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.

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