Against Nature:

On the False Dichotomy of the Western Worldview

a view of Lake George in the Adirondacks; photo by Judy Baxter, some rights reserved

It is not until a quarter of the way through The End of Nature that author Bill McKibben offers a definition of "nature" — and even here it is a rather offhanded description:

We have changed the atmosphere, and thus we are changing the weather. By changing the weather, we make every spot on earth man-made and artificial. We have deprived nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning. Nature's independence is its meaning; without it there is nothing but us. (McKibben, 58)

What is striking about McKibben's definition is not its uniqueness, but its directness: nature is independence. Nature is that which is separate from man. Though rarely stated explicitly, this view is a cornerstone of the Western worldview, as alive and vibrant in the popular imagination as it was in 1989. Indeed, this view has deep roots: it is the product of a long lineage of Western thought that has only recently been challenged.

According to Kate Soper, the distinction between natural and artificial was already present in the sixth or seventh centuries B.C. (Soper, 37), though some scholars have attempted to trace its origins back even further to the advent of agriculture around 11,000 years ago. This correlation makes sense: agriculture represented a new mode of interaction with the rest of the world — one in which the world was directly subjugated to the will of humans — and so it is plausible that this formed the basis of (or perhaps was even precipitated by) a new understanding of the world.

According to John Torrence, to the early Greek pagans "there was no question of humans beings not being part of nature" (Torrence, 11). With the evolution and spread of the Judeo-Christian religions, this concept of nature found a new forum. These religions spoke explicitly of a separate creation for man, of man's dominion over nature, and of creation as a singular event. This perspective not only codified the man/nature distinction; it further suggested that creation had ended — that both "man" and "nature" were static and unchanging, their form rendered for perpetuity by the hand of God.

The Enlightenment continued to augment the man/nature dichotomy. The observer-observed relationship fundamental to Newtonian science had embodied within it the notion of separate realms: humanity as a thinking observer contrasted with nature, which was perceived as having neither thought nor consciousness (Soper, 42). Moreover, Newtonian science was rooted in the concept that the world consisted of certain objective truths, which humans could discover and use to their advantage. These "objective truths" were assumed to be unchanging and timeless, and thus reinforced the notion of a static or mechanistic universe: a clockwork that certainly moved and functioned, but had already been designed and assembled. The Deist watchmaker had done His job and gone on His merry way, leaving humanity, it was supposed, to tinker with and discover its inner workings. The idea was that if humanity tinkered enough, we could figure out how to modify the watch — or nature — for our benefit. This, of course, represents not only a one-way relationship, but a distinctly hierarchical one, with humanity in the dominant role. These ideas were codified in Adam Smith's conception of economic worth — one in which the natural world had no inherent value, and was given value only when humans had improved upon it.

Yet even those who were unsettled by the Enlightenment notion of progress — the likes of Rousseau and later Malthus, for example: philosophers uncomfortable with man's careless treatment of nature and uncertain that it could lead to a better future — never questioned the assumptions which fueled the relentless march of progress, couching their arguments in the beauty, glory, and superiority of nature, but never being so heretical as to suggest that the very concept was, at its core, a fiction.

And yet, this is precisely what it is. The Western worldview, crudely outlined above, relies on ideas of separation in a world where nothing is separate, on static relationships in a world that is constantly evolving, on direct causal interactions in a world of unimaginable interconnectedness.

It was Darwin's theory of evolution that dealt the first blow to these views: for evolution meant constant change, and not necessarily toward any particular goal. But evolution also implied that humans did not have a separate creation; that there was no clear line between humanity and other animals. The shock of this revelation was so profound that its reverberations are still being felt today. Humanity had been, at least in one sense, usurped.

Human / nature dualism, of course, continues to be justified on grounds of other purportedly "significant" differences. As Anna Peterson remarks, "The actual trait that sets humans apart — the x that only humans have — varies for different thinkers, times, and cultures" but serves the similar purpose of establishing an "impassible barrier" between humans and other species (Peterson, 28).

Yet modern science continues to erode such barriers. Einstein saw a universe that had less to do with entities than with relationships, and Heisenberg laid to rest the myth of the neutral observer, showing us a world where the very act of observation had demonstrably effects on our environment. The fields of ecology and biology have revealed a complex web of life — a world (like Einstein's) defined more by interactions than by distinct physical elements. And these interactions are anything but directly causal or predictable: Anna Peterson argues that it is "disturbance and chaos, rather than order and balance, [that] characterize ecosystems" (Peterson, 177). In nonlinear, complex systems like ecosystems and societies, the minute and incalculable can have sweeping and observable effects at a human scale — and thus it becomes difficult to apply a fixed body of truths in any meaningful or reliable way.

Indeed, what we call "nature" is nothing more than the interactions of organisms with one another and their environment; the biosphere is not merely inhabited by life, but created by it. It was life itself that, though so many iterations of genetic code and transactions of matter and energy, transformed the elements of a barren rock-and-water planet into that which we now term "lush" and "vibrant" and "alive" — and that are constantly re-creating it every moment. As Matt Ridley observes, "Ecology, like genetics, is not about equilibrium states. It is about change, change and change. Nothing stays the same forever" (Ridley, 146). Our own bodies remake themselves constantly: 98% of our atoms are replaced each year (Margulis and Sagan, 23). In a very literal sense, we are our environment: we consume its matter and transform it into ourselves. We are partners in the ongoing process of creation, linked to our world by flows of matter and energy, even if not by worldview. Nature is flux, constantly changing, a dance of relationships between every organism, from the microbe to the elephant. We are but one species within a much larger whole. To call nature a thing — let along a separate thing — is a direct contradiction to everything our modern scientific understanding has shown to be true.

* * *

But McKibben has a response to such claims:

It is fine to argue, as certain poets and biologists have, that we must learn to fit in with nature, to recognize that we are but one species among many, and so on. But none of us, on the inside, quite believe it. The sophists contrasted the "natural" world with the "conventional" — what exists originally with what it became as the result of human intervention. And their distinction, filtered through Plato and Christianity and a dozen other screens, survives, because it agrees with our instinctive sense of the world. (McKibben, 64-5)

He goes on to describe his home and the mountains beyond as disconnected realms, distinguished by control and independence, respectively.

Indeed, this idea has survived, just as McKibben observed — but only in a particular lineage of thought. And so the evidence he presents — even the history outlined above — is much too narrow to warrant any sweeping conclusions about the "instinctive sense" of humanity. Indeed, a wider review of cultural beliefs shows us that human beings have developed a great diversity of ideas about "nature" and "humanity."

Consider, for example, the teachings of Eastern religions. Common among Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism is the underlying belief in the interconnectedness of all life. Many schools of Buddhist thought "see all of the cosmos as one interrelated web of existence within which there is no hierarchy" (Coward, 93). Hindu scripture teaches that "the essential self or the vital essence in man is the same as that in the elephant [...] indeed the same as that in the whole universe" (Brihaharanyaka Upanisad 1.3.22, as cited in Coward, 92) — a depiction that emphasizes the unity of all of nature including humanity. Fundamental to Taoism is the belief that nothing can be understood in isolation from its context. Te, a particular in its environment, and tao, the larger whole, are seen as distinctions of degrees, not of types. And even this does injustice to the idea of tao, an almost untranslatable word that has been variously said to mean way, road, principle, truth, and universe, among other things (Yoon, 133). The very inimitability of this word indicates a uniqueness of concept that is absent in Western thought but present in Chinese tradition.

Similarly, many Native American cultures shared the idea that "the Earth is a living, conscious being" (Booth, 331). For the Plains Indians, kinship terms — Mother Earth, Grandmother spider — effectively extended the privileges and definitions of humanity into the environment (Griffin-Pierce, 14). This was not a matter of worshipping nature: "[...] to worship nature, one must stand apart from it and call it 'nature' [...] For the Indian, there is no separation. Man is an aspect of nature [...]" (Griffin-Pierce, 334). Anything else was considered a kind of unimaginable isolation — a far cry from McKibben's "instinctive sense" of separation. This is not to romanticize indigenous worldviews, nor to suggest that these societies lived in some sort of uncorrupted "peace with nature" — indeed, such a characterization still rests upon a dualistic worldview. Rather, I am simply suggesting that if a Native American had somehow evaded the juggernaut of Western expansion long enough to stand in Bill McKibben's living room and look out of his window, s/he would have had a strikingly different mental image of the mountain beyond.

* * *

McKibben feels a lack of control over the mountains, and a separation between the exterior and interior worlds. Inside, he has control; the outside operates independently, seemingly unaffected by his existence. Yet the conditions within his house are demonstrably connected to the mountains outside his window — as well as the mountains half way across the world. The laws of thermodynamics tell us that matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed (first law), and that everything moves toward equilibrium or entropy (second law). By extension, any use of materials within his house corresponds to a depletion of materials elsewhere in the world, and any expenditure of energy must be accounted for beyond his walls. The more energy his air conditioner uses, for example, the more low-grade energy (heat) or entropy (disorder) he creates in the overall environment (Miller, 65). So while it is true that he can make it cooler inside, he does so only at the price of creating more heat elsewhere. This heat affects the "beyond" — to what degree it is impossible to say. Like the proverbial butterfly, whose enthused wing-flapping in China causes thunderstorms in New York, McKibben's heat could tip the scales in the next El Nino event, or cause an unusually cold summer three years from now — or it might have no discernible effect at all. The environment beyond is altered in immeasurable ways, which makes it fundamentally impossible to draw a distinction between manŐs creation and "pristine nature." And if McKibben, speaking of the "end of nature," is only talking about degree of change, or the perception of change, then he is talking about the end of a mindset, a worldview, an idea, and not the end of any physical state.

Humanity has always had an effect on its surroundings. Humans are suspected to have caused massive extinctions multiple times in evolutionary history, on continents from Australia to North America to Africa. In each of these cases, sometimes separated by upwards of 10,000 years, the sudden extinction of all large animals was preceded by human arrival in that area, and appears to be independent of any climactic conditions (Roberts, 1888). Even pre-agrarian humans had an effect on their surroundings by the sheer force of their numbers and range. The invention of tools as ordinary as the needle render laughable the invention of modern medicine in the scope of their impact: such inventions allowed the rapid spread of humans across a wide geographic range, and within the time span of only about 10 millennia, the humans had grown from a localized Eurasian species to a global force capable of causing mass extinctions (Diamond, 41-2).

* * *

But what of this: that "on the inside, we don't really believe it"? In the face of all evidence, why does this feeling have such staying power? Why is the feeling so real to us? There is, after all, a clear experiential difference between what we term "wilderness" and the edifices of our human society. Do we not feel that we have lost something by eradicating our ability to "get away" from ourselves, beyond the reach of society? We need to be able to escape. We don't really want ultimate control — at times, we don't even want influence.

And yet these, too, are cultural impressions. Of course we feel disconnected: we travel in cars, spend our days in conditioned buildings, eat processed foods shipped to us from around the world, and have little idea what happens to our waste. The natural processes are still operating, of course, and we are just as reliant upon them as ever, but because we do not see the connections, we are mentally disconnected — we don't feel the connections on the inside. We can't see how our cities could possibly relate to the wilderness. And on some level, they don't — and this is the crux of the problem: our cities and cars and landfills are manifestations of a particular view of nature. It is a worldview and a way of life caught in a circular dance: our ideas have structured the world we inhabit, and this world reinforces our ideas.

Yet as insulated as we are, the broader changes borne of our actions disturb us — and not only because they could mean higher oceans or drug-resistant viruses. The changes disturb us because they conflict with our culture's perception of humanity's place in the greater scheme of things. Nature has always been a steady entity in our cultural imagination — slow, robust, vast, unchangeable. It was there for us to use, even to manipulate if we so desired — but the relationship was supposed to be an intentional one, and it was supposed to be one-directional. But now we find that we are changing the world, that the world is changing us, and that these changes have very real meaning in our lives — and so something has to give. Somewhere, an idea begins to unravel. The gods have played a nasty trick on us: we are not free and independent agents after all. We are not isolated entities; we are not objective observers; we are not at the controls; we are not subject to different laws. Nature, as we have defined it, does not exist.

* * *

Perhaps the "end of nature" is a promising thing. Embodied in our social edifices, the dualistic conception of nature has allowed us to affect dramatic shifts in our environment without recognizing the importance of our actions. Our economic system, for example, still fails adequately value to natural capital, despite our understanding of its vital importance in maintaining a livable world. Indeed, this is one of the principle criticisms of economics that is being leveled by environmental- and ecological economists as they attempt to explain how a seemingly "objective" system produces undesirable effects.

And I will go as far as to call them "undesirable." Our view of nature, manifest not only in our economics, but also in our agriculture, manufacturing, architecture, urban planning, and nearly every imaginable discipline, has created a system in which we expend more and more energy for less and less gain, championing short-term progress at the expense of the long-term sustainability of human society. To say that these changes cannot be evaluated as good or bad because they are just as "natural" as the rest of "nature" is to miss the point. The point is that the system of interactions encompassing life involves humans equally, with no special rights and no special protections. Eliminating nature (the idea) also means understanding that our actions do have effects, and that we, as a part of the biosphere, will suffer or benefit from those effects just like other organisms. Ignorance makes a powerful weapon but a weak shield: we can use it to inflict harm without thought or remorse, but at the end of the day it can do nothing to protect us against the world we have helped to create.

* * *

The ontological problem with eliminating nature is that this leaves us, humanity, floating in a void. We have always defined ourselves in contrast to that other, that non-self which we have called nature — ; but if nature does not exist, then who are we? How do we define humanity, if not in contrast to what is not humanity?

In the very act of perceiving the world, or of understanding the self, we construct the concept of a unique entity, an individual amongst the rest of existence. What is really at issue, then, is not the act of defining, but the definition itself — how it is made. We can draw a distinction without believing in "separation," as we have seen exemplified in non-Western belief systems. The main point of conflict within the Western view of nature, stated simply, is dualism: the strict, immitigable, and irreducible line between what is human and what is not. From this distinction flows the rest. The antithesis of this idea is monism: the idea that humans are fundamentally the same as all other beings — indeed, all other elements of the universe — and that as we do vary, we vary but in degrees.

On the surface, this seems startling simple. But what its core, it is revolutionary. If humans are nature, dominion and control are no longer viable concepts. Environmental abuse becomes masochism; ignorance becomes neglect. Monism represents not just a new idea, but a new way of being. It represents a fundamental shift in the very fabric of society.

Perhaps McKibben is right: nature is ending. But it is the end of a concept, not a physical condition — and far from being an occasion for sorrow, it is a reason to hope. From the ashes of the old nature we can begin to envision a new way of existing within the world — a way of life more unified, more coherent, and ultimately with greater potential for humanity to forge a truly sustainable society.


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copyright © 2013 by carl s. sterner, unless otherwise noted. more...