Nature, a conversation

Peter Taylor, DRAFT, October 1997 (slightly revised, February 1999)


"Ideas of nature underlie a great deal of social thought and have done so through recorded history. The changing meanings of "nature" and the tensions among co-existing meanings have been analyzed brilliantly by the English cultural analyst Raymond Williams; he shows us a history readable in terms of the social order being defended or promoted.* The romantic ideal, for example, of a unspoiled places and sentiments (i.e., nature separate from "man") arose at a time when industrialization was rapidly escalating exploitation of people and natural resources (i.e., producing unprecedented interdependencies among peoples and nature), exploitation underwritten by the removal of traditional checks in the name, ironically, of the natural principles of individual autonomy and of unconstrained pursuit of utility in social transactions. Following Williams, whenever we hear the environment and its conservation being talked about we should factor into our interpretations the social concerns and social-historical location of those who hold those ideas. The recent literature on conservation efforts in colonial Africa and India, for example, has been revealing vividly how policies and actions to preserve species and habitats were greatly motivated by anxieties about changes back in the metropole and by the need to assign "primitive" peoples some less threatening place in the colonial order."

From Taylor, P. and R. García-Barrios. 1995. "The social analysis of ecological change." Social Science Information, 34: 5-30.

*Williams, R. 1980. "Ideas of Nature," in Problems of Materialism and Culture. London: Verso, 67-85.

Suppose we want students to consider how, for example, the valorization by the romantics of untouched (non-human) nature might be interpreted in terms of the romantics' need to turn the attention away from the industrialization and colonial exploitation of which many of them were beneficiaries. It's too much to ask students to jump straight into advancing their own social interpretations of claims about "nature." First they have to get comfortable with the very idea of exposing what is not literally stated‹what people state only when prodded, and then not all the time. The following conversation: i) develops this idea of interpretation in a dialogue; ii) allows students to go through and mark where they don't understand the response given or where different responses could be given; and iii) provides a start‹the first five statements‹from which students could write their own trialogues.

Partovo ("Humans are a Part Of nature"): Humans are living organisms. As such they are part of nature. Therefore, everything they do is natural.
Separato ("Humans have become Separate from nature"): People have lost touch with nature and that is why our environment and our society are in trouble.
Interpreto ("Interpret Socially views about nature and what is natural"): When I hear people draw lessons from nature, I hear them really telling me something about their views on society.
Separato: You'll have to explain this interpretation to me, because, without a sense of what is natural and what is unnatural, anything is acceptable.
Interpreto: But Partovo has a sense of what is natural that tells him everything is acceptable.
Separato: Is that right?
Partovo: Yes.
Separato: So you mean mad cow disease, polio, AIDS, and so on are acceptable?
Partovo: Um, yes. We could look at them as forms of population control for the human species.
Separato: So you wouldn't invest in research for AIDS treatments?
Partovo: No. And I don't think the government should either. AIDS affects mostly gays and IV drug users. Their practices do not meet widely held community standards and so they don't deserve society's help.
Separato: I think you are out of date about who gets AIDS. But, putting that aside, I thought you said anything humans do is natural and thus acceptable.
Partovo: Well, not everything.
Separato: So, what is and what is not?
Partovo: Look, I overstated my position. What I do know is that it is not consistent for environmentalists to argue that draining wetlands disturbs the balance of nature, while putting out forest fires to keep a national park scenic is OK.
Separato: I think that the National Park Service is reconsidering its fire policy -- whether it is better to do preventative control burning or not; whether to allow lightning fires to burn or not.
Partovo: So humans get to decide what kind of (non-human) nature is the one they want?
Separato: Not in any arbitrary way; forest ecologists use the best science available to advise the NPS on this.
Partovo: "Scientists know best" -- I thought your line was that we'd lost touch with nature, not that we needed to listen more to scientists. But now I think about it, you did support research for an AIDS vaccine, right? So you don't mind if scientists intervene to limit interaction between humans and (non-human) nature in the case of the HIV virus. In what ways exactly do you want us to regain touch with nature?
Separato: I guess I also overstated my position. Basically what I want to say is that we have to remember that we're dependent on foodchains for much of our food, plants for our planet's oxygen, microorganisms inside us to digest our food well, and..
Partovo:... microorganisms for our beer, bread, sewerage treatment works, and thus clean water. Or do you think these processes are unnatural because humans have harnessed them for our own purposes?
Interpreto: Can I interrupt here? Separato, are you concerned by the fact that your reasons for getting in touch with nature are couched in terms of benefits to humans, and are not for the sake of (non-human) nature?
Separato: I am concerned for non-human nature. Moreover, I'd like to break down the distinction. That is, in the long term I would like humans to live as if they are one part of nature among many other interconnected parts. However, I have learned through experience that most people will pay more attention to the environment only if I give them reasons in terms of human benefits.
Partovo: You want humans and non-humans to be all part of nature. This sounds like the position I began with. And in this unified picture harnessing microorganisms becomes natural, no?
Separato: You are giving me a hard time. Yes, beer, bread, etc. are OK. But don't slip back to claiming that everything human technology produces is OK. Oil spills, for example, kill animals, devastate fishersies and that, in turn , threatens the livelihoods of fishing people.
Partovo: Biotechnology is producing oil-spill cleanup bacteria.
Separato: I think it would be better to prevent oil spills in the first place.
Partovo: Maybe, but I'm not certain. Energy is vital to the economy. If oil companies were more heavily regulated and energy prices rose as a result, the economy would grow more slowly -- and probably lose out to countries that accepted a greater risk of oil spills.
Separato: It wouldn't be so bad if economic growth were slower.
Partovo: I suspected you might say that. But think -- if the economy grew slower, there'd be less money for R&D. And we'd be less likely to develop the efficient solar cells and fusion power we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, the risk of oil spills may be just what we have to accept if we are to eliminate CO2 greenhouse problems.
Separato: You're making a lot of unsupported assumptions about where oil companies invest profits, whether the promise of fusion power is worth investing more and more billions, and so on.
Partovo: I trust corporations to invest their profits well to make new profits. And I, like you, expect that science can produce results.
Separato: I don't have as much faith in corporate-driven R&D as you do. Or in Big Science such as nuclear fusion. Priorities for research should be for health and ecological sustainability -- and not for military might or corporate profit. I mean, have you read the figures for the costs of containment and cleanup of wastes, chemical and nuclear, put into the environments around military installations since WWII?
Partovo: I concede that mistakes may have been made, but the military didn't only produce nuclear weapons and toxic wastes. Many technologies that you rely on are spinoffs from military R&D.
Separato: Like teflon? I could do without that!
Partovo: How about computers and the internet. Have you used email to organize an environmental campaign lately?
Separato: OK -- there are some benefits I accept, but go back to the costs. Someone will have to pay these, and that's going to be a big drag on the economic growth you favor.
Partovo: Maybe the costs won't be so great if we just abandon the areas and let nature take its course.
Separato: Not everyone can pack up and move away from toxic-contaminated sites.
Partovo: Agreed. But you should remember that some people move into such areas when the price of real estate drops to levels they can afford. That's the way markets work to balance supply and demand. Dare I say, it's a natural process?
Interpreto: I suspected you would. And by that thinking it's then natural or, one might say, acceptable, that the people who move into the area suffer the health costs, while the corporations that secured the military R&D contracts gain the profits. The general point I want to make is that almost everything that both of you has said in trying to defend your views about nature has been based on your views about acceptable vs. unacceptable aspects of society. So, Separato, I don't think "nature" holds up as a point of reference for deciding what's acceptable or not.
Separato: But if not nature, what else?
Interpreto: You've already told us what -- for you it's human health and ecological sustainability; for Partovo, it's economic growth, with risks that can be distributed unequally among groups within society.
Partovo: I might observe that the notion that we can plan for ecological sustainability in a complex world sounds as full of "unsupported assumptions" as Separato criticized me for having with respect to economic growth and technological development.
Interpreto: Right -- I'm glad Separato's point sunk in enough for you to wield it in return.... Separato, you're looking perplexed. What are you thinking?
Separato: I know ecology is complex, all the more so when humans are involved -- as is almost always the case. And I admit that I invoke simple ideas such as "draining wetlands disturbs the balance of nature." But I do this to grab attention. Once I have it, I can point out the decline of waterbird and migrating bird populations and get people interested in checking development. I just wouldn't get to first base if I said, "I'm against development."
Partovo: And you're not against all development, either. I think you like national parks to be fenced off from farms and for those parks to be managed so that campers don't destroy the forests, kill the animals, pollute the lakes...
Separato: And you're not for all development either. I think you like the vacations I've heard you take on the clean uncrowded beaches of Cuba.
Partovo: (Sheepishly) And I've also enjoyed going with my family on nature tours in the Amazon and in Kenya.
Separato: But, back to my worry. I have to reduce complexity if I'm going to get attention and enlist people into a campaign. It's not until we have people involved that we can even get research done on the ecological dynamics -- to establish how vulnerable the wetland is; how quickly it could recover from stress; whether we can create a new wetland on land developers don't want. And that's just the research needed on the ecological dynamics. Imagine if I had to research the economic costs and benefits before raising my concerns!
Partovo: You could rely on developers to assess the costs and benefits. They wouldn't go ahead if they were likely to take a loss.
Separato: There you go again -- you forget that corporations make sure that they don't carry all the costs. They displace some on to other people and rely on not having to pay for loss of wildlife populations when development destroys the animals' habitats.
Partovo: OK, but let me echo your concerns. If we had to assess all the costs -- present and future, social and environmental -- of proposed projects, it'd take years before we could advance on new industry and other development. The economy would be greatly constrained. And we all need a vibrant economy.
Separato: We don't all benefit equally and some bear greater costs...
Partovo: ... OK. OK. But that's unavoidable. Anyway, egregious abuses eventually lead to reform legislation and government regulation.
Interpreto: That seems a very coarse way to take environmental and health costs into account. In fact, you're both claiming that analyses of ecological, health, and economic dynamics are too complex to be the basis of social decision making. This appears to be a claim about how the real world works. I know you're not refering to nature -- trees, animals, etc. -- but just as I said at the start about ideas of nature, these ideas about the "real world" build in ideas about your favored social arrangements.
Partovo & Separato: Huh?
Interpreto: You're assuming, for example, that some participatory form of on-going planning and assessment is not possible. The absence of this possibility then warrants Partovo trusting corporate and military decision makers to balance benefits and costs, and warrants Separato resorting to dramatic rhetoric -- "Act now to save the wetlands!"
Separato: And you think that such participatory planning is possible. That explains why you point to the unspoken messages behind our statements -- you want to check the power of simple accounts of the ecological and social world and counter the rhetoric of crisis management that gets associated with those accounts.
Interpreto: Touché.
Partovo: I'm getting dizzy. You're interpreting our statements in terms of social views and commitments that we didn't state...
Interpreto: Or, at least, only started stating when prodded...
Partovo: OK. And now Separato is saying that this very interpretive stance of yours is itself subject to non-literal interpretation?
Separato: It's even more complicated than that. Interpreto has faith in the ability of people to understand complex processes and participate in decisions about investment and social policy. So he seeks to undermine our approaches and their implications about social action and to boost his approach. We're all involved in intervening in social processes. Therefore, we should examine empirically whether my environmentalist rhetoric, Partovo's developmentalist rhetoric, or Interpreto's critical interpretations of us have the most impact.
Furthermore, Interpreto, if you prefer the more complex, why do you focus on interpreting our more simple statements? Instead you should present to us some complex accounts of particular cases. At the very least, to help me get beyond "do not disturb natural balance" type rhetoric, I would like to know what ecological and social principles can guide our interventions with/in nature.
While I'm on this roll, I think it would be better if you -- together with a group of collaborators -- demonstrated on-going, participatory planning and assessment. Or else, we would be justiied in interpreting your emphasis to date on critical interpretations as indicating your confidence in the political impact of ideas, words, and text. Could it be that practice is secondary in your framework?
Interpreto: I think you're both right to challenge me. Raymond Williams' life's work -- and I have been taking him as a model today -- focused on literature and politics. The correlations he draws between ideas people have about social and natural arrangements -- I am impressed by them. But he does leave me wondering what people actually do so as to end up with such connected ideas. I'd like him to say more about the social interactions and negotiations through which humans come to know the world.
Partovo: I hate this -- now you are distancing yourself from your role model. Can't we keep this simple?
Interpreto: Yes and no. Let me observe that in this discussion a Williams-type perspective has opened up questions you had been avoiding, and it has exposed assumptions you were taking for granted. In this light, even if simple rhetoric and accounts -- "(non-human) nature is in fragile balance"; "economic processes adjust investment and R&D choices to respond to costs and demands" -- are sometimes powerful, wouldn't it be better to have a more complex account to complement that? Furthermore, suppose you were simply committed to mobilizing people to act (or, in Partovo's case to let corporate managers act for them), I think more complex accounts would be needed to help you understand when the simple rhetoric will be powerful. That isn't always the case. And, even when it is, simplicity sometimes engenders unintended, undesirable consequences.
Separato: Hold on. I understand the undesirable consequences of Partovo's accounts -- they help distract help corporations and the military avoid paying the full costs of their projects. But what are the undesirable consequences of drawing attention to the environmental costs of development?
Partovo: Let me answer. Environmentalist rhetoric, especially of the apocalyptic kind, undermines people's commitment to working hard to keep the economy thriving.
Interpreto: Maybe, but that's not what I had in mind. I suggest that you wait for Peter Taylor's classes on neo-Malthusians, the so-called "tragedy of the commons," and global models to see how environmental rhetoric can have undesirable consequences.
Separato: OK, I'll wait. But let me admit that I'm worried by where you're leading us with your critical interpretations of ideas about nature. I now doubt your earlier reassurances that I have some alternative points of reference, namely, health and ecological sustainability. If one shifted to more complex analyses, health and ecological sustainability would start unraveling too. We would be left without any firm handholds.
Interpreto: I don't think that must be the case. But, to convince you of that, words and arguments are of limited power. I believe that we'd have to join in and experience some participatory processes of social governance.
Partovo: We already do -- we all vote in elections, right? I know that voters aren't all informing themselves with analyses of "complex ecological, health, and economic dynamics" as you call them. But voters elect representatives whose decision making takes into account the advice of those to whom they delegate the tasks of analysis.
Separato: You must know that that is a seriously idealized picture of how decisions are made in government.
Partovo: Maybe, but tell me: Would you be happy if we moved towards this ideal of social decision making by elected representatives following the advice of environmental analysts? Would you -- or Interpreto for that matter -- accept an appointment as such an analyst?
Separato: I don't know.
Interpreto: I'm afraid we're too far from that ideal for me to make a well-informed response.
Partovo: It's easier to be a critical interpreter of the messy present, isn't it?
Interpreto: Yes, but I think there's more to learn from our conversation than that...