Essay: Nature is Dead, Long live Nature
Today the human impact on our planet can hardly be underestimated. Climate change, population explosion, genetic manipulation, digital networks, hurricane control and engineered microbes. Untouched old nature is almost nowhere to be found. “We were here,” echoes all over. This omnipresence of human activity motivated some to announce the end of nature and proclaim a post natural future. Contrary to these observations, I believe that it is not nature that died, disappeared or became obsolete, rather that our notion of nature is changing.
By KOERT VAN MENSVOORT
Throughout our human history, from the stone axes; domestication of fire; to agriculture; currency; writing and today’s nano-, bio- and information technologies; technological innovations have transformed our relationship with the natural environment. The impact of engineered microbes we are debating today doesn’t come out of the blue, but stands in a direct connection with the engineering of crops and cattle that started 10.000 years ago with the beginning of agriculture – it is merely more detailed and precise.
What is our image of nature, and who decides that?
It is often said we are in a crisis with nature and there have been countless projects initiated to restore the balance. Only very few projects, however, have questioned our notion of nature: What is our image of nature, and who decides that? If we consider our paradigms of nature throughout history, it is immediately apparent that that there have been various notions of nature over time. The word Nature stems from the Latin term, natura, which in turn was derived from the Greek word physis. For the Romans natura was associated with ‘everything born’, while the Greek associated physis with ‘growth’. For the past few centuries our notion of nature has been in line with the Roman interpretation: Nature is born, while culture is everything made by man. Yet, as we are living in a time of rainbow tulips, transgenic animals and climate change – a time in which the made and the born are fusing – this distinction between ‘made’ and ‘born’ becomes useless as a culture-nature paradigm.
Some try to solve this paradigm crisis by proclaiming that ‘nature’ is a cultural construction: everything we think or say about nature is tainted by our cultural lenses hence nature is always nature so-called. Others argue that, as man is part of the evolutionary machinery at large, our human culture and its effects are in fact all natural. Although both arguments have certain attractiveness, from a philosophical perspective it isn’t neat to put nature and culture on one and the same pile and simply deny the distinction.
Like we did to old nature before, we must now cultivate our technological environment.
I believe the border between nature and culture is shifting rather than fading. On the one hand the ‘born’ nature – in the sense of trees, plants, animals, atoms, or climate – is increasingly dissected, controlled and governed by man: it is effectively turned into a cultural category. At the same time, however, our ‘made’ technological environment becomes so omnipresent, complex and uncontrollable that we start to relate to it as a nature of its own. In this process the traditional distinction between the born (nature) and the made (culture) becomes radically blurred. Yet, another contrast, which happens to resonate with the Greek interpretation of nature, becomes more apparent: the contrast between what we ‘control’ (culture) versus what grows autonomous beyond our control (nature). Within this new nature-culture distinction a genetically dissected greenhouse tomato moves into the cultural category, whereas a computer viruses and the financial system are perceived as natural phenomena.
Obviously this paradigm shift has some major implications, both theoretical and practical. The understanding that people, with their cultural activity, cause the rising of a next nature sheds new light on our position on our planet. Rather than perceiving ourselves as the anti-natural species that merely threatens and eliminates nature, we’d better understand ourselves as catalysts of evolution. I hurry to emphasize that this does not mean we’ve become gods, or otherwise omnipotent beings that have total control over their own destiny. Quite the contrary: the fact that we cause the rising of a culturally emerged nature does not mean we also control it. We need to move away from the modernist desire of total design and total control. Rather than linger in the illusion of control, we must embrace complexity and develop befitting design methodologies to guide the growth of the intricate processes in our surroundings.
Rather than as the anti-natural species that merely threatens and eliminates nature, we’d better understand ourselves as catalysts of evolution.
Like we did to old nature before, we must now cultivate our technological environment. Old nature can still be an important mentor in this regard: our history, traditions and intuitions of dealing with the forces of nature may be transferred to this new setting. Can system designers learn from farmers, who have centuries of experience in dealing with the uncertainty of climates? Could we have eased the latest financial crisis if we perceived the financial system as a ferociously growing ecology, rather than a human institution governed by rational thought? May we contain traffic jams and the pressure to endlessly construct more highways if we treat the highway system as an organism that must be balanced within a larger ecology? Possibly.
In conclusion, I argue we are living in a time in which our notion of nature is radically changing. The traditional view of nature as a phenomenon that is born, static, harmonic and threatened is naïve and incomplete. The most wild, ferocious and threatening nature is the nature caused by people. It is not so much ‘post’ nature in the sense that, if we reflect upon the phenomenon with a fresh mind, we realize that we should always have thought of nature as a dynamic, rather than a static force. Culturally emerged nature is real nature. Evolution goes on. Nature changes along with us. I expect in 50 years or so, when people use the word ‘nature’, they will mean something different than today. While we currently still need essays and special terminology to describe this nature caused by people, in due time as our perception is changing, we will simply call it: nature.
Published in Kerb 19, Paradigms of Nature: Postnatural Futures. Image Julie Rrap.