On Naturalness

Nature as Metaphor, Not Fact


Summer 2018 | Alan Levinovitz,

n the windowsill of my office, I keep a small golden cube of pyrite crystal from Navajún, Spain. It has perfect edges and mirror-flat faces, and the first time I saw one I asked the same question everyone does when they see mine: “Is it really natural?” And indeed, these pyrite cubes are formed naturally, an answer so unbelievable that many collectors, myself included, choose to leave specimens partially embedded in a matrix of marlstone, a dusty certificate of natural birth that dates back to the Cretaceous.

There is no such certificate for the so-called “aqua aura” quartz. Its striking electric-blue color is the result of heating natural quartz to around 1600°F in a vacuum, then spraying it with a thin mist of vaporized gold. Different treatments result in different “aura” colors — titanium, for example, covers the quartz in a beautiful iridescent oil slick, like crystallized gunmetal. Aura quartzes tend to prompt the same question as Spanish pyrite, and when rock shop owners give an honest answer, customers invariably feel a diminished sense of wonder. It matters, in other words, whether something is natural, or at least it feels like it does.

It’s easy to feel as though natural origins matter, but articulating how and why is substantially more difficult. Price or scarcity doesn’t solve the riddle: an artificially cut diamond is worth far more than my common fool’s gold. Nor is it a question of aesthetics, since the appearance of aura quartz remains identical after finding out how it’s made. Nor, yet, can we look to ethics, since there’s nothing obviously wrong with using technology to change the appearance of a rock.

Over the past few decades, a slew of influential writers — Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, Timothy Morton, to name but a few — have taken this difficulty further, claiming that the distinction between natural and artificial is, well, artificial: socially constructed, culturally contingent, impossibly vague, a Western fiction that swaps God for Nature. “Nature” and “natural” end up confined to scare quotes, where they belong — the inverse of my pyrite’s marl matrix, a symbolic certificate of artificial birth.

So is it time we all abandoned the rickety metaphysics of an outdated concept and plunged into a brave new world, one in which “natural” no longer holds meaning? I have to admit that whenever I try, I fail. Like Hume, my skepticism vanishes like smoke as soon as I leave my office. At the sight of a bird perched on a power line and a vine twined around the pole beneath, the reality of the distinction between natural and artificial is forced on me with the vividness of my own free will. For God’s sake, my mind shouts, the bird and the vine are more natural than the power line! A skeptic might point out that the bird is a nonnative English sparrow and the vine a Japanese honeysuckle, but my own intuition about their relative naturalness remains unchallenged, even if I don’t quite know how to defend it. Not only that, but a moment’s honest reflection confirms that my abiding interest in the meaning of “natural” comes from a foundational belief in the value of the natural world, which, like that of my own free will, is irreducible to anything else.

Put more simply: I can’t live in the brave new world because I don’t believe such a world exists. And it’s not just me. I’ve never met a member of the conservation movement who didn’t believe in some version of that rickety old nature, even if they keep it hidden, their philosophically indefensible dirty secret. But devotion to nature is nothing to be embarrassed about. Without some version of nature, there’s no good way to express what it is we’re trying to conserve. And without owning up to caring about nature, in itself, there’s no way to articulate the true extent of its value. When nature becomes “nature,” there is no such thing as the non-utilitarian value of nature — there is no solid foundation for the deep emotional (or, better yet, existential) connection to nature that inspires genuine commitment to environmentalism on a global scale. If wilderness is a construct, why protect it? After all, “it” doesn’t really exist. If nature is valuable only in utilitarian terms, what is there to save besides ourselves?

The reality and importance of an existential connection to nature seems to be one of the only things most environmentalists agree on. We should nurture that motivation, not question the existence of its object. Doing so can help to heal deep divisions in the conservation movement, establishing a united front that will attract potential allies instead of confusing them. Rather than reject the idea that nature exists and has irreducible value (the easier philosophical move by far), we should get down to the more difficult business of defending it, articulating in theory what we know to be necessary in practice.


Armchair philosophers have no difficulty deconstructing “nature” and “natural.” Isn’t everything made of stardust, from silica to silicone? Aren’t humans animals, our jackhammers no less natural than chimps’ digging sticks? It takes very little thought to arrive at the first definition of nature offered in John Stuart Mill’s essay on the topic, namely, “a collective name for all facts, actual and possible.”1 With only a little more thought you’ll arrive at the conclusion that “everything which is artificial is natural.” Nothing should change when you find out about the pyrite cube’s “natural” origin because speaking of natural origins is nonsensical: all origins are natural.

Mill’s second definition of nature, though, does allow for a distinction between natural and unnatural. “In another sense,” he writes, the word nature means “not everything which happens, but only what takes place without the agency, or without the voluntary and intentional agency, of man.”2 However, it’s clear to Mill that even if nature exists as a distinct entity, it certainly isn’t good. “Nature impales men, breaks them as if on the wheel, casts them to be devoured by wild beasts,” all without any indication of moral qualms. “The scheme of Nature,” Mill concludes, “cannot have had, for its sole or even principal object, the good of human or other sentient beings. What good it brings to them, is mostly the result of their own exertions.”3 In other words, although it might make sense to talk about natural origins, assigning them intrinsic value makes no sense at all.

This kind of argument is easy to make — and indeed has been made by a generation of post-naturalist thinkers — but hard to rebut. E. O. Wilson, for instance, can do little more than throw up his hands. “Some postmodernist philosophers,” he complains in The Creation, “argue that there is no such objective entity as Nature. It is, they say, a false dichotomy that has arisen in some cultures and not in other cultures. I am willing to entertain such a belief, for a few minutes anyway, but I have crossed too many sharp boundaries between natural and humanized ecosystems to doubt the objectivity of Nature.”4 With that, he takes the matter to be settled.

Gary Snyder takes a similar approach in his short 1998 essay “Is Nature Real?”, which bristles at “attacks on nature and wilderness from the ivory towers” that define nature as a mere “social construction.” Like Wilson, Snyder mostly avoids addressing the substance of the attacks, opting instead for appeals to direct experience. “Human societies create a variety of dreams, notions, and images about the nature of nature,” he admits. “But it is not impossible to get a pretty accurate picture of nature with a little first-hand application — no big deal, I’d take these doubting professors out for a walk, show them a bit of the passing ecosystem show, and maybe get them to help clean up a creek.”5

In sidestepping the question, neither Wilson nor Snyder do much to confront the trouble posed by postmodern deconstructions of nature, which draw their power from a broader trend in modern Western thinking. This perspective insists on denying the existence of the West’s central concepts in other traditions of thought, as though finding your insights reflected elsewhere were always a form of intellectual colonialism or cultural narcissism. Logic, as the poet and literary critic Frederick Turner puts it, has been accused of being “a Western invention, a colonialist tool, a male phallocentric instrument of domination, an excuse for market exploitation, a reductionist method of alienation.”6 So, too, for the nature–culture divide, the distinction between what’s natural and what’s artificial. The West invented this binary, goes a commonplace story; by separating humans from the natural world and allowing us to see it as exploitable, it is in turn responsible for the environmental degradation we see today.

Ironically, but understandably, this story has been eagerly accepted by prominent representatives of non-Western traditions. The historian Richard Reitan has documented how this narrative has come to form the backbone of ecological thought in contemporary Japan, for instance, in which Western dualism is routinely cast as a villainous foil for the holistic “Japanese view,” a foil that also features prominently in Western postmodernism and deep ecology.7 Scholars like the philosopher Takeshi Umehara argue that “the direct cause of present-day environmental destruction is modern scientific-technological civilization” powered by “dualistic thought separating humanity from nature.” In East Asian religion, in contrast, “the concept of man subduing nature hardly exists.”

But this perspective dramatically misrepresents the history of ecological thought and practice, exoticizing the East and simplifying the West at the cost of accurately representing either. Although Eastern thought did not explicitly and consistently distinguish between nature and culture as Aristotle did between physis and techne, it takes extraordinary effort to avoid seeing something like that distinction running through Eastern art, myth, and categorization. The central aesthetic in many Chinese landscape paintings depends on the contrast between nature and man, the beauty of tension shown by a tiny manufactured structure nestled in a natural scene. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “by the late Tang dynasty, landscape painting had evolved into an independent genre that embodied the universal longing of cultivated men to escape their quotidian world to commune with nature.”8 The origins of that longing can be traced all the way back to the “primitivist” philosophy of proto-Daoism (c. 300 BC), aptly summarized by Robert Campany as “privileging the exotic cosmic periphery and the wild, undomesticated zones of mountain forests” and prioritizing “pure, simple, formless origins over polluted, complex, too-formed latter days.”9 And although there has been much hand-wringing about the meaning of ziran (typically translated as “natural”) in proto-Daoist philosophy, there is little doubt that it means “self-willed” — much like the definition of wilderness. This contrasts with that which is formed or willed by humans, and leads to degradation. Animals are incapable of acting “against” what is ziran; only humans have that ability.

Likewise, in Japan, traditional myths often invoke a division between nature and culture, even when it is not explicitly stated or theorized. The scholar of Japanese religion Allan Grapard recounts how, in Japanese mythology, a female deity, Izanami, gives birth to natural elements — islands, rivers, trees — without difficulty.10 But while delivering fire she is badly burned, and in her death throes gives “birth in her urine, her faeces, and her vomit, to divinities representing agriculture and sericulture.” Grapard is explicit about the significance of this sequential generation: “The world of nature is seen by ancient Japanese as preceding the ‘birth-and-death’ of fire, whereas it could be said that whatever happens after the ‘death’ of fire represents the world of culture.” In this way, “Japanese mythology makes extremely clear distinctions between the world of nature and that of culture.” And despite the supposed modern Japanese repudiation of Western binaries between nature and culture, Japanese ecologists routinely use the words mori and hayashi to distinguish between “natural” and “man-made” forests.11

The same kind of distinction appears in a poem by Longchen Rabjam, an influential 14th-century Tibetan Buddhist philosopher:

In a forest, naturally there are few distractions and entertainments
One is far from all the suffering of danger and violence…
Blossoming flowers and leaves emit sweet odors.
Fragrant scents fill the air….
In forests, emotions decline naturally.
There no one speaks unharmonious words.
As it is far from the distractions of entertainment in towns.
In forests the peace of absorption grows naturally….

I cite this particular poem because it appears in a recent survey of spiritual and religious conceptions of nature in which the authors are caught between remarking on the patently obvious division in the poem between nature (forest) and culture (town), and also maintaining that no such distinction exists.12 Despite having no concept of “nature,” they write, Longchenpa “refers always to some specific natural element such as flowers, scents, forests,” which “fit deceptively easily into a modern Western construct of ‘natural world,’ a concept which has no real equivalent in Sanskrit or Tibetan.” Yet one must ask: If a set of elements fits “deceptively easily” into a particular construct, then isn’t it likely that the construct is present but unarticulated rather than nonexistent?

The absence of words for “logic” and “rationality” in a language does not mean the people who speak it are fundamentally irrational and do not use logic. The same is true for the distinction between nature and culture, which, when one is freed from a tyrannical search for exact semantic parallels, is arguably persistent across cultures.13


As with “freedom” or “art,” the concept of nature is expansive and its boundaries amorphous. The questions of what counts as natural, and what kind of nature is best — what to preserve, at what cost — will always be fraught, just as questions about what counts as art, and what art is best, are also fraught. The notion that nature and culture are neatly divisible and necessarily opposed is false and counterproductive. But insisting that nature is a culturally specific invention, though borne of admirable humility, is not only empirically inaccurate but also reckless, especially when elements of the natural world face imminent danger.

Imagine if, in response to cuts in arts programs, advocates of the arts asserted that “everything is art” or that “art/not-art” is a Western binary that needs to be discarded. Or if organizations dedicated to eliminating human trafficking suggested that, in a certain sense, we are all free (in our minds) and all slaves (of our circumstances). Of course, those who value art and freedom do neither. Instead, they assert that their causes are vitally important, that art and freedom are useful categories, descriptions of something real, and that, in addition to economic utility, they have irreducible value for human beings, even if there is serious debate about the details.

In the effort to preserve nature as a category, it is essential to understand that “natural” describes a continuum along which objects, organisms, and ecosystems can be classified as more or less natural, rather than a cleanly defined category that includes some items and excludes others. The objectivity of nature does not depend, as E. O. Wilson suggests, on the existence of “sharp boundaries between natural and humanized ecosystems.” The natural world reaches from the ocean into our water systems, from the forests into the wood of my desk. But just because we can’t draw a clean line between natural and unnatural doesn’t mean the concept of nature is bankrupt. Think of the differences between members of taxonomic ranks in biology, or of the amorphous borders between the ranks themselves. There will always be cases (such as photosynthesizing sea slugs) that invite debate, and the precise placement of individual examples on a continuum will never be easy. Is the Venus flytrap “less plantlike” than other plants? Perhaps. Yet despite these problems, the utility of the categories — the reality of what they describe and distinguish — remains. Are some forests more natural than others? Undoubtedly. But we all know that forests are not cities, and cities are less natural than forests. The basis for their order depends on humans; the basis for a forest’s order does not. Even a forest created by Native American silviculture is more natural than New York City.

Another way to think about the natural is the way the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein thought about games. No single essential feature characterizes all games. Instead, games share sets of overlapping features — “family resemblances” — such that some activities may be more or less gamelike.14 Despite the difficulties with defining a “game,” we can generally agree on a distinction between games and nongames based on these overlapping features. The same is true for nature, which encompasses a set of overlapping features, not all of which are present in any given example of nature, but nevertheless allow us to distinguish between what is more or less natural — more or less central to the category that most of us feel we can understand and are drawn to, even if it is difficult to define precisely.

This point is key because it means there really is a unifying cause, a concept, a category — nature — that can serve to galvanize all conservationists. The profound threat to the natural world on a global scale demands that unifying category. Political action, including votes, must take into account more than local manifestations of the natural world. It requires making a connection between “my version of nature” and nature writ large, and understanding the value of the former in terms of the latter.

Against such a version of nature writ large, Mark Sagoff has argued that “the natural world is not all one thing,” that “wild species and places, insofar as they are perceived in ethical or aesthetic terms, are always particular or local,” and therefore there is no “singular and abstracted Nature.”15 But the examples he gives of these necessarily “local” versions of nature — Mandai Mudflats, Emiquon and Spunky Bottoms, butterflies, cranes, tortoises — are united by family resemblances. Among them there isn’t a single work of art, historic building, vintage computer, or ancient language for the simple reason that, despite denying the existence of “abstracted Nature,” Sagoff has used a version of it to compile his list of examples. Abstracted nature, with a lowercase “n,” is built into his unspoken selection criteria.

To value a local form of nature qua nature — which is different from valuing it as a food source — is to assert the irreducible value of nature in the abstract. Those who fight to protect butterflies and mudflats are engaged in the same type of activity as those protecting cranes and forests. To be sure, they are not protecting the same instantiation of the natural world, and at times conflicts over which aspect of nature to protect will pit environmentalists against one another. Should we install giant arrays of solar panels in the Mojave Desert to help reduce reliance on fossil fuels and thus protect the natural environment, or do those panels pose an unacceptable risk to the delicate desert ecosystem and its creatures? Such conflicts are inevitable, but no doubt all the participants would agree on at least one key point: nature is worth protecting. And when nature is threatened on a global scale, they will understand the urgency of that threat and the value of what could be lost in a way that others may not.


Of course, no definition of nature will satisfy everyone, and definitions that can fit on bumper stickers are uniquely tricky. Nevertheless, a movement that seeks to mobilize the general public would be wise not to let the perfect be the enemy of good, and to embrace those forms of rhetoric that have proven successful while mitigating their flaws to the greatest extent possible.

One of the major flaws in otherwise effective conservationist rhetoric is the use of the word “sacred.” Describing nature as sacred (an extremely common practice in nature writing) foregrounds an inescapably religious understanding of nature.16 The term sacred derives from the Greek iερός and the Latin sacer, both of which refer to the designation (“consecration”) of an object, person, or physical location as belonging to the gods. In Émile Durkheim’s famous formulation, the term refers to what society considers “set apart and forbidden” as opposed to the profane, basic elements of everyday life.

One negative consequence of understanding nature in this way is that it may lead people to deify nature, which reinforces a mistaken perception of nature as inherently perfect and benevolent. Any departure from it — cities, say, or medical treatment — becomes ungodly, sacrilegious. This mindset can lead to unproductive positions ranging from vaccine refusal to reflexive bias against potential technological solutions to ecological crises.17 Who would want to violate nature’s sacred order with unnatural cultured meat? When nature is sacred, scientific inquiry itself can come to seem sacrilegious.

Another consequence of deifying nature is that bringing religion into the mix can alienate people of faith who might otherwise serve as potential allies. The dominant Abrahamic conception of the natural world does not align well with the idea of a perfect, sacred Creation. As the philosopher John Passmore argues in Man’s Responsibility for Nature,18 the vast majority of thinkers in the Judeo-Christian tradition (Passmore does not address Islam) have believed that “Nature was one thing, God quite another.” There is no better illustration of this view than the pastor and founder of Capitol Ministries, Ralph Drollinger, whose weekly Bible studies are held in the West Wing of the White House and who enjoys influence over our current president and his appointees. Just this April, Drollinger devoted an entire Bible study publication to combating the “religion of environmentalism,” identifying “dueling worldviews”: one dedicated to “worship of the Creator” and the other to “worship of His creation.”19

Referring to nature as sacred can alienate not only those with religious faith but also those who see themselves as secular or “rationalist.” Passmore, for his part, has little patience for understanding nature as sacred. “To regard nature as sacred is to think of it in the manner the Jews and the Greeks deliberately rejected, as having a ‘mysterious life’ which it is improper, sacrilegious, to try to understand or control, a life we should submit to and worship,” he writes. “Science, in contrast, converts mysteries into problems, to which it can hope to find solutions.” Attempts to reconfigure science as sacred — to describe modernization as the road to salvation, or the “epic” of evolution as a new creation myth — do not alleviate the tension, and invite strong resistance from people who do not wish to understand their own sacred values in those terms.20

Substituting “primal” for “sacred,” on the other hand, captures the existential significance of nature while remaining friendly to a wide variety of belief systems. By primal I mean simply that nature is a force far larger and older than humanity, one which gave rise to us among infinite other extraordinary objects and organisms. It is the primal nature of nature, so to speak, that conservationists of all stripes are humbled by and drawn to.

The primal nature of nature also helps to locate what is irreducibly valuable about nature. We cannot replace it, as E. O. Wilson argues in The Creation, with another set of creatures and landscapes of our own devising, at least not without loss. The word primal evokes ancient systems not our own, the structures that run through what Wilson calls the “evolutionary epic” that continues to the present day.21 Primal refers to the bare truth of our world’s mysterious and awesome genealogy, which we can trace backward to the life-forms from which modern existence is descended, back, finally, to whatever creative force allowed for something instead of nothing, order instead of chaos, life instead of inanimate matter, the improbable architecture of existence as we know it.

Pairing primal with “order,” further, emphasizes the fact that nature is not only ancient but also has its own patterns, ziran, that result in myriad forms of life and the systems that sustain them. This fact is simply stated but awesome nevertheless. There are endless debates about the nature of nature’s order (Is there such a thing as an ideal ecosystem?), but no one denies that nature produces self-organizing systems, whether the biological systems that make up individual organisms or the larger ecosystems that allow them to live and die. Those systems, that primal order, is what we mean by nature — as William Cronon defines it, “a world we did not create, a world with its own independent, nonhuman reasons for being as it is.”22 Those who seek to protect, conserve, and celebrate nature distinguish roughly between those aspects of the world that are more aligned with — descended from, related to, caused by, supportive of — the primal order (nature) and those that are more aligned with the human order (culture). It is the irreducible, non-utilitarian value of participating in the primal order that invites the awe, reverence, and love motivating conservationists and environmentalists, whether secular or religious.


We live by metaphors, as Lakoff and Johnson argued,23 in the sense that disagreements over metaphors are often disagreements about how to live. The metaphor of war as applied to cancer — the cancerous cells are “invading” the body, one has to “mount a defense” — provides a classic example. As Susan Sontag has shown, this master metaphor invites us to think of cancer patients as heroic fighters, which can feel empowering to some people but invites fierce resistance from others who see it as a form of victim-blaming.24 (Some have even argued that the fighting metaphor is empirically harmful.) A different metaphor can lead to a different attitude toward illness, in turn shaping one’s real-world response. Lakoff and Johnson use the example of argument as war (“he attacked my position”) to similar effect. Were we to conceive of argument as construction rather than war (“he built on my foundation”), it’s likely that arguments would proceed differently and feel different to their participants.

When a metaphor is central to someone’s identity, opposing it can put you at odds with everything they stand for, even if their actual goals are identical with your own. Take the following passage on a 2014 book of essays, Keeping the Wild, dedicated in large part to rebutting the “postmodernism” of ecomodernists:

They are not arguing for pristine wilderness, though we can certainly use some of that, but rather for “wild lands,” where, if human management is present, it mimics natural processes as much as is feasible. It is to a large extent self-willed. They also argue for restoration of lands degraded by human exploitation in order to reclaim something of nature’s native biodiversity and resiliency.25

Who is “they”? If you’ve read An Ecomodernist Manifesto or the writings of others singled out in the book like Stewart Brand and Emma Marris, you’d be forgiven for believing that “they” refers to ecomodernists, with their talk of biodiversity, rewilding, and the mantra “nature unused is nature spared.” Yet bizarrely, that passage is meant to describe the arguments of the essayists in the book, arguments that supposedly run counter to ecomodernism! How is it possible that the essayists could see themselves as opponents of those who share their goals? The answer lies in a disagreement over metaphors — the same disagreement that troubled Wilson and Snyder more than two decades ago. Their problem with ecomodernists is not what they want for the world, but rather how they describe that world — their metaphors for what’s worth saving, what they take the world to be.

In addition to having reservations about deconstructing the idea of nature, the contributing authors object to the metaphors employed by ecomodernists to describe the protagonists of nature conservation. To them, conceiving of the human relationship to nature as that of “gardeners” or “gods” represents a kind of hubris that is viscerally unacceptable. “They feel that the neo-greens should have more humility,” writes conservationist Larry Hamilton in his favorable review of the book, “for we have been and continue to be fallible gardeners.”

Together, metaphors about nature and our relationship to it form an archetypal narrative. The power and importance of shared narratives are borne out by evolutionary psychology and empirical research: although good arguments are important, studies have repeatedly demonstrated that they should be coupled with persuasive narratives for maximal efficacy. This makes sense given what we know about humans as creatures who make meaning of themselves and their world through narrative. In On the Origin of Stories and The Storytelling Animal, Brian Boyd and Jonathan Gottschall each make the compelling case that human beings are biologically destined, in Gottschall’s words, to “force narrative structure on the chaos of our lives.” We are collectively fascinated by origin stories because they seem to disclose essential and prophetic truths. Our “kin” are those who share the same origin story. We fight against those who do not share our existential narratives; we dialogue with those who share the same narrative but differ in its interpretation.26

Those who value nature should be concerned when disagreements about metaphor get in the way of dialogue about policy. If for no other reason than naked pragmatism, we should strive to make our foundational metaphors as broadly appealing as possible. When conservationists insist on deconstructing nature or reducing nature to purely “scientific” terms and values, they are being unscientific about how humans motivate themselves and each other. (I also suspect they are being disingenuous about their own motivations, which are surely not reducible to some kind of utilitarian calculus, and are likely informed by a belief in the irreducible value of nature, however defined.)

To this end, it makes sense for ecomodernists not only to define nature instead of deconstructing it, but also to signal loudly and clearly that their desired relationship to nature is one of reverence and care, not dominance and manipulation. Too often, ecomodernism’s interlocutors find the opposite: that despite ample evidence to the contrary (nature unused is nature spared!), ecomodernists are “dedicated to the idea that humans ought to embrace, not minimize, their enormous influence on the planet,” as Michelle Nijhuis wrote of the Ecomodernist Manifesto in the New Yorker.27

This conclusion should not surprise ecomodernists, at least not if they are attentive to the power of metaphors. The instinct of most conservationists is to shy away from modern technological approaches, since nature’s metaphor has long opposed technology’s. This metaphorical opposition creates biases against fruitful approaches to conservation that must be dealt with pragmatically — that is to say, that must be dealt with in the realm of metaphor and narrative. Statistics and rigorous arguments go a long way, but experience shows that framed by the wrong metaphors, they lose much of their efficacy.

For this reason, I suggest “caretaker” as the overarching metaphor for protagonists in the story of nature conservation. Most important, caretaker makes explicit the fact that conservationists do not “own” nature. If we have the power of gods, we wield that power not as creator gods but as caretaker gods. If we are gardeners, then the gardens we seek to make and allow to flourish are untraditional — designed not with our own ends in mind (food for our plates or flowers for our homes) but rather as places where people may more easily encounter the primal order, or places where we set aside space for the primal order to thrive on its own.

Within this overarching narrative metaphor there is room for all caretakers of the primal order and their personal sets of values: L. H. Bailey’s holy earth, Rachel Carson’s sense of wonder, Aldo Leopold’s religious vision of environmentalism and E. O. Wilson’s secular one, Gary Snyder and the “doubting professors” who frustrate him. The metaphor is capacious enough to accommodate a vast number of people who ought to see themselves as allies and inspiring enough to attract still more — an increase that is sorely needed.

All of us, conservationists or not, have rituals and symbols meant to bring us closer to the primal order and reaffirm its irreducible value. In fact, in the course of my research, I have yet to meet a single person who did not seek an existential connection with nature in some form or another.

For that reason, I see everyone as a potential caretaker of the primal order — we all seem to have an intuitive understanding of the irreducible value of nature, even if some of us haven’t taken the time to reflect on its role in our lives. The right metaphors are key to catalyzing that reflection. Although we will not always agree on the right way to care for our cause, we can nevertheless strive to understand ourselves as partners and friends, united by the same existential connection to an abstract nature we know to be real and valuable.

There is great value in discussing the meaning of nature and wilderness, since those discussions will inform our collective approach to conservation. In the Anthropocene, conservation is a necessarily global endeavor, so those terms will have to be flexible, ready to incorporate all the caretakers who will need to work together. But discussing the meaning of nature is far different from doing away with the concept entirely. Its cross-cultural and trans-historical ubiquity — like that of freedom and art — means that ardent deconstructionists who deny the existence of nature will find their efforts fruitless. Still worse, as E. N. Anderson points out, “the anti-environmentalists have had a field day with this point, arguing that there is, therefore, no real difference between Jasper National Park and Times Square.”28

Instead, we should regroup around a new story and identity — a common metaphor — that is as friendly as possible without being incoherent. Doing so will create a strong coalition whose internal arguments are built on a foundation of agreement. Otherwise, needless misunderstanding may lead to all of us losing the nature we care for but can’t always neatly define.

Read more from Breakthrough Journal, No. 9

Featuring pieces by Rachel Laudan, R. David Simpson,
Mark Sagoff, Fred Block, Julie Guthman,
Brandon Keim, and more.


[1] John Stuart Mill, “Nature,” in Three Essays on Religion (Prometheus Books, 1998), 6.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] Ibid., 65.

[4] E. O. Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (W. W. Norton, 2007), 22–23.

[5] Gary Snyder, “Is Nature Real?” in: The Gary Snyder Reader: Poetry, Prose, and Translations 1952–1998 (Counterpoint, 1999), 387–89.

[6] Frederick Turner, “The Poetic Energy of the Trivium,” Sewanee Review 123, no. 1 (2015), https://muse.jhu.edu/article/570319/.

[7] Richard Reitan, “Ecology and Japanese History: Reactionary Environmentalism’s Troubled Relationship with the Past,” The Asia-Pacific Journal 15, no. 3(2) (2017), https://apjjf.org/2017/03/Reitan.html.

[8] Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Landscape Painting in Chinese Art,” in the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (October 2004), https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/clpg/hd_clpg.htm.

[9] Robert F. Campany, “The Meanings of Cuisines of Transcendence in Late Classical and Early Medieval China,” T’oung Pao 91, no. 1 (2005), 1–57.

[10] Allan G. Grapard, “Nature and Culture in Japan,” Kyoto Journal, November 30, 2011, http://www.kyotojournal.org/the-journal/culture-arts/nature-and-culture-in-japan/.

[11] See Aike P. Rots, Shinto, Nature and Ideology in Contemporary Japan: Making Sacred Forests (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), 92–94. Rots notes that the forests distinguished by Japanese ecologists as mori and hayashi may not fulfill the criteria of the terms, but this does not take away from the distinction, even if it is inaccurately applied.

[12] B. Andrew Lustig, et al., eds., Altering Nature: Volume I: Concepts of ‘Nature’ and ‘The Natural’ in Biotechnology Debates, Philosophy and Medicine 97 (Springer Science & Business Media, 2008).

[13] The one exception to this rule may be hunter-gatherer cultures. See Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[14] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Basil Blackwell, 1953).

[15] Mark Sagoff, “A Theology for Ecomodernism: What Is the Nature We Seek to Save,” Breakthrough Journal 5 (2015), https://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/past-issues/issue-5/a-theology-for-ecomodernism.

[16] See, e.g., Kay Milton, Loving Nature: Towards an Ecology of Emotion (Routledge, 2002); and Lisa H. Sideris, Consecrating Science: Wonder, Knowledge, and the Natural World (University of California Press, 2017) for discussions of nature as sacred.

[17] For a discussion of “natural” and vaccine refusal, see Jennifer Reich’s Calling the Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines (New York University Press, 2016). An example of anti-technology bias underwritten by what’s “natural” is the rejection of cultured meat based on perceived “unnaturalness,” as discussed in Patrick D. Hopkins and Austin Dacey, “Vegetarian Meat: Could Technology Save Animals and Satisfy Meat Eaters?” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 21, no. 6 (2008), 579–96.

[18] John A. Passmore, Man’s Responsibility for Nature: Ecological Problems and Western Traditions (Scribner, 1974).

[19] Ralph Drollinger, “Coming to Grips With the Religion of Environmentalism,” Capitol Ministries Members Bible Study, April 2, 2018, 1.

[20] Passmore, Man’s Responsibility for Nature, 175. Sideris, Consecrating Science, offers a strong critique of this move.

[21] Wilson, On Human Nature (Harvard, 1978), 193.

[22] William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in W. Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (W. W. Norton & Co., 1995), 69–90.

[23] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press, 1980).

[24] Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978).

[25] Larry Hamilton, review of Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth, George Wuerthner, et al., eds., Northern Woodlands, Winter 2014.

[26] Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (Harvard University Press, 2009); Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). For illustrative examples of the importance of metaphor in environmentalism, see Peter Kareiva’s talk, “Failed Metaphors and a New Environmentalism for the 21st Century,” video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BOEQkvCook; and Mary Catherine Bateson, Our Own Metaphor: A Personal Account of a Conference on the Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation (Hampton Press, 2004). The latter is a book-length discussion of how to understand the human relationship to the environment.

[27] Michelle Nijhuis, “Is the ‘Ecomodernist Manifesto’ the Future of Environmentalism?” New Yorker, June 2, 2015, https://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/is-the-ecomodernist-manifesto-the-future-of-environmentalism.

[28] E. N. Anderson, Caring for Place: Ecology, Ideology, and Emotion in Traditional Landscape Management (Left Coast Press, 2014), 64.



Alan Levinovitz is an associate professor of religious studies at James Madison University and author of The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths about What You Eat. @AlanLevinovitz









With the Grain
by Rachel Laudan


The Trouble with Ecosystem Services
by R. David Simpson


Welcome to the Narcisscene
by Mark Sagoff


Seeing the State
by Fred Block


Strawberry Fields Forever?
by Julie Guthman


If We Could Talk to the Animals
by Brandon Keim


Read more from Issue 9 . . .