Nature in the ‘anthropocene’ age?: Mediating Monbiot and Poole…
There has recently been a public spat between two public intellectuals in this country, a spat with considerable philosophical interest and underpinnings. Since both of the two concerned are friends of mine who I believe to each have an important contribution to make to thinking and action in Britain (and beyond) today, I am going to seek here to some degree to mediate their dispute.
Here is Steven Poole’s article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jul/06/nature-writing-revival
And here is George Monbiot’s response: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jul/08/philistinism-nature-scientific-ignorance-money
I think they both have good points. And that there are problems with what each of them has said.
Here is the main problem with George’s approach/remarks, in my view. George relies much too much, in his riposte to Steven, on rhetorical appeals to ‘science’.
Basically, as Phil Hutchinson has put the matter in correspondence with me recently: “George Monbiot’s Goldacre-Colquhoun-style ad hominem rhetoric against non scientists is problematic. The point is that the question as to “what “nature” is” is central to this debate and to George’s thesis and one can only claim that to be a scientific and not a philosophical question if one is dogmatically committed to some form of ‘cog sci’, whereby even conceptual questions become scientific questions (because we have (pseudo-)science of concepts). I’m not so committed. George may be, but he does not argue for this and it certainly cannot be assumed without argument. How we take “nature” is what frames the whole argument. George seems oblivious to the way in which he has assumed a specific conception of nature. I subscribe to his project, but it is a political project, not a scientific project. Claiming one’s political project, however worthy and emancipatory that project is, to be scientific (and not political) has unfortunate connotations. It is to be authoritarian. Put another way, we might ask: is “nature” a natural kind term? I would argue not. George seems to assume it is.”
Agreed. Furthermore, as Phil Hutchinson implies in this recent piece of his, which could be read as a background-primer on the problem with George M.’s approach http://viewfromthehutch.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/what-have-philosophers-ever-done-for-us.html, there is a place here too for explicitly calling for a role for PHILOSOPHY, as against science-worship. (See my previous TP salient blogs on this: Especially http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=6884 ; Also http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=3398 http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=5837 http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=4367 .)
In terms of Phil’s point that what nature is is central to the debate, framing it at a conceptual level: that is what I now wish to dwell on. Neither Steven nor George considers what I take to be the central argument which, if made, would in my view be an effective (rather than a scientistic) rejoinder from George against Steven (for it brings out the main problem with Steven’s remarks/approach): namely, that the point about rewilding is or should be that it is (or should be) a self-eliminating managerialism. (We philosophers might think here of the philosophical method of Sextus Empiricus, or of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, as analogous…) When one rewilds intelligently and completely enough, one (re)creates (eventually) something like a ‘climax’ ecosystem that then doesn’t need further (human) management.
Now, of course, we must all acknowledge that the human race is having such a vast impact on our planet that my environmental science colleagues at the University of East Anglia, where I teach, tell me that we have officially moved from the Holocene into a new era in our planet’s history: the ‘Anthropocene’. Whither nature, in the age of humans? Can one intelligibly now think our planet beyond managerialism? Is it intelligible – Steven P. suggests it probably isn’t – to think nature and rewilding without contradicting oneself?
In my view, there is still a strong role for the concept of nature in such dangerous times as we are living in (and this is the basis of my sympathy with what George is seeking to say, my political/philosophical subscription to his project, as Phil puts it). This is partly because the concept of nature is not one simple univocal concept.
As J. L. Austin would urge, the key question when the concept of ‘nature’ is invoked is: Nature, as opposed to what?
One opposed term is ‘the supernatural’. If one thinks that there actually isn’t any such thing as the supernatural (a stance that I find convincing), then everything is natural. There is an important sense then in which whatever we do is natural. Whatever changes we humans make to our world, we are simply changing nature ‘from within’. In this sense, ‘even’ Wittgenstein is probably a ‘naturalist’.
And it is useful to be clear of course that human beings are in this sense part of nature: this opposes crazy ideas (whether from traditional religion or from anthropocentric speciesism) of our alleged superiority to or separateness from the rest of nature. As John Gray has stressed (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N0rIqAYq5js ), a key inheritance of Darwinism is an understanding of the radical sense in which we are animals, part of nature, not separate at all.
But the term ‘nature’ can also be usefully opposed to other things: such as ‘culture’, or (similarly) ‘nurture’. Now, there is a sense in which culture is simply natural for humans (A sense indeed that I explicate in the first chapter of my PHILOSOPHY FOR LIFE: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Philosophy-Life-Applying-Politics-Culture/dp/0826495605 ). But there is also such a thing as what happens when one lets nature take its course: think for instance of simply letting a wound heal, as opposed to bandaging it up and applying medicines to it, etc.
In this sense, there are plenty of things which (unlike the supernatural) exist but which are not natural, or at least not only or fully natural. In relation to ecosystems, one can distinguish for instance between those which human beings attempt to manage, and those in which nature takes its course. (Nature in this latter sense is sometimes called ‘wild nature’. That, roughly, is what rewilding aims to restore.)
I think it is important that we don’t lose sight of this meaning of the word ‘nature’. I think it is important that we don’t get overawed by the scale of our intrusion into the planet’s ecosystems. For, while it is true that there are increasingly few ‘natural disasters’ in which humanity doesn’t have a hand (it is becoming harder and harder to call hurricanes ‘acts of God’, for example, as it becomes increasingly clear that humanity’s hand is, sadly, present in strengthening and worsening hurricanes: see for instance http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/earth/hurricanes-climate.html ), it would be a mistake to derive from that the conclusion that the dawning of the Anthropocene makes it impossible to talk about nature at all any more, except as opposed to the supernatural. In fact, arguably it makes it more important than ever. For, if we to row back from our calamitous and hubristic interference with our planet’s climatic system, we are going to need some sense of the direction to row back in. And part of that direction, crucially, is toward restoring rich biodiverse largely-natural ecosystems (See on this for instance the final chapter of http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/docs/climate_geoengineering_web221208.pdf ). Genuine precaution, rather than the senseless multiplication of potential harms, recommends that we reduce our impact as a species, and engage less in ‘Promethean’ hubristic activities or ambitions which seek, hopelessly, to manage the entire Earth ecosystem.
As Nassim Taleb has argued, nature is wiser than us across a large range of cases (See for instance http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSLaWVDyKRU ). To give it up as a lost cause would be catastrophic.
So; George Monbiot relies too much in his arguments against Steven on the alleged authority of ‘science’ – where actually it is politics and philosophy that matter. But; Steven Poole relies too much in his arguments against George on the alleged necessary managerialism that makes appeals to nature doubtful – where actually it is the creative self-destruction of managerialism that ‘going feral’ and restoring functioning ecosystems aims to midwife.
Is this – have I now offered — a way to reconcile what is wrong and right with what both have said in their spat? Does the present piece yield more light than heat? I hope so. Let the debate then recommence…
[Thanks, obviously, to Phil Hutchinson [ http://viewfromthehutch.blogspot.co.uk/ ] for vital input into this piece.]