Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Urbanature for a New Era

We need a new concept, and we need a new word to describe that concept. The new word we need is “urbanature.” The concept this word describes is the idea that nature and urban life are not as distinct as we have long supposed. Here is why.

Hawks are roosting on skyscrapers near Central Park East and Central Park West. Peregrine falcons are feeding on the Flatiron Building, and owls are nesting throughout Manhattan. Meanwhile, thousands of environmentalists board carbon-gulping airplanes and fly thousands of miles (carrying tons of Gore-Tex) to get “back to nature” in Montana. At the same time, the World Wide Web tells us that Thoreau said, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” Over 600 websites say so. But Thoreau did not say, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” He said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” This difference–”wildness,” not “wilderness”–makes all the difference.

Urbanature (rhymes with “furniture”) is the idea that all human and nonhuman lives, all animate and inanimate objects on our planet (and no doubt beyond) are linked in a complex web of interconnectedness. We are not out of nature when we stand in the streets of Manhattan any more than we are in nature when we stand above tree-line in the Montana Rockies. When nature-lovers say they long to return to nature, they are making what the philosophers call a category mistake. As Tyler Stalling has recently noted, “There is no ‘real nature’ to which to return. Rather, in the face of burgeoning technologies such as nanotechnology and genetic manipulation, the once defined border between nature and culture is obsolete.”

So far, it is only a handful of artists and designers who have invoked the term “urbanature” to describe this link between city-style and wild-style. Of course, my coinage of “urbanature” has close connections to the lines of Tim Morton’s recent argument about the need to get away from the idea of “nature” altogether (*Ecology Without Nature*). Tim is right not just for the subtle and nuanced theoretical reasons he invokes, but also because post-enlightenment “nature” is like a number of eighteenth-century ideas that have been around so long they are in desperate need of cultural critique. Such ideas–imagination, identity, self, consciousness, among many others–are concepts that often seem tired, worn down, enervated, misunderstood and misapplied. That is why a rigorous critique of “nature” is of such significance to Romanticists. We have the texts and the tools needed to undertake just such a project.

The time has clearly come to apply urbanature–or some concept like it–all around us, from the semi-wild edges of the Sahara and the Himalayas to the ecologically-contiguous villages of the European Alps and the Indian subcontinent. Urbanature, as I envision it, also describes the wide suburban sprawls filled with billions upon billions of flowers, trees, squirrels, and raptors, reaching all the way from the Pacific edge of the Americas to the Ural edges of Europe. Our new linking of urban spaces with natural places will likewise need to include captive and semi-captive creatures, from wild animals in zoo cages and pets in high-rise condominiums to plants and animals on sidewalks, roofs, and skyscraper ledges from Bombay to Caracas, from Beijing to Brooklyn.

We are never fully cut off from wild nature by human culture. This is the central aspect of all true ecology. Nothing we can do can ever take us out of nature. There is nowhere for us to go. We are natural beings from the moment we are biologically born until the moment we organically die. Instead of describing the nonhuman world anthropocentrically—in human terms—we now have many good reasons to describe the whole world ecocentrically [eco-: oikos, house]. Our nonhuman, natural house is the same place as our fully human, cultural home.

The globe is now completely mapped and filmed and photographed, down to the last W.M.D. (we hope), down to the smallest street and streambed. With my own computer mouse—and MapQuest or Google Earth on my computer—I can move from Mauritius to Manhattan in a minute, I can spin from the Seychelles to Seattle in a second. I can zoom onto every housetop. I can see almost every car in every parking lot. But this is not a problem. This is not a loss. In fact, my ability to scan the surface of the globe in seconds reminds me that I am linked to every natural object and every quantum of energy that surrounds me.

Urbanature includes the biggest of big pictures: birds on buildings, fish in fishponds, chemists making medicines, mountaineers climbing mountains, every dolphin and domestic dog, every gust of solar wind and every galaxy. To be “natural” originally meant, “to have been born”: natura—“birth” and also “essence,” as in “the nature of the problem.” The human-made is no less natural because it has been shaped, no less born or essential because it has been fashioned by human hands. The bird makes a nest, and her nest is no less natural than the bird herself. Human hands make a house, and the house–or even the skyscraper–is no less natural than the human hands that shaped it.

We now know that we share genetic material with chimpanzees and crustaceans. We can transplant animal organs into humans. We can insert our human genes into other species. We are genetically related to, and dependent upon, countless species in countless ways: gorillas, whales, dogs, fishes, foxgloves, fungi. Where would we be without penicillium, that invisible fungus spore that flew through Alexander Fleming’s window in his London laboratory in 1928 and led to penicillin, a drug that has saved tens of millions of lives? Was Fleming operating in wild nature or in urban culture when he came upon that fungus? He was functioning in both. A “purely” natural object (the airborne penicillium) landed on a “purely” cultural production (a Petri dish smeared with agar) and the result was penicillin, a natural product of human culture that has changed life on our planet forever.

Urban culture and wild nature come to much the same thing. Urbanature.

–Ashton Nichols

Monday, February 9, 2009

Why is Darwin So Important?

A Young Man on Some Old Islands

In 1831, Charles Darwin thought he had “wasted” (his word) his college education. The 22-year-old was thus sent off by his father on a five-year journey that would change our understanding of our place in the nonhuman world. After five weeks on the Gal├ípagos Islands, far out in the middle of the Pacific off the coast of Ecuador, Darwin’s observations and drawings of finches and tortoises led him to formulate the idea of natural selection, the centerpiece of his version of evolution. As he walked the sandy shorelines of these craggy volcanoes, he suddenly realized that the birds around him had variable beaks because natural selection had selected certain beaks as more useful than others: some for gathering seeds, others for crushing nuts, a few for spearing termites. The he saw iguanas swimming in the ocean, unlike almost any other lizards on earth. Lizards were land animals, but these spiny creatures found their food in the sea, just as the dinosaurs had. The young naturalist climbed these rocky hillsides, and he noticed that many of the creatures he saw were isolated from one another, trapped on their individual islands. Gal├ípagos tortoises grew gigantic because there were no large, vicious mammals here to compete with them for food or space. Darwin’s ideas at this point were not new, nor were they complete. Indeed, his grandfather had implied that species change over time (as had some ancient Greeks). Now, however, the grandson’s emerging explanation of the way species evolve by means of natural selection would literally change our world.

Separate Creation or The Origin of Species?

Charles Darwin made himself literally ill with what he knew. He paced up and down the garden paths at Down House--not far from London--for over a quarter of a century, fretting himself sick because he possessed a secret that would upset the world. He spent countless hours in his book-lined study, pouring over boxes of beetles and barnacles, convinced that every living creature on earth must be related to every other creature, living or dead. Darwin was so disturbed by the power of his own idea that he refused to publish his conclusion for more than two decades. When his beloved 10-year-old daughter Annie died of a ravaging scarlet fever, Darwin lost whatever trace of faith he might have had in a just God, or a well-planned universe. He put his major scientific conclusion on paper for the first time in a letter that conveys his sense of the danger of his own insight. To even suggest that species might be mutable, he said, was like “confessing a murder.” In fact, he was right. Within months of Darwin’s public presentation of his findings, shouting matches broke out on the floor of learned societies throughout Europe. His critics called him “godless.” His enemies said that his ideas were evil. They put his head on the body of a chimpanzee. At he same time, they could not prove him wrong. In one five-page paper, Darwin had explained the process by which all life on earth had developed.

Two Centuries of Evolution, and Counting

Bible believers can say what they will; but, according to Darwin, creation is underway today--in fact, it never ends. Species are constantly changing, adapting and modifying, under the pressures of selection by natural forces, because of the random chances of mutation. During the same decade that On the Origin of Species was published, an obscure Augustinian monk in Austria was planting 30,000 pea pods in his monastery garden. This genius, Gregor Mendel, figured out the precise part of cells that causes changes in organisms, but he did not call these cell-parts “genes” yet. He went on selectively to breed a hybrid variety of honeybees that had to be destroyed because they were so aggressive, much like our current strain of Africanized bees.

Indeed, a garden full of vicious bees was the birthplace of modern biology. Half a century would have to pass before Mendel’s genetic discoveries were connected to Darwinian thinking. When Mendel’s peapods were finally linked to Darwin’s finches, however, the results would be staggering: genetically modified foods--“Frankenfoods”--cloning, fertility treatments, hitherto unimagined cures for virulent diseases. In 2005, in his landmark decision in the case of Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District, Judge John Jones said that so-called “intelligent design” is nothing more than a version of creationism and that creationism can never be taught in public schools. So our story is far from over. Darwin and his successors have had powerful impacts on biology, ecology, paleontology, and social theory. In addition, evolution continues to influence religious thinkers and atheists, literary and visual artists, psychologists and politicians. Hard to imagine? Perhaps, but Darwin’s ideas, like the ideas of his powerful predecessors, have affected all human beings who have tried to understand nature from 1809 until 2009.

Monday, January 12, 2009


It is the summer of 2016. The price of gasoline has stabilized at $3.00 a gallon and electric cars, along with natural gas-powered vehicles, now fill America's roadways. A new hydrogen-powered furnace has recently become available for widespread domestic use. It links to solar panels and miniaturized wind-turbines along the roof-line of the home in order to provide unlimited energy for minimal cost.

Thirty million new jobs have been created since 2009, over half of them in the manufacturing sector, the remaining positions divided among high-tech, international and a variety of service start-ups. Average family income has reached a peak for the twenty-first century, close to $50,000. The mortgage and real-estate crisis of the late 2000s is a distant memory. More Americans, as a real number and as a percentage of the overall population, own their own homes than at any other time in U. S. history. Interest rates hover between 4.5 and 5.0 percent.

America's standing in the world has never been higher. Our relationship with our European allies has given way to an expanded version of NATO that now includes countries reaching across the Mediterranean and deep into the former Soviet republics. President Obama has been mentioned for the Nobel Peace Prize short list after the detente he has established with the new, moderate Iranian leader, with Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, and with the post-revolutionary parliament of North Korea. Those who argue against a Peace Prize for Obama cite his crushing defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan and his 2012 capture of a frail Osama bin Laden, not in a frontier cave but in a dingy hotel room in Peshawar.

Vice-President Biden has just announced that he will not campaign for the presidency in the upcoming election and has hinted that he may throw his support behind former Virginia governor Mark Warner. Michelle Obama has been mentioned as a potential running-mate for Warner, or for Hillary Clinton, Warner's leading opponent in this year's hotly contested series of primaries. Ms. Obama's political prospects surged after she a truth and reconciliation commission that produced remarkable results at the end of the Iraqi occupation.  The Boston Red Sox have just won their third World Series in a  row.                                   --A.N.