Inside a Box 📦

There’s an recurring theme across all of the materials we’ve gone through this term, and it’s not just the discussion on the anthropocene. Rather, it’s the debate over humanity’s position in the world, and whether the anthropocene is a fair and accurate description of that position. Many contemporary criticisms have put the blame on top of humanity. Our aggressive push towards industrialization and progressive technologies has led to an incredible amount of damage to the environment, but the discussion always seems to create this dichotomy of humans and nature. Humans have destroyed nature. It is a separation that makes us as a species seem distant and detached from nature. But what is nature exactly? And are humans not part of nature as well? Are we not made of the same materials, created out of a similar process, and exist in this world alonside every other living and nonliving thing? The debate we should be having is not if humans are damaging their environment or not. They most absolutely are, and there is very little room left to deny it. The debate should instead be focused on humanity’s role within nature itself.

Humans seem to find joy in categorizing. We love to organize everything we see into neat boxes of “this” and “that.” The entirety of history can be summarized to groups of humans creating a separation, be it arbitrarily or from a genuine difference, and reacting to that separation in an intense way. From wars to slavery to democracy to globalization, the boundaries we have made for ourselves have shaped the world. These boundaries are sometimes good, and sometimes bad. But ignoring these boundaries entirely is not a wise decision, as is forgetting that they are ultimately defined by our perception of reality. Nature, as argued by Steven Shaviro, is at such a fundamental base level in the universe, that to think of humanity as an equal counterpart overvalues our existence and also undervalues nature’s existence. He believes that we must cease to define nature using humanity’s informatic and anthropocentric sensibilities.

In many ways, I agree with Shaviro. I find it so strange to hear people argue over dominance over nature. Do we really find nature to be so powerless that a single species within its realm can overcome it? Humans are not that omnipotent, and nature is not that weak. I am reminded by a quote from C.S. Lewis in his book The Abolition of Man, in which he analyzes this topic to some degree. “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” It’s like attempting to win a duel against yourself. It’s a paradox, it makes no sense. We are a part of nature, and it a part of us. But at the same time, I fear that this mindset takes away from the damage we have caused to the envrionment. Perhaps this damage is only a risk to us, not to nature, but it is a risk nonetheless, and this idea makes it far too easy to disregard these concerns. And while humanity is surely a part of nature, it is important to recognize that we are still apart from it in at least some capacity. We are not only conscious, but sentient. We are aware of our existence, and somehow that gives us an influence over our existence in a way nothing else in existence really can. So, what is nature? And are humans a part of it? As in most things, the answer is complicated.

The elusive definition of nature

I always find it peculiar when people say “I need to get out in nature.” This common wording that many Americans use propagates the false belief that human beings are separate from Nature. I find it interesting that those who use this wording are often passionate about the planet, and yet, they may not fully understand the relationship humans have with Nature. Of course, no one really understands that relationship; it is far too complex. But although we may not understand our place in Nature, we do know that there is one.
In Steven Shaviro’s “Twenty-Two Theses on Nature,” he argues that “Human beings and their productions are not separate from Nature; they are just as much, or as little, “natural” as everything else” (216). Throughout his article, Sharviro creates a dialog in an attempt to quantify and define Nature. Shaviro defines Nature as “metastable.” Nature’s metastability is disrupted by individualization, which is the creation of an individual from less individualistic parts. Shapiro argues that “The most minute imbalance, or the most fleeting encounter, can be enough to set things into motion. And there is generally more to the effect than there is to the cause” (218). What Shapiro is arguing here is a type of butterfly effect scenario, where one event, so matter the scale, sets infinite events into motion. This chain of events is unfathomable to predict by the limited human mind.
Humans have had huge impacts on our environments. Yet, I am careful to say that we have had the largest impact out of any species. Fungi, for example, live under every step we take outside. It is unfathomable the amount of mycelium that traverses the forest floor. Without fungi, a forest cannot exist. Mycelium passes nutrients and information to every plant, which is crucial for the survival of saplings who are shaded by their elders. Perhaps we could say that humans have had the largest negative impact on Nature. However, there are fungi, like the parasitic Honey Mushroom, which can destroy a forest in less than a decade. However, it is possible that the destruction of the forest by a fungus is beneficial can start new growth.

The difference with humans is our anthropocentric view; the earth was made for us and, therefore, we can exploit it as much as needed. Changing our understanding of Nature and our place in it is crucial to combat climate change. Shaviro’s article explains the complexities of Nature, including the energies and information exchanged that create this complexity. Nature is impossible for humans to fathom because it is infinite, but also not at the same time; it does not have an infinite amount of trees for us to cut. To conclude, Shaviro offers up a definition of Nature, yet I do not know if I agree with it. However, I do not know how I would define Nature myself, other than perhaps having the omnipotence and vast infinity that Christians view their God to have.