If this was the plan, it did not survive contact with the enemy. Sniffling and hacking my way through a recent cold, I had to fend off a kind lady who wanted to dose me with everything from echinacea and ginseng to comfrey and St. John's Wort. "Don't worry" she said breezily as she offered me handfuls of attractively coloured capsules, "these aren't drugs; they can't hurt you, they are all perfectly natural." So is hemlock, of course, and very nice in tea, I hear. The same person warned me darkly against the side-effects produced by over the counter cold medicines. "Poison" she said, "they'll upset the natural rhythms of your body. I wouldn't allow them in the house."
There are in fact, thousands of people who purify
their water, buy organically grown food, refuse all pharmaceuticals, distrust
government studies and double-blinded drug trials but who will swallow
anything extracted from a plant or tree on the basis of the claims made
in a tabloid newspaper. The faith alone wouldn't be surprising; herbalism
and holistic medicine have some strong arguments on their side. It is the
combination of the total skepticism about anything made and the
total credulity about anything "found" or "extracted" that
is truly amazing. Culture bad/Nature good. Of course, this story does not
describe a majority of those knowledgeable about herbal medicine; it would
be unfair to think so. Yet there are now a substantial number of people
who would say with Montaigne, as they swigged their echinacea, "Nature
knows her business better than us." Are they merely fools, or do they know
something that the philosophers missed?
If Nature is a good brand name for medicine, that
pales into insignificance beside her triumphs in environmentalism. The
most extreme anthropomorphism comes from certain versions of the Gaia hypothesis:
Nature as a single enormous living organism, which "knows" of threats to
its being and responds to them; in the most dramatic form, responds by
actually wiping out a certain species of pesky polluters. But even in more
modest environmentalist ideas, there is a strong notion that Nature has
a message for us; the message is "noli me tangere" -- don't disturb natural
processes. Many people who would roll their eyes if told that homosexuality
was unnatural and thus should be prohibited would find the same basic argument
much more convincing if made about nuclear power, genetic engineering or
high intensity farming. Naturalistic argument is alive and well.
The thread that ties together the environmental and the echinacean form of the argument is the philosophy of Edmund Burke or perhaps Friedrich Hayek, thinkers who extolled the virtuous powers of organic, spontaneously developed systems and preached against the dangers of planned intervention. Burke's dark ruminations about the hubris involved in using reason to transform the social world resonate perfectly with environmentalist warnings about the peril of believing that we can fully account to the consequences of human intervention in the natural world. Hayek, writing principally about the economic order, summarises perfectly the contents of an environmentalist credo about the impossibility of planning an equivalent of a naturally occurring ecosystem. "[I]t is impossible not only to replace the spontaneous order by organisation,.. but also to improve or correct this order by interfering in it by direct commands." Thus, in a nice piece of irony, the environmentalist often talks about Nature in exactly the same reverential terms as the social conservative does about Culture, or the laissez-faire conservative does about the Market; these are our sacred systems, which reason cannot replicate, fathom or direct. Leave them alone. Faith in the dispersed knowledge of the spontaneous system extends even into medicine. The herbalist argues that herbs are substances that evolved in the same environment with people and have had an extended field trial on human beings over thousands of years; thus they are likely to be a less disruptive and side-effect laden way of treating an illness than the drugs "designed" to do so.
Small wonder, then, that faith in Nature is hard to reconcile with the rationalist philosophers' critique of the naturalistic fallacy. Environmental ideas of Nature are often based on a scepticism about the power of reason, and a willingness to put faith in spontaneous order precisely because one knows the limits of one's own knowledge about the working of the system. We reify and anthropomorphise Nature in part to express this "faith in the system." But if we would be suspicious of this anthropomorphism when it is applied to "the Market" or to "national tradition," shouldn't we try to apply the same skepticism and feeling for nuance to "Nature"?
Which system, which Nature, is being venerated?
Are we humans in it? In medicine, does anything organic count as Natural?
Do we let aconite and malaria have their way, smiling indulgently? Or is
it merely any plant or mineral "traditionally" used as medicine? In environmental
terms, is it some imaginary world without the impact of human history,
without landscapes transformed, species eradicated, plant varieties cultivated?
Is it "Nature as scenery"; the world with the human interventions we like,
whether they are English hedgerows, drystane dykes, the bleak beauty of
a Scottish moor, deforested before Dr. Johnson passed it by? The trouble
with declaring one's reverence for a system, be it a market, a culture
or an ecosystem, is that people actually disagree strongly about what the
"natural" state of that system is. Then they disagree further about the
normative implications of that natural state. Both sets of disagreements
could often benefit from some old-fashioned rationalist scepticism.
In 'Contested Natures' Phil Macnaghten and John
Urry take up these questions. They argue that we have not one but many
Natures, "constituted through a variety of socio-cultural processes from
which such natures cannot be plausibly separated." Their argument, if I
understand it correctly, is that three things will happen once we realise
that the concept 'Nature' is neither 'natural' nor unitary. First, we will
stop believing that we can get objective science about Nature. The reason
is almost Heisenbergian; the observers are in the frame, not outside of
it. We are part of Nature, part of many Natures, and scientific analysis
must always begin by assuming some pretheoretical orientation towards one
of those 'Natures.' Second, we will stop both believing in and romanticising
some stable set of "environmental values"; the authors' argument here was
considerably foggier. Finally, we will stop treating attitudes to Nature
instrumentally, as though they could be calculated through the metric of
a cost-benefit analysis or changed by a tax on emissions. This instrumental
way of seeing the world is "importantly linked to a marketised naturalistic
model of human behaviour, and its radical separation from non-human species."
Though I think that the general line of analysis
is interesting, the book suffers from the "socially constructed" disease:
the move from a claim that a general concept (such as Nature) is socially
constructed to a particular conclusion about the collapse of some way of
thinking (such as the instrumental analysis of environmental behaviour)
without adequately working out the intervening steps of the argument. Thus,
for example one might acknowledge that both the identification of "a threat
to the environment," such as "air pollution," and a notion of "a cause"
(for example, overuse of the internal combustion engine) were socially
constructed. This might cause one to be more careful of the economic analysis
of a hydrocarbon fuel tax. Should we extend the boundaries of the analysis?
Change our notion of "the environment" to be more global or local, long-run
or short-run? Rethink our vision of environmental threats, focussing on
consumption rather than pollution? What the argument from social construction
wouldn't do is cause one to give up economic analysis, or imagine that
raised prices won't have environmental effects. The same criticism can
be applied to Macnaghten and Urry's discussion of environmental science.
The general denunciation is unhelpful; the working out of the particular
details inside some actual case or practice is much more productive. The
authors declare this as their goal but in practice they oscillate between
contextualised analysis and a priori rebuke.
Thus, for example, the book is at its strongest
with a wonderfully detailed history of environmentalism in Britain in which
different conceptions of "Nature" can clearly be seen to affect both rhetoric
and policy. Hill walkers and bird watchers, preservationists and green-spacers
all claimed to know what "Nature" really was, and had varying success in
inscribing their differing visions in planning arrangements and statutory
schemes. In another fascinating piece of analysis, the authors report on
an empirical study of different groups' attitudes towards the environment
and environmental degradation; moderated discussions were conducted with
different demographic groups: unemployed men, mothers working at home,
Asian women, and so on. The excerpts from these discussions reveal a tapestry
of British attitudes towards the environment, a reality that is much richer
and more interesting than the rather precious analysis of "Nature Time"
that precedes it. In the "Nature Time" chapter, for example, we learn that
"Greenwich time is thus a mathematical fiction signalling the attempted
emasculation of the human experience of time (and space)" and, my own personal
favourite, "no other animal appears to have adopted the week as a temporal
unit." Who can blame them?
The annoying thing about this book is that few
people will brave its frequently ghastly prose to discover the interesting
things inside. Macnaghten and Urry are also masters of the art of bathetic
citation; the reader gropes through a fog of words, only to bang his shins
on bracketed references that verge on parody. Thus, in a sentence that
shows characteristic syntax and citation habits, the authors tell us, "Piers
and promenades, beaches and bungalows, swimsuits and swimming soon exerted
the mastery of nature on the margins of society (See Shields 1991 on the
beach as a marginal zone; and Sprawson 1992 on swimming)." I challenge
the reader to identify the subject and object in that sentence (Exert mastery
over nature? Exemplify nature's mastery of society?) without
straying into less disciplined thoughts about Sprawson on swimming.
Foggy prose and precious jargon aside, this book is a valuable one. Macnaghten and Urry's historical account of environmental politics and their empirical studies of environmental attitudes are extremely enlightening; even their general theoretical framework is useful, once shorn of its verbiage and conceptual filigree. The reader is left hoping that they will continue those aspects of their research and find an editor, perhaps consoling themselves in the meantime with Lowell's thought that, "Nature fits all her children with something to do, He who would write and can't write, can surely review."
Boyle is a professor of Law at American University, Washington College
of Law and a visiting professor at Yale Law School.