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La Nature est morte, vive la nature!

In a notorious passage of The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche portrays a madman carrying a lantern in broad daylight and searching for God. Nietzsche's mirthless character then declares that "God is dead" and says that we have murdered Him. Three years ago, Bill McKibben, with the dramatic flourish of a contemporary Nietzsche, proclaimed "the end of nature." His book by that title was serialized in the New Yorker magazine and went on to become a best seller.[1] Once flourishing nature, he argues, has as such come to an end--and we are the terminators.

The death of God in the nineteenth century was the death of an idea. The end of nature in the twentieth century seems to be a much more literal matter. According to McKibben, one can no longer find any place on earth untrammeled by the works of man.[2] The forests, lakes, and streams of the Adirondacks, where McKibben lives, famously designated in 1885 by the New York state legislature to be "forever wild," are ubiquitously affected by acid rain. In addition to such evident works of man as the trans-Alaska pipeline, the permafrost in the erstwhile arctic wilderness is everywhere contaminated with measurable traces of toxic chemicals--everything from DDT to PCBs. There is a hole in the ozone over the Antarctic created by fugitive chlorofluorocarbons. And once autonomous nature can only become more compromised by human technology as the greenhouse effect kicks in, followed by a higher sea level, changed weather patterns, hotter summers, milder winters, desiccated forests, enlarged deserts, irruptions of weedy fauna and flora, and impoverished ecosystems.

Nature as Other is over. Everywhere man's works insidiously pervade, if they do not palpably dominate, the landscape. Nowhere is the earth and its community of life unaffected by man. There are precious few places where man is merely a visitor and not an inhabitant: even the South Pole has a permanently occupied research station. The once impenetrable and mysterious Amazon basin is riddled with roads, power plants, gold mines, boom towns, cattle ranches, settlers' swiddens, and coca plantations. Here in the United States, man's visitation of designated wilderness areas is so intense that permits are required to limit density, and the restrictions on what backpackers can and cannot do make a mockery of Bob Marshall's equation of wilderness with freedom and the absence of constraints.

Before we all go into mourning, however, let me suggest that what has come to an untimely end is not nature per se, but the modern idea of nature. We have no more literally killed nature than we have God. Indeed, we might want to celebrate, rather than mourn, since the modern picture of nature is false and its historical tenure has been pernicious. A new dynamic and systemic postmodern concept of nature, which includes rather than excludes human beings, is presently taking shape. From the point of view of this new notion of nature, human technologies should be evaluated on their ecological merits, not condemned wholesale. Indeed, there is some hope that a new generation of technology may be not only ecologically benign, but might even help to disseminate broadly an ecological world view and an associated environmental ethics.

The Modern Idea of Nature

The first and most fundamental feature of the modern idea of nature is a sharp dichotomy between man and nature--a dichotomy that is all the more radical because it is a feature of both wellsprings of the Western intellectual heritage. In the first book of the Bible, alone among all the other creatures, God makes man in His own image, giving him dominion over and charging him to subdue the earth and all its denizens. In ancient Greek philosophy, man is set apart from nature because he alone among the animals is supposed to be rational.

In the late medieval and early modern periods, thinkers as different from one another as Thomas Aquinas and Rene Descartes synthesized these two strands of thought, the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman. Thus the man/nature dualism in each augmented the other. And Descartes' contemporary, Francis Bacon, set the modern agenda for the scientific conquest of nature by man. If we can discover the working principles--the divinely ordained laws--of nature, he presciently pointed out, we can bend it to our will.

My purpose here is not to vilify Moses or Aristotle, Thomas, Descartes, Bacon, or their ilk. For better or worse, our civilization is their bequest to us. Moreover, until only a century or so ago practically no one questioned the wisdom or the morality of conquering nature. Indeed, practically no one imagined that the conquest of nature might become so complete that nature could seem mortally wounded, could seem indeed to have come to an untimely end. Until recently, man seemed the up-and-coming hero armed with Promethean science in the struggle with Titanic nature. Man was David to nature's Goliath.

But to many people today, the spectacular achievements of the twentieth century appear grotesque. Victorious man seems to be a tyrant, his conquest a spoils, and nature the hapless victim. Yet for many ardent environmental Jeremiahs (and McKibben is only the most recent), while the roles of hero and villain are certainly reversed, the underlying dualism, the radical man/nature dichotomy, goes unchallenged. A McKibben lamenting man's total reduction of nature to possession, and a Julian Simon gloating over it, share the same underlying assumption that man is a case apart from the rest of nature. The difference is only that McKibben sides with nature, while Simon sides with man.

Descartes and his early modern contemporaries believed the material realm to consist, in the last analysis, of stripped-down atomic particles moving in Euclidean space. All natural phenomena, they believed, could be reductively explained in terms of these elemental bodies, with their "primary" (read quantifiable) properties and their mechanical interactions. The mechanistic project that Descartes and Galileo had begun was completed by Isaac Newton at the end of the seventeenth century. During the eighteenth century--the self-congratulatory Age of Enlightenment--nature was generally believed to be a perfectly intelligible clockwork, thanks to Newton's intellectual triumph. And all nature's moving parts were automata or mechanisms in miniature.

In this respect man was no different, but in man's case, the purely mechanistic human body was temporarily inhabited by a conscious, rational soul. Crowded into human consciousness were all the "secondary" qualities, the rich and diverse sensory readouts of the dull quantitative variables that actually existed in objects. From the modern point of view, values are even more patently subjective. Not only beauty and ugliness but good and evil, right and wrong, are in the eye of the beholder--in man's mind, not in the objective world.

In the twentieth century, hardnosed scientists continued to hew pretty faithfully to the basic modern world view. Scientific resource management is a perfect example. It treats nature as a raw material, valuable only as a pool of commodities for human use. Why only for human use? Because only human beings are fully conscious subjects. Deer, ducks, fish, and trees are just so many mindless automata furnishing an inert, material landscape of mineral masses, soil, water, and air.

Touched by the Romantic revolt against the Enlightenment, twentieth-century environmentalists in the tradition of Thoreau and Muir granted a modicum of consciousness to animals and celebrated the qualitative richness and diversity of the natural world. Though few doubted that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, nevertheless they argued that the nonconsumptive aesthetic experience afforded people by nature could equal or surpass that occasioned by works of art. But the sense that nature is radically other than man was too deeply ingrained for them to reject altogether.

Also very deeply ingrained was an essentially static sense of the "balance of nature," a concept that mid-twentieth century ecologists had adapted from classical physics. Like a thermostat, ecosystems had a set point, a "climax state," to which they would return through negative feedback mechanisms if disturbed by drought, flood, fire, or similar perturbations. If, however, they were subjected to too frequent or too intense disturbance, then they were liable to break down, driven by runaway positive feedback processes. Human activities, particularly industrial mining, agriculture, and logging were prime examples of "unnatural"--since anthropogenic--and destructive impacts on ecosystems of this kind.

The Modern Concept of Nature Deconstructed

It should not surprise us that the philosophical implications of Darwin's great works, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, should take more than a century to sink in, even among scientists and philosophers. As I just pointed out, the idea that man is spiritually or intellectually unique and thus discontinuous with nature has enjoyed a nearly three-thousand-year tenure in Western intellectual history. Nor has it been readily and gladly surrendered. Thus, while biologists have greatly extended Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection and ingeniously applied it to agronomy and resource management, its deeper implications for man's relationship with nature seem, until only recently, to have been conveniently ignored. But as Darwin himself elaborately argued, there is a seamless continuity between gradually evolved man and our fellow voyagers in the odyssey of evolution.

Bluntly put, we are animals ourselves, large omnivorous primates, very precocious to be sure, but just big monkeys, nevertheless. We are therefore a part of nature, not set apart from it. Hence, human works are no less natural than those of termites or elephants. Chicago is no less a phenomenon of nature than is the Great Barrier Reef (a vast undersea coral polyp condominium) or limestone sediments formed by countless generations of calciferous marine organisms.

We picture modern man--the ghost in the machine, liberated from bygone follies and superstitions, and fully cognizant of his unique subjectivity--at last building artificial machines with which to subdue objective nature. For this picture to be persuasive we must minimize the environmental impact of aboriginal Homo sapiens.

We like to think that Columbus discovered America only five hundred years ago, and that when the English colonists came to the New World a century later, they stepped off the Mayflower into a vast virgin "wilderness" of continental proportions. But the North and South American continents had actually been discovered ten thousand or more years before by eastward-migrating, pedestrian Homo sapiens. Soon thereafter, the Western hemisphere was fully, if not densely, populated by Indians--from the Brooks Range in Alaska to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America and from Manhattan Island to San Francisco Bay. We properly lament the recent extinction by our Euro-American forebears of native species like the passenger pigeon, but we forget that the extinctions coinciding with the arrival of the original Siberian immigrants were of much greater magnitude. What happened to the two species of elephant that roamed the Western hemisphere before and for a little while after the Siberian big game hunters arrived? Here these spearmen also found horses, camels, yaks, and other beasts that were absent in 1492.[3]

In addition to the fauna, the flora of the New World was transformed by the original pioneers, principally by the judicious use of fire. The Indians regularly and universally burned the countryside. North America's great plains are believed to be anthropogenic, as are most of the world's grasslands. In wetter regions, anthropogenic fires altered the composition of forests as in drier regions they created prairies and savannas. Bill McKibben's Adirondack paradise lost was not pristine nature where, in the immortal words of David Brower, "the hand of man had never set foot." It was a forcibly abandoned hunting ground, once kept clean of undergrowth and made full of game by the pyrotechnology of the Iroquois.[4]

In short, if nature ended, it ended a long time ago. The only extensive virgin wilderness in 1492 was Antarctica. Homo sapiens has been a global force altering the biota during the entire Holocene.

The Postmodern Concept of Nature

The obsolete mechanistic concept of nature invited a tinkering, an engineering approach to "resource" management. Thus we believed that if we wished, we could replace native species with exotics and need fear no adverse systemic effects. We could replace elk and buffalo with cattle and sheep, prairie grasses with wheat and corn, and so on, without affecting the native soils and waters--just as we can replace a two-barrel carburetor with a four-barrel or replace an automobile's radio with a tape deck without affecting the tires, the radiator, or the chassis. But we have learned the hard way that nature functions more like an organism than a mechanism. Deliberately changing one component of an ecosystem will often cause unanticipated and unwelcome side-effects throughout the whole. The untoward systemic effects of introduced species are infamous. One need only mention the names of some such species to make the point--carp, kudzu, Johnson grass, starlings, and the list goes on and on.

If nature is first and foremost an integrated system, a second, recently much ballyhooed feature of the post-modern concept of nature is change.

Mid-twentieth-century ecologists were greatly impressed by the untoward effects of biological tinkering, but most did not reject the mechanical model. They just gave it a different spin. Species in nature were represented as coupled in balanced opposition. Deer were supposed to be held in check by wolves and other predators. Thus they stayed in balance with their browse. Periodic wildfire apparently enabled the grasses to hold their ground against the encroachment of forests. Nature was thus maintained in a delicate equilibrium by the competitions and cooperations among its tightly linked component parts and processes. Undisturbed by man, it was accordingly believed, nature will remain stable, in a "steady state." As the ecologists of Barry Commoner's era warned us, let well enough alone; if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

However, nature is inherently dynamic; it is constantly changing and ultimately evolving. Change at every frequency--diurnal, meteorological, climatic, geological, astronomical--is inevitable and natural. Bill McKibben's Adirondacks would not stay the same, if, per impossible, they could be protected from all human modifications. Very recently (in geological measures of time) they were under a glacier. As the ice retreated, they were covered by very different forest communities from those that are there now. After the removal of the Iroquois, who managed them for game with fire, they were invaded by exotic tree diseases and competitors. In the absence of acid precipitation and global warming, the Adirondack ecosystem of McKibben's childhood could be maintained, but only by proactive ecological restoration and intensive wilderness management. Merely protected or preserved, it would become something different yet.

Ecosystem Health as a New Norm for Environmentalism

I may seem to be headed toward a betrayal of environmental ethics. If man is a part of nature and if change is natural, then it would appear that we have no means of objectively evaluating the entirely natural changes that we hypercultural primates impose on the rest of nature. What's wrong, objectively wrong, with urban sprawl, habitat fragmentation, oil slicks, global warming, or, for that matter, abrupt, massive, anthropogenic species extinction--other than that these things offend the quaint tastes of a few natural antiquarians? Most people prefer shopping malls and dog tracks to wetlands and old growth forests. Why shouldn't their tastes, however vulgar, prevail in a free market and a democratic society?

The emerging postmodern model of nature is more organismic than mechanistic. And organisms proper are either objectively well or ill. Like organisms proper, ecosystems are complexly articulated wholes with systemic integrity. If we may envision a "clinical ecology" then we may hope to specify objective criteria for "ecosystem health." With these in hand we may objectively evaluate humanly imposed or induced changes in nature.

The concept of health is normative as well as descriptive. Indeed, it is more normative than descriptive, a concept that accommodates a lot of personal, cultural, and even clinical slack. Still, there are parameters that delimit the idea. Like pornography, hard though it may be to define, everyone thinks they know health when they see it--and posses it: a drug-free athlete in top form is indisputably well, just as a person suffering from AIDS is indisputably ill. Despite dealing with a continually varying entity (in a continually varying cultural and clinical climate of opinion), physicians and veterinarians can specify broad indices of organic health. A bodily temperature of 98.6[degrees]F, for example, and a blood pressure and pulse rate within certain ranges, are all indices of human health. More certainly still, health is a good. It is a necessary condition allowing us to get on with our projects and to that extent it is an instrumental good. But beyond that it is an intrinsic good. Except in the most unusual circumstances, even when one has nothing important to do, one never prefers to be sick instead of well.

But what sort of entity is an "ecosystem" that we can speak of it as being ill or healthy? An organism, albeit a changing thing, is a thing, nevertheless. It has a reasonably clear boundary demarcated by its skin or bark or cell membrane. But an ecosystem seems so diffuse and arbitrarily bounded that it would seem impossible to characterize it as either well or ill.

During the 1980s, hierarchy theory, a new theory of ecosystems more rigorous than the older thermostatic models, was created.[5] Hierarchy theory enables ecologists to define nested ecosystems according to temporal and spatial scale. So the problem of specifying exactly to what the concept of ecosystem health might apply is within reach of theoretical resolution. Hierarchy theory may also be sufficiently robust to enable ecologists to specify broad norms of health for various kinds of ecosystems. Clinical ecology in this respect is more analogous to veterinary than to human medicine.

Work is moving rapidly forward on this exciting interdisciplinary front,[6] though this is not the place, nor have I the competence, to summarize it. However, I will risk summarizing the way clinical ecology extends the analogy between organic health and ecosystem health.

David J. Rapport has suggested three approaches to the assessment of ecosystem health:

* identifying and monitoring the "vital signs" or indices of ecosystems;

* subjecting ecosystems to "stress tests";

* the identification of "risk factors" for otherwise healthy ecosystems.[7]

The most obvious vital signs of ecosystem health are indicator species. In the Great Lakes, for example, thriving, naturally reproducing populations of lake trout are indicative of overall ecosystem health, because this species cannot tolerate a wide gamut of environmental perturbations. Other species--a large cow bird population in a forest, for example--are negative indices. In general, a healthy ecosystem's vital signs include efficient nutrient cycling and energy transfer, species diversity, and the prevalence of longer-lived, larger forms in the later stages of ecological succession. According to Rapport, sick ecosystems exhibit the following symptoms: "reduced primary productivity, loss of nutrients, loss of sensitive species, increased instability in component populations, increased disease prevalence [in component organisms], changes in the biotic spectrum to favor smaller life-forms, and increased circulation of contaminants."

The second measure of health is the stress test. The Stevens Point, Wisconsin, YMCA offers its members regular fitness tests. In the course of such a test one's rest heart rate is recorded before one pedals a stationary bicycle until one's heart rate reaches 75 percent of maximum. The time one requires to return to the rest rate is a measure of one's "wellness"--the quicker the better. So in ecosystems, "resiliency" or "counteractive capacity" is a way to assess ecosystem health. Ecosystems are subject to natural, periodic disturbances. Forests, for example, are subject to windstorms, insect irruptions, and fire. A healthy ecosystem can quickly bounce back from such disturbances. Indeed, as in the case of organisms that require a certain amount of stress in the form of exercise, ecosystems often need periodic disturbance to remain healthy. In some forest communities occasional fire is necessary for nutrient recycling and for regenerating certain species. In some streams annual flooding removes silt accumulations and irrigates bank-stabilizing riparian vegetation. Clinical ecologists may assess the health of select ecosystems either by experimentally inducing stress in a limited test region or by monitoring recovery rates after disturbance occurs in the course of unplanned events.

The third assessment of health is to identify risk factors. When a patient goes in for a checkup, he or she will likely be queried about habits and circumstances that may constitute chronic threats to health. Does the patient smoke? Drink habitually and excessively? Work under constant pressure or with toxic materials? Live in a crime-ridden urban area or downwind from a foundry? Eat junk food? Symptoms of heart disease or cancer may not have become manifest, though disease may be incipient. Similarly, a clinical ecologist might screen a given ecosystem for factors known to impair ecosystem health. Acid precipitation poses a health risk for some forest and lake ecosystems; mercury and other heavy metals pollution poses a threat to aquatic ecosystems; chemical fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide runoff pose a threat to wetlands.

Health, as we've noted, is at once descriptive and normative, an objective condition that is also indisputably good. If clinical ecology can successfully specify indices of health for various ecosystems as unambiguously as veterinary medicine has for organisms, if it can design stress tests for ecosystems, and if it can anticipate the effects on various ecosystems posed by a spectrum of threats, then ecology will also have specified objective standards for evaluating anthropogenic change in nature. Thus we can, quite apart from the vagaries of personal preference, pronounce some changes imposed on nature to be objectively good and others objectively bad. Conceptually putting man back into nature implies that human activities are as natural as any other. But it also implies that our artificial systems are embedded in a hierarchy of natural systems. The viability of the human enterprise thus depends upon our helping maintain the health of the ecosystems with which our cultural systems are ultimately and inextricably integrated. To that extent, ecosystem health is, from our point of view, an instrumental good. But I think that we human beings are also capable of disinterestedly valuing the well-being of others--human others certainly and nonhuman, natural entities by extension. If our other-oriented feelings of goodwill may extend to nature, then ecosystem health is something we may value intrinsically. Thus, intrinsically as well as instrumentally good changes that we impose upon the environment may be understood to be those that do not impair ecosystem health. And intrinsically as well as instrumentally bad anthropogenic changes may be understood to be those that have the opposite effect, causing ecosystem morbidity.

Indeed, the concept of ecosystem health makes it possible for us to imagine that in affecting nature we may actually improve it, judged by objective and intrinsic standards of value. For it should be possible for us actively to enhance ecosystem health. After all, human health enhancement programs are commonplace. We can similarly envision ecosystem health enhancement programs in which we--as active players, parts of nature--do our own thing, as the other parts also do, and at the same time, like many of the other parts, benefit rather than harm the health of the whole of which we are a part.

One hundred centuries after the depredations of the Siberian immigrants to the Western Hemisphere, the North, Central, and South American aborigines had evolved cultural adaptations to their environments that were symbiotic rather than parasitic and destructive. Earlier I pointed out that, contrary to popular opinion, the New World was not a virgin wilderness when Columbus rediscovered it. But I would now point out that it was, nevertheless, in the poetic words of Aldo Leopold, "a biota in perfect aboriginal health." After the catastrophic extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna, new healthy ecological regimes were established during the Holocene that included the new keystone primate. Thus it would seem that if illiterate and unscientific peoples can perceptively and self-consciously reinstitute ways of living in and with nature without impairing ecosystem health, then surely a technologically sophisticated culture can too.

How Technology May Be a Part of the Solution

Ah, but isn't technological sophistication precisely the problem? The modern technology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is certainly part of the problem, indeed the whole of the problem, not the solution. Go back to the litany of ills that Bill McKibben so fully recites in his book. Virtually every one is an untoward side-effect of some modern mechanical or chemical technology. Without chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants and propellents, there would be no hole in the ozone. Without coal and oil burning, there would be no acid rain or greenhouse effect. Without chain saws and bulldozers, there would be no massive rainforest destruction.

But modern technology is far from the only technology conceivable. Today, something called "appropriate technology"--a technology that is environmentally benign--is emerging on the horizon. To cite a couple of very limited and insignificant cases in point: chlorofluorocarbon propellents in spray cans have been replaced by non-ozone-threatening substitutes; and PCBs in electrical machinery have been replaced by less toxic lubricants.

These examples are limited because, among thousands of kinds of synthetic chemicals, two especially noxious classes are being replaced. And they are insignificant because they are cases in which a less environmentally harmful chemical has been substituted for a more environmentally harmful one, without any real change at all in basic technological modus operandi. To begin a genuine symbiotic reintegration of man with nature, what we need is a wholesale shift of technological esprit or motif. The much discussed shift from a fossil fuel to a solar energy base would represent such a profound structural change.

The obstacles to progress in the shift to solar energy have been less technical than social and political. We are very dependent on the petroleum economy. Oil barons, automobile makers, assembly-line workers, chauffeurs--all those whose livelihood, one way or another, depends on cars, trucks, tractors, airplanes, recreational vehicles--exert direct and indirect political influence. In a quasi-democracy such as that of the United States, to effect real political change takes such an enormous grass-roots demand that the enterprise seems hopeless.

When we consider the future, however, the one thing we can be absolutely sure of is that it will differ from the present. Nature is not static. Culture is even more demonstrably dynamic. I recall witnessing environmental historian Donald Worster during a colloquium at Berkeley being wearied by students who insisted that American agriculture was doomed to eventual collapse because capitalistic forces relentlessly pressured farmers to adopt unsustainable practices. Finally, Worster waved his hand and said, "Look, capitalism came from somewhere and it's going to go somewhere." Similarly, modern twentieth-century technology, so ill-adapted to the ecological exigencies of nature, came from somewhere and it's going to go somewhere.

Maybe if we understood where it came from, we can get a feel for where it may next go. The answer to the question, Where did it come from? is easy. Historians of technology are virtually unanimous in the opinion that modern technology is the translation into hardware of the laws, principles, and methods of modern classical science. In fact, science and technology became so closely allied in the twentieth century that today most people do not distinguish between them. Steeped in and inspired by Newtonian science, engineers went on to make machines that were images in miniature of the world machine. And technologies are not only conveniences, they are also communicators. The longer ordinary people lived in an increasingly mechanized world, a world of steam engines, cotton gins, factories, and later tractors, automobiles, and airplanes, the more widespread and deeply ingrained the mechanical world view became.

Among the most deeply insightful treatises on the machine as metaphor is Charlie Chaplin's aptly named film, Modern Times. In it, the familiar tragicomic character played by Chaplin is a factory worker whose whole life becomes a mechanical nightmare. Chosen to be the subject of an experiment to increase efficiency by eliminating the need to stop work long enough to eat lunch, a feeding device spoons soup into his mouth and turns an ear of corn on a spindle against his teeth. Naturally the mechanical feeder runs amok with the intended comic effect. Turning two bolts with a wrench in each hand as the assembly belt speeds by ever faster, Chaplin is eventually jerked onto the belt and swept perilously into the huge cogs and wheels of the factory. Expressing the ambivalent modern romance with the machine as well as his own lyrical genius, the artist turns his predicament into a special-effects ballet with the gargantuan gears. But the lingering impression of this surreal transmogrification of a delicate and ever so human organism first into a reluctant robot and then into fodder for the behemoth apparatus of modern industry is more tinged with horror and pathos than humor and hope.

For many nonhuman animals, Chaplin's satirical caricature of modernity has become a hellish reality. Regarded as senseless automata to begin with, they have become milk-, egg-, and meat-producing machines on factory farms. I once presented a paper critical of the mechanical motif as it has been expressed in twentieth-century industrial agriculture to an international conference on technology held on the campus of Guelph University. In the process, I managed to outrage the dean of a Canadian university's college of agriculture, who vehemently protested that he and his fellow "animal scientists" most certainly did not consider factory farm animals to be Cartesian automata or machines. Rather, they are, he said (and I quote), "production units."

Though most of us who can afford to do so take care to insulate ourselves from the most egregious insults of the mechanical and chemical environment, so insidious is the machine metaphor that we often voluntarily submit ourselves to mechanical reduction. Since, as faithful Cartesians, we regard our bodies as nothing but elaborate machines, we dutifully take them for repair--for kidney transplants, for bypass heart surgery--to high-paid mechanics when they malfunction, just as we take our simpler, artificial machines to less well-paid mechanics for clutch replacements and brake jobs.

Theoretically speaking, though, mechanism and dualism are going out of style and have been for most of the twentieth century. Modern classical science is defunct. A second scientific revolution has already occurred--effected by Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Ilya Prigogine in physics; and by Frederick Clements, Charles Elton, Aldo Leopold, Raymond Lindeman, Eugene Odum, T.F.H. Allen, and Robert O'Neill in ecology. Relativity and quantum theory portray a universe that is systemically integrated and internally related. The objective world of nature cannot be completely isolated from subjects. Even in the apparently innocent act of knowing nature we change it. Theoretical ecology posits a similar, conceptually resonant, holistic, interactive, interdependent, and organically unified portrait of terrestrial nature. Gradually, this new scientific paradigm is being technologically applied.

Television, for example, is a direct application of quantum theory. So are compact disk players. In a single decade, personal computer technology has become ubiquitous. Computers do not as directly apply the New Physics as do television and laser technology. But they beautifully translate systems theory into hardware ... and software. Think about your old Smith-Corona typewriter. One key-stroke, one mark on the paper. The typewriter with its linked rods transferring the motion of the finger to the motion of the rods to the motion of the metal letter is a mechanism par excellence. With a PC, one keystroke can dramatically and instantaneously change the whole configuration of a paragraph or a spreadsheet or a graphic. Here we have a technological analogue of an ecosystem in which the extirpation of a single keystone species can precipitate cascading reverberations throughout a biotic community. People who use PCs have grown accustomed to systems experience. The present generation of kids, who grow up with computers in their bedrooms, will think systemically--including, we can hope, ecosystemically.

These are just a few obvious examples of how new technologies insidiously change our concept of nature as they saturate our living space. While we still love our cars and other mechanical transportation technologies, in some aspects of life a contempt for the old mechanical appliances seems to be emerging. For example, a vinyl long-playing record album is so inferior--not just in sound, but in technical elegance--to a compact disk that people are literally throwing out their turntables and LPs. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, will solar voltaic lighting, space-heating, and transportation technologies make oil furnaces and gasoline automobiles equally uncool? Will people be taking to solar energy devices the way they now take to TV, PCs, CDs, and microwave ovens?

I don't know. All I can offer is some scant, local anecdotal evidence for the possibility that they might. Among my rural friends in central Wisconsin a quiet revolt against conventional electrical energy is taking place. A group calling itself POWER has been organized to fight the up-scaling of existing transmission lines and the installation of new routes. The point of attack is the danger to human and animal (wild as well as domestic) health posed by errant electromagnetic fields. But the deeper concerns are social (the arrogance of centralized, monopolized utility companies) and environmental (the fact that energy is squandered and that modest efforts at conservation could offset the need to generate more polluting, resource-consuming electricity). Several households in the country are already nearly energy self-sufficient. As one person put it, "When there is an outrage, we're not even aware of it until we hear about it next day from the neighbors." For these people, the shift to solar was certainly not forced on them by economics. Those who have changed over have not done so cheaply. For them, it's primarily a matter of conscience--and style. Nowadays, it's very hip to have solar panels on your roof.

Suppose an intuitive, wholesale appetite for the now-emerging post-modern solar-electronic genre of technologies does develop. Obviously, that would be a plus for ecosystem health. A global transition to appropriate technology is the only way we can maintain a mass consumer culture and a functioning, healthy biosphere--the only way we can achieve a sustainable society. Just as important, in my opinion, is the boot-strapping effect of such technologies. They will communicate the post-modern, holistic, systemic, dynamic concept of nature that includes us smart monkeys as creative, interactive components of it. That will lead to further technological breakthroughs in the same motif and esprit and, ultimately, to corresponding changes in politics, economics, agriculture, medicine, and other primary aspects of civilization.

There is some evidence that an organic, systemic world view is even penetrating economics--the "science" that hoped to set out the laws governing the motion of social atoms as successfully as Newton set out the laws governing the motion of physical atoms. Among neoclassical economists there is a new willingness to quantify the environmental and ecological costs of industrial agriculture and other forms of destructive development. And environmental philosophers are actually articulating no-growth and ecological economics in some detail--the work is still theoretical, to be sure, but at least some movement in these directions is afoot, as evidenced by the recent establishment of the journal Ecological Economics and the appointment of Herman Daly to the post of senior economist at the World Bank.

The assumption that the human body is a microcosm--a miniature image of the microcosm--a miniature image of the macrocosm, or general world system--has characterized Western natural philosophy from its inception: the four bodily humors of ancient medical theory mirrored the four elements of ancient cosmology. I remember how, as an undergraduate philosophy student, I was puzzled to find Descartes, in Part Five of the Discourse on Method, embarking on a long medical discussion, the whole purpose of which seemed nothing more than to show that the heart is just a mechanical pump. I now see the passage as integral to Descartes' mechanistic project. Future undergraduates may be just as puzzled to find the current generation of environmental philosophers going to great lengths to argue what will doubtless then seem obvious--that the human body is not a mechanism but an organism, internally related to its environing ecosystem.

Indeed, it seems not to be entirely accidental that the holistic health and wellness movement began to gain momentum about the same time that ecology became a household word. Here, admittedly, we have a classic case of one domain of theory (ecology) indirectly fertilizing another (medicine), not of the technological application of theory insidiously changing the cultural construction of reality. But I want to make the allied point that changes in medical thinking are a weather vane for shifts in the prevailing intellectual winds of the cognitive culture. Growing popular suspicion of surgery, chemical medicines, radiology--and the view that such "conventional" treatments are a last resort, to be used only after diet reform, exercise, visualization, meditation, homeopathy, and similar measures have been exhausted--signal a shift from the modern mechanical to a postmodern organic world view.

Getting sick is a human universal. We should not be surprised that all peoples would try to understand the cause of disease, nor that their medical etiologies would be consonant with their larger world views. Obtaining food is also a human universal. And agricultural beliefs, no less than medical ones, are indicative of a culture's world view. Industrial agriculture's eloquent and devastating critic, Wendell Berry, and organic agriculture's equally eloquent and persuasive prophet, Wes Jackson, have become folk heroes and celebrities. In 1989 the National Academy of Sciences Board on Agriculture recommended a massive shift away from increased scale, mechanization, and use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides toward "alternative" organic farming techniques for American agriculture.[8] Thus changes in the philosophy of agriculture, no less than changes in medical theory, are symptomatic of sea changes within the culture.

In conclusion, let me say that nature is not ended. Rather, the modern man/nature dualism and mechanical concept of nature is ended. The ubiquity of man and his works has made the illusion of nature as Other all but impossible to maintain as the twentieth century gives way to the twenty-first. But the modern concepts of man, nature, and the relationship between the two had already been invalidated by developments in science that occurred between the mid-nineteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries--by the theory of evolution and ecology in biology, and by relativity and quantum theory in physics. The new concept of nature is more organismic than mechanistic and includes man as, in Leopold's words, "a plain member and citizen of the biotic community." It is theoretically conceivable therefore that we may become good, law-abiding citizens of the natural world, rather than brutal and ultimately self-defeating conquistadores. The new understanding of nature, human nature, and the man-nature relationship may trickle down into the popular mind through its representation in postmodern solar-electronic technology. The growing public interest in holistic medicine and sustainable organic agriculture is evidence that a shift in the prevailing cultural world view is already well underway. The new technologies have already shown themselves to be seductive. People want them. They may thus inspire further application of the same systemic ideas they embody. If they do, our present, unsustainable mechanistic civilization may rapidly evolve into a new, more sustainable systemic configuration, not only technically, but socially, politically, and economically as well.


[1.] Bill McKibben, The End of Nature (New York: Random House, 1988).

[2.] Keenly aware that it is gender-biased, I use the term man throughout this essay, both deliberately and apologetically, to refer generically to the sexually dimorphous species, Homo sapiens. I wish to evoke historical connotations that the term man carries, including its decidedly sexist connotation.

[3.] The possibility that Homo sapiens might have had a hand in the extinction of the American megafauna was advanced by Paul S. Martin, "The Discovery of America," Science 179 (1973): 969-79.

[4.] See S.J. Pyne, Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982).

[5.] See R.V. O'Neill, D. L. DeAngelis, J. B. Wade, and T.F.H. Allen, A Hierarchical Concept of Ecosystems (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986).

[6.] See, among other signs of activity, Robert Costanza, Bryan Norton, and Ben Hasell, Ecosystem Health: New Goals for Environmental Management (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1992).

[7.] David J. Rapport, "What Constitutes Ecosystem Health?" Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 33 (1989): 120-32.

[8.] See Committee on the Role of Alternative Methods in Modern Production Agriculture, Alternative Agriculture (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1989).
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Author:Callicott, J. Baird
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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