Photo by Mike Powles
Artillery Row

Nature beyond resources

We ought to appreciate the natural world for what it is, not just what it does

Last month, I visited the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The ground floor houses an ornithology exhibit of birds native to the Americas. Taxidermied technicolor plumes of extinct species nest within glass cases. Strolling through, I was saddened by how we must pickle creation for posterity. In colonising an increasing square feet of our countries with concrete, we have alienated ourselves from the natural world. We need to visit enclosures for its remnants to remember it. This anti-industrial sentiment is anathema to the popular pro-growth approach conservatives have taken to climate change, however.

I am neither denying nor requesting that we undo improvements to life expectancy or lowered infant mortality. We’re having too few babies, not too many. This is not a “Conservative Case For Degrowth”. If we are to have a place or tradition to conserve at all, we must conceive of ourselves in relation to nature differently, reining in the remit of activities considered in market interests.

Ingenuity has produced a 300 per cent increase in food production and 80 per cent reduction in global poverty. It also disestablished our narrative conception of ourselves as living integrated with nature, however. We treat nature as something to be tamed, eradicated and then reintroduced at humanity’s behest. In turn, we alienate ourselves from being embodied and embedded in the world.

Technology liquidates geographical, temporal and gender differences

An example of this is the depletion and regeneration of forestry. In Britain, forestry coverage decreased from over ninety per cent in 2,000 B.C. to four per cent by 1760. Discovering oil and coal led to a 72 per cent drop in wood burning between 1860 and 1920. On both sides of the Atlantic, this birthed the Romantic and Transcendentalist movements. The rejuvenated wilderness was extolled as a retreat into the sublime and the beautiful, away from the stifling smog of densifying urban environments. This positioned man as outside nature, however — estranged from it, seeking refuge in it from his own machinations. It became something under our ownership: an enclosure, not to be despoiled by railways or trampled underfoot by tourists.

This is a consequence of technological development. As Jon Askonas wrote in Why Conservatism Failed, technology is a force that liquidates geographical, temporal and gender differences — the natural constraints that shape and maintain traditions. Mechanised production altered economic relations. Goods went from being made for the subsistence of one’s household, to given up as offerings to the invisible hand of Mammon in exchange for wage labour. This reorientation, from household subsistence to amassing capital, eroded the integrity of the family unit. It made the individual and his desires the legislator of the progressive trajectory of civilisational travel.

The destination is abundance — the abolition of want. The past is comparatively disparaged to make our exponential pursuit of prosperity beyond reproach. A recent piece in Discourse Magazine mythologised the mediaeval period as one of ignorance, for example, with mankind spellbound by a “Malthusian malaise” until the secular Enlightenment rationalism.

Technology legitimised the Promethean belief that man may master the environment, then turn it inward to master ourselves. The scope of the market is intertwined with technological development. Without a culturally-enforced morality — predicated on metaphysics, rather than shifting material conditions — there is no bulwark against commodifying everything and ourselves, except that the technology may not yet exist to permit it.

As a result, everything became “Standing Reserve”: Heidegger’s term for treating nature as a set of composite parts to be extracted, packaged, stored and exported elsewhere irrespective of time and place. The attitude of the Standing Reserve applies liberal universalist assumptions to the natural world. Everything can be commodified to meet the on-demand expectations of the self-authoring individual consumer. Everything is eligible to become a stuffed bird behind glass.

This liquidation effect dislocates us from context, ratcheting upwards toward global homogenisation. It treats us as Globo Homo-Economicus: fungible tokens, tied to nowhere in particular, whose interactions are purely transactional, trickling upwards to the endless pursuit of abundance.

The argument for embodied living also holds for embedded living in the world

The assumption of interchangeability and liberal individuality have their apotheosis in the gender debate. The coalition of contradictions called “conservative” have become amenable to recent reactionary arguments against the Sexual Revolution. They recognise the role that the contraceptive pill, for example, played in disintegrating complementary embodied sex differences. This argument for embodied living also holds for embedded living in the world, against the excesses of the Industrial Revolution. Conceiving of the world as a series of instruments-in-waiting estranges us from living in it.

Greta Thunberg was right: there is more to existence than fulfilling the “fairytale of eternal economic growth”. She is wrong in interpreting that as manufactured consent for managerial eco-socialism, however. She is also wrong to scaremonger about mankind’s imminent extinction. The greater danger than global warming is rendering ourselves alienated from the world and obsolete in production — beings of disembodied will and relentless consumption. The world of Blade Runner is made no less dystopian by running it on renewable power.

We should not transmute ourselves into raw materials. Likewise, our aim should not be “making space for nature”. Nature is not a “solution” to human excess. It will make space for itself, returning once our skyscrapers become Ozymandian mausoleums to overzealous industrial ambition. Mastery is the wrong heuristic to address social alienation and environmental degradation. We should aim to reconnect with organic modes of living.

The Kuznets’ Curve shows how economic prosperity correlates with efficient resource use, with a resulting reduction in pollution. We are cresting that curve, and we should now tailor our technologies to aim at coexistence with nature. Energy generation is the cornerstone of economic security and climate policy. Smothering hillsides with solar panels is hideous. Whilst not commercially viable yet, small-modular nuclear reactors reduce space required for abundant clean energy. Likewise, though not yet energy efficient, wind turbines could be more in keeping with pre-industrial aesthetics — closer to the water-wheel than the hydroelectric dam, which Heidegger abhorred.

Nature-proximate modes of being, as Emerson said, will “repeal the mean egoism” of modernity, recultivating lifestyles, traditions and relationships that we have lost. We should aim not at limitless growth, but regrowth. To defeat misanthropic, degrowth environmentalism, the right must renounce consumerism. It will find allies in anti-plastics health-conscious hippies — the few of those not bought off by corporate interests. Only stewardship — duty to dependents and the world on which we are contingent — can safeguard embodied, traditional modes of being from the corrosives of commerce and technology.

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