Friday, July 25, 2008

Is Nature Natural?

The environmentalists are losing. The destruction of the rainforest continues, greenhouse gas emissions are rising, fish stocks around the world are collapsing, the polar ice cap is melting, species continue to go extinct, and the United States will probably reinvigorate its nuclear energy program within the next ten years. Nature is being slowly being overrun, consumed, and destroyed by man and his Civilization (that is, manufactured objects, and the landscapes sculpted by human interaction).

I’ve been an “environmentalist” for my entire life. I watched the T.V. shows Nature and Nova on PBS, hiked in the woods, recycled, lamented the spread of human development, and donated money to environmental causes. For the most part, my behavior has followed in the footsteps of other environmentalists, repeating their behavior though not necessarily understanding why. And enjoying it along the way.

But what is Nature? Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in the environmental movement, Nature is the world in its theoretical state without human interference. We may visit it, but it is separate. The birds living in the backyard tree or the rafters are not in Nature, but are some sort of visitor or cling-on. The Natural world is the world that would exist if humans society could suddenly be replaced with what would be there otherwise. Wikipedia agrees: “Manufactured objects and human interaction are not considered part of nature unless qualified in ways such as ‘human nature’ or ‘the whole of nature.’”

In this essay, I will argue that this definition, inherently people-centric, is not a useful paradigm for environmentalists. Philosophically, this dualistic definition of nature leads to one of two ultimate conclusions: the elimination of Nature or the destruction of Civilization. The world may hang precariously stuck between these two options, but one or the other will occur at some point (Though, in the case of human civilization becoming omnipresent, it could always revert back). Under this definition, it is no surprise that nearly all human members of Civilization do not side with Nature, especially when it threatens their livelihood.

In other words, few among our species are willing to sacrifice themselves (or their children’s future) in order to halt the destruction of Nature. In the following essay, I will try proposing an alternative philosophy that will preserve our Civilization as well as Nature, (both re-defined, of course).

The Ishmaelites

For me, Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael represents the height of Nature vs. Civilization (or “Takers”, as he calls them) dualist thinking (or at least, the height from the pro-Nature side of the argument). The philosophy contained within its pages lies at the heart of much of the environmentalist movement and its definition of Nature.

The fansite summarizes the book’s core philosophy well:

“For Ishmael, our agricultural revolution was not a technological event but a moral one, a rebellion against an ethical structure inherent in the community of life since its foundation four billion years ago. Having escaped the restraints of this ethical structure, humankind made itself a global tyrant, wielding deadly force over all other species while lacking the wisdom to make its tyranny a beneficial one or even a sustainable one.

“That tyranny is now hurtling us toward a planetary disaster of pollution and overpopulation. If we want to avoid that catastrophe, we need to work our way back to some fundamental truths: that we weren't born a menace to the world and that no irresistible fate compels us to go on being a menace to the world.”

For Ishmaelites, biodiversity and co-existence are not merely facts commonly associated with the functioning of the Natural world, but moral imperatives, defining what is and is not good behavior. They are also considered natural “law,” organizing biological existence in the same way gravity organizes the stars and planets. Most species (the “Leavers”) that follow the law, “environmental conditions permitting,” continue to exist, while some humans (the “Takers”) live in violation of the law before quickly becoming extinct. The law includes the following rules, which the Takers break: 1) Never exterminate competitors; 2) Take what you need, leave the rest alone; 3) You may deny competitors access to the food you are eating, but you may not deny them access to food in general. In conclusion, “Those who threaten the stability of the community by defying the law automatically eliminate themselves.”

On one level, they have it right. Humanity cannot consume a finite number of resources at an increasing rate indefinitely. At some point, the music will stop and there won’t be many chairs left in the room. The earth’s resources are limited to the energy dispensed by the sun (at a very constant rate) and the material resources found on and in its crust. Unless long-term space travel is realized, this is all we’ll ever have.

Besides this basic point, which I will return next week, the Ishmaelite’s worldview is plain wrong. The so called invasive species are an easy, recent example. Invasive species are species that have been introduced by humans into an ecosystem. Typically lacking a predator or having some other competitive advantage, these species quickly inhabit the new ecosystem, often driving out a “native” species it either consumes or competes with. While this phenomenon has been exacerbated by human travel, it is a normal occurrence in Nature.

Here are some examples:

  • “The predatory brown tree snake, introduced in cargo from the Admiralty Islands, has eliminated ten of the eleven native bird species from the forests of Guam.”

  • “The first sailors to land on the remote Atlantic island of St. Helena in the 16th century introduced goats, which quickly extinguished over half the endemic plant species.”

  • “The zebra mussel, accidentally brought to the United States from southern Russia, transforms aquatic habitats by filtering prodigious amounts of water (thereby lowering densities of planktonic organisms) and settling in dense masses over vast areas. At least thirty freshwater mussel species are threatened with extinction by the zebra mussel.”

  • “ When the Asian chestnut blight fungus virtually eliminated American chestnut from over 180 million acres of eastern United States forests in the first half of the 20th century, it was a disaster for many animals that were highly adapted to live in forests dominated by this tree species. For example, ten moth species that could live only on chestnut trees became extinct.”

  • “Rainbow trout introduced widely in the United States as game fish are hybridizing with five species listed under the Endangered Species Act, such as the Gila trout and Apache trout.”

  • “The endangered, endemic Hawaiian duck is being lost to hybridization with North American mallards introduced for hunting.”

The first two examples, the snail and the goat, might be good examples of what the Ishmaelites get right. If you eat your food supply to extinction, it is likely you will follow. Except that both species continue to live on said islands, 500 years after introduction in the case of the goat and over 50 in the snake’s.

The zebra muscle might not actively hunt down and destroy its competitors, but it is on the path to eliminate its competition and is surely breaking the second rule: eating more than its need. Likewise, the Asian chestnut fungus breaks rule #3, denying many species access to food and driving them to extinction. Yet like the snake and goat, it continues to thrive despite having violated the supposed laws of nature.

And what sadistic, lawless animals those ducks and trout are, fucking their competitors out of existence! Surely these species will some day meet their doom for breaking Nature’s moral code? Perhaps, but I doubt it will come about as a result of said immorality.

It is possible that Quinn just didn’t do his research. However, Ishmaelites and many environmentalists in general make a basic philosophical mistake when they deny “conscious intent” to all non-humans. Or, perhaps more precisely, when they grant it to humans. Either way the outcome is the same: living things are by and large designed to eat and reproduce (or assist fellow members of its genetic group in doing so), and if they do it better than another species competing for the same environment or food, the later species will either evolve, or see its population reduced, even extinguished.

The problem – and it is a problem – is that when a species is much, much better at eating and promoting the growth of the species, then it can threaten its own existence. This is not a moral issue, but a physical fact.

I strongly disagree with the Ishamelites on the moralizing of the Natural law, not because it isn’t a viable moral system (its as good as any), but because it is counter-productive to their cause. The Ishmaelites condemn humanity for living the way that feels normal, for the way most people prefer, and the way human culture pushes them. The Ishmaelites offer no redemption, no salvation – only damnation. This, as I have said, does not have a wide appeal. Most people do not want to condemn the poor to starvation, which Ishmael portrays as Natural, and therefore morally correct. Starvation in the modern world often has little to do with the state of Nature and more to do with the state of Civilization.


Daniel said...

It does seem like the dichotomy being set up in our minds by both environmentalists and their opponents is Nature versus Civilization, and this picture has proven detrimental to the environmentalist movement.
I used to (and occassionally still do) ask strong opponents of environmentalism to consider their distinction between Man and Nature, arguing that mankind is a product of nature and therefore a part of it, and furthermore, that his actions, products, and artifacts are a part of nature as well. I have yet to hear a reasonable response to this statement; the typical response is one of unsupported outrage and indignation.
Personally, I view the issue in a completely different way, as I imagine you do as well (and which I look forward to hearing about in your next essay).

Janie said...

I completely agree that characterizing "nature" as moral and humans as immoral is wrong as rain. In fact if anything it's the other way around, because many humans are actually trying to save other creatures and faraway habitats that seem to have nothing to do with them. It's those other creatures who would destroy other species and consume everything in sight without a second thought; we are having some second thoughts.
The focus on nature vs. people is an interesting feature of environmental discussion that I hadn't really considered before. I'm afraid though that even when people are aware and admit the fact that we are part of nature, it doesn't make much difference. Even if we're told that water is going to run out, that our coastal people are going to be washed away, or that we're making ourselves sick, it doesn't seem to change much. It's amazing how the environment has become such an issue in the last few years, and changes and even sacrifices are definitely being made... ultimately though our biggest problem seems be that the mission of creatures to grow and consume and reproduce and basically be greedy makes us put off dealing with any consequences, just like a good little goat nibbling leaves.

P.S. Consider switching to black-on-white? I find it easier to read... ;)

Ben Colahan said...

Mark, thank you for trying to deconstruct the human/nature dichotomy. Ultimately I think trying to decide if nature is somehow inherently moral is pointless--regarless of whether nature is moral, we should strive to be. The real question is what does that morality look like. Personally, I feel trying to "preserve nature" is absured, because ecosystems are not static entities, they are constantly evolving and changing living entities. Nature changes; people make the rest of the natural world change in bigger and faster ways than most other natural entities. The question for me is, not how can we prevent changes from happening; but what changes should we encourage and how can we prepare for the inevitable changes that will come.

On a somewhat related note, about a month ago, Spain granted limit human rights to great apes:

Ben Colahan said...

Previous link failure, try this:


Daniel said...

I think that natural phenomena show a great deal of respect and agape for all things and that the Native American peoples (and others) have given us examples of the way in which we can show respect and agape for all things.
I agree that it seems wrong to "preserve" nature; however, the movement toward preservation is an important response to our civilization's complete lack of respect for our world and its other inhabitants. Ben, you are correct; it is not about how to prevent change, but how to discover what changes are healthy.

Janie said...

I agree that simply "preserving nature" is faulty, but in general I think it's still the ideal. I can see how superficial preservation, such as that of endangered animals in zoos, is going to have a very limited effect on the world and its ecosystems... however preserving habitats, water quality, air quality, etc seems to directly address things we recognize as negative changes.

Ecosystems can adapt to these changes, but the adjustment is often painful. I don't believe people are able to understand the complex world ecosystem well enough to determine which changes it can deal with and which it cannot. Dan, I agree with your statement about preservation as an appropriate response to our lack of respect and, I would add, lack of understanding.

Dan, I'm curious about what you mean by "natural phenomena..."... what do you have in mind?

The great ape ruling is pretty awesome. It's interesting to me that the apes' ability to "display... emotions such as love, fear, anxiety and jealousy" is cited as a reason for their increased rights, because those are such basic emotions felt by a large range of species. In related news, Norwegian police dogs now have "human rights" as well...

Also, for a very fascinating article about the "humanity" of other animals, I recommend

(How do I make them fancy links?)

Eliot said...

This is a good post. I'm sorry for being so late to respond to it but for some reason didn't get around to reading it until now. I coincidentally looked into that Ishmael book just a few days ago since someone had it on her facebook page. I read it a long time ago as a child, probably in elementary school or junior high, but don't remember very much from it.
I think a big part of the problem is not only the opposition forced between man and nature but that this opposition is value-laden: Man is the special and the good side, coming from a higher realm, and nature is the despicable part. In this self-valuing we think of man as being in a position of power over nature, with the right to do with it as we want. This is completely backwards and another instance of human narrow-sighted arrogance. Part of what annoys me about the environmental movement you're talking about is that while questioning our right to do whatever we want with the environment, it still assumes that we are in the position of power to do so. Talk of "saving the earth", and "protecting nature" seems ridiculous to me. "Destroying the planet" basically means making the planet uninhabitable for us. There's nothing in nature there to feel sorry for; the planet will continue on without us. But somehow we seem to think of nature along the lines of a baby seal, something cute and helpless that we need to protect.
I think your examples do a good job of showing that nature is not something governed by moral laws in which overreachers are punished with extinction. (In all fairness, though, they can be seen as a part of the human Taker problem since (most of?) the invasive species were introduced by humans.) Once could argue that wastefulness and unthinking expansion of power is essential to nature, and the human squandering and spoiling of resources is a natural phenomenon. (Do we have any more reason to assume that nature is inherently set up to preserve the lives of any other species or even life in general than for assuming that it's set up to provide for humans?) If this is the case, it's so difficult to make ourselves stop wreaking havoc on the natural world because it is natural for us to do so (basically what Janie said with the good little goat nibbling leaves). It's natural for us to keep living in the world we've made up and ignore the unintended side effects of our actions. In order to make our environment more habitable for our species, we have to be less natural, more restrained, less instinctive, more rational and more intentional in our actions. Part of this would be being more humble in our relationship to "nature": we depend on it; it does not depend on us.
Anyway, this is more of a rant than anything productive, and I know I ignore a lot by making it sound like nature is entirely waste and greed. I just felt like emphasizing this part of it because the focus on the elements of balance, harmony, and cyclical replenishing lends to a romanticizing of nature, as if it were some sort of motherly hand making sure everything is going to be alright. I'm a bit pessimistic at this point because it seems like in order to implement the healthful changes (assuming we figure out what they are) humanity as a whole has to grow up, become a lot more aware, and figure out some self-control.
I'm glad to hear about the great apes and the dogs, though. It will be really interesting if the relationship between humans and other animals fundamentally changes during our lifetimes. Who knows...