A good metaphor for the ideal relationship between humanity and the environment is that the environment is like critical infrastructure.

Infrastructure is valuable, because it provides crucial services. You want to maintain it carefully, because it’s bad if it breaks down.

But infrastructure is there to serve us, not for its own sake. It has no intrinsic value. We don’t have to “minimize impact” on it. It belongs to us, and it’s ours to optimize for our purposes.

Infrastructure is something that can & should be upgraded, improved upon—as we often improve on nature. If a river or harbor isn’t deep enough, we dredge it. If there’s no waterway where we want one, we dig a canal. If there is a mountain in our way, we blast a tunnel; if a canyon, we span it with a bridge. If a river is threatening to overflow its banks, we build a levee. If our fields don’t get enough water, we irrigate them; if they don’t have enough nutrients, we fertilize them. If the water we use for drinking and bathing is unclean, we filter and sanitize it. If mosquitoes are spreading disease, we eliminate them.

In the future, with better technology, we might do even more ambitious upgrades and more sophisticated maintenance. We could monitor and control the chemical composition of the oceans and the atmosphere. We could maintain the level of the oceans, the temperature of the planet, the patterns of rainfall.

The metaphor of environment as infrastructure implies that we should neither trash the planet nor leave it untouched. Instead, we should maintain and upgrade it.

(Credit where due: I got this idea for this metaphor from Stewart Brand; the elaboration/interpretation is my own, and he might not agree with it.)

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Just to let you know that this overall framing is pretty common in sustainable development contexts. It’s often called blue and green infrastructure. See for example: https://iucn.org/news/europe/201911/building-resilience-green-and-blue-infrastructure

However, I think those people would be more focused on „giving nature space and letting it do it’s thing“ rather than trying to upgrade nature. Given our track record, I would tend to agree with them. Let’s not put the cart in front of the horse and think that we can effectively design ecological ecosystems just yet.

Yeah, there's a big ol' Chesterton's Fence between where we are now and redesigning nature. We're not ready. But we can intervene to undo damage we've already done, and stop doing more.

For better or worse, we are already doing a lot to redesign nature right now. 

Design implies a plan, and an expectation for how that plan leads to desired outcomes, and I don't think we usually have that in any coherent, big-picture sense. Not in the way we design a car, or a supply chain, or an operating system. We're reshaping nature, taming some of it, destroying some of it, and damaging some of it. Sometimes we're also enhancing or repairing some of it, and that is increasing too, thankfully.

There are several places in the world where nature is being designed like a modern car. At least measured by a similar or  greater number of man-hours being put in by designers.

There's no Ford-style assembly line or General Motors of environmental infrastructure yet.

Environmental infrastructure/engineering is a fundamentally harder problem, at least under current levels of understanding. Comparable man-hours are nowhere near adequate to obtain comparable results. I would certainly agree that we are now close to where car engineering was in the pre-Ford days.

For some reason I find it important to consider the infrastructure metaphor applied to humans. How would you yourself fare if treated as infrastructure?

Best guess as to the origin of the feeling: I have an intuition that, carelessly applied, the infrastructure view neglects the complexity of its target and risks unfortunate unintended consequences down the line.


infrastructure view neglects the complexity of its target and risks unfortunate unintended consequences down the line.

Like destroying some rare species of mosquitos before anyone realize the potential for cancer or something.

It's worth carrying this analogy through to questions like "how does infrastructure get funded" and "how long is infrastructure expected to last".  Generally, it's funded by those who benefit, usually at the city, state, or national level.  Or those who can be convinced they'll benefit, even if they won't (cue The Simpsons Marge vs. the Monorail episode).  

Also, it's generally built to last a few decades, sometimes a century or more, but NEVER considered to be usable without maintenance at some given funding level.  Infrastructure is debt.  Valuable, worth it, definitely a good thing, but something that requires perpetual interest payments.

Nature is the opposite.  It requires some commitment not to mess it up, but it continues providing it's benefits without needing continual investment.