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We Need to Expand the Definition of What’s Natural

How an inadequate description of the world hinders the environmental movement

As US politicians attempt to create more borders and divisions between people, it is a fitting time to resist conceptual boundaries that lead to destruction and suffering. The particular type of boundary that I wish to interrogate is of the linguistic variety: words represent ideas and serve as the precursor to physical borders and social and environmental policies. Sometimes linguistic tools are so inadequate that they endanger the very societies that conceived them. The wrong words shore-up problematic divides and perpetuate injustices; sometimes new words are needed to fight these societal ills.

photo of ShanghaiPhoto by johnlsl, Flickr, Flickr Cities like Shanghai, pictured, are simultaneously natural and artificial. In fact, everything in the human-built world is both natural and artificial, or "artinatural."

For centuries philosophers have wrestled with the inadequacies of languages to describe the world around them. Of course the world and all its complex interrelationships existed well before humans developed language. Many of these confounding complexities will persist even if people never comprehend them. The sooner people grasp ecological interconnectedness — rather than insisting on boundaries between false categories — the better chance societies have of forging sustainable policies. There is the idea, for example, that human-made objects like cars, computers, and buildings exist in a realm separate from the natural — these objects are referred to as “artificial.” I believe this conceptual distinction is a dangerous myth because it hides the ecological interdependencies upon which humanity and all living things rely.

The human-built world is simultaneously artificial and natural. Borrowing a term once used in the field of landscape architecture, we could call things that are both artificial and natural “artinatural.” This term implies that everything artificial is — and always was — still natural. There are no exceptions; a Prius, an iPhone, even artificial intelligence, are all artinatural things.

What does the idea of the artinatural mean for environmentalism? It can be argued that environmentalism as a movement has reached a point of crisis. Not only have traditional environmental concerns like clean air and water been fragmented and pushed to the margins in mainstream politics and media, but the movement itself cannot garner sufficient support to combat human existence-threatening crises: global mass extinction, runaway global warming, rising sea levels, the proliferation of toxics… and the list goes on. Why hasn’t the environmental movement been able to better shield society from these catastrophic developments?

Some thinkers — Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute, George Lakoff, and Wendell Berry to name a few — have contended that the term “environment” itself has effectively sidelined its own power. For between the self and its surrounding environs, which, ultimately, is the more important? The self of course; but this hierarchy denies the special reliance and connection every self has to its ecological contexts. Likewise, the divide between the artificial and the natural means that nature can always be objectified and exploited to benefit humanity’s “artificial” home.

To accept a non-dualistic, artinatural conceptualization of human life would mean to accept ecological omnipresence — to realize that nature permeates the human home, human artifacts, and human existence itself.

As each day passes it becomes more difficult to ignore the artinatural realities of human societies. Storms break through homes, droughts erase agricultural jobs and raise the price of foods, radiation migrates from Japan all the way to California’s shores and into the living bodies of countless species. Nature and artifice clearly pervade each other — whether in the form of greenhouse gases or strontium-90, there is no clear distinction between substances that are built and the rest of the world. The very biosphere is increasingly artinatural.  

My hope is that artinatural conceptualizations of the world, ones that accept and embrace ecological complexities, will catalyze wider movements to imagine themselves in more ecologically friendly roles. Effective responses to complex problems like climate destabilization require the application of non-binary, integrative analysis and action. What people eat and how much they travel have significant effects on our planet’s climate; these effects should be perceived and policies built around them.

“Reconciliation ecology” offers an artinatural approach through fostering biodiversity and complex ecosystems in and around human spaces. This ecological concept recognizes that urban areas are also natural areas (novel ecosystems) that can be ecologically beneficial. Concepts like these refuse the clear-cut boundaries between nature and artifice, opening up possibilities for sustainable futures.

The single most crucial factor for ecological futures may be the quality and scope of K-12 education. Preparation for, and responses to, ecological crises can be strengthened by the promotion of complex, integrative understandings of the ecosystems in which all humans live. People need to learn to become comfortable with the fact that these kinds of truths cannot be reduced to simple equations or described fully with linear thinking.

In essence, to recognize artinature means to erase the false separation between self and environs, and to acknowledge the complex interconnectedness (to which ecologists and green activists often refer) beyond the normal boundaries that usually contain them. It is to reject the idea that a society can simply build a wall between “us” in here and everything else out there.

While the fields of ecology and green activism have adopted some forms of non-binary analysis already, even vanguard environmentalists often still cling to old-fashioned categories and destructive hierarchies. One of the problems with these conceptual boundaries is that they produce the false assumption that the human world can somehow persist even if ecosystems (seen as separate spheres) collapse. While this may be a comforting notion, it is also a dangerous one. And perhaps it is even more dangerous because it is so comfortable. It’s also tied to the notion that human technologies will ultimately fetch us out of any environmental crisis. But a crisis of environs is also a crisis of humanity — and eventually this truth will become clear as day. The human-environment binary is, in this way, a dangerous sedative.

Environmentalists care about much more than simply “the environs” around them — they are, after all, fighting for the continuance of life on earth, and, by implication, human life on Earth. An artinatural perspective calls for a more powerful means of framing and representing the complex relationship between self and the life-supporting ecosystems on which it depends. Planet Earth’s life cannot afford its survival to be thought of as a special interest or externality; rather, the continuation of life on earth must become society’s highest priority.

Ted Grudin
Ted Grudin lectures at Santa Clara University in the Department of Environmental Studies & Sciences. He holds a PhD from UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management.

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Thank you for your thoughtful and provocative response. Again, your response itself is a signal of just how profound these questions and distinctions are - and I’m glad this has sparked some meaningful debate.

For me, the concept of the “artinatural” is not meant to deconstruct the concept of nature (which, as you know, has been done already); rather, I focus more on breaking down the concept of “artificial.” The idea of the artificial has not been as thoroughly examined or questioned - and I think it is the source of a lot of destructive policy.

To imagine that a nuclear power plant, for example, exists in a realm outside of nature is to participate in the kind of thinking that minimizes perception of future spillage and intermixing. The power plant itself was always part of nature; perhaps for a short time the spillages beyond its walls are prevented, but this is merely a temporary truth. Even without a meltdown, its radioactive waste would find its way well beyond those walls.

The nuclear power plant serves as a symbol for the dangers of the myth of the artificial.

I would not imagine that this kind of theory could erase words from a dictionary, or prevent folks from making distinctions using old, outdated categories. But, if these sorts of integrative terminologies are able to help promote nuance in understanding concepts like “artificial,” perhaps those select thinkers will be more open to creative and transcendent forms of ecological progress. That is the hope: more creative and inclusive kinds of ecological thinking in order to forge & explore new possibilities for sustainable futures.

I don’t think it’s either intellectually accurate or helpful to insist on the simplistic nature-artifice binary without question. Of course there are dangers to stepping outside of these old dichotomies; and certainly missteps to be avoided. Even ideas of the best intentions can be misguided when in the wrong hands.

For a more detailed analysis of the ideas of artinature and the artinatural, I recommend my 2014 paper that you can find here (where I explore these questions & my intentions in much greater detail):

By Ted Grudin on Thu, February 23, 2017 at 3:02 pm

This form of postmodern deconstruction may be a useful thought exercise but it will most likely produce bad strategy and outcomes for the environmental movement.

Words have meaning and ideas matter. “Artinatural” attempts to erase all previous meaning. It is anti-political in a time when politics matter more than ever. To attempt to abandon the politics of nature at this moment in time is to be naive to how our society and our laws operate.

Postmodernism is a stage, not a station. Different, more foundational modes of consciousness existed before postmodern thought and more will follow, if we allow them.

We can actually discuss the distinctions between nature and artifice. The lines have not blurred simply because of the expansive human influence on the planet. A fish with 30% of its body weight made up of PCB’s and micro-plastics is still a fish and not an artificial design. More to the point, it is a fish that is being poisoned by humans.

If you cannot identify and talk about what it is you and/or your society values or should value, then how can one defend it? This type of reasoning that throws the baby (nature) out with the bath water (the social construction of nature) simply concedes the field to power and the powerful. It will not serve the environmental movement well.

Be forewarned. The Trump administration represents and utilizes an emerging phase of post-modernism - its dark side. If you want to firmly establish arguments that deny the existence of reality and truth, that erase the lines between nature and artificial and fail to firmly identify and defend what we self-proclaimed environmentalists supposedly care about, then don’t be surprised when the opposition, the enemies of ‘gasp’ the environment, turn that reasoning against you to advance their own agenda of dismantling environmental laws and laying claim to the last bits of wild natural areas left as well as what remains of our agricultural and semi-wild rural environments.
In its attempt to expunge the binary opposition of nature vs. culture and assert a non-binary conception of the material world, this type of philosophy denies the existence of an other or a natural world outside the human world and the built environment. The “all is one” assertion confuses the map for the territory and runs the risk of a slow drift towards solipsism. It flattens reality and diminishes its importance in our discussions if not outright denies its existence. This type of reasoning that denies meaning is regressive because it ends discussion, closes down exploration and invalidates debate. It’s strawberry fields forever.

There is an “out there” there. It’s not just all in our minds.

To say that there is no such thing as a grand theory is in itself a grand theory. In other words, asserting that there is no binary opposition reaffirms the existence of binary opposition. The reasoning pressed in this article, meant to reduce division, has already acted to create deep divisions within the environmental community, perhaps because not all are so eager to deny that words have meaning and existence is real.

For the record, those who have pointed out the distancing effect of the concept “environment” have included those who have thoroughly challenged the type of reasoning espoused in this article (i.e. Paul Kingsnorth).

The realm of human consciousness is perhaps the only realm we know of that is set apart from reality, otherwise known as the natural world. The difference between nature and artifice is one of the few, if not the only thing we humans with our human consciousnesses can actually talk about. Whether or not the artifice can be considered natural or whether human impact is good or bad, or natural, depends on the context in which it occurs, the intention of the human actor(s), and the outcomes.

What the author is criticizing here, along with countless others in the environmental movement including myself, is the hierarchy of cultural value that our society imposes on the living world that allows for its subjugation. This can and should be changed immediately if human societies are to survive, but this can be done without erasing the origins and meanings of words.
One can achieve a higher level of ethical consideration through respecting the autonomy of the other as well as by seeing the other in oneself.

By Dominic on Thu, February 23, 2017 at 12:52 pm

Your response shows just how fundamental and meaningful these kinds of distinctions are. They are also ripe for misunderstanding. In fact, I see concept of the artinatural as a tool for developing humility rather than some sort of proclamation of human divinity.

To recognize the nature in artifice is to see that not everything about an artifact comes from human agency alone - that, rather, human agency itself finds its roots in complex ecological histories. So rather than propping up human-constructed things, the theory seeks to bring them down to earth and to remind people that human societies and objects are always still subject to ecological/natural systems

The problem with keeping a strong distinction between nature and artifice is that it perpetuates the myth that humans are above nature (or at least separate from it). These myths of human exceptionality are part of larger ideologies & economies that lead to ecological crises which threaten both humanity and countless other lifeforms.

Another common misconception about the idea of the “artinatural” is that it naturalizes or normalizes what was previously referred to as “artificial” things - this is also not the intention. There are both good and bad artinatural things - and the idea of the “artificial” also did its share of normalization.

For more detailed analysis on the idea of artinature and the artinatural, I recommend my 2014 paper that you can find here:

By Ted Grudin on Wed, February 15, 2017 at 12:34 pm

I very much disagree with the premises and conclusions of this article, and I believe that the author has things backwards.

What is “natural” is that humans and other animals are creative, with human beings having a degree of creativity that so far surpasses the other animals that it leads us to believe we are not animals at all, but rather quasi-gods.  Creativity appears to be inherent in a number of animals, as well as use of tools, limited language, the ability to understand abstractions, problem solving, seeking of medical care, and all kinds of things that until the past 30 years most humans believed were entirely human characteristics and talents.

But “natural” life does something that humans cannot do except in the most personal sense; we cannot create life as nature does apart from bearing offspring as all animals do, and that life is itself capable of creating life.  We cannot create biosystems or ecospheres or new planets or any of the other countless aspects of the natural world.  We cannot put a broken eggshell back together.

What humans have is a creative drive, but unlike nature our creative drive relies upon reassembling materials we cannot create.  We don’t make anything out of nothing, as the universe appears to have done.  As a result, our creations cannot compare to the creations of the natural world.  We are not equal to it.  The natural world made us, we didn’t make it. 

Our hubris and delusional belief in our god-like abilities are the cause of our destruction of the environment.  Believing that human constructions of any kind are equal to natural, living life forms and their supporting complex ecospheres is old-fashioned, western-civilization, humanistic hubris. 

It is “natural” to be creative; even beavers create engineering marvels.  The things humans “create,” however, are not natural, unless those creations including living gardens or something that was natural before we got our hands on it. The things humans make are just reassembled materials, and if people were to think about it, almost everything we make is an attempt to turbo-charge natural phenomena in some way. 

We only got here a few hundred thousand years ago.  The earth and nature (the only planet we know of with Life) have been around much longer than we have by a few billion years, are much bigger than we are capable of truly understanding (as relatively intelligent as we are), and human creations are paltry, limited, and cannot ever sustain themselves as nature can its creations. Compared to the beauty, the billions of life forms, the intelligence, the variety, and the complexity of the life of the earth and its systems, human creations do not deserve to be considered equal to those of nature by any stretch. Without humans, it is very likely that nature and life on earth could have gone on for a long, long time.  Without nature, humans don’t exist.  That means something.

By S. Vann on Thu, February 09, 2017 at 1:21 pm

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