The nature of nature

For some time now, nature and culture have been considered, in one way or another, diametrically opposed. And by “for some time” I mean quite some time. Consider, for instance, Adam and Eve's little blunder in the garden and subsequent exile. Consult Plato and his notion that the natural, physical world is a degradation of forms. Think, too, of Locke, Rousseau and Hobbes, and how, in one way or another, for better or worse, civil government and its rules and laws delineate what constitutes the contractual and socially constructed from a pre-existing state of nature. Freud's Civilization and its Discontents is yet another example.

The list goes on and on, when one considers it. But for our purposes, let's use the good, old Oxford English Dictionary: Nature, it tells us, is: “The phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscapes, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations.” Clear as a day. Humans. Nature. Two different things.

This delineation between humans and the environment as constitutive of the natural vs. unnatural split is one of the definitive characteristics of our contemporary debate about global warming. It is, in fact, so ingrained in our thinking that it frames the very debate. A few headlines as illustration: “Global warming: A natural cycle or human result?” queries CNN. “West Coast warming linked to naturally occurring changes,” suggests the Los Angeles Times. Climate Central, “an independent organization of leading scientists and journalists,” asks, rhetorically, no doubt: “How do we know warming is not a natural cycle?” And now, in the wake of a flurry of news stories concerning the Gulf of Maine’s rapidly warming waters and diminishing cod, we are left to navigate these coastal trends with the “natural” “unnatural” dichotomy.

Indeed, when it comes to this dichotomy, most climate change deniers tend to employ “natural” explanations as a way to ameliorate human excess and pollution. Conversely, those who locate global warming in human exploitation of natural resources and senseless waste champion the idea of saving the natural world.

But this hints at a more fundamental presupposition underlying the whole debate. We tend to perceive what is natural as possessing an internal logic that justifies its own ends. This is again apparent in the way those who think global warming is caused by humans and those who do not structure their arguments: to claim global warming is part of a naturally occurring process suggests that the outcome of something “natural” is less problematic, no matter how dire the consequences, than the outcome of something with the same consequences that is “unnatural.” And for those who believe humans cause global warming, “natural” tends to designate that which is good in its own right, with an internal logic that is worth saving. In this sense, there is an anthropomorphized benevolence imputed to the natural world that is distinctly unnatural, when you consider it.

One, therefore, wonders, or at least I do, what if, at the heart of this natural and unnatural divide, we are being sloppy with our terminology? What if “natural” and “unnatural” are not so easily separated?

In this respect, it is perhaps tempting to be more precise by pointing out that nature, like humans, can be exploitive, violent, and prodigal. But here’s the rub: the moment we begin to conceptualize nature’s excess we are already anthropomorphizing it. Recall some of those clichéd, Animal Planet examples, like the slave-making ant: Temnothoray Pilagens. They plunder and pillage, as the Latin root suggests. Or how the killer whale apparently plays with her food before killing it. Or how dolphins rape and torment one another in order to assert dominance. The same, evidently, can be said about ducks.

But in nature there is no “slave.” Neither is there a “plunder” or “pillage” or “play” or “rape” or “dominance.” These are distinctly human interpretations of acts that, shorn of our representations, have no significance outside of themselves. Nature, in other words, is that which resists our field of interpretation, or at least should, if we could stop anthropomorphizing, which we can’t, at least not in any real sense. As humans what we do is represent the world through thought.

And this brings me to my point. When we polarize global warming as either natural or unnatural, what we are really doing is avoiding having to even consider what is “natural” in the first place. We are instead insisting on thinking about the world in a very unnatural way. One does not “save” or “ruin” nature because to be “saved” or to be “ruined” is to interpret the world in a distinctly unnatural way. Nor can one locate some benevolence or internal logic or even excess in nature for the same reason.

This isn't, by any means, a justification of human excess and waste. I happen to like the environment in which we live and would very much like to see it last. The coast of Maine, especially, with its 3,478 miles of folded granite and basalt, of pines dipping into the sea, of habitable waters for cod and lobster and other ocean life is, to my mind, well worth saving. But that’s my entire point. What is unnatural is that I happen to like it. What is unnatural is that I want to see it last. If I really wanted to preserve what is “natural” I’d stop thinking about preservation. When we say save the planet or the dolphins or the cod or the salmon or wolves or bears or whatever furry friend fits your preference, the very last thing we are talking about saving is nature, because just as nature cannot be ruined, nor can it be “saved.” If we’re going to be honest with ourselves, what we really want to save is our anthropomorphized relationship to nature, which is, in reality, everything but nature. So maybe it’s time we start talking about saving what is unnatural. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge our real relationship with the natural world. Maybe it’s time we stop patting ourselves on the back for being so concerned about nature and recognize that our concern is just as selfish and human as our excess.


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