Nature Revisited

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After my travels through Japan, I have returned to work on my graduation thesis. Below is a popularized version of the argument I am making. This will be my first and probably only post in English. The reason for this is that I wrote the following piece as a preparation for my thesis, which will also have to be in English.

It is a tenet of the environmental movement called ‘Deep Ecology‘ that a different understanding of the being of Nature will lead to a different ethics in Nature. This paper will attempt to provide room for a particular kind of understanding of Nature, which may be slightly different from our usual Western contemporary worldview. The change I propose is, simply, that we should not look upon Nature as an external ´pool of resources´ to be exploited by us, humans. We should, rather, see ourselves as a part of Nature – which should not (necessarily) invoke images of shamanistic rituals and dances around the totem (though if you are into that, you are definitely free to give it a go). It rather is a view that is already embraced by many thinkers, activists and people that feel a need to care for their environment. I am sure that after some consideration many more might agree upon its validity. The ideas speaking in favour of the conception of Nature that I will present here cannot be called my own, nor do they only belong to the authors I will mention here. One can find similar thoughts throughout the entire history of humanity, ranging from ancient Buddhism to Spinoza to Heidegger. All these traces have influenced my thoughts, so that this article should be seen as a mere recapitulation of what I have learned from studying the great minds of the past.

This article will not be history lesson. In order to show the need for a change in the current common understanding of Nature, I will provide three reasons, that come from relatively recent developments. Each development offers a slightly different perspective on the issue, I will not attempt to unify the three in a new grand theory. They ultimately make the same points, so that the reader can choose to investigate further the perspective that interests him or her the most. The developments that I will treat are those of evolution theory, ecology and the Anthropocene. In order to contextualize my discussion of these developments provisionally, I will summarize what I see as the central issues to which they all point.

First, it is argued that humans cannot be considered to exist in opposition to Nature. The idea of this rift between mankind (and his / her technology) one the side and ALL OTHER BEINGS on the other side is still intuitively embraced by many of us. Its origins are hard to trace, though to my knowledge it is in the modern period, starting with Bacon and Descartes, that this dichotomy became part of philosophical discourse. Mankind as thinking beings have a special place in Descartes´ ontology (philosophy of being). Whereas animals and other natural beings are subjected to causal and mechanical laws, humans have a certain freedom in as far as they are thinking things. Thinking is not a physical property, which allows rational humans some substantial difference to all those things that will never escape the long chains of physical causality. The three developments that I will discuss put into question this Great Difference as the ground of our specifically human being. Rather, they stress a continuity between us and our environments, so that even rationality itself may be grounded in Nature.

Second, that the fate of our species is not determined by our own efforts alone. Humankind has developed like many other species: through a million years struggle in a dynamic environment. The climate, geophysical factors such as tectonic activity and the presence or absence of certain other species are necessary conditions for humans to exist. The more we know, the more the necessity of these interrelations becomes obvious. Theories of the 20th century do no longer see the human as the conqueror of Nature, but rather as its modest inhabitant.

Third, the concept of becoming gains a certain priority over the concept of being, in as far as this is taken to be static ‘property’ of things. Nature is not, nor never was, a pristine origin that remained in a certain state until it was interrupted by Bad Humans. There was no Garden of Eden. Many philosophers have since long done away with the idea of ‘being’ as something that can be univocally and timelessly ascribed as a property to all things. The phenomenologists, for example, consider ‘being’ as a way in which the world becomes unconcealed. Schelling, in the 19th century, argues that being itself should be seen as a becoming – not as something that ‘is’ itself, since this would lead to a unsolvable circularity. Ecology, as well, shows how beings are never really stable and can take on different meanings with just the slightest change in the relations that make up the whole of a ecosystem. Nature is inherently dynamic. It is not being in a static sense, its being is its becoming, in which humankind is merely one of its (inevitably) passing stages.

Summarizing, we are considered to be a part of a dynamic Nature, in which all the changes that our species make to the general ecosystem do have an effect on the whole. However, this effect can only be understood in light of other natural processes, so that we are not the conquerors and possessors of Nature, but its mere inhabitants. I will conclude this paper by a discussion of the ethical implications of such a change in perspective. First, however, I will treat the issues of evolution, ecology and the Anthropocene to show why we should be persuaded to consider Nature in the way described above.

Evolution Theory

Historically the first in my overview of ‘recent’ developments in thinking about Nature is evolution theory. Without considering its turbulent discourse up till the present, we may have a look at Darwinism in its primordial form to see why his ideas had such great repercussions in our thought. For, what is evolution theory other than a great humbling of mankind, who had supposed itself to be superior to all other forms of life for such a long time? Let us recapitulate what Darwin’s main ideas were, to see how they have changed our understanding of the being of Nature.

Darwin held that species have a tendency to increase in numbers over time. This development is checked by processes such as disease, scarcity in food, predation, etc., which lead to a selection amongst its population. Only the ‘fittest’ within a certain environment will, generally, be able to survive. Fitness seems to be circularly defined here to indicate precisely this property of being-able-to-survive (within this particular ecosystem). Fit individuals will be able to reproduce more often than their weaker peers, their offspring will inherit some of the properties that made them fit. This leads to the spreading of a ‘fit’ trait among the population of a species, slowly altering this species as the ecosystem changes (Lennox, 2017).

The Darwinian insight that shocked the world was that this does not just apply to the birds and the bees, but to the history of our species as well. Humankind has arisen from its ape-shape through a struggle, based upon contingent mutations rather than teleological development. That is, we are just as subjected to the randomness and the chaotic buzzing of Nature as all other beings. We are akin to primates, not their ontological superiors. Tracing back our genetic heritage further and further, one could suddenly imagine so many different life forms spawning from very similar single-celled organisms.

This way of imagining the species of our history provided the first impetus to rethink the rift that humans have opened between them and the rest of Nature. Through evolution theory the dichotomy can be pushed aside to reveal a continuum, rather than a gap. Of course, we are different to other beings, just as a beetle differs from a racoon, and a bird from a fish. Different, yes, superior, no.

Ecology

A second development started with the rise of the science of ecology. One might argue that Darwinism unified life in one single, yet diversifying, struggle to exist. Ecology showed how in diversity a strong ontological link between beings was maintained, so that the doing of one changed the doing of another. The term ‘ecology’ was dubbed by Ernst Haeckel in 1866 (Callicott, 1986, 306), to be further developed by Burroughs and Wheeler. In its beginning phase, ecology was seen a science of how all parts played a set role in the becoming of the Whole, resulting in a romantic and static image of what Nature is like. This idea was revolutionized along the course of the 20th century, when Arthur Tansley prioritized processes of flows of energy, rather than the previous semi-teleological ones. Ecology became a proper quantitative science, following how these energy flows clustered around organisms and species, how they were influenced by non-living things and even by processes in the solar system (307-308).

What, exactly, is ecology nowadays? It is a science that traces how organisms function within a larger whole of an ecosystem. Put formally: “The science of ecology studies interactions between individual organisms and their environments, including interactions with both conspecifics and members of other species” (Sarkar, 2016). It does not study organisms in the isolation of the laboratory, but rather investigates their behaviours in relation to the environment that they are a part of. It is, therefore, a relational study, that shows how to understand a thing by looking at other things that it relates to.

Ecological philosopher J. Baird Callicott shows beautifully what the metaphysical implications of all these changes are. Whereas previously beings had been seen as maintaining an internal and inviolable essence, now an emphasis was laid on the becoming of this essence in relation to other things. The concept of atoms is replaced by the concept of process. He summarizes this revolution of thinking under two major headings, which I will treat here shortly.

First, in modern ecology “energy seems to be a more fundamental and primitive reality than material objects or discrete entities – elementary particles and organisms respectively” (310). Organisms are not objects in geometric space, but rather temporary configurations of energy flows congregating. A body is shaped by processes organizing matter in a specific rhythm, dependent on the conditions of the larger whole that it is a part of.

Second, this re-introduces the concept of internal relations (311). Internal relations refer to those relations that adhere to the essence of a thing, so that if one of the relata is removed, the essence of the things themselves changes. Ultimately, the essence of a thing is determined fully by the relations it has to other things. To sound a little less enigmatic here, this indicates again that we cannot know a thing by isolating it and taking it apart. For example, I am who I am because of the relations I have to the members of my family. Yet, nowhere in the molecules that shape my body you will be able to find that I am the older brother of Ruben. Ruben is not in me, yet my relation to him determines this ontological property of mine. Callicott: “Relations are ‘prior’ to their component parts” (312).

Ecology, then, teaches us to not look upon Nature as an external resource. Who we are can never be determined in isolation from our relations to all beings that we relate to. In Callicott’s ontological interpretation of ecology, there is no human essence, no human self, that can be defined without paying heed to these relations. This is why I made the case in a recent edition of the Splijtstof magazine that conservation of species is a necessary condition to enrich our human essence. Richer relations, richer essences. Ecology is fully compatible with evolution theory, yet may provide a more positive evaluation of the relations to other species than one of mere struggle. Besides struggle, these relations also provide the possibility of a positive definition of essence.

The Anthropocene

A most recent step in the scientific and philosophical developments urging a ‘return to Nature’ (if only by showing that we never left Nature) is the concept of the Anthropocene. Personally, this concept thrills me, scares me and inspires me – it is, I believe, the biggest challenge that humanity has faced so far. Yet, the concept is relatively new, and there is no consensus about what the Anthropocene means. By some it has even been suggested that we are already in the post-Anthropocene, whatever that would mean! So let me clarify a little what I mean by this term. I will do so by drawing on the excellent book The Birth of the Anthropocene by Jeremey Davies (2016), the book that revolutionized my understanding of the concept.

The Anthropocene is the suggested term for the geological epoch following upon the Holocene, which started 11.700 years ago, by a warming of the earth at the end of the Pleistocene before it. A geological epoch is a sub-division of the even longer era (which again is part of the largest geological time division called a eon). So, don’t worry: even if scientists decide we have entered the Anthropocene, we will still be in the Cenozoic Era and in the Phanerozoic Eon – just to put things in perspective. Sometimes it is said that the Anthropocene would be the term for that epoch in which humankind is (one of) the most determining geophysical factor. Yet, this description does not tell us so much, as Davies notes. First, because it is not so clear who this ‘humankind’ is. Clearly not all humans are equally responsible for having the earth cross this threshold. Second, because it is not so clear what this ‘determining’ means exactly. Even if the extraordinary high levels of CO2 (highest in about 3 million years) can be attributed to human industrial processes, it is clear that the feedback mechanisms resulting in global warming were not put into place by ‘us’. Our behaviour influences processes that have been around for millions of years, which behave differently in turn. These processes are just as determining for what happens as our behaviour, so the simple definition of the Anthropocene falls short.

According to Davies, we should look upon the Anthropocene as the geological epoch that it is. This means, we should look for markers that define its beginning, just as geologists have done for past epochs. One thought experiment that Jan Zalasiewicz, head of the official Anthropocene working group, has proposed, is looking at the earth from an imagined position millions of years in future. What traces could be found that mark a change that could be big enough to be indicative for the start of a whole new epoch? Symptoms are higher CO2 levels, higher temperature and mass extinction, yet it remains the question how this plurality of changes can be summarized by one marker that may be read clearly in the layers of sediment that geologists study. Davies suggests that traces of plutonium are a good candidate, considering that these were introduced into the atmosphere in huge numbers, starting from 1952 (when the testing of nuclear weapons intensified worldwide).

What does this perspective on the Anthropocene give us, in relation to the other two developments? Davies argues that understanding the Anthropocene geologically can inform us about the magnitude of the change, without downplaying the fact that Nature itself has been subject to many alike catastrophes. Moreover, it places human behaviour in line with other geophysical processes, so that it become impossible to maintain the vision of Nature as the alien of men. Industrial processes are like volcanic eruptions, changing ocean currents and shifting continents – they can be epoch-defining. Viewing Nature as a passive reserve of resources is not only ontologically impossible, the very dawn of the Anthropocene illustrates that Nature is dynamic and responds to what we are doing in it. The Anthropocene gives us an understanding of ourselves as rooted in deep time, co-shaping the earth along with everything else inhabiting it and it reveals the magnitude of the catastrophe we are bringing about. The earth may enter a new relative equilibrium, which will be preceded by dramatic changes. Studying earth’s history tells us that this new state may very well not be hospitable to life as we know it.

Summary

In this paper I have shortly discussed three relatively recent developments in our understanding of Nature. My intention was to highlight how a network-vision on earth is called for, in which beings are connected and relations are prior. Darwinism shows that the history of our species is part of the struggle of all other species. Ecology shows that this interconnectedness may have a positive ontological meaning. The Anthropocene shows how the neglect of this interconnectedness is pushing Nature into a whole new configuration of relations, that may very well not be beneficial to us. Learning to live in the ontology that these three vision describe is a proper challenge. We must learn to understand how this kind of understanding became obscured and how to change society in light of it. It is still easier to live in complete neglect of these changes, until disaster strikes.

My own contribution to this debate comes in the form of a question. Assuming that these three developments give us an adequate understanding of Nature, then I would ask: how do we know this? As an answer we may point to the methods we use, be they empirical, philosophical or speculative. Yet, accepting this ontology requires more. Knowledge can no longer be a simple description of an ‘objective’ state-of-affairs. If we are a part of Nature, so must our process of knowing Nature be. Knowledge of Nature then becomes a reflexive affair, in which geophysical factors that had been blindly pushing forward suddenly create the possibility under which they can come to reflect upon themselves. Scholars of philosophy are probably reminded of German Idealism. Indeed, I think that in this period of thought, something essential was grasped. Concretely: that Reason cannot be separated from its material conditions. The limits and possibilities of this idea are varied and cannot be treated here. Yet, I would like to end this paper with a warning for a real threat. The scientific aspects of all three developments described should be carefully treated and examined, lest they re-install the dichotomy between human thinking subject and a dead, objectified Nature. It will be a real challenge to understand understanding as a natural process itself.

Sources

Callicott, J. Baird, 1986. “The Metaphysical Implications of Ecology.” Environmental Ethics 8, vol 4. pp. 301-316.

Davies, Jeremey, 2016. The Birth of the Anthropocene. University of California Press.

Lennox, James, “Darwinism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/darwinism/&gt;.

Sarkar, Sahotra, “Ecology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/ecology/&gt;.

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