Next Nature and the Curse of Oil

The Next Nature network is admirably raising awareness of the fact that our received and even critical understanding of nature as something opposed and underlying culture (“old nature”) is outdated – if it ever has been valid. Following this, the project wants to take the insight further by insisting that because nature has always been cultural, the next step is to embrace and celebrate how cultural artifacts are (and always have been) escaping control, becoming autonomous, and thereby forming the eponymous “next nature”.



As a guideline for the future, van Mensvoort suggest:
“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?” (Nature is Dead, Long live Nature)

This is an important goal. The feedback mechanism creating the ecological whole in next nature are certainly different from the feedback loops in old nature, but the knowledge about those may be formed along similar lines and in similar situations, i.e., through persistent and long-lasting observation and adaptation through several overlapping and interacting iterational cycles. Indeed, here we want to take one step further. It is a simple empirical fact that there has never existed a modern industrial society that has been ecologically sustainable. All known examples of industrial societies have relied on non-sustainable use of (mostly non-renewable) natural resources (timber, coal, natural gas, oil, minerals). In contrast, the anthropological literature contains descriptions of human societies that have been ecologically sustainable for decades and centuries. Typically, these ecologically sustainable forms of life are what Western science calls “indigenous” or, even, more traditionally, “primitive”, characterized by what James C. Scott (2009) has called “the art of not being governed”, actively evading hierarchies, especially states. Our wager is that if we want to learn epistemological and practical lessons of ecological sustainability, we shouldn’t stop with farmers but should go further to what we know about indigenous epistemologies, simply since they have the best documented track record with regard to ecological sustainability.

Inspiration and guidance may be gathered from where the empirical evidence for competence is the strongest

To be sure, the human population is so big and the destruction of the biosphere so advanced (extinctions, fragmentation of habitats, erosion, pollution, etc.) that it would be practically impossible for all to live in an indigenous and primitive way, let’s say, in a gatherer-hunter band society. However, like van Mensvoort suggests, inspiration and guidance may be gathered from where the empirical evidence for competence is the strongest.


All culture is not technology, but technology can be seen ubiquitously as the culprit of destruction and doom only through defining technology through its negative side. If we widen the meaning of the term “technology” to include things like the cultivation of nitrogen fixating legumes, permaculture, or, indeed, the environmentally non-destructive socio-cultural systems of many indigenous peoples, then there is little reason to condemn all technology, not to speak of all culture. While the primitivist philosopher John Zerzan believes that all symbolic culture is detrimental to immediacy and contains the seeds of alienation and the extreme ecocidal destruction we see today, he still admits a distinction between technology in service of domestication and tools that uphold a less alienated life.

The suggestion in Next Nature is that man-made and technologically manufactured systems and environments can be uncontrollable and autonomous, and therefore, function as nature:
“…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.”  (Real nature isn’t green)

This “falling outside” has to be of some qualitatively different order, since, arguably, everything on the surface of the earth is, nowadays, somehow influenced and affected by human activity. The second condition delineates the birth of next nature:
“A cultural project or phenomenon turns into nature when it becomes potentially or entirely autonomous and uncontrollable.”  (Real nature isn’t green)

Before discussing the proposal further, let us attend to a potential conceptual problem. The suggestion that cultural projects turn into nature when they become uncontrollable contains the implicit assumption that before that cultural projects are controllable. However, this is not self-evident. A thinker like Heidegger would point out that modern technology – a paradigm of culture, if anything – is not and has not ever been in human control. Likewise, the thinkers of the school of Object Oriented Ontology maintain that objects – including man-made or man-induced hyper-objects like styrofoam or the climate change – are inherently unknowable, withdrawn, and consequently, uncontrollable (Morton 2013). Or take Paul Virilio’s (2007) observation that included in every type and kind of technology is its concomitant disaster – the person who invited the ship also invited the shipwreck. When van Mensvoort writes “a genetically dissected greenhouse tomato moves into the cultural [i.e., controlled] category”, he is forgetting the disaster and uncontrollability that is inherent in the both the genetic dissection and the greenhouse.

Technologically manufactured systems and environments can be uncontrollable and autonomous, and therefore, function as nature

Was the Fukushima nuclear facility, say unit 3, controllable before the tsunami and uncontrollable only after it? Or was the uncontrollability built in? The question is not just academic hairsplitting, as the owner of the unit, Tepco, as well as the Japanese authorities maintain that the reactors were and are under control both before and after the accident. Like the culture-nature distinction in the old sense (that which is made versus that which is born), the distinction between the controlled and the uncontrolled is a tricky one.



The issue of time-scale is crucial here. The potential disasters of genetic modification have been debated at length. So far, the disaster concomitant with the tomato that van Mensvoort mentions, is, however, mostly only a potentiality waiting to happen. It is, of course, possible that it never arrives. With regard to the greenhouse the potentiality is of a different order. The energy needed for widespread greenhouse farming is one of the culprits that contributes to climate change.

The two temporal categories of disasters tied with technological innovation – the suddenly striking and the slowly creeping – are for different reasons hard for modern epistemologies to fathom. The first, the sudden one, because according to design and engineering – the clever natural scientific calculations – it should never strike. According to officially commissioned estimates the core damage frequency of nuclear power plants should be one core damage incident in 20,000 reactor years (EU study in 2003) or 1 in 50,000 reactor years (US study in 2008). However, the observed core damage frequency is 1 core damage incident in every 1,309 reactor years. The second, the slowly creeping, because there is too much time to adjust and to muddy the waters with denialism. The Swedish Nobel laureate Svante Arrhenius calculated the climate effects of burning copious amounts of hydrocarbons already in the late nineteenth century. Nevertheless, climate change persists in having difficulty entering the consciousness of industrial civilizations. Like orthodox economics that likes to forget the necessary side-effects (social, ecological) of economic activity, too often the technological gaze likes to forget the catastrophes that, nevertheless, are included in the technologies, whether waiting for sudden outburst or slowly building up.

The most characteristic, perhaps, of these forgettings concerns energy. Many commentators have lauded an independence from or even a victory over “old nature”. Ironically, the impression of independence is made possible by a unique natural endowment, namely, high quality hydrocarbons. This ironic twist gives modernity its characteristic epistemologically delusional nature. A good example is the orthodox economic axiom according to which the market will find a replacement for any commodity through the mechanism of supply and demand. Even a rudimentary material intelligence will indicate that the doctrine is possible only under circumstances of considerable surplus work, and that energy is an exception to the rule: it is not only a commodity on the market, but a condition for its existence.

Too often the technological gaze likes to forget the catastrophes that, nevertheless, are included in the technologies

One contemporary form of this foregetting is the neglect of the retro-energetic step happening right under our noses. Before peak oil, there was a lot of speculation over which energy form will take the burden of facilitating economic growth once oil production stops growing. Will it be nuclear, solar, wind, maybe some innovative form of hydrogen use? Now we know the answer: after oil comes the energy source that also preceded it, namely coal. Whether a temporary hiccup or an early indication of persistent devolution, the prominence of coal after peak oil points to another lesson on technology, one familiar to farmers and hunter-gatherers: technology also moves back, not only forwards.


Van Mensvoort’s definitive essay Real nature is not green takes as an example the Dutch experience (“In the Netherlands, every square meter of ground is a man-made landscape: original nature is nowhere to be found.”), and more specifically the Oostvaardersplassen, a Dutch artificial wilderness sanctuary, built on discarded industrial wasteland. Here the tenets of the next nature proposal meet most emblematically; there is nothing of the untouched, old nature left in Holland, and the uncontrolled, and, up to a point, autonomous wilderness of Oostvaardersplassen, is a prime example of a cultural product that has been with purpose turned loose, out of control, into next nature.

However, again the issue on control/uncontrollability hides conditions of existence that are not explicitly acknowledged. Neither the man-made landscape of Holland, in general, nor the Oostvaardersplassen, in particular, is sustainable without external energy inputs. Day to day, it needs not only human supervision and planning, but also fossil fuels to run. In a sense and up to a point, it may be autonomous, but it is also dependent on an energetic condition of existence.

This is even more true with regard to the genealogy of the Oostvaardersplassen. Holland is one of the most energy-hogging places on earth. In 2007, the Dutch used 23.69 barrels per day for each square kilometer– in comparison the number in Finland was only 0.67 bbl/day/km; in the US, where the use per capita is huge but the land mass balances out the numbers, it was 1.90 bbl/day/km, and in Germany, maybe the best climatic and economic comparison to Holland, 6.88 bbl/day/km. Moreover, the Dutch have used consistently over 14 bbl/day/km since the 1980’s. What this means is that the Ducth economy and the landscape – including Oostvaardersplassen – has received a massive amount of non-human labor, possibly more intensive than anywhere else on the planet ever in a comparable area and period of time. Therefore it is small wonder that the Oostvaardersplassen exist precisely in Holland; even with the energy intensity of Finland, itself a proudly industrialized and modern nation, something similar would be much more far-fetched.  (If the US would, like Holland, use 23 bbl/day/km, it would need 232 793 930 bbl/day of oil, almost three times the global oil production per day). It is also not a coincidence that Oostvaardersplassen is a recent project. More than half of the global oil production ever has happened since 1988. What this means, in practice, is that since 1988 the industrial civilizations have unleashed a humongous torrent of non-human labor bearing on the earth. And, given current energy technology, this torrent is a unique event in human history, without precedent and without a foreseeable repeat. Like van Mensvoort puts it: “All of this plastic has appeared in less than a century.”

There is much more uniqueness in modern industrial technology than we would like to think

In this Oostvaardersplassen is similar to many of the “uncontrollable” cultural phenomena that could be included in next nature. It exists on the condition of not only human ingenuity and technology, but a massive and non-renewable energy surplus derived from fossil fuels. This energy surplus is, typically, not taken into account while discussing the nature and prospects of industrial civilization and modernity.

Now, it might be possible that once Oostvaardersplassen exists, it can be run by renewable energy sources. However, the Dutch example of wholly man-made landscape and the Oostvaardersplassen as an example of next nature are also examples of something strictly non-universalisable. The irony here is that there is a supposed “autonomy” – of economy, of culture become uncontrolled in the Oostvaardersplassen – that is, in fact, based on a unique natural endowment, fossil fuels. Unlike the other existential conditions of Oostvaardersplassen – modern technology, natural science, division of labor, the care by the game-keepers and so on – fossil fuels are not man-made. Moreover, they are non-renewable, meaning that many of the phenomena that have been taken for granted as the endowment of modernity, are really one-time occurrences. The uniqueness of the fossil fuel resources means that there is much more uniqueness in modern industrial technology than we would like to think. Without energy, technology just sits there without doing anything.

Given the inevitable decline in the quantity and quality of fossil fuels, its is much more likely that we will see less Oostvaardersplassens in the future, rather than more. And given the growing demand for energy, and the insufficiency of the so-called alternative forms of energy, especially the green variants, it is likely that we will see more Fukushimas, rather than less. Whatever the energy problems and the retreat to coal mean, at least they imply the increase of uncontrollability: in this sense, next nature is doing fine.


Let us keep in mind the crucial insight that nature is something that can not be controlled; also something that is not necessarily harmonious or nice. Many indigenous traditions would add to this one characteristics: nature is that which can not be perfected, not even in principle. (This notion of nature can be found in the tradition of many indigenous peoples, for example, the oglala-lakotas as explained by Russell Means and the Sami people, see Means & Johnson 2013). In this view, human action, such as culture, technology and so on, can at best manage not to un-perfect nature, but this is a goal that is hard to attain, and most of the time human endeavor is detrimental to perfection; the wider, the worse.

Without energy, technology just sits there without doing anything

The knowledge of the existential conditions of nature-as-not-capable-of-being-perfected are something very remote from the epistemologies of industrial civilizations. For instance, the whole idea of design, as intentional planning of form and function, is going to be very suspect from a perspective that does not see improvement as an option. The chasm between conscious design and non-perfectibility seems to be very wide especially with regard to the question of sustainability.

Let us consider a culture that inhabits an ecological region for several generations in a way that is socially and ecologically sustainable. Over time, with the passing of several generations, a culture may learn about the feedback-loops and recurrent natural phenomena, including migrations, plant successions, good and bad years, climatic conditions, roughly in the sense described in bio-regionalism. This knowledge does not have to be set in stone; like van Mensvoort implied in the case of the farmer, knowledge of sustainability has to be flexible, it has to take into account change and flux. Often, the artifacts of such a culture are characterized by a unity of functionality and beauty: what is useful is aesthetic, and vice versa. The unification may proceed so far that particular features of the material environment are recognized as sacred. In contrast, modern artifacts separate utility and function (and supposedly obliterate the sacred). The function of something is largely a result of production processes (e.g. a car door has clear indications of its robotic manufacture and of calculations of cost-effectiveness), and the aesthetic aspect is added separately (designers spending months fine-tuning the sound of the door closing).

This separation has also an epistemological aspect. The ecological sustainability of a non-industrial culture is based on a kind of knowledge that is, typically, transmitted in an embodied way, through customs, material culture, oral traditions, the sacred and so on. The holistic nature of this type of knowledge means that it is hard to capture within the forms of modern scientific expertise. In fact, precisely because of its energy-based self delusion, modern experience carries little embedded knowledge about sustained ecological relations. Modern knowledge does not know the conditions of its existence, and even if it did, the modern person or group would have few ways of implementing that knowledge.

Fatefully, the epistemic destruction contains a self-fulfilling prophecy. The ecological sustainability of a culture is dependent on the inhabited bioregion’s recurring feedback-loops, such as weather and soil conditions, migrations of animals, plant successions and so on. Once industrial civilization has destroyed these feedback-loops, for instance, through creating borders, promoting extinction, producing climate change and so on, it begins to seem as if the knowledge concerning ecological sustainability was a fluke. Industrialization destroys both the material conditions of environmental knowledge, and the knowledge itself, so that, in the end, it seems as if modernity has destroyed nothing real at all.

A separation between human freedom and “old” natural resources is possible only if copious amounts of cheap energy are available

If sustainability is, essentially iterative and multi-generational, the epistemological conditions of modernity are antithetical to it, and the attempts to expertly design sustainable lifestyles may be illusory. The utilization of large amounts of surplus labor structurally bars the creation of embedded knowledge of sustainability by cutting the feedback loops between production and consumption, raw materials and waste.

So, take van Menswoort’s suggestion:
“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.”

The indigenous perspective, as well as the attention to the energetic existential condition of modern industrial civilizations, including Holland and the Oostvaardersplassen, suggests that hankering after such total design and control, is a form of hubris. As for the design methodologies to be embraced, it is obvious that time-spans over several generations have to be included in the equation somehow. The problem is that that ever increasing energy inputs since the mid 19th century have created a historical state of exception. A separation between human freedom and “old” natural resources is possible only if copious amounts of cheap energy are available. The tragedy lies in this: in order to form ecologically sustainable life-styles, we need long-lasting co-operation from the non-human (uncontrollable, autonomous) environment, and the uncontrollability of next nature may be of the wrong kind, unable to sustain biological life in the absence of copious external energy inputs.


In sum, the problem of learning (like farmers learn) from the Dutch experience and from Oostvaardersplassen, is that both are dependent on an unique (old) natural endowment, copious amounts of easily accessible high-quality hydrocarbons. The uniqueness means two things. First, the Dutch experience, including the Oostvaardersplassen, is not universalizable. It is physically impossible to use as much oil per square kilometer as the Dutch use (or that has been used in order to create the Oostvaardersplassen) in all – or even most or many – places of the earth. Second, given the decline in easily accessible high-quality hydrocarbons, the continuity of the Dutch experience on an “as is” basis in unlikely. Or, to put it in another way, if the use of oil in Holland will be continued in current rates, it will mean an even more glaring exceptionalism or disproportanialism with regard to other areas of the world, and continue to contribute to the problems in oil producing areas of the world (not to speak of the resulting carbon dioxide).

In order to form ecologically sustainable life-styles, we need long-lasting co-operation from the non-human environment

This is all very basic, but unfortunately the problem runs deeper. All of the oil-dependent industrial civilization is in a position similar to Holland. The feedback loops that farmers used to learn are cut by the massive utilization of oil. When a natural environment is cleared and a completely man-made production area built in its place (say, a greenhouse, or a factory farm), growth and eventual decomposition are completely dependent on external, imported energy. How this energy is produced and what are its after-effects (say, in terms of pollution, climate change, and so on), are mostly invisible at the site of consumption. They are structurally unlearnable to the farmer and to anyone else involved in the activity.  This is the other side of the curse of oil, that traditionally is taken to mean that often areas rich in oil deposits will be (environmentally, socially) ruined because of drilling and the associated economic phenomena. The curse of oil also means that what we have called “the Dutch experience” or, more generally, the experience of industrial civilization, does not have the possibility to learn like farmers of old nature did. We can, of course, hope that there is an alternative way of learning ecological sustainability – hope, because there is little empirical evidence of such a form of learning.


Means, Russell, and Bayard Johnson. 2013. If You’ve Forgotten the Names of the Clouds, You’ve Lost Your Way: An Introduction to American Indian Thought & Philosophy. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform 2013.

Morton, Timothy. 2013. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Scott, James C. 2009. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Virilio, Paul. 2007. The original accident. Cambridge; Mass.: Polity.

Photo © Denis Guzzo

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