Consider forest fires. Until late in the twentieth century we were told by Smokey Bear that “only you can prevent forest fires,” which by implication could only be bad for nature. In the past fifty years, we have learned that many forest species, plant and animal, have evolved with, adapted to, and actually require forest fires. The great Sequoias of California, one of nature’s longest-lived creatures, can reproduce only after a clearing takes place in a forest from storms or fire. Recognizing this, many ecologists and foresters understand that forests need fire, need disturbance. But forest fires are tricky things; they easily get away and burn houses. Still, if we don’t light them, nature eventually does, and destroys houses anyway.

Why do our ways of managing and conserving nature keep falling back to the old ways of thinking? One reason, ironically, is that it isn’t nature by itself that needs to be unchanging; it is our civilization that depends on constancy. When humans were just hunter-gatherers without a permanent home, they could follow the environment as it changed, moving around the world to places that better suited them. But then farming started, and people began to stay in one place. Land ownership developed. With the advance of civilization, cities were founded and became important and desirable. Once people set up all these fixed structures — farmlands, cities, and towns — we became dependent on environmental constancy. It is we who want and need a balance of nature, not our nonhuman companions, whether polar bear, the blue whale, or sequoia tree.