Essay: Next Nature intro by Bruce Sterling
This project is about Nature’s brand image. One might surmise that “Nature,” being 100 percent all-natural, can’t have any brand image. The facts suggest otherwise. Try it for yourself: tell a friend that something seemingly 100 percent natural is actually “96 percent natural.” Not a great difference, apparently, yet a profound unease arises. That unease is the subject of the many provocative essays and remarkable graphics on NextNature.net
by BRUCE STERLING
The project is a study in why we feel uneasiness when the Nature brand is violated. It’s also about the exciting new-and-improved varieties of unnatural unease that have come to exist quite recently. It explains why this sensibility is spreading, and what that implies for who we are, and how we live with Nature.
Now, when Nature is slightly artificialized — say, by installing a park bench under a tree — we rarely get any dark suspicious frisson about that. The uncanny can only strike us when our ideological constructs about Nature are dented. We’re especially guarded about our most pious, sentimentalized notions of Nature. Nature as a nurturing entity that is harmonious, calm, peaceful, inherently rightful and all-around “good-for-you.”
This vaguely politicized attitude about Nature never came from Nature. It was culturally generated. Nature didn’t get her all-natural identity-branding until the Industrial Revolution broke out. Then poets and philosophers were allowed to live in dense, well-supplied cities, where they could recast Nature from some intellectual distance. Before that huge effusion of organized artifice, people lived much closer to the soil.
These farmers rarely spoke of “Nature” in the abstract. They were too deeply involved in a lifelong subsistence struggle with natural events, such as inclement weather, bad harvests, weeds, pests, and blights. They certainly never mistook their existing state of affairs for the Biblical Eden: their theological utopia in which Nature was always harmonious, calm, peaceful and good-for-you.
However, that was back then, and this is now. Under the emergent regime of Next Nature, the potential for Nature to behave in a sweet-tempered Mother Nature-ly fashion has been stripped away. The Dame is running an ever-mounting fever from climate change, and there are no humanly untouched landscapes anywhere on the surface of the planet. We’ve entered the Anthropocene Epoch, in which humanity and its instrumentalities are the most potent and influential geological force. Most available sunlight and soil goes for crops. The ever-increasing tonnage of human flesh outweighs all other wild mammals. Nature becomes a subset of culture, rather than vice versa.
We also have an exciting suite of new technical interventions – biochemical, genetic, roboticized, nanotechnological – which are poorly understood. They can all interfere radically in what we construe as the “natural order.” They change Nature faster than our ideas about Nature can change. The result is Tofflerian Future Shock with a leafy green tinge.
It’s unclear whether there is any tenable way, or even any further need, to separate “Nature” from “Culture” — on the surface of this planet, anyway. That commingled, hybridized, chimeric future is already here, and awaiting distribution — with operators standing by.
Next Nature is an investigative enterprise by a set of mostly Dutch researchers. Next Nature is haunted by Previous Nature, or rather, by the ghostly Gothic absences of a vanished Natural world. Next Nature also bears many premonitions about the seething, favela-like, feverish state of our planet tomorrow. Next Nature offers us few reassurances. It refuses to view Nature as a given, solid, static entity to be discovered, dissected and destroyed by human agency. Instead, Next Nature is a dynamic entity that is fated to change right along with us.
There is an ontological crisis involved in our ignorance of what the Earth was like before we humans altered it. It’s hard for us to establish a comfortable sense of our place in the world when the world itself is so outworn and bedraggled by so many previous human efforts. It’s degrading to work creatively on hand-me-downs: the writer whose page is a scraped-down palimpsest, the artist whose canvas is torn and worn, the architect engaged in endless renovations, the actress in thrift-shop clothes. That’s what it’s like for a civilization existing in a natural milieu that has been irretrievably damaged. And yes, that is our future.
Worse yet is to gaze with a fatuous satisfaction on a seemingly untouched sylvan scene, without realizing that the whole thing is a put-up job.
At its best, it can be a superb put-up job, such as Holland: a nation of artifice that still clings to a pretty myth of tulips, clogs and contented cows while, in some anxious corner of the Dutch psyche, the dykes leak endlessly and the laboring windmills creak in a fitful breeze. Next Nature is about the planet becoming Dutch: Nature made the world, but mankind made Holland.
At its worst, though, our ignorance of the human effect on Nature has Lovecraftian aspects. We become our own unnatural monsters, an eerie half-glimpsed force of archaic destruction. How many of the “primeval jungles” of Central and South America were cultivated places, once? How many alien species have been shipped around the planet by humanity, disrupting ecologies in ways we fail to see and don’t suspect? How many seemingly pristine landscapes have been transformed by fire and overgrazing? What have antibiotics done to the unseen bacterial world, and dissolved plastics done to the seas?
Could it be true that our scattered ancestors, equipped with nothing more than fire and pointed sticks, briskly wiped out all the Pleistocene megafauna? Did we cause an abject collapse of the natural order before we were even literate?
We are clearly culpable in the massive wave of extinction today — but could it be that human beings actually evolved in a mass extinction? Has that been our role in the planet since our species took shape?
Our tainted atmosphere proves that we’ll never see a pristine world again, but, in the meantime, we will also have to come to terms with the ever-lengthening human legacy. Our previous attitudes are no longer tenable; they are actively harmful to us and to Nature. We no longer have any way to leave a “Natural Reserve” alone, to be “reserved” and stay “Natural.” These relict biomes have been chopped up into unsustainable island fragments, and are severely stressed by rising temperatures, water shortages, invasive weeds and admiring tourists.
Abandoned areas of the planet can no longer “revert to Nature” as they once supposedly did. Instead, they must revert to Next Nature, becoming weird “involuntary parks” such as the Cypriot Green Line, a long, human-free strip of flammable weeds and weed-trees, junkyards and landmines.
Nor can we trust our means of technical control – our systematic, bureaucratic, commercial and analytical artifices. These artificial systems are not natural. Yet they can all manifest organic forms of behavior within a technological matrix. Our technology commonly manifests feral, eruptive, untamable qualities.
In what sense is an abject surrender to mysterious “market forces” any different than an abject surrender to the Mayan rain gods? The market is often seen and described as stormy, witchy, inaccessible, overwhelming in power — in short, as primal, wild and fearsome, a force of Nature. Not because markets necessarily must have those natural attributes, but because we’ve trained ourselves to propitiate a feral market after freeing it from government control. It’s common for Greens to boast that “Nature bats last,”and she does — but Technology bats as well.
When society is disrupted by a Chernobyl-scale event (leading to the world’s largest involuntary park), we have the moral luxury of searching for a human scapegoat — in engineering, in design, in a political system, or in “human error.” But technology is not merely about us: it’s also about laws of Nature. Entropy requires no maintenance. All technological systems must age and decay. Extreme “black swan” events cannot possibly be outguessed even in principle. Some level of “normal failure” in technological systems is as “natural” as the sun rising.
“Next Nature” cannot be fathomed without a similar study of Next Artifice, which this website carries out. We blind ourselves to the nature of technology by segregating certain classes of systemic behavior as “natural.” We also stigmatize technology by denying its “natural” aspects: its mortality, fragility, complex interactivity, and its utter dependence on sometimes fitful flows of energy and material sustenance. We rarely allow ourselves any tender, reverential, nurturing attitude toward technology. The mass extinctions of entire classes of objects and services go almost unnoticed. We can surely do better than that.
In conclusion, we may ask ourselves: in a world of Next Nature, what has become of “real” Nature? Where is the objective reality behind this clever study of natural imagery and social attitudes toward nature? Next Nature maven Koert van Mensvoort likes to quote Heraclitus — “Nature loves to hide.” How hidden is Nature? Is it possible that we have never seen Nature, but only our notions of Nature?
Here, I think, we can take some cold comfort in lifting our gaze to the stars. Despite what we’ve done to the surface of this planet, we’re still a speck on a rock. The planet has been repeatedly wrecked by asteroids — sudden mass extinctions that dwarf anything humanity has yet triggered. We have most of the lesser beings in our biosphere at our mercy (to the point where we know them better as corporate logos than as living entities), but we don’t run Nature or even as yet grasp its, well, real nature.
Modern astrophysics suggests — more than “suggests,” it asserts, with much painstaking accumulated evidence — that the Cosmos is mostly “dark energy” and “dark matter.” These two rather ineffable substances are, presumably, the realest things in the universe. We human cannot manipulate, control, pollute or industrialize “dark energy” or “dark matter.” They are Natural, and yet it seems that they will remain forever closed to any form of human intervention.
We can more or less get to terms with the edgy sensibility of “Next Nature.” It’s not beyond mankind to conceptualize ideas like the ones in this website, and even, eventually, domesticate them and even find them charming. Many of the ideas and images in NEXT NATURE are experimental probes, which may seem far-out right now, but which may some day seem as endearingly corny as the Sputnik.
However, Nature has never existed for our convenience. Our society is mentally light-years away from metabolizing the bizarre assertions of Dark Matter theory. A universe in which Nature is mostly Darkness is a Copernican-scale de-throning of everything we once thought was Natural. And that may be the objective truth. If so, then our notion of “Natural” is a foamlike four percent of a severely alien universe. In other words, Real True Cosmic Objective Nature is 96 percent Otherness, while we are, and always have been, the four percent adulterated whatever.
Quite an odd sensation, thinking that. We seem to lack an unease than can get any more profound.
So Nature clearly has her surprises in store. We have artificialized most everything we can grip, but there are still innumerable worlds well beyond our opposable thumbs. We can view some worlds other than the Earth, and we can measure them. Obedient to the Laws of Nature, they still remain serenely detached from us.
What we know of those worlds, we know by severely unnatural means. And only by unnatural means. There never was, and never could be, any entirely “natural” way to understand all of “real” Nature. There is no direct, intuitive, unmediated, “real and genuine” experience of the actually existing universe. As evolved beings produced by a biosphere, we’re not capable of perceiving reality unassisted. There can only be our technical instrumentalities. Our weak, decaying, flawed, falsifiable, even pitiable instrumentalities. But that’s how we learn what’s natural and real — through the unnatural.
There is a mental world in which these seeming oxymorons make good sound brisk common sense. Adjusting to demonstrable reality, no matter how mind-stretching, is generally a praiseworthy effort. It would mean a lot of change in our ideas of the Natural. It would mean a more fully-humane mental world which was less notional, less delusional, less self-indulgent, and more attentive to the genuine otherness of Nature. We’re not there – we may never get there, for we may lack the time, and the will. But we ought to go there, to the extent that we can.
This project will help.