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What is Next Nature?

With our attempts to cultivate nature, humankind causes the rising of a next nature, which is wild and unpredictable as ever. Wild systems, genetic surprises, autonomous machinery and splendidly beautiful black flowers. Nature changes along with us.

real_nature_is_not_green_nextnaturenet

Essay: Real Nature is not Green

At the edge of the woods along the motorway near the Dutch town of Bloemendaal, there stands a mobile telephone mast disguised as a pine tree. This mast is not nature: at best, it is a picture of nature. It is an illustration, like a landscape painting hanging over the sofa. Do we have genuine experiences of nature any more? Or are we living in a picture of it?

By KOERT VAN MENSVOORT

In the Netherlands, every square meter of ground is a man-made landscape: original nature is nowhere to be found. The Oostvaardersplassen which make up one of the Netherlands’ most important nature reserves were, after the land was reclaimed, originally an industrial site; they were only turned into a nature reserve later. Even the ‘Green Heart’ at the center of the most densely populated part of Netherlands is in actual fact a medieval industrial area, which was originally reclaimed for turf-cutting. Our ‘nature reserves’ are thus in fact ‘culture reserves’ shaped by human activity. “God created the world, with the exception of the Netherlands. That the Dutch created themselves”, as Voltaire put it in the eighteenth century. And ever since, we have been doing everything we can to live up to his pronouncement. Today, we even actively design and build nature in the Netherlands. Prehistoric forests are being planted in locations designated by bureaucrats: our image of Nature is being carefully constructed in a recreational simulation (a ‘regeneration of our lost heritage’, as the nature-builders call it themselves [1]). Traditional cattle breeds are even being placed in this so-called ‘new nature’ [2]. The original wild ox unfortunately became extinct in 1627, but the Scottish Highlander is an acceptable alternative. These cattle know what they’re supposed to do: graze, under orders of the forestry service. Thanks to them, the landscape stays clear instead of becoming overgrown (we find this attractive, as it reminds us of famous 17th-century landscape paintings). In theory, the animals are supposed to look after themselves, but in winter the forestry service is willing to give them a bit of extra food. It also removes dead animals, lest walkers be offended by a cow rotting on the footpath. In our culture, nature is continually presented as a lost world. It is associated with originality, yet appears only once it has disappeared. Our experience of nature is a retro effect [3].

…In our culture, nature is continually presented as a lost world. It is associated with originality, yet appears only once it has disappeared. Our experience of nature is a retro effect.

It is a widespread misconception that nature is always calm, peaceful and harmonious: genuine nature can be wild, cruel and unpredictable. Our contemporary experience of nature is chiefly a recreational one [4]: Sunday afternoon scenery; Disneyland for grown-ups. Indeed, lots of money is required to maintain the illusion. But nature is also a terrific marketing tool: there are Alligator garden tools, Jaguar convertibles, Puma trainers. Natural metaphors give us a familiar feeling of recognition. In commercials cars always drive through beautiful untouched landscapes. Strange that in this make-believe countryside there is not a billboard in sight, while logos and brands are so omnipresent in our environment, we can probably tell them apart better than we can bird or tree species. In my neighborhood, four-wheel-drives have become an integral part of the street scene. These SUVs (sport utility vehicles, previously known as Jeeps or all-terrain-vehicles) have formidable names like Skyline, Explorer, Conquerer and Landwind. Luckily, you can buy spray-on mud for spattering your wheel rims, since SUVs rarely go off road. There are no hills around here, nor snow or other weather conditions that could justify a four-wheel-drive. It’s merely cool to join the urban safari. [5]

NATURE BECOMES CULTURE

The dividing line between nature and culture is difficult to draw. When a bird builds a nest, we call it nature, but when a human puts up an apartment building, suddenly it’s culture. Some try to sidestep the problem by claiming that everything is nature, while others claim that nature is only a cultural construction. It’s tempting just to lump the two together and give up thinking about it.

Cloned babies, rainbow tulips, transgenic mice afflicted with chronic cancer to serve medical science: are they natural or cultural?

The word ‘nature’ is derived from the Latin word natura. This was a translation of the Greek physis. Natura is related to Latin terms meaning ‘born’ (and the Greek physis to Greek words for ‘growth’). By the time of the ancient Greeks, the distinction between nature and culture was already considered important. Various things have changed since then; nature in the sense of physical matter unaltered by humans hardly exists anymore. We live in a world of petrochemical cosmetics, microprocessors and synthetic clothing (all things whose conditions of existence I know nothing of). New shower-gel scents are put on the market faster than I can use the stuff up. Shopping centers, websites and airports dominate our environment. There’s precious little nature left that has remained untouched by humans: perhaps a bit here and there on the ocean floor, the South Pole, or the moon. Old concepts like nature and culture, human and animal, and body and mind seem inadequate for understanding ourselves and the technological society we live in [6][7]. Cloned babies, rainbow tulips, transgenic mice afflicted with chronic cancer to serve medical science: are they natural or cultural? In an evolutionary sense, every distinction between culture and nature has something arbitrary about it; both have been part of the same evolutionary machine since Darwin’s day. When we speak about nature, we are always in fact talking about our relationship with nature, never about nature itself. Nature is always ‘so-called nature’ [8]. The terms ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ are usually deployed to justify one position or another. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas (the Christian father) believed art imitated nature, because human intellect was based on all things natural. Oscar Wilde (the homosexual), on the other hand, claimed that nature imitated art [9]. From this thought, it is only a small step to the idea that nature exists only between our ears and is in fact a cultural construction. Jacques Lacan (the postmodernist) claims that we cannot see nature [10]. A moderate constructivism is currently widely accepted among philosophers and scientists. Our image of nature has changed greatly over the centuries. It is likely that in the future we will adapt it further. This does not release us from our need to keep looking for nature. The manner in which we distinguish between nature and culture remains relevant, because it says something about the human perspective: what is our place in nature?

…hypernatural nature is always just a little bit prettier, slicker and safer than the old kind. Let’s be honest: it’s actually culture in disguise.

An alternative approach is to distinguish between natural and artificial processes. Some processes can take place as a result of human action; others cannot. For example, a room can be lit through the flick of a switch or a sunrise. Sunrise is a natural process; flipping a light switch is an artificial one. In this view, cultural processes are the clear consequences of purposeful human action, and culture is whatever human beings invent and control. Nature is everything else. But much of the ‘so-called nature’ in our lives has taken on an artificial authenticity. Genetically manipulated tomatoes are redder, rounder, larger, and maybe even healthier than the ones from our gardens. There are hypoallergenic cats, and nature reserves laid out with beautiful variety. You can buy specially engineered living beings in the supermarket. Human design has made nature more natural than natural: it is now hypernatural.[11] It is a simulation of a nature that never existed. It’s better than the real thing; hypernatural nature is always just a little bit prettier, slicker and safer than the old kind. Let’s be honest: it’s actually culture in disguise. The more we learn to control trees, animals, atoms and the climate, the more they lose their natural character and enter into the realms of culture.

CULTURE BECOMES NATURE

Thus far I have said nothing new. Everyone knows that old nature is being more and more radically cultivated. However, the question is: is the opposite also possible? I think it is. In contrast to optimistic progress thinkers who believe human beings’ control of nature will steadily increase until we are ultimately able to live without it, I argue that the idea that we can completely dominate nature is an illusion. Nature is changing along with us [12].

It is said Microsoft founder Bill Gates lives in a house without light switches. His house of the future is packed with sensors and software that regulate the lighting. Nature or culture? The average Dutch person worries more about mortgage interest deductions than about hurricanes or floods. Do you control the spyware and viruses on your computer? In their struggle against nature, human beings have become increasingly independent of physical conditions, it is true, but at the same time they are becoming more dependent on technological devices, other people, and themselves. Think of the dependence that comes with driving a car. We need motorways, for which we pay road tax. A supply of petrol must be arranged. Once you’re on the road, you have to concentrate so you won’t crash into the guardrail. You must take account of other road users. You need a driving license. All this is necessary in order to get your body from point A to point B more quickly. Along with physical de-conditioning comes social and psychological conditioning.

In this new classification, greenhouse tomatoes belong to the cultural category, whereas computer viruses and traffic-jams can be considered as natural phenomena.

I believe the way we draw the boundary between nature and culture will change. The domain of origin, of ‘birth’, previously belonged to nature, while culture encompassed the domain of the ‘made’. Thanks to developments in science and technology, this distinction is blurring [13]. Origin is playing a smaller and smaller role in human experience, because everything is a copy of a copy. Insofar as we still wish to make a distinction between nature and culture, we will draw the line between ‘controllable’ and ‘autonomous’. Culture is that which we control. Nature is all those things that have an autonomous quality and fall outside the scope of human power. In this new classification, greenhouse tomatoes belong to the cultural category, whereas computer viruses and the traffic-jams on our roads can be considered as natural phenomena. Why should we call them nature? Isn’t that confusing? We allot them to nature because they function as nature, even though they’re not green.

Human actions are not nature, but it can cause it; real nature in all its functioning, dangers and possibilities. In spite of all our attempts and experiments, it is still hardly practicable to mold life. Every time nature seems to have been conquered, it rears its head again on some other battlefield. Perhaps we should not see nature as a static given, but as a dynamic process [14]. It is not only humans that are developing; nature, too, is changing in the process. Thus, I am proposing a new approach to distinguish nature and culture. At first as is usual with paradigm shifts it takes some getting used to, but after a while things become clear again. Real nature is not green. Rather, it is beyond control.

Koert van Mensvoort, June 2006. Published in Vermeulen, Alex (editor) (2006). Sun enlightment, States of Nature. Syndicaat, ISBN: 87-1762457-900-4. Republished in Van Mensvoort, Koert; Grievink, Hendrik-Jan (2011) Next Nature – Nature Changes Along With Us. Actar. ISBN-13: 978-8492861538.

References

[1] www.nieuwenatuur.nl, Stichting Duinbehoud Leiden’s website.

[2] Metz, Tracy (1998). New Nature: Reportages over veranderend landscape. Amsterdam: Ambo, 1998, ISBN 90-263-1515-5.

[3] Wark, McKenzie (2005). “N is for Nature”, in Van Mensvoort, Gerritzen, Schwarz (Eds.) (2005), Next Nature, BIS Publishers, ISBN 90-636-9093-2, pp. 128-134.

[4] Metz, Tracy (2002) Pret! Leisure en landschap. Rotterdam: NAi, 2002, ISBN 90-5662-244-7.

[5] Catlett Wilkerson, Richard (2006). Postmodern Dreaming: Inhabiting the Improverse (www.dreamgate.com/).

[6] Bacon, Francis (1620). “Novum organum”, translated by James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis and Douglas Denon Heath, in The Works (Vol. VIII), published in Boston by Taggard and Thompson in 1863 (www.constitution.org/bacon/nov_org.htm).

[7] Haraway, Donna (1994). “Een Cyborg Manifest”, translated by Karin Spaink (A Manifesto for Cyborgs, 1991), Amsterdam: De Balie, 1994.

[8] Schwarz, Michiel (2005). “Nature So Called”, in Van Mensvoort, Gerritzen, Schwarz (Eds.) (2005), Next Nature, BIS Publishers, ISBN 90-636-9093-2, pp. 87-109.

[9] Wilde, Oscar (1889). The Decay of Lying: An Observation. New York: Brentano, 1905 [1889].

[10] Lacan, Jacques (2001). Ecrits, translated by Alan Sheridan, London: Routledge, 2001.

[11] Oosterling, Henk (2005). “Untouched Nature”, in Van Mensvoort, Gerritzen, Schwarz (Eds.) (2005), Next Nature, BIS Publishers, ISBN 90-636-9093-2, pp 81-87.

[12] Van Mensvoort, Koert (2005). “Exploring Next Nature”, in Van Mensvoort, Gerritzen, Schwarz (Eds.) (2005), Next Nature, BIS Publishers, ISBN 90-636-9093-2, pp. 4-43.

[13] Kelly, Kevin (1994). Out of Control: The Rise of Neo-Biological Civilization, Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1994, ISBN 0-201-57793-3.

[14] Heraclitus (540-480 BC): On Nature, fr. 208: “Nature loves to hide.” (Heraclitus wrote the philosophical work On Nature, which he placed in the temple of Artemis at Ephesus (Diogenes, Lives, 9.6). The work as a whole has not survived; what remains of it are quotations in the works of others.)

Discussion

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  1. sisterdiscordia

    wow….this is a very thought out statement. You made my head explode for a min.
    I applaud you.

  2. Chris Rock

    wow!

  3. Great stuff. This is exactly what I’m looking into for my University Project. Thanks!

  4. fox45

    Nature is changing-amazing. A whole new dynamic shift instead of static beaucolic romanticism. The black logo montage is also stunning. Thank you for opening the possibilities of dynamic connectedness.

  5. This is a terrific essay. I put a link to it on my blog. Thank you.

    I’m working on these issues myself and would very much like to send you a copy of my book Ecology without Nature. You can write to me at my email address if you like.

    Yours sincerely, Timothy Morton

  6. great stuff…

  7. kulu

    i love you .

  8. Nice one… I like it…

  9. Francois Le Grand

    Captivating- It is enjoyable to read a piece of work, both informative and intellectual yet not tedious, static or altogether too rigid. You write very well and hope you continue to research and compose such pieces of work.

  10. Straycode

    This article is flawed, and ill-conceived. Perhaps the author could explain where “Nature” stops and “Man” begins?

    Of course this is nonsense. “Man” is a part of “Nature”, always has been, always will be. The fact that “Man” sees himself as separate from “Nature” is indicative of a flaw in modern “Man’s” perception.

    “Nature” gives birth to “Man”. “Nature” creates, air essential for breath. “Nature” creates water, essential for life. “Nature” creates, food essential for life. “Man” does not live in a vacuum. “Man” lives in “Nature”, and is a part of “Nature”.

    “Man” has studied and learnt a little about “Nature’s” laws and how “Nature” operates. “Man” has manipulated these laws for his own benefit.

    “Man”, blinded by his self-importance, now believes he is separate and somehow above “Nature”. He sees himself as so superior to all other life forms.

    The fact so many readers of this article aligned with its view, merely points to the mass delusion which has hypnotised modern “Man”.

    This is part of the delusion from which modern “Man” suffers.

    How sad.

  11. @Straycode: So you are getting the point. Why be negative and defensive about an article? Is your opinion better? Though man is part of “nature” you can’t deny he differs from other species: f.e. his ability to dominate, manipulate on a large scale and also to take responsibility. That’s what we are trying to discuss here. There is a point to that, our way of life is causing change that not only affects man, but other lifeforms and their habitats as well. Nature is changing along with us, but if we can manipulate it, shouldn’t it be for the better?

  12. Mike

    I’ll be looking forward to the Sun rise tomorrow.
    thank you

  13. I kind of agree with Straycode that Man still is part of nature. but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the article. nice one. i love the point about nature not always being calm and peaceful. it indeed is a misconception. :)

  14. As the author of this essay, let me respond to some of your comments. First of all, I want to say it is stirring to receive so many positive responses on this essay. I fully realize that the essay proposes a very different than the established view on nature – I am basically asking people to rotate their thinking 180 degrees. It is rewarding to notice quite a lot of people are getting it. Thank you and keep it coming.
    -
    So far the easy part. Now let me respond to some of the critical remarks. @Straycode asks if ‘the author could explain where “Nature” stops and “Man” begins?’ Well Straycode, do you prefer the sort or the long answer? I mean, did I not just write a whole essay on that issue?
    Anyhow, let me explain a bit. Of course I agree with you that man is part of nature: especially if you look at from the perspective of the entire universe, man is merely an utterly small and insignificant part of nature. Let’s not pretend we’re the masters of the universe: We are not. Before we could know the profoundness of nature fully, our little brains would have long exploded. From that perspective I also agree with some of the postmodernists who argue we are unable to ‘see’ nature and hence, when we think and speak about nature, this is always a ‘cultural-construction’.
    -
    In the essay, I already write how “The dividing line between nature and culture is difficult to draw. When a bird builds a nest, we call it nature, but when a human puts up an apartment building, suddenly it’s culture. Some try to sidestep the problem by claiming that everything is nature, while others claim that nature is only a cultural construction. It’s tempting just to lump the two together and give up thinking about it.”
    Although both statements ‘man is part of nature’ (that’s what you are saying Straycode) or ‘nature is a cultural construction’ (that’s what the postmodernist are saying) are defendable, they both simply deny any border between nature and culture. From a philosophical perspective that is rather lazy. As I see it, it is not helpful to simply neglect any border between culture and nature as long as people in their everyday lives are still thinking, talking, making decisions from that established nature-culture framework. Hence, what I tried in the essay is not to simply vaporize the border between ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ with a few witty remarks, but to describe the tension in the current interpretation of the terms and to propose an alternative.
    While in the past the distinction between ‘nature’ vs ‘culture’ is usually interpreted as a distinction between ‘born’ vs ‘made’, I argue it is better to position the distinction between ‘autonomous’ vs ‘controlled’. From this alternative perspective a genetically modified greenhouse tomato – which we used to think of as nature – , clearly becomes a product of culture, while a rain forest is still in the realm nature. Also some man-caused phenomena, think for instance of the global financial system, will be deemed as natural phenomena, which I expect will help us in understanding their dynamics better. Finally I’d like to emphasize – especially because I just gave the example of the financial system as a phenomenon of next nature – that perceiving something as nature, does not necessarily mean one should not intervene with it: If this were true we would still be living in caves today.
    Although the view on nature as something pristine that man should not touch, is still quite common, I deem it as a misplaced form of self-hatred of people – perhaps a Christian guilt feeling of being kicked out of paradise? Which, although romantic nature lovers usually don’t realize it, in effect only places man outside nature. It puts Nature behind glass: enjoy its beauty, but don’t touch.
    -
    Again, I fully understand our view on nature I’ve proposed is very different from the established view and that is it quite difficult to grasp the concept. Yet once you’ve got it things become clear again, at least that’s what happened to me and it is joyful to see the same happening to others. Honestly I am confident that in time our (currently alternative) perception of the relation between culture and nature will become mainstream: In the future, when people talk about ‘nature’ they will means something different than they do today.

  15. Matthew Dickinson

    Computer viruses are written by human beings and require time, effort and planning.

  16. > Computer viruses are written by human beings and require time, effort and planning.

    Sure Matthew. So that is why we call it the nature ’caused’ by people. Our point is that most of the struggles we fight with nature nowadays, are in fact struggles with next nature. That includes climate change as well as computer virusses.
    -
    Yet, I would agree with you that computer virusses are more confined than global warming, or the plastic island in the ocean. It is for that reason that we are usually less interested in constrained computer based simulations of ‘artificial life’ that some associate with next nature as well. True nature doesn’t have an on/off switch.

  17. joyce

    i wanna ask if the concept of ‘next nature’ is same as ‘second nature’ which is mentioned in the book ‘Global Nature,Global Culture’ by Sarah Franklin,Celia Lury and Jackie Stacey , published by SAGE in 2000

  18. @ joyce: When second nature becomes first nature, that is when next nature occurs.

  19. Tyler

    I think you are absolutely right about the shifting terms of Nature and Culture. I disagree, however, that this is a shift that *should* happen – yet neither is it something that *should not* happen. It simply is happening. One might even say that language is an autonomous process (and therefore Nature rather than Culture). On the other hand, I understand the value of active engagement with those processes (in a mode of production/critique), and so I applaud your stance and your strong writing.
    I do want to add something, however, to your essay – a sort of addendum, rather than a critique. I believe the final irony of this paradigm shift to be the outcome that through this Cultural manipulation (of putting “remote kill switches” in what we would otherwise label autonomous Natural elements), humanity – Culture – becomes a controlled process itself. Unfortunately the controller of these kill switches is not then humanity but the autonomous elements of Nature. We must only look at the recent BP oil disaster for evidence of this.
    In any case, you’ve written a great essay to read and simmer on.

  20. D

    By definition nature is everything that is not human made.

  21. D

    Also,
    Yes nature can be cruel but there are places in the world where people and nature live in harmony. For example little country villages in russia. yes nature is not green but people chose green as a symbol for nature . It is easier this way for them to communicate.

  22. I like it.

  23. student89

    Very interesting! This is brilliant material for my head.. Thanks!!

  24. Cathy Sander

    [I may be rambling, so be forewarned...]

    But isn’t it true that culture is a tiny part of the universe as a whole? I find this praise of culture somewhat laughable in the face of physical forces that sculpt the dynamics of galaxies millions of light years away :)

    We tend to make a big deal out of what “we” do in the world [which is mostly uninhabitable anyway, but people don't realise that], with “our” technology, which could have never existed by chance. We are precious as a species because we are rare, not the other way round. Our existence is thus contingent on the universe’s existence.

    As to whether nature is green…it’s mostly black [from our eyes!], which is a direct consequence of the cosmic expansion of the universe stretching the wavelengths of light into the microwave range.

    But what about the concepts of “nature” and “culture” as used by people? I don’t know. It’s not as important as we may think, since most of the time, it doesn’t matter. When we start trying to philosophise about these concepts, however, we realise that what we’re capturing is beyond language anyway. So I don’t see how we should get all worked up about these distinctions which in reality don’t really exist as a fundamental part of our existence. It reflects our human ability [and disability at times] to make distinctions between things to the point of absurdity.

    In the light of this, how can I say anything about nature and culture, then? Well, beyond the obvious fact that these concepts belong to us, and thus will always have a human tinge to it…little more.

    I find it interesting, though, that the only reason we can do anything at all rests on how the universe works. Each time we made something, or transport something, we are in effect under the wraps of thermodynamics, mechanics, electromagnetism and the like. It’s that we don’t notice it until something goes wrong…

  25. Tom Matych

    Natures laws control everything. Man didn’t invent anything, he merely keeps tripping over nature laws, then says Hey if I keep doing this, this happens. Look at an Acorn and try to figure out how it knew how to grow an Oak Tree! Natures law cannot change, nothing thus life wouldn’t work if it did.

  26. farts

    nature existed before human kind ever existed, it is not a cultural construction and it is people like you who prevent our race from living harmoniously with the world around us. God speed

  27. i’m glad to realize that i’m not thinking alone about this issues. please don’t stop

    regads from Chile

  28. Bonnie

    I disagree with the picture. Some nature is green. All nature is not green.

  29. to all who are inspired by this article or who have similar projects, please contact http://firstgreatwilderness.blogspot.com/
    I believe that collaboration leads to success perhaps just for developing the mind but potentially for large scale projects,
    Koert i sent you a short message earlier (missing contact details)
    All the best
    Galena

  30. Mooi en doorwrocht essay! Zijn er reacties vanuit de natuurbescherming of vanuit politiek en beleid?

  31. @Roel During: Dit essay is uit 2006 en duidelijk vanuit een Nederlands perspectief geschreven, echter de Nederlandse vertaling is pas in 2011 gepubliceerd (in 2009 was al wel een Chinese vertaling gepubliceerd). Ik zie nu zelfs dat op onze website niet eens een Nederlandse vertaling te vinden is. Wat slordig en misschien wel typisch Hollands van mij.

    Enfin, Ik mag dus niet klagen dat de respons vanuit Nederlandse natuurbescherming, politiek en beleid wat laat op gang komt.

  32. wakeup

    next nature has become my most hated site on the web. mankind’s selfish way of life and it’s results… illustrated as something that’s quite ok – is fu**ing disgusting. man has killed various species and just takes what he wants without giving back something. some day you will learn that mankind is a selfish parasite – not a wise creator. technological delusion of grandeur never solved problems – it just replaced one problem by another. wake up.