycatchers bounding through the branches above.

That’s when you’d seen the glint of metal beneath a tree, and you’d uncovered the plaque riveted to a block of concrete.

Now you stand reading it for the fourth time. This forest was created in June 2016 to replace the woodland destroyed by the new dual carriageway.

This forest, these trees, aren’t what you thought. They were just put here a couple of years ago, shoved into holes made by diggers. You’d come out here to enjoy nature — but now you’re not so sure that this forest is natural at all.

Are you right to feel disappointed? Is this human-created forest any less valuable than the one that was destroyed by the new road? What exactly is it that’s been lost — and can it ever be recreated?

Replacing nature is like forging a painting

This story isn’t so far-fetched. They probably wouldn’t commemorate it with a plaque, but plenty of development projects compensate for destroying natural places by promising to create new ones elsewhere. HS2, the UK’s new high-speed railway, will cut through 111 local wildlife sites and 19 ancient woodlands — but it will also create a new ‘green corridor’ to replace and restore nature along the route.

But can new human-created landscapes ever truly make up for the loss of natural landscapes? Is it even possible to ‘restore’ nature — or are we just destroying it and creating an imitation in its place?

Philosopher Robert Elliott likened man-made landscapes to forged paintings. If I discover that the Vermeer I’m looking at is actually a forgery painted a week ago I’ll be disappointed to say the least. The forgery may be indistinguishable from the original, but it’s just not as valuable. What makes the original so significant and important isn’t just the way it looks, but also its history, the fact it was created by the artist himself in the 17th century. That history is something that can’t be recreated.

Maybe something similar applies to nature. What we value isn’t just what’s there, but how it came about. Just like in the story, people spend time in nature for an escape from the human-created environment of cities and villages. Part of the wonder and beauty of natural places is their independence from us, the fact that these complex, varied tangles of lives came about on their own. In fact, for many people, that’s just what it is to be ‘natural’ — not created or reliant on human activity.

If this is right, then the landscapes created by people to make up for destroying the original aren’t natural at all. A human-created forest might look exactly the same as one that came about by itself, but it will still owe its existence to our actions and decisions. Just like a forged painting, it’s less valuable than an original because it was created in a different way.

This would mean it’s impossible to fully replace forests, wetlands or grasslands once they’ve been destroyed by roads or factories. Anything we try to create to make up for this loss won’t be truly natural — just like a forged painting, it will be a less valuable imitation.

The myths that make nature seem irreplaceable

We’d feel disappointed if we found out that a ‘natural’ woodland was actually designed and created by people. And comparing restored nature to a forged painting gives us a way to justify these feelings.

But all of this thinking is based on a couple of myths about nature. When we dispel these myths we can see that nature isn’t irreplaceable at all. A human-created forest can be just as valuable as one that’s ‘natural’.

The big myth is that being natural means being independent of people. If that’s the criteria we’re using, then there’s probably nothing natural left to worry about. In the UK, the patchwork landscape of fields, hills and hedgerows has been shaped by thousands of years of human interference. Even a dense old oak forest like the one in the story would certainly have been coppiced, the wood turned to charcoal to smelt iron.

That’s just for starters — when you look at it, there’s nowhere that hasn’t already been changed by our presence: we’ve polluted the air, altered the chemical composition of rivers and changed the global climate. Nothing is ‘natural’ if that means being independent of human intervention. If even the original forests were marked by our interference, what’s so bad about the replacement ones also bearing our fingerprints?

There’s also something a bit self-centred about our preference for ‘untouched’ nature. It’s only us humans who even notice whether a forest is ‘natural’ or human-created. The birds and insects, the trees and flowers, don’t care how the forest came about. So long as it’s the same in all the important ways, it’s still a valuable habitat.

But the biggest problem with our worship of ‘untouched’ nature is that it can stop us from taking action to protect the natural world. If ‘natural’ means free from human intervention, then there’s no way for us to actively help nature. As soon as we intervene, whatever we were trying to save can no longer count as natural. We devalue it by getting involved. This would mean the only thing we can do to help nature is take a hands-off approach and let it get on by itself.

You might think it’d be a positive thing for humans to stop interfering with nature. If we’re just going to end up doing more harm than good, then it’d be better to stay out of it. But this seems like a cop-out. It lets us off the hook, absolves us of any responsibility for trying to find solutions for the problems we cause. It prevents us taking any real action to tackle the environmental crisis we helped to create.

So let’s not get hung up on the idea that nature can never be restored or replaced, that its naturalness is destroyed whenever humans get involved. Sometimes nature needs a helping hand to overcome the problems we’ve caused. If we can help to restore habitats and ecosystems, we should do it wherever we can. Who cares if the forests we create aren’t pristine and free from human intervention? The birds and trees and insects certainly don’t.

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