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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.

nextnature_services

Essay: Next Nature Services

Intentionality separates culture from nature. A dog is intentional, a fox is not; a park is intentional, a forest is not. Since trash, ruined buildings, and automated computer programs are unintentional, they are also a type of nature. Nature provides human society with valuable ‘ecosystem services’ such as water purification or erosion control. Next nature provides ecosystem services of its own, although they might not be what we expect.

BY BAS HARING

2010 was the International Year of Biodiversity. The United Nations introduced the concept as a way to draw attention to the decline of nature. Advocating on nature’s behalf, a relatively new argument emerged, ‘ecosystem services’: useful things nature does, unbeknownst to us. Forests filter dust from the air, scrub prevents erosion, and insects pollinate our crops. Incidentally, nature provides us with services that would otherwise have cost a fortune. Leaving aside the question of where they could be purchased. Is it conceivable that one day there will be next nature services, delivered in passing and unintentionally by new, future ecologies?

A rainforest is nature, a park is not. Foxes are nature, dogs are not.

But what makes nature nature? What makes it so valuable and special? Perhaps seeing nature in exaggerated and simplified terms, I can start to think about its future. Is spontaneity not the essence of nature? Put differently, the absence of conscious planning is the essence of nature. A rainforest is nature, a park is not. Foxes are nature, dogs are not. And the ocean is nature, but an oceanarium is not. Parks, dogs and oceanariums have been thought up – we intentionally created and designed them. Nature, by contrast, is not a result of intention. Nature just is. At most it’s a consequence of a ‘natural process’. The very phrase ‘natural process’ illustrates the essence of nature: ‘that’s just the way it is‘ or ‘of itself’. The absence of this deliberation or intention is also the source of nature’s charm. Nature is surprising. It can be surprising, because no one has thought about it in advance. Nature humbles us in all her beauty. Beauty that we had no part in. Ferns, ibises and dragonflies are magnificent, but we didn’t create them or think them up.

The distinction I draw between the intended and unintended shows that there is still a place for ‘real’ nature in the manufactured nature of the park and the oceanarium. Grass stubbornly creeps between the paving stones in the park, and millions of unintended and uninvited plant and animal species live in the water at the oceanarium. Even sheepdogs, shining examples of obedience in the animal world, will occasionally, unintentionally go against their character by chasing after rabbits. Parks, oceanariums and dogs are less natural than forests, oceans and wolves, because they are deliberately designed rather than having simply evolved.

Incidentally, nature provides us with services that would otherwise have cost a fortune.

I wonder how to interpret the statement, ‘Meadow birds belong in the Netherlands’. Or other pronouncements about what nature is supposed to be like: ‘Lions belong in Africa’ and ‘Oranges belong on orange trees.’ I don’t think the sentence ‘Meadow birds belong in the Netherlands’ is a strange one. I might even think it’s true. But if I believe nature is a product of random circumstance, then what do I mean by that sentence? Can something belong somewhere without intent? I believe so. Even if everyone knows meadow birds are indigenous to the Netherlands – they are simply there – one can still believe they belong there. Despite the fact that oranges were not invented or intended (humans did not invent oranges to grow) to grow on orange trees, it’s not strange to argue that they belong there. Something that is intentional should be as it was intended to be. But something unintentional can evidently also belong somewhere. There is a difference between ‘belonging to’ and ‘belong’. An orange may belong on an orange tree, but that does not directly imply that the orange tree is supposed to be that way. But enough about the difference between intention and belonging. Let’s get back to nature.

Is nature green per se, made up only of organic molecules and living cells? I don’t believe it is. Mountains are nature too. They came into being through a natural, unplanned process. And mountains are not composed of organic molecules but of materials like silicon dioxide and limestone, as are streams and salt flats. These things are not green or made of organic material, and yet as far as I’m concerned, they’re part of nature.

Picture yourself in Iceland, walking on top of a volcano with a friend. Around you are bare rocks as far as the eye can see, and to your left is a mountain stream. At one point your friend says, ‘Isn’t nature spectacular?’ You probably won’t be surprised – ‘But this isn’t nature; nature’s made out of organic material!’ Instead, you will agree with your friend – ‘Yes, it’s spectacular’. Following this line of thought, it’s possible that nature  can consist of other materials too. If lime and salt are okay, then why not plastic and electronics? As long as something is unintentional, it can be natural, or perhaps it is even natural by definition.

Near the Dutch city of Almere is an unfinished modern castle, it was originally intended as a luxury hotel, but it was never completed and will never be. Instead of a modern replica of a medieval castle, there is a rough castle-shaped block of building materials – nowhere near the original intention. This modern ruin in the middle of the forest is more natural than the surrounding woods. The trees were planted, intentionally; the castle’s current form is an accident. The unintentional, chaotic organization of large companies could perhaps also be understood as next nature – marketing departments redoing the work of communication departments; little groups of people who don’t know what the others are doing and may even be working against each other, unknowingly. And then there are the messages generated by Twitter bots, automatic tweet-generating programmes. No one creates these random tweets (if you don’t include the programmer) – another new kind of nature. In the future, maybe Twitter bots will have brief conversations with each other, without any human intervention: ‘How are you?’ ‘Fine, thank you. How are you?’ These unintentional conversations can be considered a new kind of nature.

The world is becoming increasingly planned and thus increasingly unnatural. The more people there are, taking up more space, the more we think about that space. Unplanned, natural space turns into planned, unnatural space. But I believe the unintentional will keep creeping up in between all those intentions, like grass between the paving stones in the park. It may happen in odd places – inside computers, on building sites, in organizations – but the unintentional will stick around. Will this new nature potentially be of value? When it comes to value in nature, the following paradox applies: plants and animals hold value for us mainly in manufactured sense. The value of agricultural crops is obvious, but maize and grain fields are not nature. The most valuable trees grow in planted forests, not in ‘real’ nature. And the animals we eat are rarely wild, natural ones.

In one town, an old rubbish dump was transformed into an indoor piste, giving new value to something that once had none.

The term ‘value’ is a complicated one. There are ‘intrinsic value’, ‘aesthetic value’ and ‘economic value’, and probably many other kinds too, but to reduce the complexity somewhat, I will refer here mainly to economic value – not because I believe it is the only kind of value that matters but because it is the easiest to grasp and the least debatable. The plants and animals that possess the most value to us – maize, grain, vegetables, oak, pigs, grass, cows and chickens – no longer have value in nature. They are cultivated, planned and controlled, in fields, barns and planted forests. It is non-nature, lifted out of nature through intention that has obvious value.

But what about the value of genuine nature – the virgin forests of Siberia, the gulls in the Wadden Sea? Don’t they still hold value, even if it is unintended? And it is precisely here that we find the invisible ecosystem services: that nature provides. Worms, along with millions of species of bacteria and single-celled organisms, keep the soil fertile so that we have maize and grain to harvest; forests filter dust from the air; insects pollinate our crops. These are invisible, valuable services provided by nature – incidental services from unintentional nature. And they are much more exciting than the value of intentional animals and plants in parks, barns and oceanariums. Those are intended, here for a reason, and so, logically they have value. But the fact that unintentional nature has value too might come as a surprise.

Ecosystem services supply nature conservationists with a timely argument for their cause. And ecosystem services are one piece of evidence the U.N cites in its defense of nature. If nature contributes incidental value, then it would seem logical that unintended new nature can too. If the essence of nature is its lack of planning, if nature has various unintentional kinds of value, generated in passing, and if nature is not made of organic material per se but could also consist of plastic, buildings and software in the future, then this suggests that new nature will also have new kinds of value in the future.

Is this really conceivable? Is it possible that tweeting robots, chaotic organizations, modern ruins and other forms of new unintentional nature secretly have value, without it being intentional, and without us knowing it yet?

It just might be, and I have already seen the first indications. The Netherlands is a flat country and this is of value. It makes a big difference to the cost of agricultural labor. But a hill here and there can also be valuable, even if it’s just used for skiing. In one town, an old rubbish dump was transformed into an indoor piste, giving new value to something that once had none. It is true that the site was built intentionally and according to plan, but as a dump, not a ski slope. Its value as a hill only became apparent later. Shipwrecks and sunken drilling platforms are another example (can be warm or cold ocean, doesn’t matter to fish). Without intention, they lie rusting and rotting on the seabed. Yet they have turned out to be of great value.

As long as something is unintentional, it can be natural, or perhaps it is even natural by definition.

Fish and other forms of life gather around these wrecks. Divers swim there, and fishermen make extraordinary catches. These unplanned wrecks have unintentional value: a service is provided accidentally by a new, next nature. The fibers in wrecked cars from wiring insulation and upholstery are a final example. These fibers are a byproduct of modern car salvage. After the steel and other valuable materials have been removed, rubber and fibers remain. People found no use for these fibers until it was discovered that they could be used in water purification. Certain pollutants bind to them perfectly. Perhaps even the plastic island – the enormous accumulation of synthetic material floating near Hawaii that is larger than France – secretly has value, as an island that was not planned and is therefore nature. It is not inconceivable that this plastic mountain will turn out to have incidental value. In any case, we must continue to look at possible new natures with a fresh eye. Nature is spontaneous, and therefore it is also unexpected. Next nature could manifest itself in many unexpected ways, with many unexpected kinds of value.

Published in Next Nature book (forthcoming). Image Fish using shipwreck, Northwest Hawaiian Islands, photo via Photolib.nasa.gov.

Discussion

  1. Hi Bas,

    In my perception you’ve started you essay with a few rather provocative words:

    “… Since trash, ruined buildings, and automated computer programs are unintentional, they are also a type of nature.”

    For, the implication of your words appears to be that you sort of choose to define any type of human failure as ‘nature’, and any type of success as ‘culture’.

    (Bas, I realize that you did not describe this litterally, but I do notice that this implication directly results from your first 3 lines)

    But that would implicate that the difference between ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ would become a matter of how we PERCEIVE things… which typically varies among individuals (AND among human cultures around the world!).

    So, I could also put it like this:

    I observe that you’ve tried to postulate the idea that ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ can be discriminated by the presence of INTENTIONALITY.

    But the direct implication of this idea appears to be that even a bird’s nest can no longer be qualified as ‘nature’… because obviously, just like us humans, birds are making their nests with… intentionality.

    So Bas, can I invite you to help me how we should understand your postulate…?

    (Preferably seen in the perspective of the rather simple – disputing – examples taken from daily life, which I have just described: can INTENTIONALITY really serve as a measure to discriminate ‘culture’ from ‘nature’?)

    Thank you :-)

  2. … Also, your words point out (3rd alinea):

    “Nature, by contrast, is not a result of intention. Nature just is.”

    I wonder: how about the example of a bird building a nest?

    Bas, ain’t the bird’s nest an example of how the concept of ‘nature’ can included the presence of INTENTIONALITY?

    Afterall… any type of consciousness (human or non-human) can express intentionality. Correct?

    PS. I am using here the word ‘consciousness’ in the perspective of the fact that the term INTENTIONALITY was introduced by Jeremy Bentham as a principle of utility in his doctrine of consciousness.

  3. Allison Guy

    Martijn, interesting points you bring up. It’s not mentioned in the article, but perhaps the bird’s nest is unintentional because it is instinctual. Given the right environmental and hormonal cues, the bird might not have much of a choice in whether or not to build a nest. There’s little to no room for novel behavior. Learned behavior, on the other hand, would count as intentional, or at least malleable. Culture, be it human culture, ape culture, or whale culture, would fall under the rubric of “not nature, ” as it is subject to conscious change.

    Not a perfect explanation, but perhaps it’s getting somewhere.

  4. Hi Allison,

    Thank you for your attempt to find a solution via a consideration of how ‘instinct’ works.

    But I dare to question as well whether one can discriminate ‘intentionality’ from ‘instinct’…

    Because, for example: Sigmund Freud’s theories about human psychology show how a large part human behavior can be described as resulting from two ‘instincts’: the life drive (= Eros, a.k.a. libido) and the death drive (Thanatos) – see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigmund_Freud#Life_and_death_drives

    Therefore, I think it is quite obvious that ‘instinct’ typically is directed to acquire certain goals (objectives)…. survival – which directly relates to Freud’s live drive!

    And therefore, ‘instinct’ might even REQUIRE the presence of ‘intentionality’.

    Alison, how does this sound to you?

    PS. Again, because the philosophical concept of ‘inentionality’ basically only appears to require consciousness (see e.g. the works of Bentham and Husserl: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intentionality), I think the implication is pretty obvious:

    The animal kingdom can be described as evolving and running with ‘intentionality’.

    And because it is also obvious that a large part of the animal kingdom is defined as being a part of nature… I would love to hear what exactly made Bas starting his essay with the assumption that nature can not have ‘intentionality’.

    Makes sense now…?

  5. Allison Guy

    I agree that Bas’s concept of intentionality leaves something to be desired. However, it’s important to make the distinction between culture and instinct. A bird (intentionally) wants to make a nest, but it only makes its nest in one way, according to one set of in-born directions. So, there’s intentionality, but intentionality without understanding. As a typical human, I intentionally want to attract a mate, but I can learn to do that in many dozens of different ways. Some are personal preferences, and some are cultural preferences. Humans instinctually want to communicate, to be social, to gather food and to reproduce – these are genetic. It’s the means that are cultural. We can even choose NOT to follow those instincts.

    In other words… I’m using Bas’s sense of “intentionality” to mean the presence of culture and conscious choice. Which may be completely unrelated to what he was trying to say!

    On a side note, I’m wary of using Freud as proof of anything. Many of his theories are just-so stories that have been discredited by modern psychology, and were based on the shakiest of evidence in even his own time. I’ll admit some are lovely concepts, but they should be understood as philosophy, not science. From an evolutionary perspective, the “death drive” makes no sense, except in the very rare circumstances where you might sacrifice yourself for your closest genetic relatives.

  6. Hi Allison,

    Thanks again for your response.

    Yes, okay… I fully agree about your point regarding culture vs instinct. The bird’s nest is a result of instinct, and therefore it becomes a part of nature.

    (Regarding Freud… yes, your thoughts about his theories are justified, because his theories are an example of outdated science – though many psychology experts still believe this work can be recognized as a milestone in the history of scientific psychology. Anyway, I don’t need his example to make my point)

    And yes, I understand your next example as well: culture and conscious choice can relate to the word INTENTIONALITY.

    But the question remains… is the absence of INTENTIONALITY sufficient to describe human acts as ‘nature’?

    I don’t think so, and I would like to point out the details via an example mentioned by Bas (in his second sentence): TRASH!

    I actually think that it is very hard to accept any type of ‘trash’ as an example of nature.

    Specifically, I think ‘trash’ can best be described as… a fundamental aspect of culture: it’s a significant result of culture!!!

    We could even describe it as the ultimate “dark-side” of culture, which shows up in many cultures around the world – especially the Western cultures.

    A clear example:

    Recently I heard that one of the most attractive activities for criminals has become ‘collecting trash’ (chemical, heavy metals & nuclear)… in order to dump it at places where the government is not able to take care of nature.

    This example shows that when trash mixes up with nature … it is (often) INTENTIONAL. And I hardly recognize the difference: it doesn’t really matter how trash became mixed with nature, whether it is the result of MAKING MONEY or the result of a CARELESS DECISSION by individuals who let it fall out of their hands!

    Fortunately, human-kind is smart enough to deal with this problem: the brilliant concept of re-cycling is a clear example.

    Hmmm….

    Alison, I think I have just presented a rather simple proof why trash should better not be categorized as ‘nature’, because:

    Trash = (the dark side of) culture!

    :) … How does this rather simple statement sound to you?

    PS. Bas only once mentioned the example of ‘trash’ (in his 2nd sentence), but I recognize how it is a fundamental example in his essay.

  7. PS. One more example to consider regarding the aspect of INTENTIONALITY:

    There is at least one similarity between human & all living animals: COLLECTING FOOD + EATING.

    The process of COLLECTING FOOD and the process of EATING are both intentional – because both processes are necessary for humans & animals in order to survive.

    I hope this example shows that lots of ‘natural processes’ are INTENTIONAL and featured with conscious choices.

    In this perspective one could also argue that any type of ‘evolution’ (Darwin) is intentional: because it is typically focussed on survival (via unconscious, sub-conscious, or conscious choices).

    One more example from the field of psychology:

    Abraham Maslow described that the urge to create meaning in life (in term of ‘self-actualisation’) is an essential part of human nature (human psychology). Religion, philosophy & poetry are a cultural expression of this aspect of human nature. And therefore, beyond the need for FOOD, human nature has probably many other expressions that are INTENTIONAL.

    I guess this shows again that many natural processes do not exclude INTENTIONALITY.

    Therefore I continue to wonder why Bas choose the concept of INTENTIONALITY in order to “separate culture from nature”.

    Anyone…???

  8. Tom

    How about this one: ‘thought is a flaw of nature’.

    With thoughts, and therefore ego, introduced in evolution – which resulted in the current state of the world – the ability to ‘debalance’ the perfect harmony of nature was born. Thought gave human beings a unique and very powerful feature. A feature that led to the survival of the human race so far.

    Thought can create a non-existing world, that only takes place in our minds and that can create monsters like anger, hate, fear, anxiety, and so on, with a lot of suffering as a result as well. That non-existing world is based on the past and the future, and so is even our language.

    The difference with animals – and any nature – is that they just are. And they are just acting in the now.

    Maybe Bas’ way of making a distinction is that he is talking about INTENTIONALITY by thought. Rather than by instinct?

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  10. Taylor Bass

    Martijn,

    I agree with your statement that the idea of trash is a good lens through which to analyze Bas’ argument, so I’ll use it to try to explain my interpretation of “intentionality” in this context.

    Trash is intentionally created. Not just the things which are used, leaving the trash to be discarded. All trash is knowingly produced to serve some purpose, and then to be stored in some way as trash for some period of time. The waste being dumped by criminals was created by the factories with the full knowledge that it would be trash. So no, I do not consider trash “nature”.

    However, I do consider what happens to that trash after it is dumped “nature”. Old metal left in the woods will begin to rust and will eventually degrade into its most basic ingredients; this is a natural process. The oxidation is not planned by the trash generator, but rather is an untentional, natural consequence of an intended action.

    In this vein, I would argue that the bird’s nest is not in fact natural. It is intended by the bird; the bird has a need, and manipulates his environment to meet that need. That is technology. Even if the bird is acting solely on natural instinct, eliminating whatever choice may be present, the act of building a nest is still a conscious manipulation of nature. It can be equated to the act of cutting down trees to build a log cabin. But, using the same logic of intentionality, the moment that nest is no longer serving the bird’s purpose, it becomes nature. A gust of wind knocks it out of a tree, and it simply becomes a pile of sticks on the ground.

    Applying the idea of “trash” to the bird’s nest, it would follow that the nest is indeed trash when abandoned by the bird. It is still not a natural thing until the moment when “nature” begins to act on it and turn it from the intentionally abandoned “trash” into an unintentional pile of sticks.

    What do you think?