It occurred to me in a recent conversation that although I consider myself an environmentalist (whatever that means), and although I am abidingly fascinated by life and its various forms, and committed to the idea of ‘respecting’ a fairly large class of them, I’m not really comfortable talking about ‘nature’, or putting points in terms of ‘nature’ or ‘the natural world’.
In fact, I don’t think I believe that such an entity exists.
Let me put it like this: the way the word ‘nature’ is often used, it seems to be supposed that visiting a Caribbean coral reef and swimming with dolphins, visiting a Tibetan mountain to photograph eagles, and and camping in a pine forest in Norway, are all ways of having contact with ‘nature’.
This almost suggests, though, that when I get to the eagles, I in some sense am more familiar with them because I met the dolphins, and when I am in the forest I’m closer to it because of being in the mountains. That is, it suggests that there’s something in common between the three.
But there isn’t – the coral reefs are as foreign to the mountains as they are to the heart of London. Dolphins have as little in common with eagles as they do with humans. When I turn up in the forest and disturb some bear, it will not care in the slightest that I am on good terms with the frogs of Indonesia.
All that is common is something negative: they are areas that are not heavily populated with humans. Note, it’s not even that they’re therefore populated with lots of other species – because 1) there’s no definition of ‘populated’ that puts coral reefs in the same league as mountains, and 2) cities, the paradigms of human settlement, probably contain more non-human animals than many remote ‘wild places’.
So the word ‘natural’ means something like ‘alien’ or ‘foreign’: it’s not something that applies to things themselves, but rather characterises our relation to them. Things are different from what I’m familiar with – and this I designate by calling them things like ‘foreign’ (when I’m focusing on nationality) or ‘nature’ (when I’m focusing on species).
And this is perfectly appropriate in definite contexts. For instance, in considering global warming, we need to distinguish between human industry and the rest of the biosphere, because there’s a big causal difference in what role they’re playing.
But we can apply the same concept in other ways. In regard to global warming, any outside observer could quite appropriately regard it as a breakdown, a short-circuit, in ‘earthly nature’. Factories are, ultimately, as natural as domestication, self-cleaning, and care for young. They are something one species of organism produces when its natural tendencies reach a certain point.
Going in the other direction, when a monkey discovers that you can get good food by sticking grass stalks into a termite mound, that represents a ‘triumph over nature’ as much as when humans discover fire or build a bridge – with ‘nature’ including the termites, and the grass, but not the monkey. Perhaps we could even include a shrew surviving one more day of frantically searching for food in a dangerous world. After all, distinguishing oneself from the world as a separate and potentially opposed force confronting it – that’s pretty much what ‘life’ does.
But then you get this idea that speaking of ‘nature’ is speaking of a real thing – a sort of collective identity possessed by all and only those beings and places remote from humans. If they knew we were doing it, I imagine sardines would be very surprised at our lumping them in a group with elephants, whom they can barely imagine, let alone recognise a similar to.
But look here: we have a name for that: outgroup homogenisation. “We” are all individuals, and the differences between us and between our different cultures and groupings are profound, often amounting to essential oppositions – the eternal feminine against the eternal masculine, etc. But “they” are all basically minor variations on a common theme.
After all, “they are animals”. What a sentence! Why not say the same about moles, whales, humans, bacteria, fungi, snakes, plankton, and octopuses – “they are non-fliers”, said in a tone of explaining something fundamental, conveying the basic fact about them. Or rather, about us. For you and I, after all, are indeed non-fliers.
In short, there does not exist an entity called ‘nature’, nor ‘the natural world’. There is only a schema of opposition, of drawing a division between the sentient agent (individual or collective) and the passive forces it confronts. And that schema can be applied in pretty much whatever way we want. There’s no point in us defending ‘nature’ from ‘humanity’; only in seeking to defending each other from assorted megalomaniacs and anti-social narcissists.