WHAT DOES NATURE MEAN?
The concept of nature has been discussed for centuries and its meaning was changing with different perspectives and definitions discussed by various scientists and philosophers but also through general representation in everyday discourse. In the second half of the last century, the concept was still very relevant, and the very end of the sixties brought us one of the most important scientific magazines called Nature, the seventies brought the first ideas of nature protection, and this term in return brought a significant amount of confusion regarding the further development of science in this and related fields, and in practice as well.
Today, the concept of nature is not fundamentally relevant in science and philosophy, except for individuals who use it ambivalently, but in popular discourse it most often implies a romanticization of reality that is manifested in outdated and pseudoscientific terms such as mother nature, balance of nature, etc. Since no form of romanticization is desirable for purposeful social planning and effective action, it is important to explain and discredit them in more detail.
Although the etymology of the word is as complex and ambivalent as the term itself, it originally represents some kind of essence, that is, the core characteristic of someone or something. This definition often extends to the level of the planet and even to the outer limits of the universe and everything that exists. If the definition of a term is vague enough to include everything, it actually explains nothing. If the point of any term is to demarcate something, why do we use it at all? Currently, the public discourse mostly revolves around protecting nature and often the planet. So often we can hear or read platitudes like “let’s save the planet”, “Can we save the planet?” and so on.
Our impact on the planet is impressive, but the planet is doing just fine compared to what it has been through in its rich and exciting history. From earthquakes, ice ages and colossal volcanic eruptions to comet and asteroid impacts. However, in an extremely short time we have caused global warming, triggered a potential sixth mass extinction (more honestly, the first mass extermination) and have recently become nothing less than a geological factor, influencing the formation of rocks with a certain amount of plastic, discovered near the coast of Brazil. But despite such a resume, it is quite arrogant to think that we are capable of destroying or saving this four and a half billion-year-old cosmic body on which we have been living in this and similar form for only a few hundred thousand years. As such, it is neither threatened, nor does it require any rescue, nor is it productive to think in this way, not even implicitly or symbolically.
ECO-SENSATIONALIST MANTRAS ABOUT DESTROYING AND SAVING THE PLANET, ESPECIALLY THROUGH UNSUSTAINABLE AND SUSTAINABLE INDIVIDUAL HABITS, ARE JUST VARIATIONS OF WHAT SOME CALL “VIRTUE SIGNALING” AND WE CALL “FAKE MORALIZING”.
Nature is also often defined as the entire material reality with the exception of man and everything that man has built or modified. Therefore, where man ends, nature begins and vice versa. Here we can ask countless questions such as the following. If the city is not part of nature, why the dam built by beavers is? Why should we protect such defined nature at all? How can we protect it if we nullify it by our very presence? After all, how are we separated from nature when we were created by the same processes as everything else that draws breath on this planet?
In order to resolve these and similar paradoxes, there is no rational reason why we shouldn’t simply avoid the term and put things on concrete foundations. We simply love and protect what we cannot live without and what improves our quality of life. Separating the concept of nature from humankind is harmful because it implies some kind of irreparable alienation that hinders essential and sustainable integration, i.e., the implementation of everything from that “natural” environment in which we have evolved into the environment we have built. Such ideological conceptions lead to meaningless outbursts such as: “Whoever wants trees in cities should go back to the countryside”. We are objectively interested in which elements and processes have a positive effect on our own well-being, and this implies constant work on understanding the complexity of different ecosystems, their systemic connections and the meaningful merging of the built and existing, not arbitrary romantic separation. After all, space itself does not recognize such demarcations and our loose definitions. For example, in the literature we can find examples of locating very rare mushrooms next to garbage cans in the middle of Belgrade.
Recognizing the hypocrisy of empty moralizing and mystification of nature does not mean propagating humankind’s dominance over nature, ruthless exploitation and similar practices that have brought us to this unpleasant position. We do not need to romanticize our environment in order to cultivate a deep respect for the ecosystems that enabled our evolutionary development, in order to admire the complexity of their processes and the beauty of biodiversity.
The concept of biodiversity is also often equated with the concept of nature. Here, of course, it is clear which term we would avoid if we want to be precise. If we talk about the protection of nature as the protection of biodiversity, we also come across various subjective biases and outdated notions about the destruction of the balance of nature. We are surrounded by processes that we do not fully understand, and to admit this is part of intellectual modesty. It is for this reason that the preservation of biodiversity is crucial and not because of the inherent value of other species and some kind of natural balance.
THE FAIRYTALE OF BALANCE OF NATURE AND THE HOLISTIC VIEW OF ECOSYSTEMS IN GENERAL DRAW ROOTS FROM ANCIENT METAPHYSICS, BUT TODAY WE KNOW THAT THE PROCESSES AND MECHANISMS THAT TAKE PLACE IN ECOSYSTEMS DO NOT CREATE ANY BALANCE NOR ARE THEY PURPOSEFUL. THEY ARE DYNAMIC, OFTEN CHAOTIC AND SUBJECTED TO CONTINUOUS DISTURBANCES.
Biodiversity represents a potential source for the improvement of scientific knowledge and the development of technology, and we preserve it because we preserve ourselves and our well-being. On the other hand, biodiversity as we know it today, is just a temporary novelty for the planet or “nature”. More than 99.9% of all species that have ever existed on the planet are extinct. Stray cats alone are responsible for the extinction of at least 63 modern species.
While, for example, greenery provides us with a range of valuable ecological services, plants are not inherently more important than any other taxonomic group, nor are they all necessary for the existence of an ecosystem. Dinosaurs, for example, lived on a planet without grass, while sharks are evolutionarily older than both trees and dinosaurs. So, taking care of forests and urban greenery is taking care of the systems that support our existence because we are deeply connected to our environment and there are many reasons why we love greenery. Many of them fall under the relatively broad concept of biophilia, which refers to our innate tendency to bond with life-sustaining processes and other living beings. Therefore, people have an inherent affection for the “natural” environment. Greenery has a very positive effect on our well-being, but not because of some mystical value or value per se. Species that live at the bottom of the ocean, for example, do not care for greenery. A few years ago, one identified species was found to not even require oxygen (Henneguya salminicola, a parasite which infects the meat of one type of salmon).
OUR LOVE FOR “NATURE” DERIVED FROM OUR EVOLUTIONARY HISTORY, THROUGH WHICH WE DEVELOPED AN AFFINITY FOR THE CHARACTERISTICS OF CERTAIN ENVIRONMENTS. BIOPHILIA DOESN’T IMPLY JUST ENJOYING “NATURE”, BUT ALSO A FEELING OF BELONGING.
Although we are connected in various ways to other beings, we still keep double standards. We empathize with pandas and do not worry about parasitic trematode species like Clonorchis sinensis that originates from the same region. The use of the Latin language, that is, the scientific name, in this case does not stem from vanity, but from the fact that we do not have a Serbian common name for this type of parasite. On the other hand, for parasites from the Ixodida order, we have a common name recognizable to everyone – ticks. We note three things here. First, we have a subjective bias towards animals that are taxonomically closer to us and that are beautiful or cute to us while we carry out strategically planned acts of genocide on ticks, mosquitoes and other similar creatures on an annual basis. Second, we are biased towards animals that are geographically close to us. Third, we are biased in our attitudes towards animals according to the degree to which they pose a threat to us.
Because of all of the above, it is important to look at our treatment of biodiversity through scientific lenses and to recognize the ecological roles of certain species and their social benefits in relation to immediate individual threats. Perhaps the best example is related to venomous snakes whose immediate threats must be ignored in relation to the benefits reflected in the control of the rodent population, snake venom which is a real pharmaceutical treasure, etc. Therefore, instead of killing venomous snakes due to an immediate (although often unjustified) threat, we rationally choose to protect them. This does not mean that it is undesirable to enjoy feelings of well-being and a deep connection with nature, but that we must not create social strategies, tailor policies, etc., from a subjective and intuitive position. Otherwise, an equally intuitive and immanent capacity for quick recognition of spiders and snakes and the tendency to develop a fear of them can obscure our relationship with these precious animals in an ecological but also a civilizational sense. The romantic mantra about living with nature, i.e., sustainability, is best achieved by observing things rationally. On the other hand, many indigenous peoples and tribal communities, often idealized in terms of supposed harmonious coexistence with their environment, also produced unintended ecological consequences and modified the environment according to their needs and capabilities.
Meaningful environmental action must not be clouded by superficial moralizing, anthropocentric biases and various forms of magical thinking. All this contributes to blurring the goals, finding solutions and implementing them. Any purposeful engagement in the context of environmental protection must be placed on scientific foundations and avoid romantic delusions about mother nature, ecological balance and similar naive, pseudoscientific concepts. Instead, let’s use the often-quoted methodological principle of Daniel Simberloff, a former doctoral student of E. O. Wilson: “Rely on the data to tell you how nature operates; don’t simply find the patterns that you’re supposed to find.”
Author: Sinisa Borota, sociologist
Photo: Bojan Lucic