Nature is disappearing! Most of you will agree on the latter sentence. There are less green trees in our cities, no untouched landscapes or quiet spots due to traffic noise. Nature often has this romanticized image of being calm, harmonic, beautiful and good for us. Nature’s “it’s good for you” brand is also utilized for selling products. Labels like “100% natural” (can something be less than 100% natural?) are creating an image of a supposedly healthy, safe and environmental-friendly product. With a little bit of distance, one recognizes pretty fast that nature can on the contrary be also unpredictable, harmful and ugly. Just think for example of floods, earthquakes and cockroaches. Not very pleasant indeed, but this seemed to be greatly forgotten in peoples mind when they think of generous mother nature.
However, in the face of technological advances with a nearly unlimited rate, technophobia is on the rise. People do not come up with pleasant descriptions for technology but rather associate “artificial” as detrimental and bad.
The merely biggest paradox of all is that nature is improved by making it prettier and more appealing to us. Making nature more natural, so to say. Only a yellow, shiny, seed-less banana tastes yummy. Glowing fishes are upgrading the conventional aquariums in peoples living rooms. This “hypernature” in truth is highly artificial.
What is nature?
Nature and our notion of nature have been studied since the rise of civilization. Objects and events are categorized into “born” and therefore “natural” or “caused or made by man” which is associated with the term “artificial or non-natural”. Culture, implicating humans and the entities they create, are thus placed outside nature, although humans are born out of nature. This strong line between the two opposing categories is now vanishing in our highly technological society. For example synthetic biology enables us to create cells guided by synthetic genomes that reproduce on their own. But then, do we consider new born cells of the man-made cell natural?
Nature is made by humans
When you look around you on a street, you might be surrounded by the usual things like traffic jam, McDonald, restaurants etc. – a human designed world. Over time culture can become nature, or Next Nature how it is called in the philosophical concept of Koert Van Mensvoort and Hendrik-Jan Grievink. This culturally emerged nature is more familiar to us than the old nature made out of trees, animals and plants. As technology becomes so abundant we perceive it already as natural.
An omnipresent concept of nature, evolution, is invading culture as well. Economy and technology act as environmental forces driving Darwinian selection. This nongenetic evolution can give rise to new product species like Razorius Gillettus, a five-bladed razor that origined from the former two-bladed model through such evolutionary development and not purely out of the need for a better shave.
At the same time traditional nature is cultivated. One example is the domestication of wild animals to submissive pets. All in all, humankind is changing nature continuously and in turn humans co-evolve with the technology they create. This pictures nature as a highly dynamic world that will never stay the same in contrast to the so often bemoaned, lost nature that is seen as static.
Next Nature – CONTROLLED versus UNCONTROLLED
Van Mensvoort and Grievink radically shift our notion of nature by suggesting to throw our “born versus made” dualism overboard and rather think of nature as beyond our control. Object and processes that are born and uncontrollable constitute the old nature including for example the sun and thunderstorms, whereas next nature is made by humans but still uncontrollable like traffic jams. Easily manageable systems like a bonsai tree or birth control appear under this light as cultivated nature and culture, respectively
Watch the TED talk on Next Nature:
We are living in the noosphere
The thought-provoking concept of Next Nature is creating a new vocabulary to view the world around us. Our technology is transforming nature into a new kind of nature, that is as real as the old nature since it is wild and unpredictable as ever. More important even, progress is inherent to humans and preserving the past nature is therefore not feasible. Around five billion years ago earth was covered in the geosphere, which was replaced by the biosphere allowing the emergence of life. Vladimir Verandsky and Teilhard de Chardin suggested in the early 20th century that the biosphere transformed into the noosphere (derived from greek words “mind” and “sphere”) by the emergence of human cognition and describes the collective human consciousness. It remains speculative what will come after the noosphere, but certainly something new will arise.
Our current limited view of nature needs to be abandoned to develop the awareness that we change nature and this is not a bad thing. In contrast, our technology can guide the development of nature. Yes, we can even use Next Nature to save old nature. Just think of using genetic engineering to bring back extinct species.
Once we are aware that we cannot go a step back but we can shape what is going to be, we can start to think about how we want to do this.