Do We Need Nature?

If there is one thing I can do without, it is ‘nature’. I do not need nature at all. I can do without the dirt and slime, I can do without the gnats and meat flies, and I do not need cow-pats on the ground. I can also do without the odour of decomposition, the freezing temperature when waiting for the first bus early in the morning, or the rain that ruins the book I am carrying. I have no urgent need for avalanches or earthquakes either. As far as I am concerned the less nature the better.

Of course, I admit, we might enjoy nature from time to time. However, enjoyment of nature is similar to the enjoyment of a play or a novel. It might be pleasant but only if it is confined in time and in space; if one can choose when indulge in the experience. It might be an agreeable experience to take a stroll in the forest or go swimming in the lake, take a picnic in the park or have a nice garden to your home. For some weeks one might even enjoy climbing mountains or trekking through wild and unrefined country. In all these cases, however, nature is nothing we enjoy in itself, but only as an extension of civilisation, put into an artificial and human-made framework, like animals are put into the zoo.

Now, you can dislike nature as much as you like, it will not go away. Even if you think you can very well get along without nature, nature will not let you get along without it. The point is, whatever you do, however you live, how civilised a life you live – it won’t be a life without nature. This may seem a little bit like the question ‘What is nature and how do we define it?’, but we will not pursue that question. Any definition of nature has to accept that, no matter how civilised and refined your life is and no matter how much technological power you have, how many robots or computers, they will never create or sustain life from themselves. Human production needs something to work with; without nature it cannot produce anything. That is true of the very vital commodities, of what we eat and drink, but also of the more refined needs, the aesthetical and intellectual pleasures. Are not the paint and the canvas the artist uses ultimately a product of nature, however refined? Do not even electronic books, photo realistic computer-animations, and virtual realities presuppose nature as it provides the artist with the very picture he re-creates in letters or in pixels? Moreover, even if we do not use natural resources – though electrons are natural resources as well – we use the laws of nature to reach our goals. Technology does not impose our will upon nature; rather we ingeniously arrange elements of nature to be useful to us, while obeying nothing but it’s own laws.

Nevertheless, should we not try to become as independent of nature as possible? If all our wealth presupposes nature as one of its parts – would it not be wise to maximize our technological power and to minimize the natural part that is as limiting as necessary? Nature is that which we are not; that which is independent from us. Nature itself cannot be multiplied. However, technology and art can multiply the number of needs we can supply by using nature. Nature supplies only our most basic needs and even them only up to a certain point. Nature cannot be changed as long as it is independent from us. To be content with nature means giving up those wants which are not supplied for. Being content with nature means giving up what makes one human, what makes man different from animals, who must be content with nature because they cannot change it. Man can reflect on his wants, reassess them, and develop them. To supply the developed wants means to use nature in order to create something new.

Using nature to create something new diminishes the realm of nature. In a society where nature is ‘for nothing’, nature is used up by production and some parts of nature that could have supplied someone’s wants may no longer exist. While we produce commodities for some, we impair the living conditions of others. Some people claim that we diminish the very substance we create from, others claim that we may create very well, but while creating commodities we destroy the only things that are precious. Both concerns hint on the same problem. This problem is that while technology and modern production helps creating things that cannot be found in nature and gives us the power to supply many, many more wants than nature could supply itself – it does not mean that these wants are indeed supplied. The want of the individual is not what economy is about: We do not produce to supply someone’s wants; we produce to sell. Only mediated by exchange can the commodity be utilized. This exchange, however, is determined by the order of our society and by our relationship to nature.

Many aspects of nature can be improved by technology. Nevertheless, while technology could improve the life of all man, globally it does only improve the life of a very few. Those who abhor technical civilisation und modern production do so because it has made their lives miserable, not because modern technology is something inherently bad. Surely not, as technology is the only way, the miserable of today could life as humans tomorrow.

Going to the cinema is cheap, television nearly universally accessible, video games affordable by many; but who has the leisure, the time, and the education to indulge in aesthetical pleasures and pursue scientific truths? Many take weekend holydays with millions of others in the green near the big cities or have their allotments where they are playing a life they do not live. Against both many things could be said, but who can afford a house sufficiently quiet for social, intellectual, and recreational purposes? Only there, in the surrounding gardens the very essence of nature would reveal itself, being part of civilisation.

On the surface of things, progress has not worked out so well: In surprisingly short time, millions of people may suddenly be without water because of the modern usage of the soil or because of the migration that comes with this usage. Hundreds of millions of farmers may suddenly be unable to feed themselves not because of some evil will but because they are simply of no use to the economy. At the same time, however, modern technology makes it possible to provide all these people not only with decent water most of the time but with excellent water all of the time. It allows not some millions of people, like in former centuries, live on halfway decent food and starve only occasionally, but allows billions of people all the time to have as diverse a diet as they like.

Nature does not provide our needs and nature does not lack in provision. We do. Nature doesn’t have its ultimate purpose in itself. The scorn the worker displays, when he considers nature – for once it is not him who is exploited! – exposes the truth about his role in society. Like labour, nature is only a factor in reproducing the means of production. Laying an ultimate purpose into nature is just as disastrous as laying an ultimate purpose into labour. A general notion gains influence upon the individual. This idea, however, is only the reverse of its actual role: using nature as an instrument and idealising nature have a common element: the absence of a rational plan. Nature, just like labour, is not composed carefully, not build. Nature is that which is ‘just there’. The notion of creating a form of nature that is both useful and beautiful is quite a foreign one.

Nature is utilized, as is labour – not for the good of man, but rather for the reproduction of the economy. In a rational society, labour would be the means by which we appropriate nature; both nature and labour would be subordinated to our needs. We do not need nature: rather it is the means to satisfy our need. Our technological development, however, has long passed the point where the exploitation of nature has to be part of all our actions. A society, in which everything has to be useful, therefore is one that negates the needs of men. Which society would be about the needs of men? Only that one that leaves the beasts and the weed in peace.

A society that has technology at its disposal sufficient to feed, to educate, to entertain – in short to provide for all the needs of six billion people –; a society that can provide for all these needs with only half an hour of work a day: such a society does not fail because it exploits nature; nor does it fail because it is to lazy and selfish – but because it lacks rationality.

Florian Beck, 15. August 2003