Is It Better to Be Natural?
We refer to nature often enough, you would think that we know what it is.
Moose, moss and dung seem natural. But what about salami, socks or singing in the shower? Does it matter?
It might if you are gay, an animal rights activist, or a shareholder in Monsanto. Appeals to naturalness have featured in debates as diverse as same-sex marriage, our treatment of animals, and genetic modification. They rest on the notion that nature is real and not a figment of the imagination. But is that true? And if not, should we be using nature for political ends?
We often refer to natural history, the natural world and Mother Nature. We hear of the benefits from natural extracts and natural foods. Environmentalists warn us that we are disturbing the natural order or upsetting nature’s balance. But what is this thing called nature?
This was a question I asked people for my Masters thesis. It didn’t surprise me that living things frequently came up first.
“Animals, birds, hedgehogs, foxes, anything like that,” one person said.
“Birds and bees. Trees. Flowers,” said another.
Geological features were another common element. A picture of the Rocky Mountains, for instance, got responses like this: “My word for that is awesome. Splendid. That is nature.”
A postcard of New York City’s concrete jungle, though, brought such comments as, “I don’t consider that to be a natural environment. I don’t see any nature in that at all.”
Not all sentiments were shared, however. One person thought that the Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island were, “Just, like, pure artificial and, I just think it’s so nasty.” Yet, another did see it as nature, albeit “with an awful lot of help from Man”.
Why would we agree about certain things being natural, and disagree about others? Is it because the characteristics of naturalness are not clear to everyone? Or do we determine these characteristics to suit ourselves?
In the way that we talk about nature, certain qualities are often implied. Naturalness is healthy. Nature is pure, sometimes in the sense of being “wild, rugged, untouched by human hands.” I asked someone why they thought that city buildings were unnatural. “The materials are put together by people who want to make a brick,” they said, “and therefore the ingredients may be natural but the actual products aren’t. Unnaturalness, then, can be a quality of human artifacts, irrespective of what they are made of. Yet, some things we make and do, like the Butchart Gardens, might be seen as natural if they are nice to look at.
These ideas suggest that naturalness is a contingent condition. They indicate a willingness to see nature in a positive light, while thinking ill of unnaturalness and equating it with certain things we do. Why else should natural things be healthy? Why would we think that anything we make is unnatural? Why should unnaturalness result only from changes made by us, when things are altered dramatically all the time by processes we intuitively think of as natural? And why should it make a difference what something looks like? If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, notions of naturalness based upon it would be a matter of personal taste. Naturalness would then be no more an objective quality of things than quality itself.
A more scientific definition of nature might come from the world’s top lexicographers. The Oxford Canadian Dictionary defines nature (in the context in which we typically refer to the environment) as “the physical power causing all phenomena of the material world”. According to Merriam-Webster Online, nature is “a creative and controlling force in the universe,” or “the external world in its entirety.” Dictionary.com describes nature as “the material world and its phenomena” and “the forces and processes that produce and control all the phenomena of the material world.”
Notice, however, that these definitions are also selective. Why are only physical or material things natural? Is nature solely creative? Are thought, emotion, flood and fire natural?
But so what if lexicographers can’t even make sense of nature? It is a useful term for describing things because when we hear it, we can be fairly sure we know what the user wants it to mean. We should be wary, though, when something is judged according to its naturalness. Even if our idea of nature is free of moral biases, our notions of moral goodness aren’t. Hence, some things may reasonably be considered icons of nature but nothing can be objectively good because it is natural. Yet, political positions are sometimes justified on the grounds that nature and virtue inherently go together.
In debates over gay marriage some opponents have argued that same-sex couples should not be allowed to wed because it is “unnatural.” The point of this argument is to circumvent debates over subjective moral objections. The same principle underlies criticisms of GMOs as unnatural. It appeals to the assumption that anything unnatural is unequivocally undesirable. But how can that be if unnaturalness itself is not unequivocal? At best, we would have to believe that unnaturalness is inherently bad, or that something is unnatural because it is undesirable, not vice versa. Either way, this argument is not as objective as it might seem, so it cannot form the basis of an unbiased opposition to anything.
The exploitation of sentiments about nature’s virtue can also be found on many everyday products that are marketed as ‘natural’ as though this makes them superior. For one product to be superior to another in this context its superiority must result from its physical properties. Naturalness cannot be one of these if it is something we define contingently. Hence, labels that describe products as ‘natural’ are part of a strategy specifically designed to appeal to the myth that naturalness exists and natural things are intrinsically healthy.
If moose, moss and dung are natural, whatever that means, it doesn’t make them good. Equating naturalness with virtue is a value judgment. Consequently, suggesting that something is unequivocally right, wrong, better or worse, because of its naturalness or unnaturalness is misleading. The value of anything comes from us; often from our affection for it, our sense of moral duty to it, or its benefits. These qualities should be the basis of our support of things that we see as natural, not some notion of naturalness.