Do We Need Nature?
Problems are always insoluble, or they wouldn’t be problems. What makes them problems is that they are what is left when the mechanisms available within a given set of terms and frame of reference have solved all the other issues. In dealing with the issue of “Us versus Nature” we are dealing with what appears to be two worlds at odds, for our existing terms define nature as that which is not human, and human as that which is not nature. There are solutions to insoluble problems, but they involve changing the terms, changing the frame of reference.
We are nature. In two senses–we are the products of four billion year of biological evolution (and thirteen billion years of physico-chemical evolution); and we are the most conscious bit of an ecosystem that completely interpenetrates us, including our stomach flora, eyelash-mites, mitochondrial DNA inherited from ancestral bacterial and viral infections, and whole organelles coopted from other species. Our cities are human forests; the stock market is an ecology; we were domesticated by the grass species such as wheat, corn, and rice to be their seed and pollen vectors, and species such as dogs and sheep to be their hunting and grazing partners. To ask whether we need nature is like asking whether living organisms need matter; they are made of matter, they are a special kind of self-replicating super-matter, just as we are super-life, more alive than life, because we are life that replicates itself by knowing itself.
How does this perspective help us? By letting us see the whole hierarchy of generative cycles that make up the world: the wave- and particle-generating world of physics that emerged into chemistry; the crystal and polymer-making world of chemistry that emerged into biology, the species-making world of life that emerged into human economics. Computer-savvy investigators of the social contract, like Brian Skyrms, have shown how breeding and gene-exchanging populations of virtual organisms can learn the most perfect strategies for playing nonzero-sum games, including the recognition of fellow-altruists, signaling systems for doing so, accommodation and exploitation of mistakes, sanctions applied in iterated game-play, and the emergence of emotions, fairness, property, and trading protocols. Economics is but one set of cycles of reciprocity pyramided upon more and more ancient and simple and slower systems of exchange. We feed our nation using an invisible hand that has its ancestors in sociobiological cooperation among kin, the sacrifices of individual cells in multicelled organisms, the give and take of cyclic catalytic chemistry, and the mutual collapsing into certainty of quantum wave-function ensembles.
Taking this perspective, the issue is no longer a matter of static quantities and distinct categories, but of the velocity of information and, in the human world, the velocity of money and value and resources.
To put this simply: If Jane has a gallon of water, and Dick has two gallons of water, who has more water? Obviously, if we stick to the strictly linear philosophy we were taught in school, the answer is that Dick has more water. But there is another logic which might give us a very different answer. If Dick lives in an ecosystem that recycles water every two years, he actually “has” a gallon a year. If Jane lives in an ecosystem that recycles water every week, she “has” a gallon of water per week, or fifty-two times as much as Dick. So the first answer is: “Dick has more water;” but the second is “it all depends on the speed of the recycling process.”
But nature is already the very process of recycling: the grand wheels of the nitrogen, carbon, and water cycles in the atmosphere, ocean, crust and mantle, mediated by the slow turnover of crustal plates; the swifter cycles of ocean currents, solar cycles, and el niño recurrences; and the quicker ones of plant and animal metabolism as the seasons change. Stock market and liquidity fluctuations are swifter still. The trick now becomes one of meshing the more recent and more volatile–and potentiallly more value-creating–cycles with the ancient ones that constitute their context and infrastructure. We need accurate gearings and carefully-calibrated block and tackle to convert the massive moves of the planetary ecosystem into the fine motor movements and the finer electronic flows that do our industrial work.
Back in the nineteenth century, under the impression that the increase of entropy over time was simply the gloomy increase of disorder, our economics consisted of digging up the natural store of free energy (ores, fossil fuels, topsoil, human youthful capacity for work) and burning it before others could get to it first. There was a limited amount of work energy in the universe, and we had to appropriate it so that other animals and people wouldn’t. Now have have re-understood entropy as the increase of information; and information is becoming the gold-standard of economic value. Information gives a corporation victory through faster turnover times and clearer views of the competition, as it gave our outnumbered troops in Iraq victory through satellites, drones, GPS and telemetry. Life itself feeds off the flow of decay as higher energy states bleed off into lower ones–it is the paddle-wheel in the waterfall of natural collapse.
How do we mesh the fine fast gears of economic activity into the slower coarser gears of flesh and earth and wind and water? Clearly, we could damage the slower cycles by overwhelming their rhythms by uncontrolled short-term changes, whether by ploughing up a prairie or saturating the oceans and atmosphere with CO2. Friedrich Von Hayek and Michael Polanyi, among others, drawing on the insights of Adam Smith, suggest ways in which such large problems can be collectively solved. As the collapse of socialism across the world has made clear, top-down solutions don’t work because no one leader or junta has the kind of local polycentric knowledge that is needed (any more than anyone has the knowledge of all the experiences of all the members of a living species, so as to substitute a genetic fiat for the Darwinian process of selection).
What is needed is a kind of free market environmentalism. This does not mean that government should simply bug out: as our experience has taught us in both government and markets, it is a delicate and skilled process to keep the playing-field level and balance the forces that would drive toward stasis and stagnation. But we have learned from the experience of Zimbabwe, which saved its elephants by making them the property of the villages near which they lived, and by the successes of environmental restoration when ownership encouraged the improvement of the land–and more anciently, from the fact that the highly-populated continest of Europe preserved its biodiversity largely because of the aristocratic ownership of ancestral hunting preserves. Ownership–including the legal title that Hernando de Soto argues is essential to turn property into capital–is the key to facilitating the local meshing between the big wheels of the rest of nature and the little fast wheels of human interests.
The richest areas of biodiversity on earth are the places where human civilization, the most disturbing regime of all, has been longest established. Climax forests can be remarkably boring in terms of species richness, like an economy dominated by monopolies. Cities, on the other hand, are crammed with different species, because they, like sunken cargo-ships, are full of ecological niches. This wildly counter-intuitive finding should lead us to reconsider the conventional wisdom that informs our intuition. Certainly, the rate of extinction of species has shot up demonstrably during the era of human dominance. But in the roof gutters and cornices and backyards and middens and kitchen gardens and warehouses and railroad marshalling-yards and canals and drains of human cities there are thousands of opportunities for clever new adaptations–not to speak of the botanical gardens, the zoos, the household pets, the bacterial surges that swept the urban populations, the exotic imports that come in on the hulls of trading ships or the cargo-holds of airplanes, the multiplication of cultivated garden flowers and weeds and “vermin.”
It could be argued that the city species are really pantropic weeds, and that all cities have much the same suite of species: the unique local flora and fauna get crowded out by the imports. But how do we count “life” itself? Biomass won’t work: the bulk of a tree is dead heartwood, no more alive than our hair and fingernails. What about the combined mass of DNA and RNA? But much of that is just identical reprintings. Almost all the genes in the animal world are shared with all other animals, together with a substantial number we share with plants, not to speak of the contuinuously shifting pool of genes snipped and borrowed and reimplanted all the time in the worldwide group grope of the bacteria. The genes of every species of life on earth are almost certainly distributed throughout hundreds of other species, either dormant or expressed in different cellular contexts or awaiting a fresh tweak from the homeobox genes that control the process of fetal development. Old genes can be collected together, just as prairie restorationists collect together the species of a “wild” prairie and plant them together to make a new, genuine, self-organizing and self-policing ecosystem. In Europe and South Africa the extinct aurochs and quagga have been resurrected by selective reuniting of their genes in domestic cattle, zebras, and wild asses.
Life, when it comes down to it, is the growing, the unique, the edge between genes and experience. The word “Nature” itself is derived from the same root as “natal” and “nativity”–it means the process of giving birth, and is cognate with words like “generate” and “gene” and “genus” and “ingenious”–and on another branch with word like “kin” and “kind” and even the “kinder” (children) we find in kindergarten. Nature is not a thing but a process; not a process but a process of reproduction; not a process of reproduction but a creative process of reproduction with new variations. Though biodiversity counted in terms of the number of species has perhaps declined, gross genetic diversity within the successful species whose habitats have been extended by human beings may actually have increased, leading to a greater likelihood of new speciation. An entirely novel species of mouse has just been discovered in a town in Northern Italy. Steve Packard, the prairie restorationist, has been creating prairies on waste lots in the heart of Chicago. Perhaps we are already becoming the shepherds and husbanders of nature, rather than the despoilers of it that we have often been.
In Eritrea the visionary planetary engineer Carl Hodges has created a new kind of agriculture, highly profitable, upon the arid Red Sea coast, using seawater that has not been desalinated, sea animals, and halophytes such as salicornia–a brine-loving oilseed plant. Perhaps only poetry can express the nature of this achievement, the radical change of perspective it embodies. Notes from a poetic journal of my work with Carl:
Once I received a dream of terraforming,
Mars a new home for all our living kind:
Now the Red Sea pours through canals and channels
Into the world my heroes had designed;
First to the shrimp-ponds, turbid, dark, and yeasty,
Where a brown worker, water to his chest,
Can feel the clawed crustaceans brush his ankles
In a wild wealth of living interest
(Spawned in the labs with crazy intricacy
By scientists from quake-torn Gujarat,
Sonora, Texas, Yale, and Eritrea,
Tweaking the sex by clock and thermostat);
Then to the lakes dimpled with pale tilapia,
Where ibises and wierd flamingoes fly,
And water that would foul and glut the ocean
Becomes the food the fish are nourished by;
Then to vast fields of jadegreen salicornia,
Whose tips provide a mild asparagus,
Whose seed is pressed for oil, whose stem for fiber,
Whose roots sequester carbon, and will thus
Suck from the sea the gases of our burnings,
Ransoming us from the imprisoned sun,
And so redeem the oil-debt of Arabia,
Paying in soil for what our fires have done;
Then to the meres that stretch to the horizon,
Lakeland and marsh, seeded with mangrove trees,
Where eco-tourists soon will sail and wander
Among a myriad birds and honeybees;
Then to the aquifers, that are already
More saline than the native Red Sea brines,
Floating the fresh that flows down from the mountains
To help oases grow their green-shade shrines;
And cultured dragonflies eat the mosquitoes,
And hives collect the honey from the bees,
And mangrove-shoots are fed to goats and camels,
To make a rare and much sought-after cheese;
And a cafe springs up by an acacia,
Where farmworkers eat fiery omelettes,
Mercury, market-god, cheerfully deigning
To drink at Carl’s seawater rivulets;
And we will draw the water to the village
And get the World Bank to make micro-loans
To seed a further round of breeding nature
Into the realms of bikes and telephones,
So that these bright-eyed poorest of all peoples
May see their children grow to join the world
And feed the human race with their new stories,
And the gold flower of history be unfurled…
Something is happening on this dun seabed.
The green brine pours like blood through trench and pipe.
It is the coming of the marvelous vineyard,
And the millennium is gold and ripe.
For through these Mars-canals flows endless money,
From the Red Sea and from the Indian
And the Antarctic and the Pacific oceans
And all the waters since the world began;
And it runs back through shellfish, leaf, and breastmilk
And aquifer and ancient mantle-flow,
And everywhere it goes it grows to spirit
Crystalling into plant and embryo,
And we contain it in our marks and dollars,
Nacfas and francs, yuan, and yen, and pounds,
And it pours on through fiber-optic channels
And dendrifies and buds as it compounds,
All thickened, as the primal soup was kindled,
By the prodigious engine of the sun,
The mine of fire that burns a billion ages,
Phoibos or Ra or Christ the bleeding Son,
Or Allah the All-merciful, or Krishna,
Or Jahweh burning still in Midian,
Or the soft jewel in the Buddha’s forehead,
The gift the Jaguar gives to everyone.