What if the many meanings people find in nature turned out to be mistakes, and not reparable mistakes, but illusions that, once we recognize them, we owe it to ourselves to overcome? Then this book would be the history of an error, and should end with a call to outgrow the childish idea that nature means something beyond the web of facts that it presents.
This was the case that John Stuart Mill made in a posthumous 1874 essay titled “Nature,” which he could more accurately have called “Against Nature.” Mill, who died a year before the essay appeared, was of course one the most important English-speaking thinkers of the nineteenth century and among the leading liberals of all time. He was a fierce opponent of slavery, an early advocate of women’s equality, a great defender of free inquiry and conscience, and a utilitarian reformer who worked all his life to undo the shackles that unequal laws and institutions set on human lives. In this essay, he argued that “the doctrine that man ought to follow nature … is equally irrational and immoral.” Contemplating nature taught nothing about how to act or live, and the many attempts to learn from it were useless at best and usually pernicious.
Mill started with a definition. “Nature,” he wrote, could mean two things, and neither meaning could set a compass for moral guidance. On the one hand, it could mean all of physical reality, especially described in terms of its “properties,” the materials and principles that interweave to make the world the world. By this definition, humans are clearly as much a part of nature as trees or rivers, and saying that people should “follow nature” would just mean that we should do whatever we do. It would be an empty recommendation, a description weakly masquerading as an imperative.
On the other hand, “nature” could mean the world without us, as it would be with no human interference – or, if that thought involves too many folds of speculation, then just the rest of the world, the trees and rivers and animals that come to mind when someone casually uses the world “nature.” This was Mill’s main target. What, he asked, does non-human nature show us when we consider it dispassionately? His answer was grim. In animals’ conduct with other animals, and in other natural forces’ effect on humans and animals alike, there was mainly deprivation, torment, and early, violent death. That animals feed ceaselessly on one another and on plant life is only the most obvious feature of nature’s savagery. Weather and climate, sea and soil, sweep away what we need to live as surely as the worst wars. Disease takes what predation and starvation do not. Every population explosion and collapse, that basic ecological perturbation, is a holocaust. If we looked seriously to nature for guidance, we would find looking back at us anarchy, murder, and cruelty, an order of death that treats life, not as its highest prize, but as its ordinary fodder.
Moreover – and this was essential to Mill’s argument – how did we recognize that nature was monstrous? We knew this because of moral, legal, and political concepts – cruelty, murder, anarchy – that were precisely what distinguished us from the non-human world. These ideas had no place in nature, which would blindly continue its cycles of fecundity and violence until the end of all life. The questions that people mistakenly hoped nature could answer were distinctly human ones. Applying the same human concepts that motivated the question showed how horrible nature’s “answers” were. Therefore, Mill declared, the aim of following nature was irrational because nature, properly understood, had nothing to teach. Seeking to follow nature was also immoral because, if we looked there despite the incoherence of the search, we would find everywhere just the violence and indifference that morals, law, and politics existed to overcome.
The human duty with respect to nature, then, was to transform it, reducing its arbitrary and violent intrusions on the human projects of justice and goodness. Dams, canals, sanitation systems, medicine – every one of these, Mill wrote, was thrown in the face of nature’s design of floods, drought, and disease. All praise for progress and civilization was insult to nature, and a refutation of those who sought to “follow nature.”
We should not only transform nature, but should also work to transform ourselves. Mill argued that Romanticism and sentimental nineteenth-century Christianity, reacting against traditional moralists’ denigration of human nature, had enshrined “instinct” as a new higher law, one supposed to be closer to “nature” than the habits and attitudes that people learned from their upbringings. (We have seen this amply in Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir, and their many followers, for whom wild nature and spontaneous instinct were great liberators.) Mill insisted that this was exactly wrong. Spontaneous human nature was selfish more than sympathetic, and when it was sympathetic its generosity was to those nearby and like one’s self, not the universal sympathy of a properly utilitarian moral attitude. People, and peoples, were as likely to be cruel as to be just. Ideas such as rights and justice did not arise from any elemental human nature, but from a long history of reflection and deliberate training: they were distilled out of the very best of our complex institutions, not sprung from the foreheads of our savage ancestors. It was not only non-human nature that failed the test of morality; untutored human nature was nearly as deficient – cowardly, dishonest, selfish, cruel, and irrational.
Although Mill does not make the point in his “Nature” essay, much of his animus against elevating non-human nature lay here: in the way praise of “instinct” and “nature” impeded human progress. In a powerful and iconoclastic 1869 essay, “On the Subjection of Women,” Mill tore into arguments against women’s legal equality. Most such arguments rested on ideas of human nature, how women innately were, and how they were different from men. Mill responded that the behavior of women in nineteenth-century England revealed nothing about their “nature”: it was entirely an artifact of the repressive, restrictive, idealizing and exploitative society in which they lived. That society, in turn, was the artifact of unequal power that men had always exercised to their advantage. Women behaved, not as they naturally were, but as they had been shaped by deep inequality. Yet those who idealized nature and instinct could find, in women’s behavior, evidence that the same inequality that had molded them was the only condition that could ever suit them. After all, it seemed to fit their nature. And it did: the confusion was in which had been molded to fit which. The present state of society did not express women’s nature; rather, women’s behavior expressed and kept up the social order.
The same kinds of arguments had powered the defense of slavery: surely, the apologists maintained, creatures as degraded as slaves were suited to nothing better than slavery. Mill’s response was the same: the degradation of slavery produced the abject character that slavery’s defenders ascribed to their slaves.
Three points arise from Mill’s discussions of women and slaves. First, humans so thoroughly make and remake the social world that human “nature” is mainly a product of our own efforts. The same is true of the non-human “nature” that we encounter: it, too, is largely something we have made. Second, it follows that appeals to “nature” in moral, political, and legal argument are usually, in fact, praise of some part and condition of the world that humans have helped to create – whether a protected forest, a hedge-checked pastoral landscape, or the deferential and cunning femininity of Victorian womanhood. Third, and for this reason, appeals to nature are inherently conservative: they always marshal the existing result of past power against some future possibility that justice and goodness direct us to pursue. If our duty is to transform both ourselves and the natural world, arguments for “following nature” are really attempts to shirk that duty. Mill doubted, quite fairly, that anyone in his time seriously attempted to follow nature as a whole scheme of life; but he did not doubt that most people were willing to call on “nature” when it seemed to support their preferred argument, and that the results almost always cut against reformers like him. Mill would have banished appeals to nature, on both philosophical and political grounds.
Mill knew, of course, that it was possible to pick out some part of nature and find a lesson there about cooperation, courage, or justice. From ancient morality tales to modern social allegories such as Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, this is a well-worn device. Natural theologians such as John Ray had ambitiously extended this gambit across all of nature, but their attention was unavoidably selective – dedicated to those systems that seemed to serve human felicity, not those that sowed death and suffering. In all such cases, Mill argued, the logic was backward: guided by moral, legal, and political ideas that were themselves the fruit of reason and progress, the mind cast about for supporting analogies. Finding one, it then complimented itself on learning from nature. This needlessly roundabout way of reasoning enabled people to avoid owning up to the principles that really guided them. That trick, in turn, provided a convenient excuse for ignoring principles when they implied unwelcome results – usually some kind of liberal and equalizing reform.
Mill also appreciated that much of the so-called moral energy that people invested in nature was better described as aesthetic, and he squarely addressed the awe at natural grandeur that was the pulse of Romantic sublimity. While Immanuel Kant had aligned sublimity with the power of free will to act against natural impulse, and so connected it with human dignity, Mill more nearly followed Edmund Burke, whose conception of the sublime was, in effect, a rush, a thrilling terror produced by the impression of danger from a vast and violent landscape. Considering this response as a moral and political matter, Mill judged it a bad thing. It amounted to awe at power, the awe that conferred charisma on kings and emperors. As a political impulse, sublimity made no distinction between just and unjust power. At its root lay an amoral appetite to be dominated by something greater than oneself. Whatever human interest sublimity might serve, it could not be a creditable moral or political one.
Mill objected to political appeals to nature, not simply because they were conservative, but because they propagated an unreasoning kind of conservatism, one that would justify itself just by pointing to the “natural order” or human “instinct.” Unlike simpler-minded liberals, Mill cultivated a deep respect for what he accepted as the insights of conservatism. Social order depended on practices of education and training, internalized discipline that spontaneous impulse could not provide and would undermine if allowed free rein. Political community could not rest on reason alone, but required strongly felt loyalty among its members and a “fixed point” of shared identity – think of a monarchy or a constitution – that disagreement could pivot around without shattering the polity. These insights into the limits of freedom and reason and the need for discipline, symbolism, and passion seemed to Mill to be the enduring contributions of conservatism. But these were products of reflection on history and experience, defensible in those terms but also open to refutation. These conservation points on the limits of reason and freedom were subject to free dispute and rational disproof. Appeals to nature, by contrast, hey shut down rational dispute and experiment. Sometimes they honored unreflective habit as natural law. At other times, such appeals celebrated a Romantic “instinct” that tended more to anarchy than to the discipline that Mill admired in conservatism.
Although Mill lacked the vocabulary and historical experience to put it this way, his argument contains all the elements of a twentieth-century worry: that appeals to nature have a special affinity with fascism. With its Romantic appeal to instinct or whim on the one hand and its reactionary myth of deep and sustaining roots on the other, Nazism rejected political rationality in favor of the health of the volk and the superior claim of the stronger human animal. Mill would no doubt have observed, had he somehow been able to consider the experience of the 1930s and 1940s, that the Nazis took from “nature” the lessons that he denounced sixty years earlier. Others, with the mixed blessing of more historical knowledge, have made just that argument.
There are, then, at least three cumulative stages in the political and moral argument against nature. For Epicurus and Lucretius, as well as Montaigne, the sixteenth-century student of their doctrines, seeking moral guidance from nature entangles the mind in elaborate projections of anxiety and arrogance, making us both fearful and grandiose. (Lucretius emphasized the first, Montaigne the second.) Fantasies about nature prevented people from achieving an un-deluded view of their own situation, neither above nor below the rest of life, and cost them the chance to enjoy life’s finite but genuine pleasures in their short time on “these coasts of light.”
Hobbes agreed about the mistake – projecting human anxieties onto nature and turning natural phenomena into a play of the mind’s shadow-puppets – but added an essential element. A view of nature without illusions could clear the ground for people to create for themselves the predictable and meaningful moral order that nature could never provide, turning the mind from self-trapping projection to the rational drafting of political society. The case against nature was now not just moral and psychological but properly political: nature’s imagined idylls and terrors stood against human self-emancipation. Mill’s argument falls within this tradition, though, two centuries after Hobbes, he wrote with a far more developed theory of human progress, and having seen nature used in reactionary arguments such as the defense of slavery. It may make sense, then, to say that a recognizably modern reformer like Mill, intensely concerned with how appeals to nature can impede progressive social change, represents a distinct stage of the case against nature.
Either way, the twentieth century added a new chapter. Fascism showed that the achievements of modernity can be self-immolating. Germany was a highly educated, culturally sophisticated, and institutionally complex country when it launched itself on a course of genocidal nationalism. Nazism was unsettlingly “environmental” in its concern for animal welfare and the preservation of nature. Much more basically, it took energy from adoration of the German landscape, a blood-and-soil conception of the political community, and an apotheosis of will and sublime power. Appeals to nature, then, do not only have the power to impede progressive reform. They can help to power something much worse, the willful destruction of everything Mill prized: reason, moderation, and moral universalism.
The Road to Disenchantment
This story of the political and ethical case against nature interweaves with another, the tale of “the disenchantment of the world” by the progress of knowledge. Disenchantment is closely associated with sociologist Max Weber’s canonical account of modernity. Weber believed that reason was a force in history. A thin but relentless rationality pushed human thought and undertakings toward consistent practice and systematic expression. This had different effects on different areas of life. As for nature, rationalization brought it thoroughly under the sway of modern science: consistent, principled accounts of cause-and-effect relationships, with no need, or room, for the idea that it all had any “purpose” or “meant” anything.
Weber called this approach to nature (and other things) instrumental reason: learning how to master the world to achieve our goals, without gaining any insight on what our goals might be (let alone the idea that the world itself might have goals). He was contemptuous of romantics who imagined that by going into the forests and mountains, they learned something about how they should live or the meaning of their lives. Purposes and values, were human things, and pretending to find them outside our own choices was giving ourselves a comfort no one deserved.
Disenchanted nature was nature without meaning, nature that could teach us nothing except how to manipulate it. Humanity in a disenchanted world should understand this and not indulge fantasies to the contrary. The ethics of disenchantment, then, was an ethics of maturity: humanity freeing itself from self-imposed intellectual infancy. It had charisma in the hands of expositors like Weber: charisma based in the courage to face things as they were, not as one would like them to be.
Modern law, and, by and large, ethics and political theory, are disenchanted in this way, and the disenchantment is a source of pride: these are (on their own self-conception) disciplines for grown-ups. The first modern Anglo-American legal theorist, and John Stuart Mill’s first muse, Jeremy Bentham, spent his inferno of a lifetime stripping English law of moss, Latin epigraphs, and icons. Cost-benefit analysis, the dominant way of assessing law in American scholarship and regulatory practice, is a low-built version of Bentham’s utilitarian calculus, intended to replace obscure and potentially arbitrary values with the facts of human pleasures and pains (or, in today’s dominant versions of the method, with the wealth to spend on satisfying preferences). Our other major moral vocabulary, that of equal human rights, is also an austere ethic of disenchantment. It holds that people matter equally, not because of any metaphysical property or divine instruction, but because of features of our humanity – we can all make choices, we all value things and have life-plans, at the minimum, we all value our own lives immeasurably; and from this it follows that we should all be equally respected. Human beings, valuers and choice-makers, impart worth to a world otherwise drained of intrinsic meaning.
The disenchanted perspective, as an ideal, prevents several mistakes that an enchanted view of nature can encourage. First is disregard for science. Enchantment can mean license to indulge in interpretations of nature that fit one’s moral, political, and aesthetic likes despite but contradict science. Skepticism about climate change on the American right is a salient example at the time of writing. There are also examples on the green left. Fantastical medical theories and rejection of vaccines don’t have quite the constituency of climate denial, and their effect on public policy is likely to be less serious, but such attitudes can still weaken our ability to secure public health.
A second problem with finding too much comfort in a congenial view of nature is mainly a matter of intellectual honesty, of good faith. An enchanted view of nature can be an appealing way out of coming to grips with the world as it is. Consider John Muir’s portraiture of the American West, for instance. Muir’s nature is all harmony: as he once put it, “no struggle for existence” intruded into his high Sierra. The place was an aesthetic and spiritual pleasuring-ground, where all species were brethren. It is difficult to accept this as a serious description of nature, or of life. Yet Muir offered his all-embracing optimism as a revelation of the real character of nature and a key to understanding the human place in the world. If his example is inspiring, as many have found it, it is also cautionary.
This problem sheds some light on the wistful refrain of the early Sierra Club: that sojourns in the high country had to end in return to the disenchanted geographic and spiritual lowlands of everyday life. Although the Club was engaged in public-lands politics, it had little to say more generally about how a Sierra epiphany might illuminate the rest of life, whether social or personal. Maybe this is partly because the terrain the Club’s expeditions ascended into was not just literally rarified; it was also a landscape of enchantment. The Club’s way of seeing nature glossed over the jagged and bloody parts, and also the flat, disappointing, meaningless ones. (Admittedly, in the Sierra summer, there often seems to be little of the latter: from individual flowers to peaks and valley vistas, the region can seem made to delight at every scale and angle of vision.)
The third ethical problem comes back to the problem of fascism: an enchanted view of nature can break faith with other people, not just with one’s self. Enchanted takes on nature almost automatically foster the belief that some people are closer to nature’s purposes, more aligned with its right order, than others. This needn’t lead to exclusionary nationalism, even though it has that affinity: American nature romanticism, for instance, has had only a weak association with nationalism, having tended instead to pronounce universal spiritual claims. But even without pernicious nationalism, it certainly asserts that my nature is the right nature and that, because I understand it, I am its inevitable spokesperson, the best judge of how to use and inhabit it.
Take an example far from the horrible melodrama of fascism. In the early 1970s there was a brief argument (with last echoes) about giving legal standing to natural phenomena, meaning that representatives such as the Sierra Club could bring suit on behalf of a threatened mountain or river. The real substance of the cultural conflict was whether such groups, with their highly particular (and, from some perspectives, conceited) takes on nature, should enjoy a special claim to understand and represent it. In practice, this would have meant a special claim to define the public interest in nature. That, in turn, would have been a pre-emption of ordinary political debate. Its implicit logic is something like this: Elite aesthetes belong to nature, and it to them; developers, mine bosses, and the like, do not, nor it to them; no political decision can break this intrinsic bond. You can very well prefer the agenda of the aesthetes and nonetheless believe this is an illegitimate kind of argument.
Pre-empting the usual means of making social decisions by asserting that the land is mine on aesthetic or spiritual grounds does seem hard to defend. No one likes it when the other side does this – for instance, when Tea Partiers appear to be saying that, because of the human relationship with God, we can know that the minerals lodged in American soil are there for our use and benefit. A large part of the reason for frustration is that this kind of appeal is so hard to engage responsively. There’s a kind of modesty and reciprocal respect in the disenchanted way of arguing about such decisions: expressing our various “preferences” and coming to more-or-less majoritarian decisions that don’t try to leap out of the field of human interests and values.
These three problems account for a lot of the hostile response of many thoughtful people to any dalliance with the language of enchantment. If this is all that enchantment means, then the only ethics of enchantment is to get away from enchantment: we should be unreservedly loyal to the emancipating program of disenchantment. If there’s more to say, it has to take these problems fully on board and not dodge them. Still, there might be some work of imagination, in the register I’ve been calling enchantment, that contributes to our engagement with nature as a moral, political, and cultural problem.
[[And the argument cannot just be that, as a matter of history, we owe some of our legal and political commitments to Romantic and other pro-enchantment developments that we might be skeptical toward if they arose today. That kind of poignant historical irony wouldn’t necessarily show anything about the attitude we should take going forward. Although those examples might be informative, the question is whether the mode of experience or imagination that I’ve been calling enchantment that can enter into a productive relationship with such indispensable commitments as rationality and equality among citizens, which both drove disenchantment and continue to ground powerful considerations against it.]]
An Ethics of Enchantment
The position Mill adopted, in line with Lucretius, Hobbes, and the whole tradition of disenchantment, has inescapable force. In fact, I would go further: The idea that nature is morally instructive in any straightforward way is nearly impossible to maintain unless one starts by assuming that the world was created by a benign and omnipotent God with unified moral purpose. As Mill observed, even those who begin from this assumption soon get entangled in the fact that morally pointless suffering and wasted life are everywhere in nature. To save the idea that the creator is good, they tend to abandon any simple idea that the world reflects divine will, perceiving instead a struggle between good and bad forces, with humanity itself playing a key mediating role. (In other words, they come back to Mill’s idea that our duty is to transform nature and ourselves.) However any particular approach struggles with the problems of evil and suffering, Mill’s core point stands. The principles of moral, political, and legal judgment come from outside any “natural order” to judge and contradict it. Nature is no moral teacher, and it is possible to see it as one only by assuming that it was created to be.
Is there, then, a different way of imagining the moral interest people might take in nature? In other words, if Mill’s position is inescapable, might it also be incomplete? Might there still be ways of meeting nature as morally intelligible and significant that survive Mill’s criticism and do things for us that Mill’s position cannot?
The key might be to get away from an important premise that Mill shared with his opponents, the moralizing interpreters of nature. This premise is that nature is one thing, to be understood as a whole. This “nature,” the sum of the properties of all material things, is the target of Mill’s argument. And, just as Mill argues, it is awfully difficult to see how the whole of nature could have a moral perspective that humans could learn from, unless it were literally the book in which a creator’s purposes were written? The idea of nature’s moral perspective is a monotheist one, and it cannot survive otherwise. So formed, the idea was sure to collapse as soon as a good mind like Mill’s pressed on it.
The link between “nature” and monotheism was straightforward in Emerson. His picture of nature as a key to self-knowledge depended on faith that the material world and the human mind embodied and expressed the same order, so that to contemplate one was to know the other. This is the scheme of creation; only the precise status of a creator is uncertain, since Emerson replaced the Christian God with the universal mind, the indwelling intelligence of Transcendentalism. The tie to monotheism held, too, for John Muir and, even more explicitly, his Sierra Club ally Joseph le Conte. For them, the beauty of the world, and the human mind that could receive and prize it, were evidence of divine design and the high place of aesthetics in the creation. They inquired into natural law no less enthusiastically than John Locke. Where Locke judged that “God wants us to do something” and had not made the world for idlers, Muir and le Conte believed that God wanted the world to come to awareness of its own glory through the rapt eye. For all these figures, human needs and powers were one half of an interpretive puzzle, and found their match in the parts of the material world that could answer them. Our bodily needs for food, shelter, and security met the succor of agriculture and natural property and in Locke’s thought, together showing the nature of divine design. For Muir and le Conte, the admiring eye was proof that the world’s beauty was not accidental, and, conversely, the world’s beauty redeemed the aesthetic eye. The Sierra Club’s founders could have said, echoing and answering Locke, “God also wants us to see something.”
Take out the linchpin of a designer, the premise that the world must express a purpose relevant to us, its self-involved inhabitants, and all of this seems much less plausible. It is immediately subject to an updated version of Mill’s criticisms: nature seems inordinately fond of beetles, microbes, and wholesale slaughter. Some source of suffering, such as degenerative disease or the wasps that paralyze their victims, then feed them alive to their larvae, might as easily be emblematic of “nature” as Yosemite Valley or the feeling of sublimity beneath the starry skies. More basically, considering that the world is full of contradictory forces and that all life is intimately involved in the death and suffering of other life – even as beauty and fruitfulness are also part of the picture – there is something arbitrary in any moral interpretation of “nature.” Locke’s, Emerson’s, and Muir’s views all willfully leave out a great deal of the world’s reality, but so would a reversed view, holding, for instance, that nature adores suffering and urges us to participate unabashedly in it by becoming joyfully cruel. Here we return to Mill’s point: faced with a multifarious world, we can choose the parts to place at its moral center only because of moral ideas that we already have, not because of a meaning that we can read from the world itself.
This is a reason to give up the idea of “nature,” the thought that the whole non-human world, or all the world, including us, is some kind of super-entity whose point of view we should try to understand by puzzling over its contradictions. These contradictions are nothing but the theological problems of monotheism – how to account for evil in a world produced by an omnipotent and benign God? – transposed to a monotheistic idea of nature, in which the things and processes of the world are asked to stand in for the mind of God. Applied to the world we are trying to inhabit, these problems can only confuse us.
[[The idea of nature has received plenty of criticism on other grounds. Some argue that there is no scientifically or philosophically defensible line between humans and the rest of the world. Others say that, be that as it may, today technology and pollution have touched and transformed every place and process on the planet, so that the contrast between what just is and what we have made cannot persist. For still others, the terrific instability and relentless change of the world mean that, even if we could satisfy ourselves that there is a nature “out there,” apart from ourselves, it would be not an entity but a surging, swerving sea of events. Any of these considerations might be decisive against “nature,” depending what one hopes to make of the idea.]]
Many of these arguments (though not all), like those of Lucretius, Hobbes, and Mill, aim to make the natural world less important by clearing space for human reasoning. The point of this proposal for giving up the idea of nature is somewhat different. It is to save from Mill’s criticism some of the values that have developed around the natural world, to put them on sounder ground and enable clearer thinking around them.
Without relying on the abstract and general idea of nature, it should become easier to say something rather simple. Places and features of the world have seemed essential to attaining certain treasured states of mind: awe, humility, rapture, rest, solitude, connectedness. These states of mind arise from, and elaborate and deepen, human relations to parts of the living world.
Mill’s objections are not the same kind of problem here as they are for “nature.” Of course our attention to Yosemite, deep forests, small meadows and parks, and our families’ or neighbors’ farmland is selective, and of course we guide it with human concepts. Of course we have enlisted these places to make real, and often to draw others into, states of mind and ideas about our lives and places in the world. For instance, the Sierra Club propagated images and tales of its sacred high country in good part to elevate the place of aesthetic sensibility and refinement in a utilitarian culture. This was both a sincere reflection on the kind of life that is worth living and a gambit in the politics of status between the scions of an older elite, based in New England and the Upper Midwest, and a rising class with industrial and urban bases of wealth and influence.
None of this means, though, that the landscapes enlisted in these human efforts were mere hostages or projection-screens in a struggle over the direction of American culture. It seems fairer and more encompassing to say that people entered into relations with these places, and with one another around these places, in ways that meant the values they pursued became inseparable from those relations. The aesthetic and moral experiences, the forms of community, that people have pursued in these ways are indeed human values, but that does not mean the involvement of non-human entities in the realization of those values is somehow an illusion. On the contrary, it has become a part of those values that we realize them through relations with and around places and landscapes. These relations do not bespeak any deeper moral logic of nature, and there is no reason that they should. Imagining that they must only devalues them, calling them to account by impossible standards.
Life, then, is full of relations between people and the rest of the living world. Culture, even the human mind, is formed in important ways from those relations. The world is also full of points of view. Once again, these do not add up to the perspective of a single nature, whatever that would be. They are the standpoints of the many creatures, like and unlike us, with which we share this place. It is not creditable that they lack consciousness, these other social, strategic, tool-using creatures with their basic languages and evidence of basic emotions. Neither, however, is it creditable that we can confidently find our way into their perspectives, see them as they see themselves, or ourselves as they see us. Where would we begin in imagining what it is like to be a whale, an animal we can understand as intelligent – social, lingual, etc. – which is set so differently in the world, inhabiting a submarine landscape whose landmarks are almost entirely sonic, for which vibrations in the water are direction, terrain, communication, and, when undersea explosives go off, physical assaults of perhaps unimaginable violence? How could we hope to understand the experience of such a creature, other than through attempts at imaginative interpretation, an effortful instance of Emerson’s observation (in his diary) that man is an analogist?
Nor can we be quite sure where consciousness leaves off and “mere matter” begins. The philosopher Thomas Nagel reluctantly observed decades ago that there is no putting to rest the speculations of panpsychism – the idea that mind is everywhere, self-awareness suffused through the world. We do not know how our consciousness emerges from the interplay of matter, the elemental substances that make up all things. We know only that, for us and, it seems, for animals, it is an emergent property of matter that sometimes appears when matter reproduces its organization, again and again gathering elements from the world to create its own form. Animals do this, and we can catch an obscure glimpse of their consciousness, which resembles our own. So, though, do plants, which also seem to “communicate” with chemical signals and, of course, respond to changes in their environment, shifting metabolic strategies to resist drought and moving to follow the sun. So, viewed a certain way, do the basic processes of the earth itself, such as the global cycles of carbon, nitrogen, and water. What we know about consciousness is not enough to say, once for all, that none of these other forms of self-organizing matter might also be aware of itself.
All these things are true. It is also true that the natural world is what Mill called Nature, which was all that he would have acknowledged it to be: a web of material phenomena, linked by cause and effect, whose operating principles we can describe and manipulate to great result (though certainly not to completeness). When we adopt this point of view, seeing nature through Mill’s first definition – as the sum of all phenomena and the principles that organize them – our meaningful relations with parts and places of the world can seem nonsensical, except as projections. It can seem that scientific rationality requires us to deny that these are really relations, because there is only matter on the other side. Taken seriously, Mill’s standpoint would seem to mean that what we experience as our relations to nature are just circuitous ways of describing subjective experience, since those relations do not involve any other entity that is capable of relating to us.
It may be that these two perspectives – Mill and anti-Mill – form an antinomy. An antimony is composed by a pair of perspectives, each coherent on its own terms but incompatible with the other, when we cannot give up either because both are necessary to account for deep and persistent aspects of human experience. It is a contradiction we cannot escape without ceasing to be ourselves. We must simply navigate the dilemma, doing our best to be aware of when we are occupying each point of view, and not expecting a greater consistency than we can have. A greater consistency, if it were possible, would have the price of giving up one of our indispensable perspectives.
Setting aside the idea of one universal and unique nature can at least make the inconsistency less jarring. It highlights that we adopt different relations to different places and parts of nature, some more materialistic and instrumental in their goals, others more relational and intrinsic in their rewards. Of course, this division is too simple: as this book has already highlighted, intrinsically valuable relations to nature, as the Romantic attitude, can also serve instrumental social goals, such as status-seeking or other kinds of cultural politics. These goals, however, are themselves formed out of meaning, and do not rest on mere material power or control of wealth. It is too simple to identify meaningful relations to nature with intrinsic satisfactions, material manipulation with instrumental goals. Recall, conversely, how deeply meaningful the Lockean program of mastering and conquering nature was to those who pursued it.
All of that is why this book has so far been a historical map of some of the relations that people have formed with the parts and places of the world, and the natures, plural, that they have shaped out of those relations. The shaping flows in both directions: there is no place in the world that has not been shaped, more or less intensively, by human powers and choices, by creation and destruction, deliberate effort and omission. It is not even that we have adjusted and shaped the world’s places: it is that we have thoroughly mixed our lives with them.