One of the arguments that environmentalists use against factory farming and burning fossil fuels is that these activities are "unnatural" or that they "go against nature." But what exactly is this "nature," and who gets to define it? The answer is that nature actually comes from culture.

In the west, many of our common sense ideas about nature can be traced back to a debate that brewed between political philosophers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Their debate, which is by no means settled even to this day, centered on human nature. Are we inherently evil and greedy, or inherently good and altruistic? To answer, philosophers 300 years ago turned to what were then called "savage" peoples, mostly Native Americans, trying to figure out how humans acted in a "state of nature."

Probably the most famous comment in this debate came from the quill of Thomas Hobbes, who commented sardonically in his masterwork The Leviathan that life in a state of nature was "poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Others argued that savages were "noble" or "gentlemen" precisely because they lived in harmony with the world around them and weren't burdened by the strictures of morality and economics.

In these debates, "nature" was understood as everything that stood outside civilization — not just trees and wildlife, but also any humans who didn't live exactly like Europeans. So even at its inception, this idea of nature depended on two dubious propositions. First, European philosophers mistakenly imagined that tribal peoples lived outside the influence of culture, religion, and other institutions that would curb their innate tendencies. Second, the philosophers suggested that humanity stood outside nature, as if there were some stark line between modern humans and every other biological thing on the planet. Given that nature was so nasty, at least according to Hobbes, it's no wonder they wanted to make this assumption.

Even the eighteenth century philosophers who believed in humanity's natural goodness, like the Earl of Shaftesbury, bought into the idea that nature was separate from humans. Our great feats of empire building, morality, and science separated us from dogs, insects, and gentleman savages. In the United States, transcendentalists like Henry David Thoreau took up this idea again in the mid-nineteenth century, and tried to embrace goodness by moving to bucolic areas far from cities. You cannot yearn to get back to nature if you don't believe that you are fundamentally not a part of it.

You can see this same old debate alive in environmental politics today. Like Hobbes and his cohorts, we've reached a point in our civilization when we can no longer deny that human have the power to change the Earth's environment forever. There are two possible responses to this issue. One is to argue, with many environmentalists, that sustainable development depends on going "back to nature," cutting back energy use, and leading slower, de-urbanized lives. This is a kind of gentleman savage argument, where nature is good. At the other end of the eco-aware spectrum we find a very different argument, coming from geologists like Peter Ward, which is that we need to develop geoengineering technologies that will take complete control of nature to scrub carbon out of the air, clean polluted waters, enhance the productivity of farms, and more. Civilization and science can rescue nature, just as Hobbes' social contract could rescue human nature from greed and brutishness.

Of course there are many positions between these extremes, too. But the theme that unites them is a strong echo of the centuries-old belief that humans have somehow stepped outside nature. The problem is that humans are, in fact, part of nature. We are animals who live in burrows and hives like bears and bees. We leave our poop and garbage everywhere just like raccoons do. Sure we've invented some elaborate philosophies and ideologies to explain hives and poop to ourselves, but that doesn't mean we're not part of nature. All those tools we have to pollute the planet? Natural. Other animals use tools. And our changed climate, altered by pumping carbon into the atmosphere? Sorry to break it to you, but that's part of the natural carbon cycle, in which the environment slowly cycles between hot and carbon-rich followed by cold and oxygen-rich. Humans and our environment-altering garbage are about as natural as it gets.

It's time we got away from eighteenth century thinking and started to admit that humans are actually a part of nature. And because we are natural, we can only thrive when our ecosystems have a very specific climate and are full of specific life forms. Preserving the environment in a human-friendly state like the one where we evolved won't bring us back to nature — it will simply make the Earth really comfortable for us and our fellow life forms. Whether we preserve the environment with enormous, futuristic climate-control machines or by leaving the cities for tribal life, we are doing natural things on a natural world that is in a natural state. There is no nature to return to. We are already here.

Via io9. Top image from Hobbes' The Leviathan; photo via Shutterstock

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  • Another take on this topic I found interesting to read (not necessarily to agree with) is Tony Fry's 'Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice'. Its about how we design for sustainability and he got a very strong environmentalist position towards it.

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  • The debate of whether or not humans are already part of nature is weird. Both positions fallaciously extrapolate factual claims from semantic games. Hobbes' idea of Leviathan is silly, given modern evidence that punishment is counterproductive. That does NOT mean that culture is inherently bad. Culture can come in the shape of rational, non-punishing discussions. And the term "noble savage" actually refers to two very different concepts that have been fallaciously lumped together. Rousseau did not believe in natural goodness in the sense of conscience, his "noble savage" was imagined as ignoring others too completely to even be able to feel any desire to hurt them, not goodness but simply absence of evil. Although I do not believe that such was ever a true stage of evolution, I still think it is an interesting thought experiments sobering from the intoxication of psychologism. That not so famous concept is often confused with the more famous idea of an innate conscience, contributing to the self-contradictions of evolutionary psychologists criticising the supposedly unified "noble savage". Based on the evolvability paradoxes of a first moral individual's lack of viability in a group where everyone else was amoral, that concept is even less plausible. So I reject all of the supposedly two but actually three versions of the supposed "natural state" as historical stages (as opposed to simply thought experiments, as which they are interesting). But I do think that social pressure to justify one's actions actually have in a sense corrupted mankind of today by paralyzing the "something must be done" effect. That is described in greater detail in the articles "Origin of language" and "Piraha" on topic page "Language", the article "Multiple stages of justification poisoning" on topic page "Psychology" and the independent topic page "Advice of ways to stop justifying" on Pure science Wiki. The list of topic pages is at the main page. The link to Pure science Wiki is feel free to read and contribute!

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  • Yes, we are indeed part and parcel of this Globe stream, this One Life that has evolved for at least 3 billion years from a primaeval ancestor.."God fashioned man of dust from the soil"..we ultimately came about from the swirling interactions of atoms forged in exploding supernovas, that became the earth,the water,the air and then the microbes,the algae,the fishes, the plants and the animals,..more less.And then came consciousness,i.e.I know that I know!Mathematically this is expressed as: "The existence of any number, in virtue of its properties, entails the existence of all the others i.e. a system of mathematics couldn't exist bereft only of the number, say, 42; and the existence of any number, in virtue of the full set of its properties/structural relationships, entails the existence of every other number." We are indeed reinventing nature, but we are doing so changing single numbers at random, forgetting that in doing so we alter the proprierties and the structural relationships that maintain the whole, of which we have,at best, only glimpses.The mind and the environment around and inside us, are probably 2 faces of the same phenomenon and so it is possible to envisage a mind that realises its unity with the world and thus powerfully interact with it from inside, with as yet unseen depht and intimacy.This is the real Natural Mind, a state of consciousness that transcend the individual mind and unite it with the GlobeStream. It is imperative that whoever is engaged in science and technology strive to bring about this Natural Mind, otherwise, pushed on by our greed and our various underbellies visions of profit and ego-power we will create such an awful world that the cages in which we live today we'll be fondly longed for.At the end of the day,as Jalaluddin Rumi said, if cats had wings there would be no more sparrows in the air; today, science for illusory profit is nothing but these wings,and there are only faint glimpses of the natural mind..

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