(A Defense of Valuing Nature For Its Naturalness)

(From Ned Hettinger and Bill Throop, "Refocusing Ecocentrism: De-emphasizing Stability and Defending Wildness," Environmental Ethics 21, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 3-21)

We think that advocates of ecocentric ethics should shift the emphasis away from integrity and stability toward other intrinsically valuable features of natural systems, such as, diversity, complexity, creativity, beauty, fecundity, and wildness. For reasons we outline below, we think that the value of wildness plays a central role in this nexus of values. Emphasizing wildness provides the most promising general strategy for defending ecocentric ethics. Others have suggested that the wildness of some natural systems gives us a strong reason for valuing them intrinsically.(1) We support this claim by showing how wildness value is in reflective equilibrium with many considered judgements, by showing how a focus on wildness avoids a number of problems with traditional ecocentrism, and by defending the value of the wild from a host of criticisms.

The term 'wild' has a variety of meanings, many of which are not relevant to our defense of ecocentrism. For example, by 'wild' we do not mean 'chaotic', 'fierce', or 'uncontrollable'. As we will use the term, something is wild in a certain respect to the extent that it is not humanized in that respect. An entity is humanized in the degree to which it is influenced, altered or controlled by humans. While one person walking through the woods does little to diminish its wildness, leaving garbage, culling deer, or clear cutting do diminish wildness, although in different degrees. Do we tend to value wildness so defined?

Numerous examples from ordinary life suggest that people do value wildness in a variety of contexts. For instance, admiration of a person's attractive features is likely to diminish when it is learned that they were produced by elective plastic surgery. People prefer the birth of a child without the use of drugs or a Caesarean section, and this is not just because the former may be more conducive to health. Picking raspberries discovered in a local ravine is preferable to procuring the store-bought commercial variety (and not just because of the beauty of the setting). Our appreciation of catching cut-throat trout in an isolated and rugged mountain valley is reduced by reports that the Department of Fish and Game stocked the stream the previous week. Imagine how visitors to Yellowstone would feel about Old Faithful if they thought that the National Park Service put soap into the geyser to regulate and enhance its eruptions. In each example, people value more highly what is less subject to human alteration or control than a more humanized variant of the same phenomenon. The value differential may result from several features of these cases, but central among them is the difference in wildness. Notice that if we focus on different aspects of these situations, the judgment of wildness changes: the mountain stream may be wild in many respects, even if its fish are not. Though we value wildness in many things, an ecocentric ethic will focus on the value of the wildness of natural systems.

In addition to such specific judgments, there are powerful and widespread general intuitions that support the value of the nonhumanized. People rightfully value the existence of a realm not significantly under human control -- the weather, the seasons, the mountains, and the seas. This is one reason why the idea of humans as planetary managers is so objectionable to many.(2) Consider a world in which human beings determine when it rains, when spring comes, how the tides run, and where mountains rise. The surprise and awe we feel at the workings of spontaneous nature would be replaced by appraisal of the decisions of these managers. Our wonder at the mystery of these phenomena would not survive such management. People value being a part of a world not of their own making. Valuing the wild acknowledges that limits to human mastery and domination of the world are imperative.

Humans also need to be able to confront, honor, and celebrate the "other."(3) In an increasingly secular society, "Nature" takes on the role of the other. Humans need to be able to feel small in comparison with something nonhuman which is of great value. Confronting the other helps humans to cultivate a proper sense of humility. Many people find the other powerfully in parts of nature that do not bend to our will and where the nonhuman carries on in relative autonomy, unfolding on its own.

With dramatic humanization of the planet, wildness becomes especially significant. In general, when something of value becomes rare, that value increases. Today, the spontaneous workings of nature are becoming increasingly rare. Reportedly, humans appropriate between 20 and 40 percent of the photosynthetic energy produced by terrestrial plants.(4) Humans now rival the major geologic forces in our propensity to move around soil and rock.(5) Human population, now approaching 6 billion, is projected to increase by fifty percent by the middle of the next century. Leaving out Antarctica, there are now 100 humans for every square mile of the land surface of the earth.(6) Almost everyone knows a special natural area that has been "developed" and is now gone. The increasing importance of biotechnology further manifests our domestication, artificialization, and humanization of nature. Wildness is threatened on a variety of fronts, and the passions that fuel many environmental disputes can often be explained by this rapid loss of the wild and the consequent increase in the value of what remains.

By positing wildness as a significant value-enhancing property we account for a wide range of intuitions. Of course, the nature we value in virtue of its wildness is also valuable because it is complex, creative, fecund, diverse, beautiful, and so on. Why focus on wildness, rather than on biodiversity, as is currently fashionable (or on some other characteristic)? We believe that the emphasis on wildness is justified by the transformative and intensifying roles it plays in this nexus of values. These roles suggest that wildness is a kind of "root" value, that is, a significant source of these other values.

Wildness is transformative in that it can combine with a property that has neutral or even negative value and turn the whole into a positive value. For example, wildness helps to transform biodiversity into the powerful value it is in today's environmental debates. Biodiversity is not by itself valuable. If it were, we could add value to ecosystems by integrating large numbers of genetically-engineered organisms into them. But this seems unacceptable. It is wild biodiversity that people wish to protect. Wildness transforms biodiversity into a significant value-bearing property. The presence or absence of wildness frequently transforms our evaluation of things; a beautiful sunset is diminished in value when it is caused by pollution. Wildness also intensifies the value of properties that are already valuable.(7) For example, wildness often significantly enhances the value of beauty. As Eugene Hargrove argues, "our aesthetic admiration and appreciation for natural beauty is an appreciation of the achievement of complex form that is entirely unplanned. It is in fact because it is unplanned and independent of human involvement that the achievement is so amazing, wonderful and delightful."(8)

An ecocentrism that emphasizes wildness value also puts a brake on alleged human improvements of nature through anthropogenic production of the properties in virtue of which we value nature. A stability and integrity based ecocentrism would have to judge human activity that enhanced ecosystem stability or integrity as value increasing. A highly humanized ecosystem could be more stable, integrated, and diverse than a natural ecosystem that it replaced. For example, an engineered beach with breakwaters and keystone exotics that held the sand might be more stable, integrated, and diverse than the naturally eroding beach it replaced. Only an ecocentrism that puts its central focus on wildness value can prevent the unpalatable conclusion that such human manipulation of nature would, if successful, increase intrinsic value.

While we argue that it is now reasonable to strongly value wildness, this was not always so. The value of wildness varies with context. For example, clearing an old-growth forest in the late twentieth century has very different value implications from doing so ten thousand years ago. In early periods of human history, wildness was ubiquitous and threatening. Controlling a small patch of land was a significant achievement for humanity and had significant value in itself. In contrast, wildness had little or no value in itself: there was simply too much of it relative to humanized environments. This contextualization of the value of wildness fits well with the "holistic" insight that the seriousness of environmental threats depends on what else is taking place on the planet. Humans extirpating the wolf from the Yellowstone region in the first part of this century had a vastly different impact on wildness value than did comparable prehistoric anthropogenic extinctions.

The value of wildness depends not only on the larger historical context, but also on the kind of object it characterizes. For example, a vegetable garden gone wild is less valuable than one under the gardener's control, because of the purposes implicit in the description "vegetable garden." We will not undertake the difficult task of providing a theory of the appropriate contexts and object descriptions for evaluating wildness. One may worry that contexts could be gerrymandered or objects artificially described so that implausible appraisals of wildness result. For example, wildness on the earth is of great value given its relative rarity, but if the context is the solar system with its abundance of wildness, we might reach a different conclusion. In most cases people can recognize such clearly inappropriate contextualizations or descriptions, but it is often difficult to specify how this is done. This difficulty applies to almost any theory of value, as the contextualization of value is pervasive.

In arguing that ecocentrism should emphasize wildness value, we are not suggesting that wildness is always an overriding value or that highly wild ecosystems are always more valuable than less wild places. Wild things can have value-subtracting qualities that are more weighty than wildness value. Both anthropocentric values and nonanthropocentric values may trump wildness values in some situations. For example, to protect biodiversity, we might put out a fluke lightening-lit fire in order to protect the biodiversity of an island packed with endemic plants. Moreover, a somewhat wilder, but much less biodiverse landscape (e.g., Antarctica) is not necessarily of greater intrinsic value than a somewhat less wild, but much more biodiverse landscape (e.g., the Amazon rainforest). A full theory of wildness value would include some priority principles indicating when wildness value will trump other goods. We cannot provide such thorough guidance here, though we do suggest that as the planet becomes more humanized, wildness value will increasingly trump other values.

Some may worry that an environmental ethic that emphasizes wildness value abandons ecocentrism in favor of an instrumental anthropocentrism because it apparently appeals to human pleasure at contemplating wildness. But this confuses what is being valued with the valuing itself (or with a byproduct of the valuing). Valuing nature for its wildness is not valuing wild nature for the pleasure it brings us, anymore than valuing a friend is simply valuing the pleasure one derives from the friendship. Pleasure may be a sign of value without being its source.

We are not maintaining that the value of wildness inheres in natural systems themselves independent of consciousness of them. We remain neutral on the issue of whether wildness value is objective in this sense or is a function of a valuing subject. We also remain neutral about what kind of a value wildness is. Some may think that wildness value is an aesthetic or religious value, rather than a moral value. As long as the presence of aesthetic or religious value can obligate us in significant ways, we need not decide whether wildness value is aesthetic, religious, or moral (or some combination of these).


Wildness has come under increasing criticism. One concern is that intuitions about the value of wildness are idiosyncratic. Many people do not seem to value wildness, but instead fear it or profess dislike for things not under human control.(9) David Orr identifies a trend he calls "biophobia" and claims that the more "we dwell in and among our own creations," the more we become "uncomfortable with nature lying beyond our direct control."(10)

We are not suggesting that everyone would immediately assent to the claim that wildness is valuable. Rather, we claim that valuing wildness is a rational and reflective response to the current situation on the planet.(11) We grant that it is not the only rational response. No doubt, the valuing of wildness springs from and reflects certain cultural traditions.(12) In this respect, it is no different from many other values that orient ethics and policy, such as the value of human equality or freedom of political speech. Even if the valuing of wildness originated in western culture, wildness value can have much wider validity. After all, the notion of human rights arose from movements in western thought, but it is now believed to have universal validity. We believe that, for a wide range of people, increased education about the massive humanization of the earth will lead to greater recognition of the value of wildness.

Furthermore, many people value wildness without understanding their evaluations in these terms. Wildness comes in degrees and often people value things in virtue of lesser degrees of wildness. People value gardening, bird watching, golfing, dinner on the porch, or walks in the park, partially because these activities put them in touch with nonhuman nature. Even the ranchers who opposed the restoration of wolves into Yellowstone seem to love the outdoor lives they have chosen in part because it involves an encounter with the relatively nonhumanized.

An increasingly frequent objection to "wilderness environmentalism" is that by privileging big wilderness areas, it ignores the value of more local, humanized landscapes.(13) Our position avoids this objection by valuing some natural systems, such as pasture and parks, for their intermediate degrees of wildness. It would be a mistake to equate wildness with wilderness, though wilderness is an important manifestation of wildness and would be strongly protected by the proposed ecocentrism. A related concern is that a focus on wildland preservation ignores the central importance of finding a way for humans to live in nature without destroying it.(14) We too believe that turning human societies toward a sustainable use of nature is crucial. An ecocentric ethic that emphasizes wildness value does suggest that we should diminish our impacts on nature, and this is one aspect of sustainability. But clearly other values, including anthropocentric ones, are needed to fully guide humans to a more sustainable relationship with the earth. We believe, however, that without an emphasis on wildness value, sustainability would all too likely result in human domination of the earth.(15)

Embracing degrees of wildness also allows for a response to the objection that there is no wild nature left to value. Recent work in ecology, anthropology, and environmental history points to longstanding and sustained human impact on the planet. On the basis of such research, J. Baird Callicott (among others) has attacked the idea of wilderness, claiming that "in 1492, Antarctica was the only true wilderness land mass on the planet," that is, the only place "undominated by the works of man."(16) If we add to this large-scale early human influence the impact of more numerous and technologically powerful modern humans, then valuing the wildness of natural systems may appear to be a will-o'-the-wisp.

We have noted that relatively less-humanized places carry significant wildness value. It may be arbitrary to make fine discriminations in degrees of wildness, but that should not obscure obvious distinctions. The following environments are ordered in clearly increasing degrees of wildness: an air conditioned building, a parking lot with weeds sprouting up, a garden, a tree farm, a national park, a wilderness area. Even extensively humanized places like backyards, gardens, or New York's Central Park carry important wildness value in the right context and when contrasted with more humanized places.

This objection also fails to account for ways in which humanization "washes out" of natural systems. Early human influence on a system is dampened by intervening epochs with little impact. A system can recapture previous levels of wildness as human influence diminishes. Intuitively, Dartmoor in England and the Western Adirondacks in the U.S. (both areas once stripped of their tree-cover by humans) are examples of high degrees of wildness returning after significant human impact.

Some charge that emphasizing the value of wildness dichotomizes humans and nature and ignores the Darwinian insight that humans, like any species, are a part of nature and are not separate from it.(17) Many are inclined to view humans, especially native peoples, as "biotic citizens" who are members of the natural communities they alter, just as beavers are members of the natural communities they radically alter. We do not deny that humans are part of nature in important senses of this phrase. To a significant extent, humans are the result of and are embedded in natural processes. Certain dimensions of human life are properly understood and valued as manifestations of wild nature. Allowing our bodies to reflect the impacts of sun, wind, and aging is to partake in wildness. Acting on instinct is letting the spontaneous processes of nature unfold within us. We value the wild in humans as well as in nonhuman nature.(18) Of course, we do not always value wildness in humans, just as we do not always value wildness in ecosystems. Much depends on competing values and the context. It is obviously appropriate for humans to civilize themselves and civilization clearly has enhanced human value. Nonetheless, we agree with Thoreau when he says, "I would not have every man nor every part of a man cultivated, any more than I would have every acre of earth cultivated."(19)

Although humans are a part of nature in the above senses (and others), there are important reasons to distinguish human activity from the activity of wild nature.(20) Human transformations of the land are different in evaluatively relevant ways from transformations imposed by nonhuman species or processes. For example, only human activities are fully morally assessable. Also, human activities can affect nature on a scale and speed much greater than the activities of other individual species. Rolston has identified important differences in the methods and speed by which humans transfer and use information.(21) Little in nonhuman nature approaches the deeply-layered intentional, cultural, social, economic, and technological dimensions of much human activity.

As a group, humans have become too powerful and too populous to be simply "plain members and citizens" of biotic communities. Given the intense human domination of the planet, the metaphor of the biotic citizen is as likely to mislead as it is to help. It suggests that modern humans should be fully assimilated into natural systems, but this would have a disastrous effect on many ecosystems. For an environmental ethic to interpret the human presence in -- and influence on -- natural systems as not different in evaluatively relevant ways from that of any other species or natural phenomenon is to carry a valid Darwinian insight to absurd lengths.


Appealing to the value of wildness provides strong reasons to believe that it was wrong to extirpate wolves from Yellowstone. Eliminating wolves involved significant human alteration of the processes that characterized that system. In the context of the twentieth century, this loss of wildness in Yellowstone carried with it significant loss of value. Nonetheless, we cannot directly infer from the loss of wild value in Yellowstone that wildness counts in favor of restoration of wolves. For reintroducing wolves involves significant additional human alteration and management of Yellowstone, and it is hard to see how this could be sanctioned by the value of wildness. Indeed, intuitions about the positive value of restoration result in another objection to wildness value. As Robin Attfield puts the point, "How can anything be restored by human agency the essence of which is to be independent of human agency?"(22) Restoration is a contentious environmental issue. Some philosophers disparage restorations as fakes or artifacts.(23) Other philosophers stress our obligations to restore nature and suggest that certain types of restoration can increase value significantly.(24) We believe that an ecocentric ethic that emphasizes the value of wildness has the virtue of maintaining and explaining this ambivalent attitude. Although restoration typically fails to increase wildness in the short run, it can speed recovery of wildness by helping humanization wash out of natural systems.

Notice that a stability-integrity ecocentrism must be quite sanguine about restoration (at least in theory). If an ecosystem's stability or integrity is restored, no loss has occurred. In contrast, restoration in order to enhance wildness value wears its limitations on its sleeve. Not only will the additional human activity involved in restoration tend to detract from wildness value, but restoring the original system's wildness will not be possible in one respect: human activity will forever remain part of the causal chain leading to that ecosystem. Nevertheless, wildness value can count in favor of restoration projects. By returning the system to what it would have been had humans not altered it, restoration can help diminish human influence.

A number of factors affect the speed and extent of "washout." In general, the greater the human influence on a system, the longer it will take for the humanization to wash out. For example, previous levels of wildness will return more quickly to a selectively-cut forest than to a clear-cut forest. Temporal distance from the humanization also affects washout. The mere fact that it has been at least six hundred years since humans removed the trees from Dartmoor makes that landscape significantly wilder than it would be had the deforestation occurred fifty years ago. Complete washout of human influence can occur rapidly. A volcanic eruption that destroys a humanized landscape and covers it with a thick layer of lava would seem to return the full wildness of the landscape almost instantaneously. The land becomes very much like what it would have been whether or not it had been humanized. This suggests that washout is also a function of the extent to which a system instantiates a pattern it would have displayed absent some relatively recent humanization. A fourth factor affecting washout is the extent to which natural processes rework an humanized area, whether or not the result instantiates what it would have been absent humanization. For example, Dartmoor has recovered more of its lost wildness than has the cliffs of Mt. Rushmore, because natural processes have been more successful in changing the humanized state.

We think that restoring wolves to Yellowstone is a case where additional human activity can help humanization wash out of a natural system. The human involvement in the restoration does initially subtract from wildness in important respects: Humans transporting wolves from Canada into the park, attaching radio collars to the animals, and then tracking their movements involves additional and significant human activity in natural systems and it alters natural systems as they are currently constituted. Yellowstone would become wilder sooner if wolves returned without human assistance. Still, we believe this additional human activity will eventually decrease the degree to which Yellowstone is a humanized environment. By putting wolves back, we diminish the overall impact of humans on Yellowstone, much the way picking up litter in a forest diminishes the human impact on the forest or removing a dam reduces the human impact on a river -- despite involving additional human activity. Contrast wolf restoration with introducing snow leopards into Yellowstone. Wildness value counts significantly in favor of wolf restoration rather than snow leopard introduction, because wolves and not snow leopards would have been in Yellowstone today. An ecocentrism based on stability or integrity would have no reason to support putting back the native species rather than a functionally equivalent exotic.


We have argued that an ecocentric ethic that emphasizes the value of wildness of natural systems has a number of virtues in comparison with traditional ecocentrism. Most importantly, it avoids the ecologically and philosophically troubling assumptions that natural systems worthy of protection are integrated and stable. Moreover, by focusing on wildness, ecocentrism can avoid the counterintuitive result that humans can improve ecosystems' value by increasing their integrity, stability, biodiversity, and so on. An ecocentrism that emphasizes wildness allows for a more ambivalent assessment of restoration than the overly sanguine approach resulting from traditional ecocentrism.

We have shown how focusing ecocentrism on the wildness of natural systems can explain a wide range of intuitions, including beliefs about our obligations to preserve and restore natural systems like Yellowstone. We have also shown how common objections to emphasizing wildness can be avoided. It seems unwise to ground ecocentrism in general theories, such as the ecology of stability or the ecology of instability, when nature displays so much variation and complexity. Powerful intuitions about the value of wildness that would be accepted by many people can provide that grounding. Other values would play important roles in a fully developed ecocentric ethic, though, if we are right, their roles would usually depend on wildness.


1. Although a number of philosophers have appealed to wildness and the related notion of naturalness, there is no uniform agreement on its meaning or justification. See Robert Elliot, "Extinction, Restoration, Naturalness," Environmental Ethics 16 (1994): 135-44 and "Faking Nature," Inquiry 25 (1982): 81-93; Eric Katz "The Big Lie: The Human Restoration of Nature," Research in Philosophy and Technology 12 (1992): 231-41 and "The Call of the Wild," Environmental Ethics 14 (1992): 265-73; and Holmes Rolston, III, Environmental Ethics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), pp. 32-44 and Conserving Natural Value, pp. 1-9, 12-16, 72-73, 102, 184-92, 197-202, 223-228. Some philosophers interpret 'integrity' in a way that seems to include wildness. See Laura Westra, An Environmental Proposal for Ethics: The Principle of Integrity (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994). Mark Woods, Rethinking Wilderness, Ph.D. dissertation (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilm, 1997), Chapter Six, draws useful distinctions between kinds of wildness.

2. For a powerful treatment of this topic, see Rolston, Conserving Natural Value, pp. 223-228.

3. Tom Birch discusses wildness as "otherness" in "The Incarceration of Wildness: Wilderness Areas as Prisons," Environmental Ethics 12 (1990): 3-26.

4. See Edward O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 272.

5. Richard Monastersky, "Earthmovers: Humans take their place alongside wind, water, and ice," Science News 146 (1994): 432.

6. Donald Worster, "The Nature We Have Lost," in The Wealth of Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 6.

7. According to Robert Elliot, "Extinction, Restoration, Naturalness," p. 138, "intensification of value occurs when the co-instantiation of value-adding properties yields more value than the sum of the values of the properties would if they were instantiated singly."

8. Eugene Hargrove, "The paradox of humanity: two views of biodiversity and landscapes," in Ke Chung Kim and Robert D. Weaver, eds., Biodiversity and Landscapes (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 183.

9. We thank Baird Callicott for forcefully drawing our attention to this criticism.

10. David Orr, Earth In Mind: On Education, Environment and the Human Prospect (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1994), p. 131.

11. We presume that one's warranted value judgments may be some distance from one's initial judgments, as in ideal observer accounts of value. See Tom Carson, The Status of Morality (Boston: D. Reidel Publishing, 1984).

12. For the charge that wildness value is ethnocentric, see Ramachandra Guha, "Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique," Environmental Ethics, 11 (1989): 71-83.

13. See, for example, Anthony Weston, Back to Earth (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), pp. 130-32.

14. See William Cronon's, "The Trouble with Wilderness," in William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995), pp. 85 ff.

15. Both Guha and Cronon worry that "wilderness environmentalism" results in native peoples being forced off their land to create wilderness areas. By distinguishing between wildness and wilderness, by recognizing wildness in humans, by valuing intermediate degrees of wildness, and by allowing that anthropocentric concerns--as well as ecocentric ones--play a large role in sustainability, we believe that we have significantly diminished the potential that wildness value could be used to justify such activities.

16. J. Baird Callicott, "The Wilderness Idea Revisited: The Sustainable Development Alternative," Environmental Professional 13 (1991): 241

17. Ibid., p. 240.

18. For a discussion of how wildness in humans can be valuable, see Bill Throop, "Humans and the Value of the Wild," Human Ecology Review 3 (1996): 3-7.

19. Henry David Thoreau, "Walking," from The Natural History Essays. Reprinted in Susan Armstrong and Richard Botzler, eds., Environmental Ethics: Divergence and Convergence (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993), p. 114.

20. In "The Paradox of Humanity," Eugene Hargrove points out the need for a more sophisticated view of the human/nature relationship than the simplistic views that either humans are, or are not, a part of nature.

21. Holmes Rolston, "The Wilderness Idea Reaffirmed," The Environmental Professional 13 (1991): 370-71.

22. Robin Attfield, "Rehabilitating Nature and Making Nature Habitable," in Robin Attfield and Andrew Belsey, eds., Philosophy and the Natural Environment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 45.

23. See Elliot's "Faking Nature" and Katz's "The Big Lie."

24. See, for example, Richard Sylvan's "Mucking With Nature" in Sylvan, Against the Main Stream, Discussion Papers in Environmental Philosophy, no. 21 (Canberra: Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, 1994).