Should we “go against nature”? Or live in “harmony” with it? There are two senses of “nature.” Teasing them apart clarifies this issue.

“Nature” can mean immutable natural law. We defy this at our peril. If we dump raw sewage where we get our drinking water, we will suffer epidemics. If we expose ourselves to radiation, we will die from cancer. If we fail to irrigate our fields, we will go hungry at the first drought. (These are Kipling’s “gods of the copybook headings.”)

But another sense of “nature” is: whatever exists and whatever happens apart from the agency of humanity. It is the chance arrangement of molecules and their motions, before or separate from the conscious, directed, purposefulness of human beings. A river, pursuing its natural course, whether or not it is navigable, whether or not it causes dangerous flooding. A field, with whatever natural level of fertility it happens to have, and whatever plants happen to be growing in it, whether or not they are edible. Wild animals, whether or not they are good companions, whether or not they attack us, whether or not they destroy our crops or our homes, whether or not they carry disease.

This second sense of “nature” is amoral and indifferent to the needs of life. All living organisms survive through an active process of exploiting the resources of their environment. The only difference between humans and other life forms is that we do it using conceptual intelligence. I’ve been admonished that “we are a part of nature.” Of course, we are—but science, technology, and industry are a part of our nature.

To champion “nature” in this sense is not, strictly speaking, to be for anything. It is not in favor of animals or plants, who face a brutal struggle for survival in nature. It is not in favor of rocks or rivers, which are inanimate and have no needs or desires. It is only against. It is against humanity and human agency—choice and purpose—because it is for whatever humans have not done, have not touched, have not interfered with. If pursued with clarity and consistency, it is nihilistic—as in the case of biologist David Graber, who wrote: “I know social scientists who remind me that people are part of nature, but it isn’t true. Somewhere along the line … we quit the contract and became a cancer. We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth.”

The advocates of “harmony with nature” constantly conflate these two senses, as if every attempt to overcome the randomness of indifferent nature were an attempt to flout some natural law, the supposed “limits to growth.” But it isn’t. We can improve on nature. We have done it in so many ways: fertilizing and irrigating our fields, building canals and levees for our waterways, heating and air-conditioning our homes, sanitizing our water supply. To assume that we can’t continue to solve problems like this is simply defeatism, unsupported by the facts—or it is a cover for anti-humanism.

Bacon had it perfect: “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” The paradox there depends on the two senses of “nature.” To put it in less poetic but clearer language: To command the natural environment, we must obey natural law.

This essay inspired by a recent podcast with Arjun Khemani.

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There are more senses, which also get mixed in. There are also aesthetic or mystical meanings. So it's usually more a case of natural forests being more beautiful than a sterile lawn, or not harming the lunar goddess. 

Improving on nature depends on your point of view. Fertilizing allowed for the massive population boom of the last 100 years, but it also harms the ecosystems where it is used, leaving monocultural deserts. Irrigation allows for growing in places previously unavailable, but in the long term it raises the salinity. Canals and levees change the structure of the waterway they're applied to, causing mayhem in the local ecosystems. River control causes rivers to flow a lot faster, resulting in flash floods and erosion, and also kills of fish species etc. that can't survive in the changed environment. 

Which is simply to say that everything has tradeoffs, and improvements have costs, which might not be obvious. Chesterton's fence and all. Technology is wonderful. Landsailor is moving every time. But so are wild forests. The spread of humanity is continuously further encroaching on the few remaining wildernesses. In this sense, championing nature is to try to preserve the few remaining places that are untouched by humans, because that in itself is valuable. It's not against humanity, other than incidentally - it's about wild beauty.

Though to be fair, there aren't really any pristine places left - everywhere has signs of human activity. For example the Amazonian rain forest structure was extensively managed to have more edible species. And there's no reason in principle for human activity to be worse for diversity etc. than natural ecosystems. Solarpunk is a good example of a compromise between the two.

Agree about tradeoffs.

Why do you think that “untouched” nature is a value “in itself”?

Mainly aesthetics, to be honest. I could wax lyrical about reserves of biodiversity, about the intricate interactions of myriad species, invent evo-psych stories etc., but it comes down to my personal preferences, where I find that my appreciation of nature is proportional to its wildness. There's also a lot of the illusion of freedom and self sufficiency mixed in. Footsteps on the moon are breathtaking in what they symbolize, but at the same time I get the feeling that they somehow taint it.