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