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?
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 ). Traditional cattle breeds are even being placed in this so-called ‘new nature’ . 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 .
…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 : 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. 
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 . 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’ . 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 . 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 . 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. 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 .
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 . 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 . 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.
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