Is Fake Nature Less Valuable than the Real Thing?

The position of whether fake nature is less valuable than real nature is an issue still far from concluded. Philosophers such as Katz and Elliot hold that no matter how convincingly an area is restored, there will always be a loss of some kind of value that would have remained had it not been for the interference of human hands. This is a view my own inclinations sympathise with, but rationally seem rather difficult to justify; as Belshaw says, ‘do we have reason to value things just because they are old, or natural?’ (Belshaw, 2001, p248). I will here examine why we often place value on ‘old’ or ‘natural’ entities and whether we are right to do so. I shall conclude by suggesting that a sort of value is irretrievably lost in fake nature, and I shall posit that we are indeed right- other things being equal- to value areas, objects and phenomena of natural origin over areas, objects and phenomena of manmade origin.

It is helpful to clarify what is meant here by ‘fake nature’ and ‘real nature’. ‘Fake nature’ ‘implies an intention to deceive’ (Belshaw, p245), which is not what this paper is concerned with. Fake nature here means land, objects, or phenomena that have been openly constructed or restored by man without deceitful intention. It will be assumed, unless otherwise stated, that the genesis of any land, object or phenomena is reasonably known, or can be reliably assumed. Without this assumption, differentiating between real and fake nature may be impossible, but this is not to say that they have the same value, as value can exist hidden and undiscovered, just as a field may be considered worthless until oil is discovered. All along the field contained that value; we were merely unaware of it, just as the true value of a tract of land can only be appreciated once its story is fully understood.

By ‘real nature’ I shall use a loose definition; nature that has not had its natural processes dominated over or widely interfered with by man. An alternative definition (borrowed from Brennan) used by Katz in his well known paper The Big Lie, is that ‘only activity which goes beyond our biological and evolutionary capabilities’ (Katz, 1992, p104) is unnatural, but this leaves open the possibility for a large group of people to club together and completely alter an area of real nature and restore or reconstruct it as they see fit, with it remaining ‘real nature’. But this seems to be the construction of fake nature with the utilization of our ‘biological and evolutionary capabilities’ which Brennan rules out, thus I shall not be using this definition. After all, many hands make light work of what could have been done by one machine. This does not mean that the work done by many hands cannot be considered unnatural.

With these definitions in mind, I shall consider Elliot’s paper Faking Nature. Elliot posits that what we shall call an ‘origin value’ is irretrievably lost in fake nature. The story and genesis of a modified tract of land is forever altered. The natural chain of events has been discontinued, and it is this that is the lost value that cannot be rekindled no matter how well or convincingly an area of nature is restored. He does not ‘want to be taken as claiming that what is natural is good and what is non-natural is not’ (Elliot, 1982, p4); in some cases instrumental or other forms of value will override origin value. What Elliot is communicating is that something will always be lost, and that, other things being equal, fake nature will indeed be less valuable than real nature, because of this alteration of its genesis.

The basis for what Elliot says largely relies on his claim that ‘what is significant about wilderess is its causal continuity with the past’ (Elliot, 1982, p7), and that through mans interference we cease this causal continuity and remove, or at least distance nature from its valuable origins, but Belshaw raises an interesting point against this; ‘the causal story behind the genesis of a copy [or fake nature] doesn’t begin with the copy but reaches back, necessarily, to the original. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a copy…the restoration can be seen as preserving the properties of the original’ (Belshaw p247). In this sense, a causal continuity with the past seems to be preserved in a copy. Fake nature is traceable back to real nature.

Elliot’s response to this, I believe, would be that although copies do in a sense replicate the qualities of the copied, and are made with reference to the original, they do not hold the same significance. An exact copy of Whistler’s Mother may be visually indistinguishable from the original, but with the original, the very stroke on the lips of the subject was made with an emotion only Whistler felt, Viz. the strokeappears to hold some of this emotion. The copy can only replicate the emotion, as opposed to holding it like the original seems to. The original was made with the emotion whereas the copy was made, at best, with the emotion in mind. This is not to say that nature restoration is in vain, for fake nature that replicates the virtues of real nature is surely better than no nature at all. The point is that given the choice, with other things being equal, real nature is of a higher value than fake nature because of its seemingly richer, fuller story, and genesis, as opposed to fake natures shallower content and genesis.

Another brief analogy that could further illustrate the relationship between copies and originals is with insomnia. ‘With insomnia, nothing is real. Everything is far away. Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy’ (Fight Club, 1999); all emotion seems distant, and all significance seems further removed in a copy, even though they appeal back to the original, thus showing the difference between a copy and the original.

When applied to nature, Elliot would say that fake nature does indeed ‘reach back’ to real nature, and may well communicate to us the remarkable ways in which nature works, but the fact remains that fake nature is not the direct result of these natural processes. The trees that stand in a restored forest are not the trees that would have stood if man had not interfered and it is because of this that value is lost.

An alternative view that could be taken on this issue is that posited by Katz whom holds that fake nature has different value to real nature because ‘once we begin to create restored natural environments, we impose our anthropocentric purposes on areas that exist outside human society…they will be anthropocentrically designed human artifacts’ (Katz, 1992, p98). It is held here that these artifacts have an intrinsic function, as a playground does, whereas nature has no such function, thus restored nature is not in fact nature but a mere artifact. Katz’s aim in his paper is to ensure that we do not ‘misunderstand what we humans are doing when we attempt to restore or repair natural areas’ (Katz, p106); we can never recreate nature. We can only satisfy our anthropocentric desires by manipulating and dominating nature to create artifacts that merely appear natural.

The views of both Elliot and Katz explain differences between fake nature and real nature. Neither states that fake nature is (nor artifacts are) always less valuable than real nature, but attack the restoration thesis that holds we are able to restore nature to its previous value through recreation and restoration. They both hold that real nature, once destroyed, cannot be recreated to an equal value. Nevertheless, throughout reading both papers, Belshaw’s intriguing question continues to reverberate; ‘do we have reason to value things just because they are old, or natural?’ ‘We will regret the loss of the original world, but it isn’t clear to me that anything of value is lost’ (Belshaw, p248). We can reword this question to both Philosophers. To Elliot; though we often value entities based on origin, are we right to do so? To Katz; what gives natural entities significance over artifacts? Both Elliot and Katz seem to give these questions a wide birth, but I shall put forward a possible answer that could be used by both Elliot and Katz that will not only state the differences between fake nature and real nature, but also reasons for why we do so.

Claude Monet once said ‘The richness I achieve comes from nature, the source of my inspiration’ and Rachel Carson said ‘It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the Earth, and in the contemplation of her beauties know of wonder and humility’. Both of these quotes seem to exemplify the importance we often ascribe to nature, but seem mainly to apply to real nature. If Monet had known the river and forest that inspired him was constructed by men, it is likely that his inspiration would have been much reduced, and his ‘Water Lilies’ much less remarkable. If we gaze into the distance of a manmade savanna, can it really be said that we will feel the same ‘wonder and humility’ that we would feel while gazing at a rich sunset over the wholly natural Serengeti? Belshaw says ‘I agree that we will value the untouched woodland more highly than the restored’ (Belshaw, p248), but cannot see a real, solid reason for us valuing it more. But with the fact remaining that we do, I shall look at why this is so.

The value we ascribe to real nature, whether it is deserved or not, is extremely vague, but a possible solution can be found in the Works of Rolston. In Valuing Wildlands, he puts forward twelve different types of value that nature holds, and the three1 most poignant here seems to be Historical Value, Character-Building Value and Religious Value. These values seem to be most present in real nature, while less so in fake nature.

The Historic Value mentioned can be understood as a parallel to Elliot’s origin value. It seems more substantial in real nature than fake nature. It seems harder for us to picture the wildland we are looking at as it would have been several millennia ago if we know that a few decades previous it was planted by a group of conservation workers. Its story seems tarnished and its history degraded by mans interference.

Religious Value seems to be more of a spiritual value. Witnessing something as majestic as the Aurora Borealis is often the trigger for what psychologists call a ‘peak experience’. Maslow said these experiences were rare moments in a person’s life when one is filled with wonder and awe, on a par with mystical experiences where the agent is often left with a feeling of ecstasy where one feels more connected with both oneself and the world. Such an experience, although rare as it is, seems to be much less likely if the Aurora Borealis were manually created via the use of some giant electromagnets. In such a situation, no doubt we would be amazed at what we were seeing, but the awe and intense wonder we would feel through real nature would be dampened and replaced with more of an aesthetic appreciation and impressiveness of mans capabilities if the scene were made by humankind. We would miss out on peak experiences that, once had, are extremely valuable.

Character-Building Value is defined by Rolston quite widely, concentrating mainly on forms of instrumental value such as team-building and confidence-building, but a sentence he uses represents another way in which nature can build ones character; ‘they provide a place to gain humility and a sense of proportion…integrated into character, they increase well-being, and the social good is benefited by having such citizens’ (Rolston, p186). Such humility and sense of proportion seem only to puncture deeply into ones character when nature is not fake, but real. Being immersed in fake nature seems mainly to build a respect for ones species, possibly- maybe even probably- creating an overly important image of oneself and the human race. If everywhere we looked- no matter how remote our position was- was manmade; if every forest were planted, every desert directed by man; if every storm was controlled, and every wave propelled by machine, we would feel not a wonder and awe, and a sense of humility and proportion, but rather a sense of immense self-importance and domination. Man may once again become the centre of the universe, only to leave us without the sense of respect for nature2, and the feeling of being a small part of something huge that provides us with such positive virtues. Buckminster Fuller said ‘Now there is one outstandingly important fact regarding Spaceship Earth and that is that no instruction book came with it’. Without this instruction book, we are more humble and less wary of our own species’ capabilities, for ‘a policy of domination subverts both nature and human existence; it denies both the cultural and natural realization of individual good, human and nonhuman’ (Katz, p105).

It is for these reasons that we do, and should value real nature over fake nature. The more fake nature we allow in our surroundings, the less humility and sense of proportion, and the less humble we feel. The positive psychological effects, based on historical, possible religious and character-building value are the reasons we should value real nature. This line of thought runs parallel with our inclinations. It provides an explanation as to why, given the choice, we would usually prefer to build a house on a replanted area of woodland as opposed to an adjacent area of completely untouched woodland. Although there is arguably no true intrinsic difference between the two areas, it is the psychological effect of understanding nature, its story, and our place within it that ascribes this additional value to real nature.

Applying this to Elliot’s argument, we see that through understanding the origin of an area, our position in nature becomes clearer, and we are humbled by the impressiveness and complexities of real nature. Attempting to look at fake nature in the same way brings man to the forefront, thus removing the humbling abilities of the story. Being impressed by nature is one thing; being impressed by mans capabilities is another altogether, and it is through finding the equilibrium between the two that we are most likely to develop as more rounded citizens.

Katz’s argument can also be seen from this angle, although I believe he may have already had something similar in mind when writing The Big Lie. By creating human-centred artifacts, and ascribing function and purpose to everything, we lose interest and wonder at the natural world. Our domination and furthered control seems to dampen the inspiration we receive from nature. Allowing wildlands to have no function and merely remain natural as opposed to converting them into something artificial leaves scope for us to search for and find the historic, character-building and religious value in these things. As soon as we introduce mankind to the picture by creating fake nature, this value is a lot more challenging to discover, for mans apparent power seems to override natures power.

An example Belshaw gives is of the world being destroyed, and then replicated exactly on another planet. He suggests that in doing so, no obvious value has been lost, but in such a case it seems that religious, character-building and historical value have been lost. By introducing man into the picture (by mechanically recreating the world), we have depleted these, making them harder to find, thus making mankind suffer due to the increased difficulty in finding these values that have a positive effect on our lives and psychology. This new ‘fake’ world allows for no ‘representative of the world outside our dominion’ (Elliot, p6).

Obviously, as Katz and Elliot both state, the value that is lost is not the be all and end all of the story, for other forms of value can override any kind of value that may be lost, but other values being equal, it seems that the reason we do ascribe higher value to real nature over fake nature is because of the values mentioned above and the psychological effect they have on so many people when educated and enlightened to the work and power of nature. It is indeed the case that nothing ‘real’ as Belshaw says, is lost. Nature may be replicated so precisely that it is indistinguishable from the rest of the natural world, but our perception of nature, and the effects of this perception on our psychological state are very real yet immaterial, and these are things that should be taken into account when decisions are made to restore land, just as immaterial, internal values such as love and hope are taken into account when deciding to euthanize a patient.

So, if asked again; are we right to value things just because they are natural? I should say yes, for the effects of knowing something is natural, whether based on something real or not, do seem to be rational. Knowing real nature keeps us grounded in a way knowing fake nature never could, giving real nature a real, solid sphere of value that fake nature does not have. I am unsure whether this fully answers Belshaw’s question, but believe that the values mentioned here, although internal to us, do give a solid, rational reason for valuing real nature over fake nature. Even though they are rather abstract, they have a real, psychological effect on many people’s lives, and it is for this reason we should take them into serious consideration until we are no longer affected and swayed by such things.


Belshaw, C, (2001), ‘Environmental Philosophy’, Acumen Publishing Limited, Chesham

Carlson, A, ‘Appreciating Art and Appreciating Nature’

Elliot, R, (1982) ‘Faking Nature’, Inquiry, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 81-93

Katz, E, (1992), ‘The Big Lie: Human Restoration of Nature’, Research in Philosophy and Technology 12, pp93-107

Kagan, S, (1998), ‘Rethinking Intrinsic Value’, The Journal of Ethics 2: pp227-297

Maslow, A. (1970), Religion, values and peak experiences. New York: Viking.

O’Neill, J, (1993) ‘Nature, Intrinsic Value and Human Well-Being’, Ecology, Policy and Politics, London and New York, Routledge

Rolston, H, (1989) Philosophy Gone Wild, ‘Valuing Wildlands’, Buffalo, Prometheus Books

Scott, R, ‘Obligations to Future Generations’ in Environmental Ethics and Obligations to Future Generations,(Sikora R, Barry B, 1978) Philadelphia, Temple University Press

Taylor, P, (1986) ‘Having and Expressing the Attitude of Respect for Nature’ in Respect for Nature, Princeton, Princeton University Press

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