Do you believe in nature? That sounds like an odd question, sort of a “Do you believe in climate change?” ploy that turns solid reality into a matter of fickle feeling. But, arguably, nature is as much a belief as a reality, or more properly, a belief about a way of organizing reality. And if it’s a belief, it’s possibly wrong, or unhelpful; it’s possible to believe otherwise.
As our Environmental Theory class tackles nature, that biggest of big words, this week, I’m pondering what it would take for them to consider a world without nature—that is, what if we approached reality without reference to nature? Let’s walk through some basics:
- We live in a world of things (which Latour reminds us are, etymologically, gatherings, thus things exist in relation to other things—see Latour 2004).
- We could just stop there (a position broadly related to nominalism), but most of us want to understand these things by organizing them somehow in terms of common characteristics.
- These common characteristics become big umbrella words, i.e., they rule the domain of a vast plethora of things.
- Nature serves as a big umbrella word (ruling the domain of birds, and hydrology, and dirt, and myriad other things) only if we focus on one characteristic of a thing: is it of human origin? If it is, it’s not natural (thus falling under the domain of culture, or one could say technology, etc.).
This division of reality into nature things and culture things intrigues me, because it is so taken for granted. From the perspective of environmental studies/environmentalism, this is odd because a focus on nature is actually a focus on humans—and not necessarily in a good way. To carve up all things based on whether or not they are of anthropogenic origin veers toward a sort of inverse anthropocentrism, whereby we value things intrinsically provided we didn’t make them. Everything of human origin becomes at least a bit tainted, a bit (or a bunch) polluted, not authentic, certainly not wild or free—can you hear how this binary continues to inform American environmentalism?
To search for alternatives—better big words—we first need to pause and appreciate related baggage that accompanies this nature/culture way of organizing things—and for many of these we are again indebted to Latour and those who have inspired him:
- To believe in nature has generally meant to believe in the bifurcation of nature into primary and secondary qualities, roughly physical versus perceptual qualities. This observation, attributed to Alfred North Whitehead (1920) and expounded by Isabelle Stengers and interpreted by Latour (2005), drives a fundamental wedge into experience…
- …as it creates another odd binary related to nature/culture, i.e., objects/subjects, thus objective/subjective. This binary propagates as two-headed children through, for starters, knowledge (sciences aspire to objective knowledge worthy of the physical things they study, whereas humanities explore the multiple subjectivities of people) and ethics (facts are objective but values are subjective—indeed, to contest value subjectivity in philosophy is called moral naturalism).
- And then the objects/subjects binary comes back to bite nature’s tail, via what Latour calls multiculturalism vs. mononaturalism (2004; see Proctor 2009). Latour’s multiculturalism/mononaturalism is what people take as today’s modern world: let a million cultural flowers bloom, celebrate diversity!…and, when we need inspiration, let us seek out nature [always in the singular] to restore the soul. We enlightened ones at least never endorse monoculturalism, e.g., some Western cultural imperialism over all peoples of the world. And, enlightened or not, we never entertain the possibility of multinaturalism without quickly retreating from this chaotic proposition. No, (objective) nature is one, and (subjective) cultures are many.
So it’s not just nature we’re up against here: it’s alot more. Refusing to believe in nature is not just a challenge to environmentalists; it’s a challenge to our very conceptual, epistemological, moral, and political foundations. No wonder we believe in nature!
But consider, for a moment, how fervently people once believed in the four humors as constituting the human body, or the necessity of ether as a medium through which light and gravity traveled. These too were ways of understanding reality, and they too conveyed particular attention on certain characteristics of reality—say, the physical qualities of blood as central to medical diagnosis. One could now say they are incorrect and unhelpful ways of understanding reality; why cannot we say this of nature? Maybe we’re just afraid to let go of so much.
The alternative I’ve proposed is counting beyond two. In the context of the Anthropocene (Proctor 2013), I’ve said this:
Counting beyond two is based on a refusal to accept that there were ever two boxes into which reality could be parsed or that reality now falls under one grand entropic category. Certainly, the magnitude and scale of human transformation of the earth have increased in recent times; but if the Anthropocene represents the hybrid realities we live in, we have always lived in the Anthropocene. Counters beyond two would appreciate that the human transformation of land–and–atmosphere–and–oceanscapes has grown over time, but these scapes were many and varied, not simply natural (or cultural) ones. So, there were never two. And, when transformed, they become many more, not just one massive mix of nature and culture, amenable to some monistic prescription.
But counting beyond two can also provoke cognitive overload—it doesn’t heal the wounds of letting go of nature. So my preferred way of counting beyond two, as I recently summarized, involves paying attention to places (Proctor 2016). Places are things too, gatherings of processes and perspectives across multiple scales of space and time. Places are one way to get at reality as we experience it—they are both understandable to many of us, and stretch us far beyond our current understanding. Place is, possibly, a better big word for environmental studies than nature.
I’m not sure I will convince all those who care about environment to let go of nature, but I’m more confident that if I can help them direct their attentions toward places we can eventually count beyond two without even noticing that what we are doing constitutes a seismic shift in how we approach reality! Let’s go explore some places together, my friends…it’s fun and we get to avoid all that troubling philosophical baggage associated with nature, of which this post merely scratched the bare surface.
- Latour, Bruno. 2004. Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
- ———. 2004. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30 (2): 225–248. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/421123.
- ———. 2005. “What Is given in Experience? A Review of Isabelle Stengers’ Penser Avec Whitehead.” Boundary 2 32 (1): 222–237.
- Proctor, James D. 2009. “Environment after Nature: Time for a New Vision.” In Envisioning Nature, Science, and Religion, edited by James D. Proctor, 293–311. West Conshohocken, Penn: Templeton Press.
- Whitehead, Alfred North. 1920. The Concept of Nature. Cambridge U.K.: Cambridge University Press.