Monthly Archives: October 2013

Integrative Terminology and the “Artinatural”

As Patrick has suggested in previous posts, environmental and technological developments can be determined, to some extent, by the frames we use to understand the world. In this post I hope to address this issue by offering a new kind of frame that refuses to separate the world into simplistic, dualistic categories….

When I was a kid, sometimes my friends would accuse me of performing non-sequiturs or saying random things. To me, my random leaps weren’t so random as I was always one to see the strange connections between seemingly separate subject matters. Bird watching and robots, for example… or candy and climate change. Anyway, what I call “integrative terminology” is to describe terms that try to make these once invisible connections more visible. The word “cyborg”, for example, is used to describe things that are part organic and part machine – it describes a literal amalgamation of once separate spheres. Professor Donna Haraway now uses it to describe other things that transcend these kinds of boundaries (and not just characters like Robocop or Iron Man).[i]

Another term that is used to talk about overlapping spheres is the word “hybrid”. This word also now refers to cars that utilize both electric and combustion motors in unison, but Professor Bruno Latour also uses the term to talk about the interesting mixture of the categories of “nature” and “culture”.[ii]

I myself have adopted the word “artinatural” to describe things that are both artificial and natural at the same time.

Now let us turn to some more concrete examples so that we don’t wander off too far into the territory of the conceptual….

My dog Sonny is a half Boxer, half Golden Retriever mix – a very special and rare mix as far as I know. He is a special kind of animal beyond simply being a rare breed of dog, however. He is special partly because he exists due to the strange and dynamic human breeding techniques that led to those two specific breeds in the first place. Dog breeding is a very artificial thing – it involves lots of intentional planning and human social organization to achieve. There are even institutions involved in the process like the American Kennel Club. But would it make sense simply to call my dog “artificial”? He certainly is not just a human product – wild wolves are, indeed, his close relatives. No, I would argue that he is both artificial and natural, in other words, he is “artinatural”.

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Once we understand Sonny as artinatural, we can also see that many things we once thought as simply artificial, or simply natural, are in fact artinatural. A wooden desk, for example, has natural and artificial elements. A tree planted in the park, also, has the naturalness of its genetic lineage, perhaps, and the artificial elements of its intentional placement in that park (assuming it was landscaped in). The same can be said for a plastic chair, whose petroleum material was pulled from the earth, processed and reformed into a chair shape. And, a similar thing can even be said for a human thought itself – being that we human beings also come from, and are still part of, nature (i.e. the universe in its entirety, one of the many definitions of the word “nature”).

This is where integrative terminology and thinking can lead to some larger questions and answers. Is the artificial simply part of the natural? Or, is the “natural” an artificial concept that is then applied to the world by human beings? The answer to both questions may be “yes”, and beyond that, in these queries many fascinating insights and mysteries can be found.

Now let’s turn to how an integrative idea like artinatural could contribute to some key ecological and environmental concerns…. Firstly, to see the interconnectedness of spheres means that one can no longer imagine an entirely contained “artificial” place or object. For example, we have learned the hard way, through recent events like the BP/Gulf oil spill and the Fukushima nuclear spill, that although things like crude oil and radioactive materials may temporarily be contained in human-made structures, they are still structures that exist in the natural world, and furthermore, they are by no means permanently or completely sealed from that broader natural world. These toxic spills clearly crossed the theoretical boundary between “artificial” and “natural” to show that they had always been artinatural, and because of this, other similar projects should be understood as risky and dangerous practices that can only be temporarily safe and contained. Even if the oil spill had not taken place, the oil itself would have been distributed and used, leading to increases in greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants….

Global climate destabilization itself is an example of the artinatural: it is not just human societies emitting billions of tons of chemicals into the atmosphere, but also the interconnected processes that create the warming, the storms, and the rising sea levels. To not see these artinatural connections, and to not respond to them, would be disastrous.

On the other hand, recognizing the artinatural can also help us move toward positive, transformative goals. Because we no longer imagine the city as merely artificial, we can start to imagine more urban farms, edible gardens, rooftop gardens, green/ecological corridors, and decentralized energy production throughout and within our cities and neighborhoods. We already have cars and trucks and high-tech outdoor equipment in our wildernesses, but now we can also imagine wilderness within the city – more plants and animals integrated into the once strictly artificial places.

Last but not least, the ideas of wilderness and environment can be seen as artinatural themselves – understanding them in their historical and linguistic contexts can help to separate the negative aspects from the positive aspects that these ideas have had. The idea of wilderness, as authors like William Cronon have pointed out, was applied in such a way as to imagine land without people – that somehow the human element would “contaminate” a once pristine nature.[iii] This kind of thinking is simplistic and wrong. Not all human interactions are destructive ones. The term environment, moreover, can make one imagine a that the “environment” out there is but a thing, a pool of resources beyond oneself, when it is, in fact, something integrally connected to every human being through food, water, air and climate (among many other things). There is an artinatural way to have people and nature coexist peacefully and positively and it involves, in part, understanding that some of the simplistic dualisms that are still widely used were incorrect.

 


[i] Haraway, Donna Jeanne. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge, 1991.

[ii] Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern (tr. by Catherine Porter), Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass., USA, 1993.

[iii] Cronon, William, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995, 69-90

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Undetermining Determinism

This week I discuss the notion of determinism, or “the doctrine that all events, including human choices and decisions, have sufficient causes.”[i] The post will cover how determinism works as a method of explanation, why this method of explanation is problematic, and finally a several different specific flavors of determinism that impact people and nature.

What does determinism mean for people and nature?

Discussing determinism means thinking about causes and effects. In particular, not just how we know causes and their effects, but also what causes and effects exist and whether or not we can know them at all. These considerations correspond to questions 5c-5e in my guide:

  1. What counts as a cause and what counts as an effect?
  2. What can be known about the problem? In particular, are there limits to knowledge? Are there limits to control? What is within human power and what is beyond?
  3. What counts as a “fact” or evidence? Who knows things?

We ask these questions when analyzing frames because, as STS scholar Sheila Jasanoff has written, “What we know about the world is intimately linked to our sense of what we can do about it.”[ii] Deterministic accounts sharply limit what may count as a cause, attributing causal power to structural factors—the physical environment, technology, genetic makeup, or social structures like the State or the Economy—rather than individual actions. In so doing, such accounts make history appear inevitable, that what happened was unavoidable. This sentiment of the inevitable deprives individual people of causal power, [iii] suppressing any hopes or ambitions we might have to change the course of history. Moreover, determinist accounts tend to focus narrowly on just one structural factor at the expense of others. This leads to one-sided explanations such as attributing the European conquest of the Americas solely to the “accident” of guns, germs and steel.[iv] In other words, determinism not only limits how we understand history and attribute praise and blame for past events, but also what powers we recognize in ourselves in the present and the sorts of possibilities we can imagine for the future.

Environmental Determinism

In this form of determinism, accidents of the environment—such as the distribution of resources like water[v] —determine history (see note iv). One historical example emphasizes the vagaries of climate in determining race. In the late nineteenth century, it was commonly believed among white colonists in tropical places that the more “stimulating” northerly climate of Europe (and North America) had led whites to be naturally superior thinkers and moral leaders, while the “degenerating” tropical climates had naturally stunted the moral and intellectual growth of the people living there. This climatic determinism served to rationalize a deep-seated racism among white colonists and lend a pseudo-scientific pretext for the obvious brutality and oppression of colonialism. It also caused anxiety among whites that they might suffer the same “fate.” Of major concern to colonists in the Philippines, writes Warwick Anderson, was the question, “Would the white race degenerate and die off in a climate unnatural to it?” Ironically, the general sentiment was, as one prominent U.S. Army doctor put it at the time, that “the Anglo-Saxon branch of the Teutonic stock is severely handicapped by nature in the struggle to colonize the tropics.” [vi]

Technological Determinism

A frame based on technological determinism grants too much causal agency to technologies and discounts the agency of people and nature.[vii] This makes it difficult to imagine ways for people or nature to change the course of history, to re-route it from its current path.

Environmental historian Edmund Russell identifies two deterministic approaches to explaining the role of technology in relations between people and nature.[viii] The first he calls the deus ex machina approach, summarized as “science invents, technology applies, and man conforms;” the second he calls the “necessity is the mother of invention” approach.[ix] Both lead to accounts of people and nature that suffer from technological determinism.

Deus ex machina

We can see a deus ex machina approach in a commonly accepted narrative of climate change. In this telling, once people discovered that fossil fuels such as coal and oil are a plentiful source of energy, it was inevitable that technologies would develop to direct that energy toward all sorts of uses. From there, societies would inevitably adapt to incorporate these very effective fossil fuel technologies as fully as possible into their economic, political, and productive fabrics. Societal dependence on the gasoline-powered automobile, coal and natural gas power plants, and petrochemical inputs to industrial and agricultural processes were unavoidable outcomes of the fact that large reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas exist underground. From here, it is a short leap to conclude that climate change, though caused by humans burning fossil fuels, was nonetheless unavoidable (i.e. not our fault). This technological determinist account rationalizes the second framing of climate change that I identified in my post on Framing Environmental Problems. If using fossil fuels to the fullest was inevitable, then stopping climate change by scaling back how much fossil fuel people burn (the goal identified by the first frame) is not a viable solution. The only route left would be to go with the flow and hope that this technological rollercoaster will produce some solutions for adapting to the dangers of climate change.

Necessity is the mother of all invention

The regression to deterministic accounts of people and nature is more subtle in the “necessity is the mother of all invention” approach. “It enters,” writes Russell, “when we assume that technical choices are inevitable—technical criteria govern technical decisions, each step in design follows logically from the one before, and designers arrive at optimal solutions.”[x] This trap tends to occur through an asymmetrical focus on technologies that have succeeded, rather than those that have failed. By only looking at the successes, the development of technology along a certain path seems ever more self-evident, in other words, inevitable.[xi]

One such account could be told of synthetic fertilizers. The story might go that modern agriculture depends upon artificial sources of nitrogen (N) in order to counteract declining soil fertility from long-term farming. N is generally the limiting nutrient in agriculture (along with P and K, to a lesser extent), and over time repeated harvests pull that N out of the soil and ship it off to towns and cities for people to consume in the form of food. As the soil loses N, it must be replaced. Naturally occurring N-rich fertilizers (e.g. Peruvian guano or Chilean sodium nitrate) are in limited supply and must be shipped long distances. Therefore, it was only logical and rational that scientists should develop a means for fixing N from the atmosphere (which is about 80% N2) into a form readily usable by plants (NH3).[xii] Its widespread adoption is further evidence that synthetic fertilizer from industrially fixed N was an optimal technological innovation.

However, such an account would ignore several important factors in the development of synthetic N fertilizers. For example, it would ignore the history of how and why scientists developed a process for fixing atmospheric nitrogen. In 1909, the German chemist Fritz Haber successfully demonstrated a process for the synthesis of liquid ammonia (NH3) from the reaction of atmospheric nitrogen (N2) with hydrogen gas (H2). He teamed up with Carl Bosch under the hire of German chemical company BASF to bring the process “to an industrial scale with a view to its economic application”.[xiii] By 1911 they had built an operational pilot plant, and by 1913, on the eve of WWI, brought a full-scale manufacturing plant online. Ironically, Haber and Bosch were working not toward the goal of better fertilizer, but rather toward providing a ready supply of military-grade nitrate (NO3) for the manufacture of explosives. Germany’s primary source of NO3 from Chilean sodium nitrate, and had to be shipped at great expense across the Atlantic. This supply line was also highly vulnerable to disruption (for example by Great Britain’s famed Royal Navy), and the Haber-Bosch process allowed Germany to use its ample coal reserves and normal air to provide a near-infinite local supply of ammonia. Only somewhat coincidentally did the applications for agriculture become clear during the inter-war period. And it wasn’t until after WWII that the process began to be widely used to fix nitrogen for use in fertilizers: the US bomb-making industry realized that it’s now useless N-fixing capacity could provide a profitable solution to the shambles that world agricultural production and trade had been left in after decades of war and depression.[xiv]

Undetermining Dichotomies

The point of considering technological determinism is to recall that technologies shape and are shaped by social, environmental and personal factors. Technologies are not inevitable, “they might have been otherwise.”[xv] And that goes for any type of determinism: history might have developed otherwise, and it still may.

Determinism tends to reinforce a number of problematic dichotomies (black-and-white views of the world). I have already discussed briefly the presumed sharp divide between nature and culture, and we have here seen reference to structure and agency. In the future we will also cover complications arising from separating science and society, and the state and society. If we hope to overcome these sharp divisions, we must avoid narrowly deterministic accounts of the world that divide people and nature unquestioningly into powerful causes and powerless effects.

In the next couple of weeks we will cover some of the possible responses to determinism, including ways to get beyond these problematic dichotomies. We’ll start next week with a discussion of integrative terms from our first guest blogger, my friend and colleague Ted Grudin.



[i] Dictionary.com had the most concise definition I could find.

[ii] Jasanoff, Sheila. 2006. State of Knowledge: The co-production of science and social order. Routledge. p. 14.

[iii] Determinism and free will do not play well together. Especially in the case of strong types of Newtonian determinism, “the existence of the strings of physical necessity, linked to far-past states of the world and determining our current every move, is what alarms us.”Hoefer, Carl. 2010. Causal Determinism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Online at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/. This is also a good starting place for delving more deeply into the philosophy of determinism.

[iv] Referring to Jared Diamonds’ (in)famous book, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Diamond has (rightly) received much criticism for the book’s apologist stance on European conquest. But he has also received criticism for his environmental determinist take on history, “Environment molds history.” I also like this entry from Barbara King on NPR’s 13.7 blog, “Why does Jared Diamond make anthropologists so mad?”

[v] e.g. Solomon, Steven. 2010. Water: The epic struggle for wealth, power and civilization. New York: Harper.

[vi] Anderson, Warwick. Colonial Pathologies. 2006. Duke University Press. Ch. 1.

[vii] For more detailed discussion on technological determinism, I suggest the edited volume, Does Technology Drive History? The dilemma of technological determinism. Ed. M. Smith and L. Marx. 1994. MIT Press.

[viii] Russell, Edmund. 2011. Evolutionary History: Uniting History and Biology to Understand Life on Earth. Cambridge University Press. p. 139-142.

[ix] Ibid, p. 139.

[x] Ibid, p. 140.

[xi] “Preference for successful innovations seems to lead scholars to assume that the success of an artifact is an explanation of its subsequent development. Historians of technology often seem content to rely on the manifest success of the artifact as evidence that there is no further explanatory work to be done.” Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker in The Social Construction of Technological Systems, Ed. Bijker, Hughes and Pinch. 1999 (1987). MIT Press. p. 22.

[xii] This article from Nature provides a good overview of the nitrogen cycle for reference.

[xiii] Carl Bosch, quoted in, Paull, J. 2009. A century of synthetic fertilizer:1909-2009. Journal of Bio-Dynamics Tasmania 94 : 16-21.

[xiv] Smil, Vaclov. 2001. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the transformation of world food production.

[xv] Bijker and Law. 1997 (1994). Shaping Technology/Building Society. p. 3.

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