Going Back to Nature When Nature’s All But Gone


Dedicated to the memory of Paul Shepard

​Good evening. What follows is a series of linked musings on

Human history
The trajectory of environmentalism
The hubris of high technology
The nemesis of carbon, and
The task of education at our moment

Followed by a coda from the cradle of civilization

I must tell you that the prospect of addressing an audience of philosophers, professionals in precise definition and in the work of thinking and differentiating amongst ideas, is most daunting. And has been for the many months since I saddled this lecture with the title “Going Back to Nature when Nature’s All But Gone.”

If ever a term resisted easy definition, it’s Nature.

Perhaps only a civilized human being can have enough distance from the matrix of life to abstract an idea of Nature and brood about going away from or back to it. Our species descended from a wildly ramifying lineage of actual beings, and they from elements and molecules. Born of the planet’s energy and physical substance, human beings are Nature even if many of us are parting company with anything natural. In the world and of it, a great many of us are given to looking at Nature as though we were apart, rather than a part; and to thinking about it as it, rather than thou or we. And a dumb, objectified—and quantified—it can be used lightly and cast away.

It seems likely that pre-agricultural human beings thought of Nature horizontally; all life was equal. Two legged creatures were creatures. Staying alive was a communal affair, the community being every earthly entity, animate or inanimate. Human spirituality was a poetic engagement with Nature; an attempt to express respect for, and conviviality with, all that lives.​ ​Through domestication of other beings and dependency on their products agriculture led to human alienation from Nature. There’s a pseudo coevolutionary relationship between the farmer and the plant or animal. The coevolution takes place in different realms, though, and isn’t commensurate. The wild organism being domesticated is being changed physically, at the level of the gene, whereas it’s the formerly wild farmer’s ideas of self and other, Nature and culture, good and better, which are being domesticated.

Soon enough, with farming and settlements there were town and country, wild and tame. Good Nature was cooperative weather, fruitful plants, and fecund livestock. Bad Nature was pests and predators and drought or flood. (It comes full circle: human activity now reaps the baddest Nature.) Human beings began to cajole and attempt to control Nature, to bribe and appease. We began to project human character, and its new social hierarchies, on Nature, to imagine Nature’s awful powers as wielded by inscrutable, ultra human persons, often gendered, often male.

Nature’s self-will was becoming problematic right about the time that civilization, politically stratified, was finding human self-will problematic. States began finding unpleasant ways to keep human societies stratified according to class, caste and estate. Slaves were an important energy source. Relationships became vertical, with good being up, the soft jobs better paid, and wild, or self-willed land and its inhabitants regarded as waste, and fair game for subjugation.

In order to reach the late twentieth century, where I entered the conversation about the nature of Nature, let me telescope seven and a half millennia of this impressionistic history of our kind with but a glance at the Renaissance, whose most adventurous and inventive thinkers, like Francis Bacon, brought what we call science into being for the purpose of commanding Nature; and at the Enlightenment, whose thinkers like Descartes, as Thomas Berry put it, “killed the world,” even as they laid the foundations of the machine age.

I came in to the conversation about Nature in 1969 to be exact. It was a time when the idea of pristine wilderness enjoyed much credence. There was far less garbage on Mount Everest and there were more mountaintops in coal country. Deep ecology was but a gleam in Arne Naess’s eye (his essay “The Shallow and the Deep Long-range Ecology Movement” would appear in Inquiry 16 in 1973). The Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey’s fierce and funny biocentric novel celebrating what’s now known as eco terrorism was still fulminating in the author’s mind. (That book would appear in 1975.) David Brower, the great Green Quixote and Archdruid, with his corps of youthful Sanchos, tilted at nukes, genetic engineering, dams, clear cuts, roads, and any and all ugliness trying to pass itself off as progress. The touchstone was a wilderness ideal and that epitomized Nature. Having grown up in Phoenix, Arizona, even then one of the least natural human settlements on the planet, and come in to the ecology movement in San Francisco, where the Sierra Club, with Brower as its chief, had its headquarters, I embraced the notion of wilderness epitomizing Nature even though I hadn’t yet set a vibram sole outside of a city park.

While the ecology movement was having its run, humanity’s exploitation and alteration of Nature, at levels from the molecular to the atmospheric, with all the organisms and landscapes in between, was gaining momentum. The ecology movement, betimes, diversified and disputed among itself. At one end of the spectrum were bioregionalists. At the other end were lobbyists for better regulation.

Social ecologists decried the misanthropy of the likes of Earth First!er Dave Foreman, who once described Man in Nature as being “like an obnoxious drunk at the next table ruining your dinner.” As time passed, Nature as unsullied by human action was being deposed from its status as ideal, or even real. Human ecologists, restorationists, indigenous people, ethnobotanists, and anthropologists advanced more and forgiving nuanced ideas about humanity’s effects in Nature.

As the past thirty years of contention and divergent evolution within the ecology movement have demonstrated, the difficulty of arriving at a consensual idea of Nature and what to do for, with, or about it is great. (My current Nature norm is the post-glacial, pre-civilizational ecosphere of the planet.) The discussion about what is real Nature, however interesting, is by now almost entirely moot. The political economy driving the erosion and derangement of Nature, while complicated and vast, has a simple motive: If something profitable can possibly be done, it will. This imperative, equipped with ever more powerful and reckless technologies (some on the verge of becoming self-replicating and self-willed) has coarsened the physiognomy and force of Nature. Whatever one says about Nature’s identity is instantly out of date. Nature, by my definition, is all but gone. But, as that mordant wit Paul Ehrlich observed, “Nature Bats Last.”

​A week ago while I was washing dishes and listening to NPR, there was a cheery little science item announcing that a lab at UC Berkeley has developed a carbon nanotube radio. There was a little bit of amiable, gee-whiz give and take with the project’s lead researcher. Then the interviewer did the unexpected and asked “Why would we need nanoscale radios?”

The researcher responded that there could be a lot of applications, leading off with the ever-popular notion that disabled people might be helped by, say, the implantation of these receivers. Then the interviewer did something else surprising and raised the question of the totalitarian possibilities that could result from these minute (DNA-sized, the researcher helpfully pointed out) receivers being used for purposes of mind control. The researcher joked that he had been directing the interviewer’s thoughts for the past week. Of course, he acknowledged, technologies can be used for good or evil, but, he went on to say, it might be unethical not to develop it, considering all the humanitarian purposes that such a gadget could serve.

(Considering all the humanitarian, disability-remedying motives that have been invoked for technological developments over the last half-century, it’s a wonder there’s any suffering left in the world. In the nonspeculative present, a tremendous amount of human misery and disability could be prevented, not prosthetized, by condoms, sufficient calories, clean water, soap and mosquito nets. But those simple things or the means to them, exist and any patents have long since expired. To provide them to the multitudes who need them might conceivably be doable, but the doing would be quite an unglamorous slog.)

Here in late industrial civilization we’re so far gone from Nature that we assume every troublesome condition is a problem to be engineered, researched, or rebranded away—a problem to be solved rather than a situation to be reckoned with. Thus scientists and technologists trundle on down whatever path seems promising on the off chance that their discoveries may do more good than harm.

That those paths can lead to madness is evidenced in the following items from Victoria M.Garcia’s lengthy review of a book titled Environment and the Technologies of Tomorrow (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2005): “What these authors are trying to describe,” says Garcia, “is an environmental agenda light-years away from the events leading to Earth Day in 1970.”

​She summarizes one of the articles as describing “the development of a vast, autonomous, co-evolving, self-configuring global sensing system grid…to monitor life systems at all levels of complexity in order to pose questions unimagined in previous generations…[and] create vast harvests of information.”

“Let them eat information.”

These writers anticipate there being “Tiny wireless sensors, deeply embedded in the physical world, [which] could be used to track pollutants, to allow for transportation vehicles to communicate to one another about road conditions, to track variance in agricultural conditions and to efficiently coordinate the manufacturing and transfer of commodities.”

Garcia quotes Brad Allenby, the writer of another of the book’s chapters, saying: “Forget ‘natural history’—increasingly there is only human history. And that trend will only intensify: the evolution of information technology, economic structures, and globalization, nano technology, and biotechnology will have far, far more to do with the structure of the future than any environmental policy we may think about.”

Well, I’m not eager to leave my desk job, either. I, too, like being a working intellectual, even though it’s not altogether clear that further prose or preachment, to say nothing of more environmental policy, will serve humanitarian or biotic purposes. Heck, maybe a nano radio will substitute for local cognizance of biodiversity, help you lose weight and maintain an erection, too. That would be ever so much easier than grubbing around in the ruins of a collapsed civilization.

However confident these technological optimists may be, they are surely mistaken. For one thing, the production of the cheap oil and natural gas that have underwritten the growth and development of high technology, of the way of life that the developed world has come to think of as normal, have peaked, and the consequences of that are enormous. I beg you to inform yourselves on this subject, and I am providing a short list of resources with which to begin.

​Another reason that nano-silico-managerial future is unlikely to be realized is that climate chaos is here. Post-Katrina New Orleans could be the shape of things to come, especially if we continue to imagine that the government can or will do anything to alter the fundamental causes of climate change or put things back the way they were before its effects resulted in local or regional cataclysms.

There are plenty of grounds for skepticism about the United States’ capacity to remedy these plights. The likelihood that its economy will crash is chief among them. Although the particulars may vary, because the world economy is networked and the atmosphere is one, every country now faces such crises.

The poet Gary Snyder referred to the planet as Earth Household. Earth Household is on fire. We can reasonably anticipate that droughts, forest holocausts, crop failures, and water shortages will become common, unexceptional. I remember a few years ago reading about thirsty monkeys coming out of the bush and battling some Indian villagers over trucked-in water.

There’s a Texas-sized gyre of immortal plastic in mid-Pacific. Human and animal bodies all carry loads of persistent, hormone-mimicking chemicals that are interfering with reproduction and neurological development, and there are inextinguishable fires underground in Chinese coal seams releasing as much carbon dioxide yearly as all the vehicles on Earth. Even the seed catalogs show vegetation ranges moving northwards, and half the world’s human population is in cities now, where emerging disease pandemics threaten a long, miserable reduction in our species’ numbers.

In such circumstances, it is hard to imagine technology saving the day.

[Why Cassandra usually mopes at home on Saturday nights: Even the cutest prom dress in the world can’t make up for an apocalyptic complexion.]

​I’m guessing that most of you are in academe, and must be doing some teaching. I do a little teaching myself. I try to apprise my students of the extreme peril facing much life on Earth, and of the near certainty of a drastic discontinuity in our accustomed ways of life; yet I don’t want to paralyze anyone. But what shall we suggest that these inheritors of a stormy, ravaged earth do? How are the people of the 21st and 22nd centuries going to be able to accept their circumstances and make the best of them without having their hearts broken by the history of what was?

These are the tasks of philosophy, philo-sophia, the love of wisdom. What kinds of wisdom will the young need to be able to endure hard times, terrible losses and still know moments of beauty and joy in their lives?

In addition to the work of keeping alive the great cultural and intellectual treasures that human beings have created, and teaching the means and forms of art and inquiry, education at every level must include home economics and the skills of primary production; of composting, gardening, cooking and tinkering; of playing music, writing plays; and fixing things or finding new uses for castoffs; it must include physical education to strengthen us to walk our own miles, carry our own weight, sharpen our senses and capacities for action.

All of the above makes for a crowded syllabus. One way to begin is to get the students out of the classroom and into nature together. Take a field trip. Another step is to have a potluck. Break bread together. As fellow human beings, try this thought experiment:

Let’s say your house is on fire and you can only grab a thing or two before you flee the flames. What would it be? What would your heart incline you to save?


​When I was working on this talk, I came across some notes I made years ago on the epic of Gilgamesh. Reading them conjured that great pre-Homeric tale and it would not let me be. I came to know Gilgamesh, literally by accident. A friend lent me Herbert Mason’s ravishing verse narrative version of the epic at a crisis in my life. As archetypes can, Gilgamesh’s tragedy of love and loss framed what was quite a terrible experience—my former husband and I were both hospitalized with serious injuries, his life-threatening, resulting from a head-on automobile accident—with grave and constant themes. (Happily, our personal drama was no tragedy. We both returned to full functioning, with some interesting scars that served as our diplomas from the school of hard knocks.)

The timeless Epic of Gilgamesh dates from 3000 BC, around the dawn of Western civilization. Out of the deep memory and poetic imagination of the earliest city folk, from Uruk—northwest on the Euphrates from Al Basra in contemporary Iraq—emerged a tale of a godlike, imperious, builder king. It richly evokes the ambivalence and fatality of the meeting of natural and civilized beings and the grave and sorrowful wisdom it yields. Gilgamesh is not a tale with a happy ending. It is a tale of reckless loss and of maturation through reckoning with despair. For those of us who still long to go back to Nature when Nature’s all but gone, such human archetypes resonate.

(The few quotations interpolated in the following gloss are from Mason.)

The demigod Gilgamesh, a bit of a tyrant, suffers from the loneliness of the mighty. Through dreams, providence apprises him of a remarkable being, a feral hero and possible equal. Enkidu is a wild man of the Steppe, “ignorant of oldness./He ran with the animals,/Drank at their springs,/not knowing fear or wisdom.” A woman is sent out to intrigue the wild man. After Enkidu has lain with the woman, he knows a great emptiness. Perhaps this is the price of individuating.

By and by Enkidu is led to the city where he meets Gilgamesh. The king and wild man begin their humanizing encounter with a heroic contest—they wrestle, kicking up the dust with “their feet/that danced the dance of life/Which hovers close to death.” In the heat of this fight their friendship is forged.

This fateful and overmastering friendship between the natural man and the king, who commands the building of walls and palaces, is the crux of the epic.

As Mason puts it, “It is the story/of their becoming human together.”

After a period of wondering at the fullness of life, his equal and Other friend having banished his loneliness, the restless Gilgamesh takes a notion to go up to the mountains with their sacred cedar forests, and defy the gods by chopping down the tallest tree. These baleful woods are guarded by the monster Humbaba, fearsome and all but invincible. Enkidu, who knows the territory, tries earnestly but fails to dissuade his heroic friend from this adventure.

And so they journey together to the forest gates.

“[S]ome called the forest ‘Hell’ and other ‘Paradise;’/What difference does it make?/said Gilgamesh.”

Soon enough, Humbaba discovers the two, and in the ensuing battle, mortally wounds Enkidu. Humbaba in turn is slain by Gilgamesh ​As he is dying, Enkidu voices his tragic fate: of leaving, and being left by the wild for his humanizing friendship with Gilgamesh:

“Everything had life to me, [Gilgamesh] heard Enkidu murmur,/The sky, the storm, the earth, water, wandering,/The moon and its three children, salt, even my hand/Had life. It’s gone. It’s gone…”

Naïve Gilgamesh, incredulous at the death of his friend, grieves inconsolably: “Perhaps insane, he tried/to bring Enkidu back to life/To end his bitterness,/His fear of death./His life became a quest/To find the secret of eternal life/Which he might carry back to give to his friend.”

In the end, Gilgamesh’s quest for that secret and “to find an end to his despair” is thwarted and he returns to Uruk:

“Gilgamesh said nothing more/to force his sorrow on another/He looked at the walls,/awed at the heights/His people had achieved/And for a moment—just a moment—All that lay behind him/passed from view.”

​Thank you.