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Environmental Ethics

Volume 23, Issue 2, Summer 2001

Mark A. Michael
Pages 135-154

How to Interfere with Nature

The principle that we should not interfere with nature plays a prominent role in both popular and academic accounts of environmental ethics. For example, it is often cited to justify the claims that we should not actively manage wilderness areas and that we should not extinguish naturally occurring fires in those areas. It is far from clear, however, exactly what that principle entails for our treatment of species and ecosystems. Does all human interaction with nature amount to interference? If there are different kinds of interference, are they all wrong? Might not there be such a thing as beneficial interference? Can one part of nature interfere with another, and if so, is it morally permissible or forbidden for humans to prevent this kind of interference? These questions can be answered only if we have a clear notion of interference. First, I examine one initially plausible account which takes it to be a kind of cause. One interferes with a species or ecosystem when one alters or redirects it. Second, I answer a crucial question that must be faced with regard to any theory that takes interference to be a kind of cause. If interference involves nothing more than having an effect on an ecosystem, then the activities of practically every species in an ecosystem interfere with it. However, these activities are usually thought of as legitimate or normal ecosystemic change, as essential components of the ecosystem, rather than as interference. Thus, some criterion must be proposed to distinguish between interference and the actions of other species which have an effect on an ecosystem but do not interfere with it. I look at a number of proposals and conclude that no one of them is uniquely correct. Rather, the criterion one employs to understand interference must be determined by one’s projects and goals.

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