Getting to the Roots of “Nature”

*For more on this topic, see our post “Human/Nature Dualism, Contradictions, and the Energetics of Society“.*

Ah yes, Nature. Eternal and pure, Nature (with a capital N) takes an almost Platonic form of elegance and perfection. Nature encompasses the birds and the bees, the mountains and the seas, the sun, the moon, the stars, and beyond into the cosmos. Nature encompasses everything… Well, almost everything. Everything but that which has been touched by human hands.

If you asked one hundred people to define the word “natural”, 90% might say something like “what is natural is not man-made, and what is man-made is not natural.”

Sure, intellectually we understand that humans evolved from other species, and that yes, technically we are part of the same system as the birds and the mountains, but in some important sense we are distinct; we have transcended the process of evolution by natural selection, reached the epitome of all creation, and become its masters.

Though we no longer see ourselves as part of Nature, there is a strong craving to interact with it. People flock to campgrounds and parks to “get back to nature” while they fill their online shopping carts with “all natural” products. Obviously these campgrounds have been modified by people and these products were manufactured, but somehow the presence of trees and the use of palm oil over petroleum makes them feel a little more pure; more “natural”. In reality, everything from the cars we drive to the offices we work in to the pesticides we spray on farms is just as natural as the forests and the reefs; that is to say, they exist.

We have created in ideology a rift between humans and the remainder of the community of life. While it may seem like a useful and harmless ideology, it is anything but.

The ideological division between humans and the rest of existence has created in its image practical divisions in our physical and social infrastructure and way of life. People wonder why our systems have become so out of tune with the global cycles of matter and energy; why we can’t seem to find a way to live our daily life without polluting the air and water, clear cutting the forests, and contributing to global climate change.

The reason modern human systems have become so destructive is because we have defined them as fundamentally outside of the rest of life, thus allowing us to externalize all our costs: extracting and concentrating endless resources from and dumping endless waste into the larger system of Earth. Since “Nature” is external, any costs borne by it are not cost borne by us. In reality, it is these external systems (like climate) that make human society possible. By externalizing and undermining them, we are only undermining ourselves.

Even though most people today recognize that human activity does have an affect on other systems like rainforests, coral reefs, and global climate, it is built into the structure of our society (especially our economics) and our psyche, so in our everyday lives we still operate as though we are fundamentally distinct.  We can never truly live “in harmony with Nature” so long as we view ourselves as separate from it.

In order to be able to live our lives in such a way that our actions regenerate the conditions necessary for our way of life, we need to fundamentally change how we view ourselves in relation to larger systems and in turn reshape our built systems to be more integrated and allow us as individuals to see ourselves in the context of the whole system.

Permaculture is about observing functional, regenerative systems, learning about how they are organized and how they work, and designing human-oriented systems that work in similar ways. It is fundamentally a systems design philosophy, looking not just at parts individually, but how they relate to the greater whole.

When we think about human-oriented systems, we cannot think about them as fundamentally distinct from the non-human-oriented systems (i.e. “Nature”) if we wish to continue our existence as a species. Human society cannot exists in isolation from the rest of the energy systems on this planet; only by reintegrating our selves into these systems, closing the loops, can we create a human society that is stable on the timescale of eons.

So the next time you or someone else refers to something as “natural” or talks of “nature”, take a minute to really think about what is meant by that word, and what repercussions it might have.

 

 

*Featured image from https://www.tes.com/lessons/n50NIAXatTLpig/nature

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