COLUMN - THINKING OTHERWISE - Of Culture and the Nature of Extinction
"We Irish think otherwise" Bishop Berkeley
Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer in a Sea of Fog, 1818
As we contemplate the waves of the sea, or the picture postcard view from a mountain trail in these last two weeks of the summer of 2010, it is a good time to take stock of just what it is we mean when we think of "nature."
Descartes saw "by the light of nature," "that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle equaled 180 degrees." Alexander Pope said "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night/ God said, "Let Newton be, and there was light." And Wordsworth, studying under the shadow of Newton's statue at Cambridge, went on to elaborate a more Romantic, sensate, and less abstract vision of Nature in his autobiographical poem, The Prelude:
With deep devotion, Nature, did I feel,
When my friend Wes Jackson, the geneticist and founder of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, speaks of "Nature's wisdom and Man's cleverness," he is invoking a dyadic cultural imaginary that goes all the way back to the Bible, and even before that to the Gilgamesh Epic in which Gilgamesh and Enkidu, decide to slay the spirit of the forest and cut down the great cedars of Lebanon.
But if we stop to give Wes's cultural imaginary a second thought, we realize that we humans have a very mammalo-centric idea of nature. For us, nature is merely the vegetative and animal canopy of one rather peculiar planet.
The molecules that sing and dance in eternal delight in the oil slick, the gases that thicken and explode in the birth and death of stars, the galaxies that swirl and copulate in erotic collision are also part of Nature.
Although humans may put forth a conscious image of nature that is green and lovely to our eyes, with birds singing in the trees and cute koala bears munching eucalyptus leaves, we do not stop to think that these competitive male birds are marking their territory and seeking a mate, or that the cute and cuddly koala bears are tearing the leaves from the trees just as we rip wheat from the exhausted soil.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that there is no such thing as "nature"; nature is the horizon of culture. As we change cultures, we change what we know and experience as nature.
The idea of nature in the American environmental movement – as Paul Wapner points out in his new book, Living through the End of Nature (MIT Press, 2010) – is a construct, one that owes as much to John Muir and Ansel Adams as to the forest primeval that stood before women, first with gathering and then with agriculture, raised their lunar sickles to strike the wild grasses of the Zagros Mountains in the ancient Near East.
Consciously, humans put forth an idea of nature that is a vision of where we have been and not where we are going. We sacralize nature, and for humans the sacred is always a sentimentalized vision of the past. We do not put fluorescent lights in cathedrals; we put in candles. And so the prophet Amos attacks the cities and the farmers and celebrates the traditional way of the shepherd. He invokes an archetype of the nomadic patriarch Abraham, who left the decadent city of Ur to tend his flocks and move through the scrawny brush under a desert sky. Thus the shepherd is more sacred than the farmer in agricultural society, and in industrial society, the farmer is more sacred than the factory worker or city-dwelling office worker.
There is comfort to be found in looking back, and as we sail or hike, we celebrate the technologies of the past, even if we do so with modern textile sails and Goretex parkas and high tech tents. But if we take an honest look at our behavior, we can see that this content of consciousness is really camouflage to a much more unconscious transformation of a vegetative nature into an elemental one.
Like bacteria in a compost heap, humans are now transforming the vegetative and animal canopy of Earth into a much more primordial nature. We are rewriting the ancient Greek foundational narrative of Hesiod's Theogeny and downsizing the Olympian gods and returning to the world of their Titanic forebears. The sky is becoming a volatile gas again; the land is becoming a turbulent plain of tornadoes, forest and brush fires, and hurricanes, and the sea is returning to its primeval methane vents and acrid dissolutions. In this Saturnine vision of our return to "Chaos and Old Night," Earth is becoming like the moons of Saturn. Soon the volcanoes will awaken and join in their exhalations the out-gassing under the seas.
Meanwhile, back at MIT, Kurzweil dreams of downloading the soul into computers and replacing the quartz lattice of the sacred mountains of the shamans with the perfected lattice of quantum computers. This time round, it is Mephistopheles, the god of the underworld, who must make a bargain with Dr. Faustus who has found a way to challenge the Devil by becoming the Lord of the Elemental Domain and Underworld with CERN's Hadron Collider and computers of silicon chips and quantum particles.
Like a supercool ferromagnetic domain in the hot molecular lattice of a resistant metal, our world is becoming one of high tech domains for the few and seething elemental continents and seas for the many.
If we step back to consider the birth and death of stars, colliding or copulating galaxies, we must admit that all this too is Nature, and not just the birds and the bees or the prospect from the Dome of Yosemite.
I doubt that what we have known as our global industrial civilization can survive this transition. Much more likely is the continued extinction of species and a massive dieback of humanity.
Perhaps if we had listened to the ecologists two generations ago, and not instead affirmed the values of eighteenth century agrarian thinking in small government and free market capitalism to elect the Reagans, Thatchers, Bushes, and now Tea Partiers of our reactionary era, we might have been able to effect a shift to John Todd's "Living Machines" and Hazel Henderson's Symbiotic Economies; but now, we can only watch – not with the genetic resilience of the planetary biofilm of bacteria – but with the uncomprehending mind of the dinosaur.
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