We Have Never Been Natural

As Environmentalism Fragments, Competing Stories About the Anthropocene Emerge


As human influence over grows, environmental thinkers are debating the meaning of the Anthropocene. Some call for retreat into survivalist communities grounded in decentralized action, while others urge an embrace of technology, modernization, and human control. But whether one chooses to save what wilderness remains or accept nature-culture hybridity, what values should guide us in the Anthropocene?

April 5, 2013 | Jim Proctor,

Environmentalism is no longer about saving nature alone: increasingly, it's about saving people given their dependencies on nature (witness the sustainability movement) and since environmental problems are often symptoms of deeper social problems (witness dumping in Dixie). Yet concepts of nature still suffuse the movement—perhaps no longer just wilderness, national parks, and Gaia, but also a spirit of wildness, community gardens, and an optimal 350-ppm-CO2 atmosphere. It is not surprising that manifold notions of nature are found throughout contemporary environmentalism, since that is what environment means to most people.

Just as our twenty-first century was completing its first decade, however, a remarkable confluence of intellectual fervor has emerged around the notion of the Anthropocene, now spilling into popular discourse in a manner that again foregrounds notions of nature at the heart of environmentalism. In brief, the Anthropocene is a new epoch of the earth, one in which humans dominate its landforms, biota, and atmosphere, one in which nature is no longer as natural as it once was (or seemed).

Though scholarly and popular treatments have generally been neutral, even hopeful, profound questions follow from this reality of the Anthropocene in the context of environmental scholarship and activism. Which among environmentalism's many natures are vindicated or vilified? Does the reality of the Anthropocene close the door forever on the good old days of a pure nature consummately revealed in wilderness or defiled by pollution? Or does it irrefutably demonstrate the limitations of more recent hybrid notions in which humans, now dubbed The God Species, have effectively become the architects of nature—and upon whom Gaia may now be taking revenge? How, indeed, shall we envision nature in these end times?

Love Your Anthropocene

Of all the books reviewed here, only one uses the term in its title: Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene. The editors, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of Death of environmentalismfame, worry little about challenging the current state of environmental thought: [W]e need a new view of both human agency and the planet. We must abandon the faith that humankind's powers can be abdicated in deference to higher ones, whether Nature or the Market. And we must see through the illusion that these supposedly higher powers exist in a delicate state of harmony constantly at risk of collapse from too much human interference.”

Love Your Monsters was coined from the work of Bruno Latour, one of the contributors. Latour clarifies this odd little phrase by invoking a famous book (and perhaps even more famous movie): Dr. Frankenstein's crime was not that he invented a creature through some combination of hubris and high technology, but rather that he abandoned the creature to itself.”

For Shellenberger and Nordhaus, it is a mandate to move forward (to save what remains of the Earth's ecological heritage, we must once and for all embrace human power, technology, and the larger process of modernization), but for Bruno Latour, it is more a duty to love our creation, “…a process of becoming ever more attached to, and intimate with, a panoply of nonhuman natures.” All told, there are seven contributed essays in Love Your Monsters, each engaging with the Anthropocene in particular ways.

The e-book endleaf proclaims this as the common thread: a vision of postenvironmentalism for the Anthropocene where all 10 billion humans achieve a standard of living that will allow them to pursue their dreams if we embrace human development, modernization, and technological innovation.” And indeed, there are points of resonance in all essays: for instance, Sarewitz supports a public goods-public works approachto technological innovation, Kareiva and coauthors support conservation via embracing development and advancing human well-being,and Shome is thankful that modernization and urbanizationare finally breaking down the caste system in India.

But what is the necessary link between acknowledgment of the Anthropocene and a progressive/innovative outlook? Only if, by looking backward, we erroneously see a once-pure nature in perfect equilibriuman Edenic narrativeand the analogous social generalization of peoples in harmony with this nature.

If the past becomes more variegatedif nature never was entirely natural, nor unnaturalthen the future does too, and no simple nod toward tradition nor progress will do. Clearly, there are more questions to be asked: what sort of modernization, by whom and for whom? Perhaps LYM rightly shakes up the gospel of Nature, but the gospel of Progress is not an untainted substitute, as any student of the twentieth century may observe. 

Gardening the Anthropocene

Another recent title (endorsed on the back by Peter Kareiva, as well as the green provocateur par excellence, Stewart Brand) is Emma Marris' Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. The overleaf boldly proclaims, “A paradigm shift is roiling the environmental world,” and in a series of readable vignette chapters, Marris works to contrast nature conservation old and new. Her founding premise is Anthropocene to the core: “Nature is almost everywhere. But wherever it is, there is one thing that nature is not: wilderness… We are already running the whole Earth, whether we admit it or not.”

Marris covers some of the same turf noted in LYM (e.g., early debates around Frederick Clements' notion of climax [read: equilibrium] vegetative communities, or the need for assisted migration in a world where rates of climate change suggest species cannot relocate on their own), yet her focus is solely on the future of conservation, not modernization or science as in LYM. And given that conservation is largely founded on population biology and ecology, Marris writes easily and compellingly on the struggles these fields face in managing biodiversity in the Anthropocene

Then there is Marris' final chapter: “A menu of new goals.” Here, reader, is her list of priorities for conservation: (1) “Protect the rights of other species,” (2) “Protect charismatic megafauna,” (3) “Slow the rate of extinctions”—and four more, all of which may not exactly sound new. After paying homage to paradigm shift in the overleaf, we are left with an all-too-familiar list of priorities for the conservation community. Marris ends the book, “Let the rambunctious gardening begin,” but one gets the sense that it has long begun. No matter how radical the book's self-pronouncement, it may hearken too close to the pulse of conservation to explore any territory in which nature—any overarching generalization for the non-human, whether wilderness or garden—is left behind. As her subtitle says, Marris has indeed saved nature, a concept that appears almost infinitely malleable in the hands of those who cling to it.

McKibben’s ‘Ecological Anxiety Disorder’

What LYM, Rambunctious Garden, and Living Through the End of Nature have in common is a spirit of rugged optimism: nature's gotten quite a shakeup at the hands of culture, to the point that nature is in many respects a cultural artifact, but let's get over moaning the loss and get on with the joyful task of managing the earth … In the complicated psychology of today, full of yearning for the good old days of Eden mixed with the messy hyperrealities in which we live, few take such an unabashedly cheery outlook as those discussed above. And perhaps, none is better known as a prophet of doom and repentance than Bill McKibben ...

In the latter 1980s, McKibben released End of Nature (1989), which argued that anthropogenic forces—certainly fossil fuel burning—have not only left an imprint throughout the world, but that the very idea of nature as a “separate and wild province” is sadly being lost, given the advent of the Anthropocene (a term he did not use back then). Yet McKibben's most recent volume, also on the theme of the Anthropocene but with a far different spin than either those reviewed above or his own prior activism, suggests the position of a leader who has admitted defeat.

If End of Nature was, as its overleaf claimed, “More than simply a handbook for survival or a doomsday catalog of scientific prediction... an impassioned plea for radical and life-renewing change,” Eaarth becomes a survivalist manifesto. “Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.... our hope depends on building the societies and economies that can hunker down, concentrate on essentials, and create the type of community that will allow us to weather trouble on a planet... violently out of balance.” If we ever were unsure as to whether our times are indeed the dawning of the end McKibben is here to remove any trace of doubt…

McKibben's argument in Eaarth is not entirely new in his published work. He writes that End of Nature was “mainly a philosophical argument, that what was once “sadness has [now] turned into a sharper-edged fear.” But his 1999 revised introduction to End of Nature is tinged with Eaarth-ish hues: “This home of ours... becomes each day... a more violent place, its rhythms of season and storm shifted and shattered.... it has become unbalanced in our short moment on it.”

Perhaps McKibben’s corpus has long been one of Anthropocene shock, what geographer Paul Robbins has termed “Ecological anxiety disorder” in his work on the politics of the Anthropocene. And, in the long Judeo-Christian tradition of prophetic calls to repentance, McKibben’s exhortation remains in place, albeit more circumscribed." 

Beyond the Nature-Culture Divide

The Anthropocene is inevitably a discussion about facts and values, but many facts, many values. And this may help guide us through the literature on the Anthropocene: by counting beyond two.

What do I mean by counting beyond two?

Let us briefly go back to the midnineteenth century, when George Perkins Marsh released his masterful Man and Nature; or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. Marsh's final sentence offers a clue to how the moral debate over the human transformation of the earth has largely proceeded since then: “Every new fact… is another step toward the determination of the great question, whether man is of nature or above her.” This passage includes both counting to one (“whether man is of nature”) and counting to two (“… or above her”). More generally, the monist norm of counting to one is either a cultured nature or a natured culture, whereas the dualist norm of counting to two is nature over (sometimes free from) culture or vice versa. These are the only options when nature and culture are treated as über-categories, to be merged (counting to one) or kept distinct (counting to two).

Most of those concerned with the Anthropocene, such as McKibben, count to two. It appears typical, when confronted with the complexities that are the Anthropocene, to sharpen the conceptual boundary separating these domains so as to render this complexity understandable: McKibben's feared new worldis the world no longer and has passed from the realm of nature to culture.

In response to these arguably futile efforts to reinforce the boundary between nature and culture, supporters of the Anthropocene generally stop counting at one: nature and culture are now irreversibly mixed, and all we see around us is (a highly humanized) natureculture. Rather than negotiate the boundary as McKibben does, this vocal minority in the contemporary environmental movement has largely removed it and recommends that we embrace our active hand in this hybrid reality. Yet sometimes, there is a failure to distinguish, say, better naturecultures from lesser naturecultures. And, whether it is (rambunctious) gardening or Modernization, an overriding moral principle often continues to guide the pro-Anthropocene wing through these challenging times.

Counting to two and counting to one retain some notion of nature as a sort of moral compass in the Anthropocene, whether in pure form (e.g., the wild) or hybrid form (e.g., the garden). In all such cases, some version of nature is essentialized as a consistent moral rule. This has not gone unnoticed in scholarly reflections on the Anthropocene: indeed, Latour discards nature as some “unified cosmos that could shortcut political due process by defining once and for all which world we have to live in.” Perhaps this is why there is so much counting to one and counting to two: in an era where many have abandoned other once-solid moral shortcuts such as science, religion, and the state, nature seems to be the only solid moral ground we can find.

Yet counting beyond two remains a possibility if one accepts the reality of the Anthropocene. Counting beyond two is based on a refusal to accept that there were ever two boxes into which reality could be parsed or that reality now falls under one grand entropic category. Certainly, the magnitude and scale of human transformation of the earth have increased in recent times; but if the Anthropocene represents the hybrid realities we live in, we have always lived in the Anthropocene. Counters beyond two would appreciate that the human transformation of land-and-atmosphere-and-oceanscapes has grown over time, but these scapes were many and varied, not simply natural (or cultural) ones. So, there were never two. And, when transformed, they become many more, not just one massive mix of natural and culture, amenable to some monistic prescription.

Counting beyond two suggests that the environment we study contains all sorts of fascinating, troubling, interwoven networks of things. Each is certainly not nature, nor simply a generalized mix of nature and culture, but its own story waiting to be patiently understood—and perhaps only then assembled into some more orderly whole via what Latour cryptically calls a cosmopolitics. Perhaps, counting beyond two will help us learn the science and politics of how to tell a manifold host of better stories in what may prove to be the enduring age of the Anthropocene.

Jim Proctor is a professor in the environmental studies program at Lewis and Clark University and has been a senior fellow at the Breakthrough Institute since 2008. Excerpted with permission from “Saving nature in the Anthropocene,” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, January 2013.


Image Credit: Albert Bierstadt, "Storm in the Rocky Mountains" (left); John Ferguson Weir, "The Gun Foundry" (right)

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