Nature in the ‘anthropocene’ age?: Mediating between Monbiot and Poole


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:

And here is George Monbiot’s response:

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, 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 ; Also .)

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 ( ), 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: ). 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 ), 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 ). 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 ). 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 [ ] for vital input into this piece.]

  1. I agree with Monbiot’s idea that we should get rid of the sheep from the uplands. They do overgraze the landscape. Re-wilding the uplands is not a bad idea either, for aesthetic reasons alone.

    George Monbiot and Ken Ham have several things in common. Both have science degrees; Ham from Queensland University, specialising in environmental biology, and Monbiot from Brassnose Oxford, in zoology. Ken went off to set up the Creationism Museum in Kentucky, whereas George went off to become a campaigning journalist – mostly on matters concerning the environment. What would appear to be a radical divergences, but are they?

    Ken’s Creation Museum has Ken’s interpretation of Genesis. In the Garden of Eden, nature was in harmony. All animals (dinosaurs included) were gentle vegetarians. A perfectly balanced ecosystem. Then Eve sins, and God casts the world into carnivorous chaos. The sins of man destroyed the environment.

    Of course George isn’t as loopy as Ken, he doesn’t have an animatronic driven museum in the hills of Wales. But it’s the same central neurosis, and fantasy. That nature is in perfect harmony without man. Ken has his Garden of Eden, George has his harmonic ecosystems. The prelapsarian idyll in perfect balance is just anthropocentric fantasy. It’s an idea that has persisted in ‘science’ though there is no evidence for it – and most of the evidence is contrary to it.

    Before scientists realised how chaotic nature actually is, they just thought deer population fluctuations were some weird exception to the natural order – or even that lemmings did commit mass suicide.

    The return to the Garden of Eden, is neither a good idea for the environment or politics – as any idea based on religious dread usually isn’t.

  2. All I an say is that comparing the views of two people for whom Nature is a romantic idealised and pretty silly notion, expressed in a paper like the Guardian, in itself a romantic idealised and pretty silly paper, is just another romantic idealised and pretty silly notion.

    Man IS Nature. Everything man does is natural. He is simply exploiting an ecological niche like any other animal, eating his waqy throufgh the resources, and destroyiong te cometition.

    Sheep don’t ‘damage a natural habitat’ sheep create a DIFFERENT natural habitat. As do beavers with dams, and men with cities.

    I cant understand these eco romantics. When horses became scarce so too did every pasture loving species. Suddenly this is wrong, neglecting the fact that prior to men appearing, in the UK at least there was no pasture at all. It was wall to wall scrub and broadleave forest by and large.

    Te Romans cut down the trees for cereal crops, and the saxons for firewood and to create grazing, and teh industrialists stripped the iron and coal to create cities.

    It isn’t a question of what is natural. It is a question of what you want it to be.

    I took a walk this morning through a plantation whose owner now prefers to leave it to do what it will.,. Fallen trees abound, the rest are tall and spindly – no point in putting on leave unless they grow to a massive height first. Nothing lives under the trees. The light is all taken out by the trees,. No birds or bees live there. Just a few deer – and a lot of fungi. And insects living on the decaying leaf mould and wood.

    IN an adjacent paddock, however, mown regularly, there is that most ‘unnatural’ of things. A clearing in that forest. There you will find the birds, the bees, the butterflies, the wild flowers, the grasshoppers.. the rabbits, the weasels and stoats, the moles..and buzzards circling overhead.

    What do you want?

    The problem with George and Steven is they carry in their silly heads some idealised notion of what it *should* be. They are afraid to actually come out and say what they *want* it to be.

    Personally I like parkland. Open grazing with the trees clipped neatly to the height above ground where a cow can just reach up and eat the green shoots.

    But I claim no moral imperative for that inclination. :wink:

  3. The question of what really IS “nature” should also contain a clause for where is nature. The point being that just because a word exists does not mean the concept it frames is really a rational one. Perhaps the “nature” of this discussion only happens in someone’s head.

    Some years ago I read Robert Bakker’s “Dinosaur Heresies”. Tucked in among the then controversial ideas about warm-blooded saurians was a very interesting notion about major extinctions that still has very little traction today. Bakker noted that the great meteor event 65 million years ago that was supposed to have extincted vast portions of Earth’s flora and fauna did seem to have a powerful effect, but the extinctions it is so often given credit for weren’t complete in the paleontological record for about 100,000 years. Even though that’s a little more than 99,900 years longer than anyone can expect a “nuclear winter” scenario to last we still cut the meteor a lot of slack.

    What if, Bakker asks, it’s not the meteor itself and the clouds and fires that kills stuff off? What if it is just disease organisms, or new forms of parasites, or more efficient grasses that are spread across the globe by changing ocean currents and winds and migration patterns? In short, are not the upheavals in nature’s record a part of nature, too?

    This has an appeal for me. The greatest of all extinction events, 600 million years ago, happened because a humble bacterium developed a way to make its own food using carbon dioxide and sunlight. The oxygen they expelled as waste was to the neighbors of their day as chlorine gas was to the lungs of soldiers in W.W.I. Nature overthrew nature. Evolution had simmered along for nearly three billion years at that point to produce a lot of one-celled organisms. Suddenly it boiled into multi-cellular organisms that had, within 100 million years, colonized the oceans and the barren dry land of the planet.

    Is nature the long periods of stasis and gentle change, or is it the storms of change?

    If our conception of the word chooses sides in that dilemma the choice is not a scientific choice. It is a purely aesthetic one.

    Nature produced human beings, just as surely as it produced blue-green algae. Our different modes of information processing do not remove us from nature. They merely give us the capacity to choose, both individually and collectively, how we will act toward those older regimes of the ecology of this planet that might settle into a more sustainable stasis if we could leave them to process information in the older biological way.

  4. The striking thing about FERAL is the lyricism of George’s writing. He has really tried more than ever in this book to be a WRITER. I think he has succeeded. This is not ‘pure science’ at ALL!!! He’s really worked hard to produce his own text to stand alongside and rival Robert MacFarlane’s THE WILD PLACES. He isn’t as good as the masterful MacFarlane in this regard – but he’s shown with this book that he’s pretty damn good!

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