The Meanings of Nature
Before we can talk about moral attitudes toward nature, we have to hone in on the various ways the concept is put to use and name which of these is our own. The word is notoriously difficult to pin down, so such a project must be done carefully.
One meaning of nature dominant with the rise of the scientific worldview is “that which conforms to the laws of physics.” It is still common in the sciences, and its primary contrast in these contexts is the supernatural, the realm of spirits, gods, and miracles. This concept has little moral utility, since, assuming that the supernatural does not exist, nothing would be non-natural. Attempting to conserve naturalness, then, would be an incoherent project. And even if we did accept that a realm of non-natural objects interfere with the natural order, we presumably have no say in what these objects do, or else our say in the matter is the realm of mysticism rather than secular morality.
Nevertheless, understanding the concept is an important step toward understanding the discourse around “nature.” For instance, declaring that “humans are a part of nature” could only coherently be referring to the fact that humans have no special metaphysical status within the world, an important point for scientists as they explain the evolutionary history of the human animal. In some environmental philosophies, too, this concept of nature is the main one. Bookchin (1987), for example, states that the social ecologist views nature as “atoms, molecules that have evolved into amino acids, proteins, unicellular organisms, genetic codes,” etc. In this view, the environmentalist project should be about recognizing our society’s environmental nexus so that we can better advance its goals of justice, peace, and equality.
But another definition of nature precludes human influence and control. The contrast here would be to the artificial rather than the supernatural. Those things that are made or controlled by human beings or their technical systems are artificial; those things that exist without such interference are natural. In most accounts, these two categories are not a strict dichotomy, but two extreme ends of a spectrum. A garden, for instance, still exists outside of human influence enough for it to be called nature in some contexts, such as in a highly artificial environment like a city. In a wilderness area, however, it would be defensible to call a garden unnatural.
It is important to note that natural human behavior still results in artifice. Although making a spear may be a natural cultural activity, the spear itself is artificial. However, it is possible for a behavior to be made more artificial, such as when commercials or government propaganda manufacture certain desires or states of mind in the populace. Thus, breathing, universal facial expressions, walking, and other such things are a part of human nature, even though the results of these behaviors, such as a path trampled in a natural area, are human artifacts.
The defining quality determining where something is on the spectrum is the quality of wildness, or the “not controlled” part of the definition. For instance, an animal that has been caged has not lost any of its naturalness except for the fact that it has been caged, or made less wild. But it is precisely this decrease in wildness that leads to further degradation in its quality of naturalness: more artificial control would tame the creature, even more would domesticate it. Conversely, a domesticated animal population that has been freed from artificial influence, if it doesn’t die off, would because of its newfound wildness transition to a feral and eventually entirely wild state. To give another example, consider a dam: a river ecosystem is not made significantly less natural by it at first, but as the ecosystem responds to the edifice, artificial influence becomes more apparent. On the other hand, once we remove the dam, the artificial influence will eventually wash out from the landscape, allowing us to say that it is in a more natural state (see Hettinger & Throop 1999; Weisman 2008).
This dual mode of the “nature/artifice” distinction as both dichotomy and spectrum may seem odd. However, many wordpairs have this quality: good and bad, tall and short, loud and quiet. Because the distinctions are a matter of convention, their pure, abstract forms do not necessarily correspond to reality exactly, but this does not mean that they are any less useful in explaining aspects of that reality. Tall people still exist even with the ambiguous space between tallness and shortness.
Importantly, these two concepts of nature—“that which conforms to the laws of physics” and “that which is not made or controlled by humans”—overlap. Most of what conforms to the laws of physics is not influenced in a significant way by human beings, or at least not significantly enough to qualify as artificial. Indeed, the artificial stems from and depends on what is natural; humans have no other materials to work with. Thus, when we speak of capital-N Nature—all that conforms to the laws of physics—we can say that in this broad context it is synonymous with the non-artificial. This is the same way a wilderness area might be considered natural overall even if certain areas within it have high degrees of artificial influence.
The concept of nature as the non-artificial also subtly overlaps with a third definition of the term: nature as “essence.” We might, for instance, speak of the “essence” of a bird, a bird nature, or the essence of a human, a human nature. Note that I do not speak of “essences” in the sense that pre-scientific philosophers might have, where they often used the word to refer to a soul. I am making no metaphysical claims about an object’s being. Instead, I mean “essence” in a looser way, the general group of properties belonging to an object that help us identify what it is, and without which properties it would cease being what it is. An apple, for example, would cease being an apple if it had all the qualities of a pear.
Essence can apply to artificial objects as well: a cell phone tower cannot have the properties of a computer and remain a cell phone tower. But in the context of natural objects, such as a wild lion, the essence of the object is intimately tied to its non-artificial qualities. Indeed, if a wild lion loses its naturalness completely by, perhaps, slowly having its body parts replaced with mechanisms and information technics, it has also lost its lionness. The same applies to human beings, a major point of writers such as Charles Rubin, who in The Eclipse of Man pointed out that as technics (such as CRISPR) enable ever-more-powerful means of control over nature, we will have to engage in a real discussion about what aspects of our humanness we want to conserve.
One might discern by now that a more exact way of speaking about these concepts is needed, so the rest of the essay will use the following terminology: (1) “that which conforms to the laws of physics” will be called “the Cosmos,” “Reality,” or, in cases where the word is unavoidable, “Nature” with a capital-N; (2) “nature” will continue to be used according to its meaning in the context of the nature/artifice distinction; (3) and “nature as essence,” because it is a related but different nexus of the problems addressed in this essay, will be ignored. See Figure 1 for a graphical representation of this schema.
Does Nature Exist?
Nature in the sense of “non-artificial” leaves us something to work with, morally, since to claim that nature has value of some sort would also mean claiming that we should restrict our behavior toward it. But this is irrelevant if non-artificial objects, things that exist independently of human influence, do not exist, and that claim has been made a myriad of ways before. None of these claims, however, withstand scrutiny.
Some, for instance, may object to the existence of nature by pointing out that it is defined negatively, so refers to nothing in particular. However, this is a weak criticism. We have many words that are defined negatively—secular, for instance—and that says nothing about their existence.
Also consider the claim that nature, or its close cousin, “wilderness,” is a recent concept, or something that arose out of a specific historical and cultural context. Assuming that this is true—and in some cases the claim is inarguable—it is unclear why this should have any bearing on whether or not we value it. Most of the technologies eliciting ethical attention today are much more recent than the nature concept, but their recency neither elevates nor devalues them. Furthermore, that something is culturally or even individually relative does not invalidate our concern for our own distinctions. It does call into question power dynamics and limits the degree to which we can claim the nature/artifice distinction is universal among humans, but it does not invalidate the distinction itself as a way of seeing the world, nor does it invalidate moral theories that depend upon it.
A final argument in this vein of wordgames and obscurantism attacks the ambiguity of the concept. But the ambiguity of “nature” is not substantially different from the ambiguity in other moral concepts that we do not question. “Health” and “wellbeing,” for instance, are the goals of most medical practice, but the concepts are inexact. We call a person “loving” even if they hate sometimes. An honest person can carefully consider their words for tact or even tell small lies and still be considered honest. So while it is important not to use “nature” in an entirely unrestrained fashion, it is clear that some amount of ambiguity is unavoidable, and the concept is exact enough to move forward with it.
The claims do get more substantial. McKibben (2016), for instance, famously argued that few if any places on Earth are now free of artificial influence, thanks to powerful technics and global problems like climate change. He states,
If the waves crash up against the beach, eroding dunes and destroying homes, it is not the awesome power of Mother Nature. It is the awesome power of Mother Nature as altered by the awesome power of man, who has overpowered in a century the processes that have been slowly evolving and changing of their own accord since the earth was born. (p. 51)
While McKibben has a point, he overstates it. Human influence has clearly pervaded some of the darkest corners of the Earth, and it will take some time before that influence washes out, but just as clear are aspects of nature that humans have yet to make artificial. In one essay in Keeping the Wild, Hettinger (2014) points out that at the very least humans cannot be responsible for “the existence of sunlight, the photosynthetic capacity of plants, water, gravity, the chemical bonds between molecules, or, more generally, for the diversity of life on the planet” (p. 176). He also points out that if naturalness is valuable and is decreasing, then “what remains [is] all the more precious” (p. 178), not reason to abandon serious moral consideration of it. Furthermore, stories like that of Chernobyl Wildlife Exclusion Zone demonstrate that nature may rebound from human influence faster than we think (Webster et al. 2016). Weisman (2008), in The World Without Us, gives many examples along these lines, noting how quickly residential areas would turn into forests or city infrastructure would collapse should human activity cease suddenly and completely. There is naturalness in the world yet.
Cronon’s (1996) argument goes further than McKibben’s and can be dismissed (although seriously regarded) in much the same way. Unlike McKibben, Cronon argues that we did not need climate change to bring about the end of nature; nature as we know it has, in fact, always been a human artifact, a result of both native land management and the European removal of natives for the creation of wilderness areas. But if human behaviors that restrict human impact, such as the removal of a dam, can result in the artificialness of a landscape “washing out” or “rewilding,” then Cronon’s observation only tells us that this can sometimes be done in distasteful ways. It does not say anything substantial about the existence of nature so conceived. The same applies to Cronon’s criticism of wilderness conservation in third-world, or even just non-U.S., nations.
True, Cronon’s argument may have some implications for how practicable we can regard the ideals of wilderness conservation to be: if humans have always engaged in some significant level of land management, then to set a state of total non-management as one’s ideal necessarily entails compromise, limits to the ideal, or misanthropy. However, this does not invalidate the nature/artifice framework, which Cronon does not fully understand, and so misses this distinction. For instance, he writes of “the paradox that was built into wilderness from the beginning: if nature dies because we enter it, then the only way to save nature is to kill ourselves”—ignoring completely the fact that naturalness is a spectrum. The result of his misunderstanding, writes one commenter, is a wilderness of “abstracted ideas…divorced from the values and ideas inherent in wilderness action” (Hays 1996).
Popular Conceptions of Nature
The distinction outlined here has some important implications for popular conceptions of nature.
For instance, the strong connection between nature and life is not tenable under this framework. Of course, any practical moral theory concerned with nature is going to be concerned with the living parts of it to a large degree, but nature as outlined is not synonymous with life. A rock, if it is sufficiently independent of human manufacture and control, is natural and can be wild.
The connection between nature and “green” is similarly invalid. Often eco-lifestyle trends rest on this invalid connection to fulfill a sort of environmental aesthetic. But such an aesthetic has little to do with the nature in the context of the nature/artifice distinction. Deserts, air, and even outer-space are just as much a part of nature as a green forest.
Aesthetic notions of nature are popular in conservation and environmentalism as well. According to the nature/artifice framework, an area of land consisting of little more than dirt (at a glance) could potentially be far more natural than a garden or heavily managed wilderness area, because the core quality distinguishing the two is wildness. Yet conservationist efforts in particular have often, especially historically, focused on places with much aesthetic value and questionable wildness value. In recent years, they have focused more on the variety of species in a given area, but this is still a concern distinct from wildness.
This is not to say that life, biodiversity, and aesthetics are invalid as aspects of moral concern, nor is it to say that conservation should focus on wildness and naturalness more than it focuses on biodiversity or aesthetics. It is just important to recognize that under this framework, each of these things are distinct from each other and are not necessarily relevant to a moral theory that is strictly concerned with questions of naturalness.
Morality and Nature
In his essay “On Nature,” John Stuart Mill identified the two common definitions of nature and with them issued out a warning. Nature, he writes, cannot give moral guidance. If on the one hand nature is everything, then we can only obey it; and if our actions are considered to have inherently unnatural effects, then nothing we do obeys it. In either case, no concept of nature tells us what to do; “the issue is the value of nature, not obedience to nature” (Kaebnick 2014, p.3). So while Mill would have been unequivocally critical of attempts to extract moral rules from the processes of nature, he does see nature as an object of moral importance:
Nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of Nature; with every rood of land brought into cultivation which is capable of producing food for human beings; every flowering waste or nature pasture ploughed up; all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man’s use exterminated as his rivals for food… (Mill 1848, p. 311)
If nature can tell us nothing about how we ought to act, then a mere descriptive account of what is natural and what is artificial only moves us forward by providing a language for our moral system. And clearly, just as not all moral attitudes toward sex are tenable, not all moral attitudes toward nature are worth entertaining. For instance, outside of those who profess total misanthropy, we can usually dismiss a moral system that regards all artifice as bad and all nature as good.
The question, which Mill hinted at above, is to what extent we want to conserve nature against artificialization in an age where artificial influence can be so powerful. Do we want to change our genetic make-up with biotechnics? Is wilderness something we can do without? Are climate engineering proposals worth considering? These questions, and more, are the questions of the twenty-first century.
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