The Natural World Does Not Exist

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’.

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You and me, baby, ain't nothing but mammals.

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.

10 Responses to “The Natural World Does Not Exist”

  1. Mute Fox Says:

    “There’s no point in us defending ‘nature’ from ‘humanity’; only in seeking to defending each other from assorted megalomaniacs and anti-social narcissists.”

    Well said. I, too, am an “environmentalist,” whatever that means, but the definition of “environment” that most people give is spurious and arbitrary. “Environment,” in common brainless liberal parlance, simply means “the place where the animals live,” with animals forming a sort of all-encompassing underclass that we must protect so that we can continue to watch those cool nature documentaries.

    In reality, our environment is simply the world in which we live, whatever part of it we happen to inhabit. When an earthquake hits a city, or wildfire erupts from lightning and burns down half of Los Angeles, that is damaging to the human environment – but you don’t see anyone saying “Nature is attacking us” (well, except for the people who watch those lousy natural disaster shows on TV.)

    We, and all the numerous other species that inhabit this planet, are all doing what comes naturally to us, trying to get by, whether it’s humans building a nuclear reactor or termites building a mound. I am sure that someday we can all learn to get by (human and non-human alike) without destroying each other.

    That being said, until we find effective ways to develop as a species without conflicting with other, I would give primacy to ours. If a village in India is without electricity, water, etc, and that is causing them to suffer, and a hydroelectric dam is the best way tobring them what they need, I wouldn’t feel very sorry for any displaced tigers and such. I hope that doesn’t make me an immoral person.

  2. missivesfrommarx Says:

    Good one.

    One additional thing: It bugs me when people seem to think that whatever “nature” is, it should be frozen or fixed for all time. Now, I completely see the value to “preserving” some habitats or ecosystems, but preserving an ecosystem cannot be an end in itself, IMO. It would be completely “unnatural” to freeze an ecosystem and protect it from all changes—ecosystems are by “nature” changing from a indefinitely number of influences, etc.

    Again, that doesn’t mean that I’m against all preservation, but there needs to be a justification for it in particular cases.

    That’s a bit off topic; sorry!

  3. Cathy Sander Says:

    A little quip on the usage of words: Researchers use the word ‘nature’ differently, particularly physicists: ‘Nature’ is a shorthand for the operations of the universe. It’s an all-inclusive term, not the exclusive term used by some environmentalists. I reckon it’s a good idea to separate these two meanings of the word ‘Nature’.

    Chemists, I believe, have fallen into this sort of trap, when they say that they ‘learn from nature’ and make stuff which is ‘better than nature’, as if unconscious mechanisms are ‘less intelligent’ than they are. In fact, they’re (just like any other organism on the planet!) manipulating matter for their own purposes–hopefully for the benefit of humankind!

    To say that something is ‘non-natural’ should be taken to be an impossible feat in the universe–such as a perpetual motion machine, not the simplistic division between what we see as ‘non-natural’ and as something ‘natural’. Carbon dioxide is carbon dioxide, whether the source of the chemical. But that is irrelevant: the actual problem for us is that the survival of all organisms [including us] on this planet is chemical-dependent.

    All life is chemistry.–Jan Baptist van Helmont, 1648.

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “until we find effective ways to develop as a species without conflicting with other, I would give primacy to ours”
    I supposed I’d agree but I’m not sure it’s necessary or useful to affirm an abstract ‘primacy’ – or perhaps I’d just want to see how that plays out in practice.

  5. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “It bugs me when people seem to think that whatever “nature” is, it should be frozen or fixed for all time.”
    Which would make sense if, as I’m suggesting, ‘nature’ often signifies the not-self and hence the passive and inactive. By definition ‘we’ act on nature, rather than nature adapting itself.

  6. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Quite right. And then of course there’s ‘human nature’, and probably many other ways of deploying the word.

    I think the sense of ‘nature’ that you refer to is also what’s meant in the idea of ‘philosophical naturalism’, the belief that what scientific laws there are apply systematically to everything, and don’t make exceptions for God, demons, or human souls.

  7. Mute Fox Says:

    “I supposed I’d agree but I’m not sure it’s necessary or useful to affirm an abstract ‘primacy’ – or perhaps I’d just want to see how that plays out in practice.”

    True, I don’t think it would be useful or necessary to use that as some kind of “rule”, to advance humanity over other sentients first and ask questions later. It was 3am when I wrote that, and I’m a dyspraxic, so pardon me if my post was a bit more “opiniony” than “facty.”

    I love making up words. 😄

    I was trying, in my rambling, incoherent way, to make the observation that it is hard for many people (including myself) to envision just how human/nonhuman relations would work (after the revolution, let’s say.) After all, there would be no community assemblies of animals telling us that they don’t want a dam on a certain river, or a nuclear reactor in a certain spot, et cetera. We, as humans, would have to decide what the impact of our actions on the animals in any area would be before we do anything there. This would include actions taken in cities, because as you so astutely mentioned, there are often more species living alongside us in urban areas than in rural ones.

    I am merely curious to know how you envision a free human society (presumably an anarchist/libertarian socialist one) interacting on equal terms with other species, all the time. I am not saying it couldn’t be done, and I agree that it is a moral imperative that we should try to meet other species on equal terms and make compromises – I just wonder what you think that would look like.

    P.S., I’ve read your entire blog and I think you’re brilliant. Took me till last night to get up the courage to post a comment. Keep up the good work comrade ^^

  8. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Thanks! Um, gosh. How do I envision a human society interacting on equal terms with other species. Well, I suppose I can no longer say what my last post did, that I have nothing to blog about, since I think it might make more sense to say that in a post than in a comment. It’s a good question, though probably even more difficult than things like ‘what would a genderless society look like’, etc. So an answer is being put off for now but will hopefully come out soon.

  9. tonyisnt Says:

    I’ve tried to do the same topic in two different posts a few months apart, both of them coming to different conclusions. I think in the end I came to a similar conclusion to the one you have reached, though. In the end it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s natural or unnatural to alter one’s support system to the point which it cannot any longer support you or anyone else, because it’s crazy and stupid.

  10. Sibyl Pulido Says:

    Guter Blog, aber dein Feed funktioniert wohl nicht mit Safari.


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