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.

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