Reader's note: This is the text version of a podcast episode that I am featured in, which can be found here: https://afutureonwaxenwings.podbean.com/e/e1-without-nature-a-meditation-by-ethan-smith/ . My friend and intellectual, Keith Runyan, is the host of the podcast, called A Future On Waxen Wings, which explores various aspects of the future, from environmental challenges and existential risk to post-future narratives and much more. I had the privilege to write a short essay for the podcast, so please give it a listen or read the transcript of it below.
Last week a friend of mine posted a spectacular image of Yosemite Valley on social media with a tagline proclaiming its awesome glory. Without argument, Yosemite Valley is one of the most majestic places on the planet, which is why I spent just under two years living and working in the valley surrounded by massive granite slabs, majestic waterfalls, and Giant Sequoias. However, seeing the image shared this way on social media made me think, and I struggled erasing the humans and the human constructed paths, roads, stores, and shops that I knew were present in the image that hid just beneath the magical veneer of the precisely timed photograph. And this got me thinking about a concept prevalent in our culture.
By repressing these “uglier” parts of the picture or by literally hiding them within the frame, we construct a version of reality that exists as a double truth. And this image is but one microscopic example of this common phenomenon. One of these truths proclaims pristine nature, devoid of humans, crafted by the hands of God and Mother Nature. The other peels back the wallpaper to reveal a more complex, interesting, realistic, perhaps uncanny story of the world. It is this story that I want to interrogate more closely.
To approach this story, I want to provoke a question: does Yosemite Valley remain pristine nature if we know there are people below the tree line? What about when we learn that a 5-star hotel exists in the background where the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama have spent the night beneath Yosemite Falls? If not, why might it suddenly go from “nature” to “not nature?” Furthermore, why would the image be beautiful only if the human is absent and the thing called nature is present? Is there a reason why the addition of human constructed aspects of the environment would change our understanding of that environment, especially the aesthetics? Numerous answers might exist to these questions, but a consistent one relies upon the idea of a separation of humans and nature.
Putting the medium aside, it is clear that the orientation of this image of Yosemite clearly presents us with a beautiful spectacle, but it is also one laden with value, even if we do not at first notice it. But it is, in a small way, indicative of a larger idea. By demarcating the line between human and everything else in terms of an object that we call nature, we then, perhaps inadvertently, assign a value to each. Of course this story often goes along the lines of humans being are at best ambivalent but more likely prone to sin or a downfall, often tainted, but occasionally redeemable, and sometimes noble. Nature, then, is often, at worst, a little scary, but mostly pure, virgin, innocent and of course full of beauty. This removal of humans from the image and the subsequent uplifting of the sublimity of the natural world has been studied extensively in aesthetics and art history and literature. Despite it being a common, it is indicative of a larger cultural idea of the separation of humans from the natural world. When examined closely, though, the idea begins to dissolve slowly and a new world is discovered beyond it.
In fact, as we continue, we will begin to call this idea of a separation of humans and nature the myth of nature. Because, as we will discover, the concept of “nature”--at least as it is presented in modern Western Culture since at least the Romantics--never really quite existed as we though it did. Only now in our age of vast information has this become strikingly apparent--and important. Let’s dive a little deeper into the myth of nature.
Perhaps the most significant upheaval of the Anthropocene is the elimination of the concept of nature. Among others, Bill McKibben declared the end of nature in 1989 which he stated was the moment in Earth’s history when nothing could escape the grasp of humanity because we had shaped the world so vastly that we had even put a layer of nuclear material in the fossil record. Ironically, this position simply restates and repaints the nature and human divide on a different canvas; however, within it lies a truth about the idea of nature and the anthropocene, though different from McKibben’s original intention, and it is one we want to dissect.
If humans evolved from a common primate ancestor, it is hard to claim that we were ever separate from the world. The problem for keeping the word nature is deciding at which point humans became distinct enough of an entity that one can draw a line between them and the environments and biomes in which they arose. It wasn’t as if humans simply appeared one day from the material world, completely cut off from the rest of matter. Of course, we can certainly argue that there are certain ways in which humans are separate, especially from other mammals, but this separation is related to degree, composition and style, not a complete severing, unless you follow religious doctrines and interpretations. The ways in which humans are separate from the rest of the world has been discussed throughout time in philosophy and theology and literature and they form the very basis of the humanities.
We can further complicate the myth by examining discoveries in the last half century in microbiology and chemistry, which have continually shown how humans not only exist within complex systems but are themselves complex systems. In this way, one can imagine a tiny bit of “nature” existing simultaneously inside each of us, at least when nature is viewed as something other. In fact, though, it is not really a tiny bit of “nature” at all but rather something that is simultaneously us and not us. One example is stomach bacteria, our microbiome. Can a human really exist without their complete stomach biome, all of those small bacterium living and reproducing, contributing to the larger stomach and organs? Probably not, at least not well. But is stomach bacteria at all “human?” Kind of, but not exactly; however, it is certainly a piece of a large and complex system that we call human. We could continue this logical thought for many parts of the system that we can human, eventually it might lead us to a profound and challenging question: at what point, then, does our human self “end” and nature “begin?” Putting aside reductionism as a solution for now, let’s examine the separation.
When asked to conjure images of nature, people often state the obvious: trees, animals, mountains. Surely these things do exist in a way that is different from humans, at least in their emergent forms and to our senses. For example, the collection of matter that is me is obviously not the same thing to our eyes, as say, a palm tree, even if at our most basic level we are collections of atoms. So it certainly makes sense for humans to create words and images that separate us from palm trees and things like toasters and mountain ranges. However, romantic thought has taught us that these entities collectively exist as something called “nature”--and that thing is always over “there” and away from us, while we, the humans, exist “here” in subjectivity. But ontologically speaking, is there something always over “there” that is nature and something “here” that is me? The answer to that question is much more complex than it seems at first.
Philosopher Timothy Morton, who has written extensively on the topic of ecology without nature, coherently demonstrates part of this point with a thought experiment that I will paraphrase here because it brings to light many of the flaws of our idea of nature. He asks us to think of a meadow. In the meadow exist all of the normal pieces of a meadow: small critters, leaves, dirt, fungi, maybe a few bones lying around, meadow-y things. If we remove one grass blade from the meadow, is the object that we are now staring at still a meadow? It seems logical that we would conclude that it is still very meadow-y. So, if we continue this thought experiment, what happens if we remove two blades? Seventy? A thousand? Certainly there must exist a point if we continued the experiment where we would be left with one blade of grass or one mouse, which most certainly do not exist as a meadow but rather a blade of grass or a mouse. These are very different from the thing we started with and called a meadow. The puzzle of determining the end of the meadow is replicated closely in the idea of nature. Because we can’t seem to grasp the “end” of the meadow firmly, we are stuck in a double bind within the meaning of the word and concept of meadow. If dissected, we discover that the singular meadow is actually comprised of numerous things that we collectively lump together and call a meadow but only together do they exist as a meadow, not as parts but only as a whole. Our current conception of nature works similarly. Is nature not just a stand-in, catch-all phrase for the myriad deer, mountains, skunks, banana slugs, and forested paths of our lives, a kind of false holism? At what point are those entities--which are usually composed of multiple other entities, or lumps, themselves--no longer nature? What about those things “closer” to us, such as roads, vehicles, dogs, or nuclear waste? Would we call even the aesthetically displeasing--even scary and most certainly ugly, evil stuff--nature? After all, they’re certainly not human...Furthermore, because we assign value to nature, it inherently complicates the idea. It is here when we begin to realize the holes in our concept of nature and that it is, indeed, a slippery slope, one with immense cultural force that we are still struggling to grasp
This inescapable human/nature twist is similar to McKibben’s idea of the end of nature; however, the further we travel, the more we realize that many ideas of nature never really quite existed as we thought they did, nor perhaps, did the separation of humans from it either. Indeed, at a certain point we even can begin to question what is human, as we have already lost grip on nature, but that is for another time. In a truly ecological world, we must confront these strange double-binds by going further with our knowledge, which eventually forces us to toss out old ways of knowing and challenges us to reconsider the very myths that build our foundational relationship with nearly every aspect of the world. I call them myths because, in a sense, they are true, but only partially so. They are also myths because they are collectively believed by people as in this transmission they have an impact on our world. In this way, they are almost self-fulfilling prophecies--that is, until we deconstruct them.
Because, as Historian Yuval Noah Harrari contends, myths and collective stories shape both our internal and external worlds in a variety of means. Internally, they shape our values, morals, and judgements about people, places, and ideas. Externally, they shape the very physical structures that make up our lives. Taken a step further, we can even see how massively large and distributed ideas, such as religion and capitalism, physically affect the world in the very material substances that make them up, such as churches, semi-trucks, canals, and skyscrapers, amongst other things. This effect of the myth on the physical and mental worlds also exists in the idea of nature and effects everything, from how we nurture wildlife, to where we designate wilderness zones, to the places we recreate, to the places we deposit nuclear waste because, as it turns out, “away” doesn’t really exist either. In an ecological age, this is why questioning myths about our thinking is critical. By interrogating these myths--even if they are “true” in a certain sense--we discover a world much more complex--and beautiful--than previously thought. As Timothy Morton warns us, this might be both dark and depressing at first as we fall down the rabbit holes, but it will also be strangely uplifting and liberating.
Besides, what would a worldview without this concept of nature look like?
Reader's note: This is a letter I wrote to the editor of an online newspaper near where I grew up in Indiana where I argue against a proposed Coal to Diesel manufacturing facility being built. It is still being debated today. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management has approved the permit for the facility.
In the field of economics, there is a term rarely understood by those outside of academia or policy debates. Its lack of comprehension is probably not by accident, for, if it were understood, the public would cause an uproar. Regarding the proposed Coal to Diesel plant in Dale, though, the concept is critical for the public to grasp, to comprehend, and to consider the implications of it relating to the factory, regardless of the stance of the individual.
To begin, one must understand a related but often misinterpreted concept within economics: cost. When we hustle down to Holiday Foods, we very closely consider cost, but when it comes to the air we breathe, we consider it free. In economics, a cost is anything paid by a consumer or a producer for a product or the means to produce that product to be sold on a market. In the US, this is relatively straightforward: if I own a piece of property and want a lawnmower, I simply drive to the store and purchase it, given that I have the money for the purchase. Without much fuss, I obtain my item and continue home to finish my work. The complications of cost in a market occur when something additional happens, something outside of the consumer-producer relationship. One of these is the externality.
An externality involves a cost that is neither paid by the consumer nor the producer directly but which is paid by some third party at their own expense, though not often with their consent. To complicate the story further, the party is often unaware of the cause of the cost, mostly because it comes from an entity with which they do not engage. Sometimes the producer or consumer of this additional cost is unaware as well. Let’s break this down with an example.
If I build a new business near Walmart in Jasper that creates the need for an additional stop light, my business inadvertently creates slower traffic and wait time. Though I did not intend this originally, my business has created a cost that neither myself nor my clients (although in this case, it may actually be some of them, though not nearly all of them considering it is workers leaving Jasper) have paid for in our operations. Of course, the cost in this scenario is simple: it’s time, a minute at most. Most people are okay with waiting a few seconds at a stop light or a stop sign if it guarantees them safety when crossing the road. For many, this externality is simple and doesn’t require solving, although it is a tiny nuisance that creates a benefit: safety when crossing the road. This demonstrates how externalities can unintentionally create both positive and negative events. So how does all of this relate to Coal to Diesel?
It’s simple, really. Mr. Merle’s factory will produce a new fossil fuel to be sold on markets, which satisfies a demand, in the process creating jobs and paying for coal miners, contractors, and so on. Unlike a traditional market, though, the prices don’t stop there. Why? Because of the pollutants that the factory produces--think of the 1 million tons of CO2 emissions per year, the wastewater drained to Evansville, and the toxic emissions--there will be some who do not directly benefit, such as nearly everyone indirectly related to the business, who will be forced to pay those costs, regardless of their desire for the factory. Thus begins the work of dismantling externalities because it forces us to ask the question: Is it right for someone who does not benefit from this plant to have to pay the costs directly related to its operation, even though they never see the benefit of it?
This is a moral question, not an economic one, although it can have economic solutions, most of which are absent in Mr. Merle’s plant. First, his plant is incorporated in Delaware. Why Delaware when he lives in Connecticut and the company operates in Indiana? Delaware has no income tax, so this one is obvious. Also, in Connecticut, he doesn’t have to breathe the air. Why Indiana? Because it is “good for business” as Merle says, neatly quoting the new Senator. Why is Indiana seen as “good for business” but only for certain types of business? Due to a lack of regulation and monitoring. Why this lack of regulation? Well, we could continue forever, but it essentially boils down to the health of the community and externalities, which brings us back around.
In a market-based system, there are a number of ways one could approach solving externalities. These already exist in some form within the state of Indiana and within the US, although in many places they do not consider the whole problem. If they did, coal in many states would prove less competitive, especially when stacked up against the full price of operation of its opponents, such as wind and solar and even nuclear. The point here is that Indiana does regulate air, water, and other systems, but differently than other states and countries, which is why it is so “business friendly.” This has public consequences, though. To address this with market solutions, the government and the public could require pollution permits, charging businesses fees for polluting the the water and air, charged at a per-ton rate. A carbon tax could be implemented to do something similar, which would incentivize companies to not pollute, as they would be charged by each ton of carbon. Another way to pay for the externality could be through higher corporate taxes, though Merle’s plant will likely not pay any state income taxes so this could be challenging. If any of these are successfully implemented, the benefits could then be given back to the community to pay for the damaged lungs, poisoned water, and babies with developmental disabilities that are all a result of toxic pollutants and environmental degradation. In doing this, it would redirect the cost from a third party to the party either buying or selling the product, in this case, diesel fuel.
However, this assertion that a business (or indirectly, the consumer) should pay for the full cost of operation when there are negative consequences is seen as a farcical joke, laughed off as easily as the reality of a changing climate. So in reality, not only will the business not pay for the externality, but it will also exacerbate the extractivist business model. Extractivism defines a system that allows a company outside of a region to extract the full value of the resource of a geographical area while usually causing damage to the region in the process without returning to it the value which it harvested from its resources. This is evident not only in Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and India historically, but it was also a defining feature of Appalachia for half a century, too, in the form of the company town. This coal to diesel plant seeks to do something similar, farming Indiana's coal reserves for a few hundred jobs and one business chartered in Delaware, all while not paying for the externalities present in the operation of the facility.
Not only does this exploration and understanding of externalities force us into moral and ethical questions, but it also allows us to confront, with vigor, the idea of additional pollutants to an area of the country that already suffers from some of the worst pollution in the US. If Duke Energy’s Gibson Power Plant, the third largest coal-fired plant in the world, is not charged per-ton of pollution, why would we expect Riverview to pay for its pollution? Merle has already stated that he “will operate fully within IDEM limits” though this falls short. Sadly, Gibson also operates within these guidelines, and it is not only one of the largest contributors in the US to a changing climate but also releases tons of toxic chemicals and pollution. If this plant falls under these regulations and the result of those regulations is still a decrease in the quality of life, we might bid well to reconsider the IDEM’s standards. Indeed, they do not fully consider external costs, amounting in my opinion to something environmentalist Rob Nixon calls slow violence: “violence that occurs gradually and out of sight; a delayed destruction often dispersed across time and space.” It is violence because it kills and disables; it is destructive because the damage is done to the community, slowly, even invisibly in the air you breathe.
It is this destructive devaluing of life that has wrought some serious damage to the area, myself not immune. My father mined coal for over 25 years and is disabled because of it. His mother died of lung cancer having never smoked a day in her life. Hundreds of others have similar or worse stories. Calculating the operational cost in terms of human life and wellbeing challenges us to consider the price tag we place on human relationships and happiness, a battle I will let the reader resolve.
Notwithstanding, none of this considers the larger externality: the social cost of carbon. The social cost of carbon is a cost calculated yearly by an offshoot of the EPA that determines the impact of carbon emissions on the entirety of the US economy. It factors into the equation the cost of adding carbon to the atmosphere and the negative externality of inadvertently warming the Earth in the process, thus creating additional costs for farmers, workers, and citizens whose jobs depend on aspects of the climate remaining stable, such as precipitation and temperature. Conservatively estimated, the Environmental Defense Fund places its value at 40 dollars per ton of carbon. If you flew across the Atlantic and back, that would be an additional 80 dollars for your flight.
Factoring in the cost of carbon and pollution not only to the Earth but to those downwind and downstream, it is critical that we examine this proposed plant with scrutiny and weigh the costs and benefits. For a region that already suffers from a lack of environmental justice, this added cost would be expensive and unnecessary, not to mention unjust. If Mr. Merle can provide evidence of paying for not only the social cost of carbon but also the externalities of the production, perhaps we can come to the table. But for a business that utilizes a state without income taxes and another with lax regulation for its business, we shouldn’t expect a positive reply. A few well-paying jobs at the expense of the community’s health and wellbeing--a cost that we cannot even begin to define in dollars--is something that Southern Indiana should not be willing to pay. Hoosiers deserve the justice that is owed to them, and another polluting plant that produces negative externalities for the majority should not be built, especially if there is no reasoned attempt to address the external costs to society. Instead, let us come together as a community and build a resilient energy system not wholly dependent on the degradation of human life and extractivism for its existence. To do otherwise would be a further injustice.
-Ethan C Smith, Formerly of Ferdinand
About the Author
Ethan C Smith is an educator, adventurer, and thinker who is passionate about education, ecology, and social class. He happens to also spend a great deal of time reading and thinking about history, literature, philosophy, music, the future, and coffee.