How do you define nature?

Written by Steven Shaviro, “Twenty-Two Theses on Nature” is a publication from a Yearbook for Comparative Literature. His piece challenges the way nature is commonly viewed and provides for 22 alternative explanations for what its true form is, rather than the mundane “the things that surround us.” It pushes for the idea that nature has its own consciousness; it’s constantly changing— with or without human impact. However, this doesn’t mean the consequences of human intervention should be disregarded because nature will still change form. It simply means nature has a mind of her own. Shaviro’s piece shines light on how understanding our relationship with the environment and acknowledging its consciousness is the first step into tackling the climate crisis. 

The first thesis stating nature isn’t “one side of a binary opposition,” was quite striking to me. In the age of the climate crisis, it’s easy to view the issue as “humans vs. nature.” We’re forgetting that humans ARE a part of nature. Humans have always had a relationship with nature, dating from times even before hunters and gatherers. The climate crisis isn’t about humans relying too much on the natural world, it’s about our exploitation of it. It’s imperative to understand how our relationship with our environment has changed throughout the last decades and how it’s no longer something that’s mutualistic. 

Added Change vs. Natural Change

I fount the 13th thesis to be particularly interesting as I can see it in what is happening in the world today. The 13th thesis suggests that the amount of energy in and around earth is constant, and it cannot be changed. I can then take different forms by being converted into different releases and absorptions. To me that reflects the extremely intense Atlantic tropical storm season in 2020. The storms in the Atlantic Ocean have been far more frequent this year and more intense as well, therefore reflecting the increased amount of energy that is being dissipated and absorbed in the world. Based on the thesis, that extra energy is a conversion from energy stored in more stable things, such as oil reserves or trees. The destruction and emission of those stable energy reserves results in more energy in the atmosphere. The extra energy is then dissipated to the ground through storms and other weather events. This tropical storm season is yet another example of the irregularity cause by unnatural human energy releases into the atmosphere.

The one that seemed to kind of be in opposition to 13 was 3, where it says that nature should never be a “given”. Thesis 3 says that change in nature always happens, and it is an ever-evolving thing, whereas 13 says it does not. The important distinction that makes the two theses agree with each other is that energy amount is constant, but how the energy is used and distributed is always evolving. 13 caters more to the idea that humans as a part of nature accelerated changes in it as a result of activity, whereas 3 says that nature would have changed regardless of human action through things like evolution. The two compliment each other well as they encompass ideas on how humans within nature can change it compared to how it would change without additional human input.

TO be Sentient, to be CONSCIOUS

I really found the idea of consciousness and sentience in Nature intriguing, to say the least. As I was reading through the theses, I found myself being able to plant at least one foot into agreeability with most, if not all the theses.

In particular, 17, 18, and 19 caught my attention because it so.. “nicely?” (I tried to think of a more academic word) bounces between the ideas of sentience, consciousness, cause, effect, and affect for that matter, along with perception. Those particular theses had this underlying theme of something smaller or “insignificant” causing tidal waves when that thing at the larger scale had no perception of what that smaller thing was. Of course I had heard of the butterfly effect but most of the time, it’s portrayed in a way where we can see the chain of events linearly, clearly. For example, I forget my pen at my job, then someone asks for a pen and I don’t have one so I have to ask someone for one, but they don’t have one so they refer me to someone else, etc. etc. But I thought these particular theses were interesting because they present the butterfly effect, where a certain “section” of that chain of events, gets “lost” in the subconsciousness or rather, it acts on sentience. And I thought that idea was just a real eye opener to how we perceive the world around us. I will definitely be thinking about this more from here on out: How much information did I just, “ignore”? How “much” Nature is too much for me to perceive?

Our conceptualization of nature

The definition of a ‘thesis’, according to oxford dictionary, is “a statement or theory that is put forward as a premise to be maintained or proved”. Essentially this means a thesis is a statement with no implied backing. Really the only assurance we have is that one person (the author) thinks it is true. This is not said to demean the “Twenty-Two Theses on Nature”, but simply to clarify what it is we are dealing with here. Furthermore, while it might be questionable to state unsupported theses in Physics for example, but the very nature (ah) of this topic is much more abstract.

All of the theses describe nature in some way. That much is apparent, but the way in which nature is described throughout has some notable diversity. Initially, all the theses describe the way in which we ought to think of nature. This pattern holds up until thesis 8 where Steven Shaviro boldly states “Nature is neither a plenum nor a void”. This distinction is particularly interesting because of something called the is-ought gap. The is-ought gap is the concept that no statements of directing what one should do can be derived directly from statements only consisting of what is true. This means that there is a fundamental divide between the thesis which guide action (or more specifically guide how we should think) and those which make a statement about the way that nature is. In another context I could potentially brush this off as a quirk of wording, but considering the philosophical nature of this paper and Steven Shaviro’s own background in philosophy I believe this is intentional.

While Shaviro gives us many theses (twenty two to be precise) they clearly work together, but what are they saying? My interpretation is that Shaviro’s Thesis with a capital T is we need to view nature in a way that motivates us to take care of it. Now, clearly this one statement does not include nearly the same level of detail that Shaviro’s theses give and most notably they answer the question of what exactly that way is, however I think this is the defining thread. An important note about this thread is that it is an ought statement. If we consider this as a premise to our 22 theses this makes sense. The ought component here is crucial to create other ought statements.

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?

22 by 22

What counts as nature? It all depends | UW News

We and our culture and inventions are just as natural as the world we live in. A part of nature not apart.

Humans are a part of nature, but nature isn’t only human. Similarly, a square is a rectangle not all rectangles are squares.

Nature is dynamic, and even if we cannot detect the change doesn’t mean it’s not there. It belongs to everything it encompasses. 

Nature encompasses everything. There is no boundary or edge to which it can be defined and no simple definition because of this.

Because of the nature of nature it has no end or beginning. You cannot choose a single outcome from an endless list.

We are a part of nature which means we cannot fully understand why it acts a certain way. There will always be some unknown.

Science is based on our reality of nature and how we experience it but science cannot reduce nature fully into scientific terms.

Nature is contains matter and empty space. Nature never becomes completely empty of filled, but always stays between empty and completely full.

The dynamic state of nature means that it will always shift from one state to another and never stop at one version. 

Nature is so interconnected that one imbalance can have huge effects. The initial change is often minute when compared to the termination. 

Disruptions in the natural flow of nature results in individuation. Something very new, different, or unexpected resulting from something that frequently occurs.

There are two types of ways that individualization occurs through nature. Through the transfer of energy and through the transfer of information.

An argument for the creation of organized systems is that in the end they increase the entropy of the universe very efficiently.

Technology has changed the mindset of many people from an energetic view on the universe to an informatics view on the universe.

A key difference between information and energy is that information only exists because we created it unlike energy which is exists anyways.

Information is used to enact change. The processing of information results in action. The perception of this is only used for action.

Consciousness is very rare in nature, but sentience is much more common and serves a much more primal purpose of processing information.

Two things can have a connection and interact without ever being aware of each other. Information can be processed without being aware.

Energy is being continually exchanged and transformed very similarly to information which is continually exchanged. Thus, information and energy are equally important.

The difference between acting a knowing is important. One can act without knowing and know without acting. Sentience can be broadly used.

Nature therefore is what every individual instance has in common with each other. Not one or the other but what connects them.

This relationship between very one and everything exists but what it is cannot be simply stated. We simplify only to begin comprehending.

-Russell Fitch

Shifting Our Perspective

“Twenty-Two Theses on Nature” was published in a section in the Yearbook for Comparative Literature and was written by Steven Shaviro. As the title reveals, the text is a list of theses about Nature surrounding our perception of it and what it really is. Some of the theses are straightforward messages; some require an expansion of perception to comprehend. 

Two theses that I found easier to comprehend were the third thesis and the seventh thesis. The third thesis claims that Nature is not something that is “given.” Therefore, we must recognize that the state of it isn’t stagnant, rather it is an ever-evolving and changing process. As we have seen throughout the centuries, Nature is not merely something that exists and stays the same. Especially observing the impacts of climate change, we see that Nature alters and evolves exponentially and minutely, such as stronger coastal storms and small changes in a creature’s gene structure. The seventh thesis states that while Nature is grounded in the science that we know of today, it is not limited to those boundaries. Humans have discovered so much about how the Natual world functions. However, it must be continuously acknowledged that there is always more to learn and that our limited understanding of it does not confine Nature.

One thesis that was harder to wrap my mind around was the twentieth thesis. It explains, to the best of my knowledge, how that line between “the ‘physical’ and the ‘mental’” is thin and is only differential by definition. An example is given how a thermostat could be defined as sentient, given its ability to process information and how it can “feel” the temperature around it. I believe this thesis is attempting to show the complexity of the ways energy is transferred in Nature and how trying to simplify the process can bring us further from the truth.

The ways of thinking these theses promote can be very beneficial in our journey of understanding the world around us on a deeper level. Shifting our perspective is not only essential to understanding climate change to a better degree, but it may also offer new solutions to attempt to repair the damage that we have inflicted. 

1 Thesis With 21 Subtheses

This weeks reading constituted “Twenty-Two Theses on Nature”, a far cry from Luther’s ninety-five, but a valiant effort nonetheless. Each individual thesis made some sort of statement on nature and the environment, with the intent of shaping the way humans interact with the natural world.

I was intrigued by the first thesis. The thesis states that humans should view themselves as part of nature, rather than being separate from nature. It made a similar point to the first reading we had, about the role of Judeo-Christian thought in shaping modern attitudes towards environmentalism. Personally, I thought this was the best idea offered by any of the theses. By reclassifying ourselves as denizens of the natural world, a lot of negative attitudes and actions towards the environment will be reduced because we will have greater appreciation for the natural world. I am not sure if that is why it was thesis number one, or if that was just random chance.

I think it could be argued that the remaining twenty-one theses are just variants of thesis number one. One thesis, with twenty-one subtheses. Without first accepting thesis number one, I do not think we will be able to accept any of the remaining twenty-one theses. The remaining twenty-one all discuss increasing our general understanding of nature, which I think is impossible without first realizing that nature is a big part of who we are, but we are just a small part of nature.

Nature Isn’t What We Think It Is

This week our reading was again unlike anything we have seen before. As its name suggests, we are presented with Twenty-two Theses on Nature. The general theme was that we need to reimagine the way we perceive and define nature. One of those that stood out to me was thesis number two. It said that we need to disconnect nature from humanity. Too often we believe we try to or believe we can mold nature to benefit ourselves. While humanity can be thought of as a part of nature, the opposite is not true. Nature is separate from humans and is not formed on anything innately human. I wonder, if we were to change this perception, or had we thought of nature in this way from the beginning, would climate change be as big of an issue as it is now? Isn’t the reason we are in this anthropogenic crisis is because we prioritized our own benefit over the health of the planet? 

Another point that I thought was interesting was within thesis number four. It described nature as “all-encompassing” but not whole. Nature as a sum does not exist. To be honest I am not sure as to whether I fully understand this point but I have never thought of nature in this way. This thesis has definitely made me think for a bit, even after finishing the entire piece. To say that nature is all-encompassing means that we exist within it. It’s safe to assume then that there are likely ecological consequences to decisions we have not even considered yet.  

I think that this collection can provide an important foundation as to how we should approach conserving, and eventually revitalizing, our environments. If we maintain the same mindset we have now, finding solutions will be harder, if not impossible.

Survival of the fittest

This week in class we are discussing “The Tamarisk Hunter” by Paolo Bacigalupi. This story in its many layers discusses the future impacts of global warming. In a world where water is limited, characters are forced to find excessive ways to survive. For only $2.88 a day, one of the characters is forced to pluck tamarisk in order to provide for their family.

Not only does this story highlight the environmental changes to global warming, but the economic changes as well. In a post-apocalyptic world, these lower class individuals are struggling to make ends meet. As a result, they have to resort to alternative ways to get resources. In relation to today’s society. We live in a world where wealth can grant you safety and security. The problem with this ideology is that the rich benefit off the poor. In addition, at the moment the world is suffering, but there is still time to recover it. In the story The Tamarisk Hunter, it seemed as if time was almost irrelevant to the stage of the world. The world was already pushed to the point of no return. Consequently, characters are now desparate for resources such as water and money. 

But that’s not to say that these actions do not occur in our everyday society. Most upper class individuals value the growth of their wealth rather than the well-being of the poor. Furthermore, there is very little change happening towards global warming. We are taking action, but not fast enough. Sooner or later, we will regret creating a world that is no longer sustainable. We will turn into a “post-apocalyptic” era where even wealth will not be able to hold value anymore. Instead, survival would be the main priority. Bacigalupi foreshadows an inhabitable world through the eyes of two lower class individuals, but so far, it seems like we’re heading straight into our downfall.

Que Sera Sera

“The Tamarisk Hunter” is a story about a post-apocalyptic world by Paolo Bacigalupi in which global warming has continued to the point that water has become scarce and is sequestered by the wealthy as the poor are weeded out of the population. Lolo, a water-reclaimer of sorts, siphons water from California’s “straw,” a water conservation and containment contraption for wealthy citizens to live well in the world. The story is not necessarily drastic or flashy, and does not have an angery or passionate tone, as would many other works that deal in climate change, instead, it is slow, dull, and long-winded in description, with a tone of helplessness. Even in trying to survive in this time it becomes clear that Lolo will not last for long, and neither will many others. It is hard to shake the feeling that something along these lines will take the human race from a glorious mountain of achievement to a pitfall of regression and forced steampunk misery.

Humanity is incredibly ingenious, however, it is quite slow to act on things that do not directly have to deal in the lives of its constituents. What doesn’t come through emotion and persuasion to the gain of some other, albeit an ideal of many or few, moves at a snails pace. Even worse is the fact that, although there are ideas of value and virtue in society, even with constant discourse there is little hope of building a strong compulsion to conquer climate change. However, without hope of any kind there would be no action towards resolution of the issue. If movement can be expectedly slow in this regard, then the choice to overcome climate change may be relatively abandoned as a motivator, other motivators must become valid. Governmental reform may have to take place. Governments tend to move an idea either quickly with harsh consequences in the case of monarchy and dictatorship, or slowly with slow progress. With climate change moving quickly would work, however there would most likely be horrific miss allocation of resources and action, where much of society would face monumental social challenges; moving slowly on the other hand is a stacked deck, it is much harder to get progress made, yet the more time that is spent progressing in some ways, the more drastic the situation can get, which could lead to a scenario similar to “The Tamarisk Hunter.” There will more than likely have to be a middle ground, a way that governments can use great power quickly, with some form of authority and healing from the mistakes that will inevitably follow, and move slowly towards goals that can be dragged to a conclusion without incident. Furthermore, with a global society, governments will most likely take different approaches, some will fall and others will succeed, it is a test in darwinian evolution on a social stage, and we’re currently in the second act.

The ENd for Hunters

Paolo Bacigalupi puts a fictional spin on reality within The Tamarisk Hunter. The story follows Lolo and his attempts to secure a source of water. In order to do so, he works everyday by pulling up tamarisk from the water beds. He does this so that he and his wife won’t be pushed off the land like her parents had been. I thought the story was interesting and was different from our previous readings. 

It focuses on the possible effects of a drought on the people and the land. You could say that this is a warning for what is to come if we continue to allow our current climate to change even more. As humans contribute to global warming, it makes a large impact upon the amount of precipitation there is. Drier soils means less water less water is evaporated when dry seasons come up. This has been very apparent in states like California. 

The setting of the story is along the colorado river. Every day Lolo rides his camel down to the riverbank in order to pick tamarisk, his reward is $2.88 a day plus water bounty. Lolo uses a secret trick in order to take advantage of the current system. When he rips up tamarisk, he also salvages some and replants them in other areas. This allows it to regrow so he can harvest it later on. One day the Utah National Guard shows up and it worries Lolo. He thinks that they’ve found out about his job plots but they are actually there to offer him compensation. It’s been decided that there is no longer a need for the water bounty because the government saw profit elsewhere. This concept illustrates the prioritization of monetary benefit over many other things. It’s been a key piece of climate change denier’s argument to say that fixing climate change would sacrifice our economy. 

An Honors Colloquium in Environmental Arts and Humanities