In the last post I discussed how nature has come to be regarded as a synonym for good, and suggested that that has not always been the case. Indeed, I am indebted to William Cronon for making the same point much better.* Allow me to quote from him before I move on to the main point of this post:
But the most troubling cultural baggage that accompanies the celebration of wilderness has less to do with remote rain forests and peoples than with the ways we think about ourselves—we American environmentalists who quite rightly worry about the future of the earth and the threats we pose to the natural world. Idealizing a distant wilderness too often means not idealizing the environment in which we actually live, the landscape that for better or worse we call home….
Indeed, my principal objection to wilderness is that it may teach us to be dismissive or even contemptuous of such humble places and experiences. Without our quite realizing it, wilderness tends to privilege some parts of nature at the expense of others.
The trouble that Cronon mentions–figuring out where to focus our definition of nature–at first seems tangential to politics, until we remember that several of the first great modern political philosophers were greatly concerned with answering the question, “What is the state of nature?”
The answer that one gives to that question is extremely consequential to everything that follows in his argument about how to best structure a society.
For Thomas Hobbes, famously, life in the state of nature was “nasty, poor, brutish and short.” Thus, anyone powerful enough to protect men from such a miserable life and quick, violent death could be regarded as a legitimate ruler. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, on the other hand, regarded nature as a land of peace and plenty. His idea for society, then, was that it should be as unrestrictive (“natural”) as possible, with some accommodations made to induce social cooperation.**
In this day and age, we have the ability to learn more about how nature does things and design our shoes and supermarkets accordingly. Can the same be done for human nature and society? Indeed, psychology and many of the social sciences are already attempting to answer this question. But they are doing so in ways that we would consider outmoded in other areas: we are at the point of making clogs, not barefoot running shoes; we talk with you about the social equivalent of a hydroponic system, but not organic vegetables. Getting there will be the next great challenge for the social sciences, and in my view it is going to require a paradigm shift away from unsatisfactory models that rest on excessively artificial assumptions. Nevertheless our new approaches, whatever they may eventually become, will still be simplifications of reality. Let’s not confuse them with an overly simplistic definition of nature that is exclusively good or bad. We live in a complex world, and that is enough.
*And to Eric Higgins, for encouraging me to explore Cronon’s work as part of our teaching/facilitating of the spring 2011 ENGL 1304 course at the University of Houston.
**Apologies to the great thinkers of ages past for doing such violence to their philosophies by summarizing them so briefly.