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technologies such as nanotechnology and genetic manipulation, the once defined border between nature and culture is obsolete.”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


Alan Rudy said...

Arriving in the lit/humanities world from the (environmental, agrifood, science, and cultural) "studies" side of the social sciences, what struck me about your first post - the vast majority of which I agree with - is the emphasis on more or less charismatic megafauna to support the argument for urbanatures. Having done work on introduced/techno-evolved superpests like the Silver Leaf whitefly in California's Imperial Valley and the Western Corn Rootworm "behavioral variant" in the corn-soy-dominated mid-west, the appeal to falcons, etc. strikes me as indicative of how deep the romantic roots of the tradition being expanded here is. It seems that a central component of developing an urbanatural perspective is going to be dealing with the de-naturalization of pests, weeds, diseases and other chronically irritating material resistances... as well as the production of conditions conducive to the reproduction/spread/resistance of these entities and processes.

This is why I like production of natures discourses. On the one hand, it demands a historicization of the social ecological and material semiotic production of "wild", "pristine" and "rural" landscapes - including the myriad assemblages, articulations and boundary practices - by first nations (or indigenous peoples) and then the accelerated and uneven secondary, tertiary, quartinary and so on rounds of political economic and material semiotic of colonial, post-colonial, modern and global (all problematic codes, I know) developments.

Alan Rudy said...

I'm just posting this because I forgot to click on the Email follow-up comments box...

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