From Iceland — The Nature / Culture Duality

The Nature / Culture Duality

Published May 31, 2007

The Nature / Culture Duality

The other day I was in Skaftafell, the most renowned National Park in Iceland. A series of didactic panels are on display in the Visitor Centre to celebrate the saga of the area. One in particular drew my attention. The National Park – it explained – was instituted in order to allow nature to grow and develop in accordance “to its own rules”. For this reason, the grazing of sheep was immediately forbidden. This brought forth as a side affect, however, an uncontrolled expansion of lupine – a nonindigenous and rather invasive species – at the expense of the local vegetation. What followed was a long-term plan – still not fully realised – to eradicate lupine. After which, nature will finally be enabled to follow its course.

Make no mistake; I thought it was a commendable effort. And yet, as I read the panel, there was something that bothered me. The whole discourse was built upon an inherent ambiguity. “Nature should be allowed to grow spontaneously, according to its own laws” was the morale of the whole story. But that same story highlights how reliant on human intervention the “spontaneity” of nature has been in Skaftafell over the years. Rather than being a pristine cradle of naturalness – as is commonly suggested – the National Park appears to be a place of cultivated naturality. And what is that if not a contradiction in terms? Is it “natural” when it is nurtured?

I believe my uneasiness had nothing to do with the history of Skaftafell in particular. Rather, it stems from a dominant cultural model, which at a deeper analysis seems unable to capture the nuanced reality of human-environmental relations. Like a knife, Western thought has cut the conceptual bonds between man and his surroundings, creating a split between “nature” on the one hand and “culture” on the other: two separate domains, closed and neatly delimited.

And it is not difficult to notice how this distinction is reflected in other similar opposing pairs typical of a Western dualistic philosophy: culture/nature, mind/body, subject/object; they all represent the same pattern of thought, applied to different levels of analysis. And according to what story one reads, there is a different villain guilty of slicing a single reality in two and “objectifying the bodily world of nature.” In turn, it is Hebraism, Christianity, Socrates, Descartes, Positivism, Al Qaida… OK, the last one was a joke. But whoever is deemed responsible, a reunification of our cosmos still appears far from being realised. Despite a massive speculative effort – especially in the last part of the 20th Century – our models of thought are still prisoners of such dualistic conceptions.

Two Conceptions of Nature
This is not the case of claiming the frequently repeated false myths that other cultures are more “natural” than ours or more able “to be one with nature”. Distinctions similar to the one between culture and nature are present among many other societies as well. But most often the dynamic and reciprocal character of that relationship is implicitly assessed, in some cases even portrayed in symbiotic terms. It is this dynamism and reciprocity that one day Western culture failed to recognise, ultimately estranging itself from what we call “nature”.

Indeed, we always conceive of nature as different, whether we approach it in terms of exploitation or with unconditional respect: never of belonging and communion. On the one hand, we have those who claim that “nature” is a world of objects and physical facts, governed by laws and regularities. Science can read it like a book; technology can manipulate it like clay. Man should tame it in order to benefit from its bounty and employ its resources. Quantification and reification are the trademarks of such a conception, which I call “utilitarian mechanism.”

On the other hand are those who see “nature” as the ultimate Otherness. Feminine and motherly, spontaneous and uncultivated; their Nature (a “nature” with a capital N) is the negative to the male and man-made world of the mind and ideas. Her sublime beauty inspires our awe and devotion. Her exploitation is comparable to rape and matricide. I call this view “romantic idealism.”

If we can agree that we have environmental problems today (and I would not express many doubts about it myself), then I believe that its profound causes have to be sought in similar conceptions and in the dualistic way of thinking that underlies them. Either they have justified illusory and fallacious policies of economic maximisation at expense of ecological awareness; or fostered an environmental counterculture that is offspring of the same mindset and as such weakened by its own premises and stereotypes.

Such binary oppositions as “culture vs. nature” can surely make speculative life easier. However, it should be enough to take a glance ‘out there’ to realise how the two domains are far from being separated by clear-cut boundaries. They blur into each other and interweave in a problematic unity.

Humanising Nature
A disastrous drought struck the African State of Zimbabwe in 1992, decimating the crops and prostrating the entire country. Did the international community’s sympathy go to the starving Zimbabwean population? Absolutely not. It was with twenty elephants under threat to be shot down in order to have the meat distributed among the most desperate peasants.

Nature can be nurtured, we said in the beginning. Apparently it can also be humanised. We have human beings objectified and pushed outside the borders of human solidarity and elephants that are welcomed into our cultural world, becoming a matter of concern in international summits and direct beneficiaries of financial aid. And yet, nobody is likely to refuse to admit that the wealth of human societies largely depends on the welfare and abundance of nature. Still, the opposite also happens to be true and the welfare and abundance of nature is tied to the wealth and well being of society.

Does it sound like a regression to magical thought? Perhaps. But this ancient wisdom has also begun to be accepted in highly modernistic circles such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It is becoming widely recognised as a fact, indeed, what havoc on the environment is wreaked by poverty and social disruption.

As cases of savage deforestation in the Amazon, Indonesia and Nepal have documented, there can be no effective attempt at environmental preservation if it is not preceded by an increase in social welfare and equality. There is no sharp disjunction between the realms of “culture” and “nature”. Rather, a constant interplay and unsolvable entanglement.

The Icelandic Viewpoint
A number of Icelanders I have spoken to, especially in the countryside, express irritation towards the wave of ecologic activism recently investing the island on the wake of largescale projects for industrialisation. “Can’t we exploit our own resources and get the most out of them? Just because some ‘romantic idealists’ in Reykjavik or some metropolis in Europe or in the US are opposed to it? They live far away from the affected areas, how can they know better than us what’s to do? All they want is to keep on with their comfortable city lives and still have a place for summer vacations.” That was their basic argument.

When put in those terms I can agree with the objection, at least to a certain extent, but simply because the whole issue is poorly posed. We would gain different kinds of insights if we started to consider human-environmental relations in all their entangled character and to recognise their extreme complexity – an endless string of actions, reactions and retroactions that grasp “man” and “nature” in one single web of existence. To start with, for example, we could reframe the whole ecological question in purely utilitarian terms, showing that economic maximisation is a slippery measure of judgement – and we would have a good chance to make a point.

“Energy in Iceland is both more inexpensive and clean than elsewhere: exploiting it for industrial production is a way to oppose global warming and not to contribute to it”. This is roughly the claim made by spokespersons for Alcoa, the multinational aluminium giant investing most heavily in the industrialisation of Iceland.

It might even be true: having no means to argue on the scientific grounds of such a statement, I can only raise the doubt whether the environmental costs for importing the raw material and exporting the final products from the country do not end up levelling out the boasted benefits.

But the real point is another one. Global warming is only the tip of the iceberg, an instance on planetary scale of human- environmental relations, which have gone astray. The scope of the phenomenon has provided it with prominence in public agendas worldwide – and with some right. But this cannot become a device to overshadow the fact that the rapport between man and its surroundings can possibly be problematic in a number of other ways. Any alteration brought onto an ecosystemic matrix – besides its effects on global warming – also bears other consequences, often unpredictable and unexpected, often visible only in a long period, often quantifiable as negative repercussions even in economic terms.

The Lesson From Reclaiming Wetlands
You want examples? The reclamation of wetlands is an ongoing practice justified on the ground of a myth of “development”. For the most parts, it aims at acquiring further cultivable land. At first, it would seem to be a wise option, at least in a utilitarian perspective: after all, it is a matter of turning apparently fruitless areas into productive ones.

In the United States, however, the collective costs for such an operation amount to US $11,000 per year for each hectare of drained wetland. And this figure only takes into consideration the increased gravity of floods (wetlands act like sponges, which soak water and limit the impact of floods) and not other benefits that wetlands notably bring to an ecosystem.

Seen from a long-period perspective, then, is indiscriminate land reclamation a sound economic strategy? Doubting that claim seems more than licit. And the whole history of agriculture is full of episodes of poor management due to environmental misreading, which resulted in massive economic losses. Fertilisers and pesticides have contributed to staggering increases in production – that is undeniable. However, it has been at the expense of public health and burdens on the health-care systems.

The radical change in our diet is rapidly leading to similar outcomes. Growing consumption of meat and proteins may seem to be the most obvious choice for our famous “economic man”: richer foods at ever-lowering prices. The widely acknowledged epidemic of obesity that has spread across the Euro-American world over the last decade, however, might suggest that the “economic man” is mistaken in some of his calculations.

Are Icelanders ready to trade their fisheries – the source of the country’s wealth over the last century – for a model of growth based on heavy industry? It does not have to be the case, but beware: modifying the course of too many glacial rivers may well have repercussions on the oceanic population. Should the eventuality not be carefully pondered?

Our Faustian Enterprise
I am not arguing that any man-induced change brought upon our environment should be preventively forbidden. Our own presence, anyways, mutates the nature of “nature”. And it has been proven that even a hypothetic pristine Earth would not inherently tend to a self-organised state of equilibrium, but rather be shaken by periodic cycles of disruption and chaos. But yes, any large-scale alterations produced on our surroundings remain something of Faustian enterprise, whose aftermaths are often clouded in uncertainty.

In a world where man and nature are entangled in a single and inextricable web, actions undertaken in sight of a shortterm advantage can disastrously backfire over a longer period. Both successful adaptive strategies and sound economic management used to be grounded on the common principle minimisation of risk. As the stockbroker who ventures into rapacious and rash financial operations, we have apparently decided to leave that basic wisdom behind and play an increasingly hazardous game with our surroundings and ourselves. In both cases the stakes are extreme: incredible gains in the immediate moment, but also catastrophic losses just behind the corner.

In objection to such arguments, some contemporary prophets of “utilitarian mechanism” may remove the mask of philanthropy and wear that of freedom instead. “No constraint,” they say, “no collective concern should be placed on the shoulders of the enterprising and ambitious individual. Let individual health and individual security be individual matters.” In doing so, they reveal their true minds: a world of human and environmental relations, where the well being of the few occurs to the detriment of the most. Not only is nature humanised; they implicitly advocate the “naturalisation” of humans. Making waste paper of ‘the social contract’, forgetting any previous alliance between man and his surroundings, they substitute all bonds of solidarity with a nightmarish vision of the struggle for survival in accordance with the most vulgar reading of Darwinism. And, since everything is entangled, such a struggle is going to invest the entire planet with all its inhabitants, man and nature alike: truly “a struggle of all against all”.

The Point, At Last
If there is a point to be drawn out of this discussion, then I believe that we are finally approaching it. Taking an ecological stance is not about making dramatic choices between man and environment, seen as two opposite and mutually exclusive poles. It is not a matter of privileging the authenticity and beauty of a mythical untamed “nature” over the artificial ugliness of man-made industrialism and concrete; nor is it opting for conservation, simplicity or a return to primitivism versus the sirens of development and economic growth.

No. As we are part of the same unity and talking about our environment, I believe, it is like looking in a mirror: it is another way to talk about ourselves. To ask questions such as: what foundations of growth and development are truly solid? What society is actually healthy? What kind of community would we want to build and live in? Our relationship to “nature”, we will discover, is already largely inscribed in the very answers to those questions.

It is my conviction that a conscious environmental movement would have much to gain by appropriating such insights.

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