What the hell is nature?

If you ask someone on the street, perhaps in the style of Jimmy Kimmel, “what is nature?”, you’ll get a variety of answers. Nature is the Earth. Nature is plants and animals. Nature is the biosphere. Simple enough, right?

Wrong – apparently. In the short article “Twenty-Two Theses on Nature,” Steven Shaviro examines nature in terms of energetics, informatics, spacetime, sentience, causality, and minimizing anthropocentrism. Not things you would often see on Jimmy Kimmel.

Some of the theses are easy to read and understand, but as they progress they get more and more mystifying. Theses 1-3 are very agreeable: nature can change, humans are natural. It seems like we often forget those two things, especially that nature is constantly changing. When we work against climate change, or against invasive species, it isn’t because we want nature to be preserved in some mythologized unblemished state, it’s because we want the world to be a better home for us. We don’t want crops to be destroyed by invasive species, often aided by climate change, or climate change worsened storms and droughts to wreak havoc. This havoc is disorder, or an increase in entropy, which is the direction the universe is heading in. Interestingly, thesis 13 says that complex systems like storms or Jimmy Kimmel Live do create more order in the short term, but they comply with entropy by creating more disorder in the long term.

Shaviro casts a wide net over what nature actually is. In thesis 4, nature is “all-encompassing,” and that we could go far into space and “never find an edge or a boundary.” In thesis 5, nature is “radically open” in time and space. When I initially read this, I protested the definition, but perhaps it fits. If nature includes landscapes, along with plants and animals, why not include the whole universe?

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