Introducing Issue 9 of Breakthrough Journal
Nature is political. A wellspring, John Stuart Mill wrote in 1874, of “false taste, false philosophy, false morality, and even bad law.” In Mill’s day, women were understood to be naturally inferior to men. Non-white races, by nature, inferior to Europeans. Bald-faced ideas of this sort, about the natural order of humans, are anathema in most quarters today. And yet nature continues to do powerful discursive work. In our grocery aisles as in our policy debates, we too often imagine, contra Hume, that we might derive a social “ought” from nature’s “is.”
The impulse to naturalize — to disguise our politics and interests as immutable and inevitable features of nature — is a power play, an appeal to a higher authority against the notion that people might have a choice in such matters. Where once nature was invoked to justify inequitable social and economic relations, today it is mostly used to justify various political agendas related to the environment. Nature is harmony — balanced and stable — until, that is, human meddling tips it out of equilibria, which brings disruption and calamity. Left and Right offer mirrored versions of the same schema. For the Left, nature is fragile and the economy is endlessly manipulable: mess with nature, and catastrophe follows. Hence, the economy must be regulated on nature’s behalf. For the Right, the market is fragile and nature is resilient: mess with the economy, and collapse, or at least penury, will surely follow. Hence, the economy must be insulated from the schemes of politicians and environmental activists.
This issue of Breakthrough Journal, our ninth, turns on such “nature wars”: how we talk about nature, represent it, value it, and conserve it. How we grant nature ethical, and even political voice, and how we navigate the various competing ideas, interests, and values encompassed by it. While holding the natural world in deep regard, the authors featured here all recognize, in one way or another, that nature has long motivated many misguided and even misanthropic projects. They also recognize that the line between that which we deem natural and that which is artificial is difficult to discern. On the one hand, everything is natural. We are beings of the Earth. Our societies and technologies evolved with us and from us, and hence the Earth as well. On the other hand, it is by virtue of their unnatural quality that our social relations and technological innovations have proven immensely beneficial to human life. A world unmodified by humans and for humans would be a world without humans.
When it came to governing human relations, Mill believed that it was only in the realm of the artificial — in such highly contrived constructs as liberty, equality, and justice — that our ethical and political rationales belonged. In this, we wholeheartedly agree. Loving nature, and defending it, demands that we resist the urge to use nature as a crutch in our disputes, and instead dig in, together, to the messy business of negotiating human needs, our social and cultural aspirations, and our visions for the rest of life on Earth.
“Welcome to the Narcisscene.” So begins environmental philosopher Mark Sagoff’s tour-de-force takedown of the Anthropocene and the self-proclaimed “Earth system” scientists who have proposed it. If the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) declares that the planet has entered a new geologic epoch, as seems likely, Earth system scientists will have accomplished a remarkable feat: engendering a second, “counter-Copernican revolution” that, in Sagoff’s words, “makes humanity great again.”
For 500 years, the Scientific Revolution has decentered humanity. The sun does not revolve around the Earth. Humans were not created in God’s image, nor do we sit atop a natural order of plants and animals. The Earth is unimaginably older and the universe vaster than our minds can comprehend. But where the Copernican revolution, the discovery of deep time, and Darwinian evolution decentered human beings, drawing our attention to all the ways in which life on Earth, Earth itself, and even the heavens vastly outrange human existence, the Anthropocene restores humanity to its prior glory.
Sagoff argues that, in constructing the Anthropocene, Earth system scientists have built a quasi-scientific enterprise around their normative commitments, scientizing a view of nature that is essentially religious — the idea that the “Great Acceleration” has pushed the Earth system out of equilibrium and that it must be steered (with the help of Earth system scientists) back toward a “safe operating space” for humanity. Since the time of its inception, “geology has struggled to study the Earth as a scientific object separate from the religious, ideological, and political persuasions of the day,” Sagoff writes. Should the ICS decide to christen the Anthropocene, “that struggle, such as it was, is over.”
Alan Levinovitz reminds us in “On Naturalness,” by contrast, that just because nature is an unscientific concept doesn’t mean it’s not a useful one. Levinovitz, a religious studies scholar at James Madison University, rejects both the nature–culture binary — the idea that the two are neatly divisible and necessarily opposed — and its antonym. “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,” he argues.
Nature is metaphor and category. Categories can’t always be defined with precision or empirically, but we can’t navigate the world without them, either. Like all mental categories, some kinds of nature are more prototypical than others. A tropical rainforest and a median strip both have characteristics that we would identify with nature. But most would agree that the former is more natural than the latter.
That doesn’t mean that “more natural” necessarily means “better.” Levinovitz has written extensively about dubious claims to naturalness in the advocacy of natural foods and remedies and argues that we can and should reject various naturalistic fallacies of this sort. But nature, he believes, is nonetheless a useful and actionable concept. It is real and worth defending. Like art and freedom, we may not be able to define it precisely, but it is still worth fighting for “even if there is serious debate about the details.”
Where Levinovitz admits the possibility that claims on nature can short-circuit politics, science writer Brandon Keim asks in “If We Could Talk to the Animals” whether we might extend our political consideration to nonhuman nature. Keim has spent many years documenting the scientific developments that have shed light on the complex inner lives and social dynamics of animals. Yet he finds a disconnect between these ongoing discoveries and the ethical concerns of environmentalists, particularly those urban-dwelling environmentalists whose regard for nearby nature often seems to stop short of their own doorstep. Is this the outcome we want, Keim asks, one in which our “wild, nonhuman neighbors, who are thoughtful and self-aware, with memories and relationships and social lives, who are impacted in life-or-death ways by our decisions, are essentially decorative?” Or should our ethical and political consideration extend to them too?
Keim is not naive about the ways in which such a proposal might present unprecedented complications, including the possibility that animal rights and representation could be co-opted by those with other interests in mind. And what happens when the interests of some animals are invoked to oppose the interests of others? Those risks are worth taking, Keim argues, both for the thinking, feeling animals that inhabit human spaces and for the humans that already benefit from political participation. Who knows? “The more inclusive and open-minded our politics toward animals,” Keim suggests, perhaps “the more inclusive and open-minded we will be toward one another.”
As ever, trade-offs, not holisms, rule the day where nature and politics meet. In “Strawberry Fields Forever?” sociologist Julie Guthman explores the ways in which sustainability serves as a virtuous catchall for a number of principles that often end up at odds. Using the California strawberry industry as a case study, Guthman asks us to consider what sustainability means for a once-seasonal crop that is today available to most consumers year-round. “Feeding the soil, reducing food miles, attending to local conditions of production, eliminating toxic inputs, and reducing the use of nonrecyclable material and nonrenewable energy are easier said than done when attempted all at once,” Guthman points out. “With social justice concerns thrown into the mix, such as improving pay and working conditions for farm workers and keeping prices affordable for low-income consumers, meeting multiple goals of sustainability becomes all but impossible.”
When it comes to strawberries at least, organic production doesn’t solve many problems. California’s unique climate and soils have allowed the industry to offer consumers relatively cheap, ever-abundant strawberries. But soil pathogens now plague organic and conventional growers alike. Soilless production might offer a solution, but such systems are an affront to many organic producers for whom tending the soil is paramount. It also risks decentering California growers in the national market: liberating strawberries from the soil would open the door to year-round strawberry production in many more places.
Soilless production might bring important environmental benefits as well as better working conditions — eliminating the use of toxic soil fumigants, allowing indoor production to be located closer to the point of sale, and reducing the amount of back-breaking work necessary to harvest strawberries. But soilless systems will give rise to trade-offs too. Guthman challenges us to reckon with the idea that our many worthy goals for a more just, more sustainable food system may not be easily achieved, especially together.
More nature in our farms does not mean better outcomes for the environment, nor does more nature in the economy. In “The Trouble with Ecosystem Services,” former EPA economist David Simpson recounts the history of the idea that by establishing the economic value of services that nature supplies, and pricing them accordingly, we can save the ecosystems that provide those services. Unfortunately, as Simpson discovered over a long career in environmental and resource economics, that principle does not hold.
The problem is that nature, at least the sort of nature providing services that are economically valuable, is abundant. Without scarcity, there is little economic value to be had. Nature may be a great storehouse for future pharmaceutical products, to take one example, but globally, nature abounds, and the number of potential compounds that might be derived from forests for medical benefit is, prospectively, virtually endless. Forests also provide water filtration services that are valuable, to take another example, but so do water treatment plants, creating an upper bound on how much it makes sense to invest in preserving forests as an alternative. “Nature is becoming more scarce in a world increasingly dominated by humans,” Simpson observes. “But nature’s services, the demonstrable and tangible benefits we get from harnessing natural assets for human purposes, are, by and large, not growing more scarce. In fact, it’s generally the opposite.”
The idea that we might save nature by pricing it follows from a naturalized idea of markets that both neoclassical economists and their critics largely accept. Markets are viewed as natural, self-organizing systems. The overexploitation of nature is an externality, the result of a “market failure”: the failure to properly value (i.e., price) the services that nature provides. Economists and environmentalists of various stripes argue about when and how often markets fail, writes sociologist and innovation scholar Fred Block in “Seeing the State,” but they share the same basic view of the market as separate and apart from the state. Block traces this fallacy back to the classical economists and their critics, from Marx onward.
The central project of the classical economists was to divest the sovereign of economic power. As such, Block argues, they narrated the rising merchant classes of the early capitalist societies into the center of economic history. The central project of Marx and Engels, in contrast, was to divest the bourgeois merchant class of power. They saw the state as nothing more than an instrument of the bourgeois class. As a result, both factions elided the centrality of state-backed institutions and investments to economic growth and broader economic equality, and continue to do so today.
The result of this blinkered history is that neither neoclassical economists nor their critics offer particularly plausible solutions to the twin challenges of stagnant growth and rising inequality today. “When so many intelligent people are unable to see a way to fix something that is clearly broken, the obvious explanation is that their intellectual tools are deeply flawed,” Block writes. “This mistaken history of capitalism has in turn hamstrung their ability to see viable paths forward.”
It’s not just economists or libertarians who are prone to cherry-pick the downsides of state action while airbrushing away the benefits. Yale political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State has become the uber-text for left-wing critics of modernization and development. His latest anti-state jeremiad, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, takes his anti-state argument to an extreme, proposing that grain-based civilizations have been humanity’s downfall. The rise of agricultural societies, Scott argues, was inseparable from the rise of the centralized state, which enslaved humanity to the hierarchical demands of agricultural production at ever-increasing scales.
Not so fast, writes the great food historian Rachel Laudan in “With the Grain.” Many of the facts in Scott’s widely reviewed book may be correct, but the narrative is nonsense. Seeing like a hungry human instead of like a state reveals just how much Scott, like so many others who proselytize the benefits of all things paleo for our health, the environment, and society, takes for granted.
Humans ate grains long before they started farming them and processed their foods long before they discovered grains. Processing food, whether grains, roots, or meats and whether farmed, hunted, or gathered, was, until very recently, an extraordinarily labor-intensive business. For this reason, Laudan observes, inequality was “built into the human food system” well before the rise of agriculture; “those who collected the wood, dug the pits, and cracked the nuts lost.”
Laudan traces this history of food processing from its origins among the earliest humans through the harvesting of cereal grains up to the contemporary technologies that have both vastly expanded food production and access and diminished the amount of human labor required to provide it. In the process, the grain-based states we have come to know slowly mitigated inequality, enabling “the global transformation of subjects into citizens.”
It is only because of the ubiquity of grains, Laudan argues, that Scott and other well-to-do elites are able to scoff at them. Not so very long ago, only aristocrats were able to regularly consume white grains. Today, they are fare for the masses, and elites like Scott signal their status by rejecting them. Your grandmother ate processed grains, not (as Michael Pollan would have it) fresh vegetables. The original paleo diets were characterized not by carefree days of leisure punctuated by pleasant forays into forest or savanna to hunt and forage, but rather by short life expectancies and hour upon hour of hard physical labor to process foods for digestion and preservation. There is no path to an equitable or sustainable future, Laudan concludes, that doesn’t go with the grain.
“If you want to conceive of humanity’s place in nature,” Sagoff observes, “think not of the plants and animals placed under our foot but of the fungus found on it.” But whether we see it as magisterial or a nuisance, a self-regulating machine or a wild beast, it is virtually impossible to think or speak of the environment, ourselves, or nonhuman life without holding some idea of nature in our minds. As a result, the metaphors we use, and the meanings we imbue it with, matter. This issue of Breakthrough Journal asks us to examine carefully the ways we use nature in our social, political, and environmental debates. As we have learned, far too often we deploy it as a rhetorical substitute for empirically and ethically honest discussion. A century and a half after Mill’s warning, it’s time to recognize that nature’s name can be put to bad philosophy, bad morality, and bad law. Good law, good history, and good science will hinge on terms that we recognize, explicitly, are of our own making.
Read more from Breakthrough Journal, No. 9
Featuring pieces by Rachel Laudan, Alan Levinovitz,
R. David Simpson, Mark Sagoff, Fred Block,
Julie Guthman, and Brandon Keim.