“Natural” vs. Artificial”

One of the things that has bothered me for a while about paganism, environmentalism, and really, the way so many people in postindustrial cultures approach nature, is the concept of “natural” vs. “artificial”. In short, this is usually defined as anything made by humans, particularly things that can’t occur in any other way, such as petrochemicals or double-paned glass, being artificial. Artificial things are especially seen as bad things, so the emphasis is often put on human-made things that cause significant, widespread destruction to other parts of the environment, such as pollution or strip mining. I’ve seen many pagan folk refer to anything “artificial” with a sneer.

I just don’t like that at all. Here’s the thing. I am fully behind evolution as a base explanation for how various living beings came about. While I feel there is subjective value in things like creation myths, and I think they tell us a lot about the human psyche and methods of meaning-making, they do not replace evolution as the generally objective explanation for how we all got here in the first place. Stories of dragons do not carry more scientific weight than the fossil record.

Looking from an evolutionary perspective, humans are animals. And we evolved big brains as our single most important adaptation to the environmental pressures put on us. Everything we have created, from culture to architecture to medicines to religion–all these are the product of the brains we’ve evolved. Not every product of the brain is immediately noticeable as having pragmatic purposes, and indeed there are some interesting extrapolations of survival instincts repurposed into impractical (and yet sometimes incredibly fun!) pursuits. However, there is nothing that we do that did not come about as a result of our evolutionary history.

So put in that framework, all the things we build–homes, roads, cars, computers–are just extensions of the instinct to have shelter, get food and mates, raise young, etc. We have taken the basic need to build a nest and turned it into an unthinkably complex system of shelters and things to acquire shelters (and other resources). For brevity’s sake, I will be referring to this as the human nest-building endeavor.

So it is that humans make VERY big nests. And it just so happens that we are better than any other animal at excluding other species from our nests at will. Birds, for example, will remove parasites and other unwanted critters from their nests to protect their young; so will mammalian parents. We’ve just gotten really damned good at the same thing. We are weatherproofing and removing plants that could undermine foundations and keeping out other animals that could introduce disease or be a threat to us and our families. And so our weathertight buildings and better mousetraps are just the natural result of taking those instincts toward nest building and funneling them through our brains.

Because we are also conscious beings aware of the many layers of cause and effect involved in our actions, we can perceive the impact we have on those other species over time, and many of us feel a sense of responsibility for that. And so we retell the story of what we have done. Because we have taken nest building to such an extreme degree, we set ourselves apart from all other animals.

But this doesn’t stop the fact that we are animals, and that ultimately what we do is natural. Overwrought, perhaps, in the same way that cancer is an overwrought creation of cells–but cancer is still natural, too, even if it is a horrible thing to have. (If we could create cancer at will instead of having it begin on its own, would we then refer to cancer as artificial?)

Now, all that being said, I still love my John Muir quote at the top of the page–“In the silence of the wild, we find the home we lost in the city”. It is healthy to get out of our nests for a while and experience what ecopsychologists refer to as “soft fascination”. Soft fascination is a quality of something which draws the attention without demanding it; wild places have a tendency to be less demanding and more intriguing. There’s a lack of stress of the sort that we often find in our human nests, what with all the obligations and schedules and factors that we have to keep track of on a conscious level, as opposed to the largely unconscious awareness of our senses, where we are so used to processing sensory input that we don’t have to put much effort into paying attention for the most part. It just happens.

And yes, being out “in nature” is a different experience than being in, say, an urban community garden, or sitting with a pet in a small apartment. Nothing in urban Portland can duplicate for me the experience of standing at the very top of Kings Mountain, in hip-deep snow, with the wind blowing all around me and the sky blue up above, with the awe and terror of a place that could kill me if I didn’t take care.

But the “natural” vs. “artificial” divide undermines efforts to reconnect with the world around us no matter where we are or where we’re trying to connect . It still promotes this idea that we are separate from “nature”, and even if we idealize that nature, we are still setting ourselves apart from it in our perceptions. It’s just a different ideal than other people who separate themselves out because they see nature as bad, or dirty, or inconvenient, or only to be exploited. Separation is still separation.

Plus, as has been mentioned by numerous urban pagans and others, non-human nature is everywhere. A pot of geraniums on a porch is just as much nature as a grove of old growth conifers. Pigeons may be ubiquitous in the city, but they are as much blood and flesh and feather as the albatross sailing solitary over the ocean. Bricks and asphalt are ultimately made of stone, reconstituted. So why, surrounded by these plants and animals and minerals, do we not feel that we are natural, just as much as when we are far away from human influence?

If you want to differentiate between things humans create and things that occur without our help, that’s fine. But I would argue against this divisive duality of artificial vs. natural, where anything artificial must necessarily be not only antithetical to nature, but also subjectively wrong and loathesome. We also need to stop seeing ourselves as “unnatural” simply because we are so different from the rest of nature. If we are to reconnect with everything else, we have to stop perceiving ourselves as separate. That’s the first step in remembering that we never really left in the first place. From there we can then proceed to remembering those connections that remind us of the effect we have on everything else, which is the point that proponents of “artificial” vs. “natural” are often trying to make in the first place.

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27 thoughts on ““Natural” vs. Artificial”

  1. “We also need to stop seeing ourselves as “unnatural” simply because we are so different from the rest of nature. If we are to reconnect with everything else, we have to stop perceiving ourselves as separate.”

    Completely and utterly agree on so many levels! So tired of seeing pagans (and everyone) who are apparently close to nature forget that they are a part of nature and therefore anything they produce is ‘natural!’ Natural doesn’t automatically mean not cancer-causing or toxic or dangerous or cruel after all.

    • I was going to comment on this line as well. We’re in and of this cycle as much as anyone else, but unfortunately the dominant Western paradigm seeks to eliminate that and put humans far outside anything else.

      • And many pagans play right into that. Notice how our gods are anthropomorphic, and we spend more time with spirits that are more like us–if not humanoid, then at least animals. Fewer people do work with plant spirits, or with crystals as spirits rather than just blind ‘energies”.

  2. Good article, Lupa; thank you. Being a “techno-mage” (not my label), I am sensitive to this and other, related arguments.

    You mentioned evolution and I suppose that has much to do with why so many people maintain the distinction between natural and artificial. For most of human history, we co-evolved with our environment in ways that conserved our lives and our species and other organisms in our environment that further conserved us (biodiversity). But with the increasing complexity and pace of technological development, our human ability to art-ifacture has quickly and drastically altered our environment and in many places those changes have been destructive. When someone says she prefers “natural” to “artificial” foods, e.g., she probably means something like she prefers foods that have a long history of being cultivated and consumed in a way that conserves human life and the lives of most other organisms in our environment, and that does not introduce all of the uncertainties that a human engineered food is likely to.

    What we need to realize is that artifacts have become a natural part of human life, and the crops we plant and houses we build (as well as the tools we use to plant and build them) _are_ technology. If we prefer to employ sustainable methods or biodegradable materials, it should be because we recognize that those methods and materials converse us and those parts of our environment that further conserve us, not for some superstitious notion of “natural” vs “artificial”.

    You might enjoy this short interview with Humberto Maturana: http://www.tierramerica.net/2000/1119/questions.html

    • “Natural” and “artificial” have lost any real meaning they might have started out with in this context, and like so many potentially good ideas, they’ve been unfortunately watered down and turned into brief little sound bites that people rally around but don’t really think about critically. Once again we get people trying to divide everything into simple dualisms–generally analogous to “good” and “bad”.

  3. This issue brings up conflicting issues for me and I’m afraid if I voiced my total opinion I’d be very unpopular with both the anti-city and pro-city camps. Yes, cities are not devoid of nature and can be respected as habitats in their own right. And yes, much of the motivations for building them has evolutionary forces behind it. But there is also a point where what we (meaning “civilized” humans) ceases to be evolutionary behavior and crosses into cultural memes which value turning all the biomass on Earth into items and food for human use. Some of the things “we” do has more to do with cultural ideology than survival. And while cities contain much nature, what it does contain are the things “we” allow to be there or the things “we” don’t have the means to erradicate yet. I certainly don’t think hating cities is the answer, it’s not like I want to see them all torn down. But sometimes I get a teensy bit uncomfortable with so many people these days swinging the other way, acting as if cities are as vital to the earth as old growth forests and coral reefs (they aren’t). The cynical part of me wonders if it is some sort of twisted coping mechanism to the “Closing of the Wilderness”, as if one way of dealing with the fact that tigers and coral reefs and rain forests will probably be gone soon is to tell ourselves that what we built is just as good, just as “natural” so no guilt is needed. Social Darwinism applied to the organisms we displace, perhaps. I’m not sure what the answer is. Acting as if all humans do is loathesome and unnatural isn’t the answer. But swinging the other way and defending all humans do as “part of nature” doesn’t seem like the answer either. I’ll stop now, no matter what I say I’m bound to piss people off and I hold conflicting views on it making it hard to argue one way or the other.

    • I definitely agree with you that seeing humans as natural shouldn’t be an excuse to allow whatever devastation we wish to cause. I will say, though, that I do feel that cities are more potentially sustainable than the concept of “pagan communes, especially as we become more and more spread out geographically. It doesn’t make city pollution less of a problem, but there’s a lot of potential for sustainability in keeping people harnessed in a smaller area, rather than suburban sprawl which I feel is a much, much worse problem.

    • I don’t think many people would rush to *defend* the harmful natural products of what it is to be human. For example, I think non-biodegradable carcinogens are a natural product of the human animal; but I’m not in a rush to fill the world with them.

      I mean, the Inland Taipan produces one of the most complex and deadly neurotoxins in the world; it’s a harmful natural product of what it is to be an Inland Taipan. But I’m not in a rush to go embrace the snakes and get them to give me a cuddly bite either.

      I think it’s easy to confuse ‘recognise the harmful and destructive things that humans do as natural’ with ‘that means it’s okay / you’re defending those harmful and destructive things.’ Not necessarily. There are a lot of natural things that are harmful and destructive. I mean sure, we take it to a new level; but Stomatopods take eyesight to a new level, and that doesn’t mean that it becomes unnatural in the process. Just extreme. And nature’s good at extremes.

      “But swinging the other way and defending all humans do as “part of nature” doesn’t seem like the answer either.”

      I don’t think saying ‘all humans do is a part of nature’ is a *defense.* It’s just a statement. It becomes a defense when someone says ‘everything humans do is a natural act because humans are animals and therefore it means everything they do is *okay and acceptable.*’ I mean, I don’t think the proliferation of cane toads into Western Australia is okay and acceptable, but I certainly am willing to state their their prolific movement is a product of their nature.

  4. YES. Especially this: “We also need to stop seeing ourselves as “unnatural” simply because we are so different from the rest of nature.” Although I think the differences between us and everyone else is more a matter of degrees.

  5. I think you make an important point that humans have always influenced our environment, and doing so doesn’t make the things we create “unnatural”. I also agree that its important to realize that creating a dichotomy between what humans create (“artificial”) and what the rest of nature creates (“natural”) just reinforces our separateness from nature – which is why I don’t agree with mainstream environmentalists who think all humans should be prohibited from hunting, taking things from “the wild”, etc (the “hands off nature” attitude).

    [By the way, I also want to say that I really appreciate your blog, and books – so thank you!]

    I do disagree with a couple things you said here though – mainly the premise that the modern way of life is a natural result of human evolution. I think this idea totally discounts the fact that the vast majority of human cultures did (and do) not live this way, and had (and have) no desire to even when they were/are encouraged to. They all knew how to express our human ingenuity and creativity in sustainable ways that didn’t destroy the world around them, and they knew how to co-exist with the wider community of life because they felt (and lived) as a part of it, not separate from it.

    In other words, I agree that humans creating things (the definition of technologies, as Joshua said) and influencing our environment is totally natural and a result of our evolution, but I absolutely do not agree that doing that in such a way as to destroy the very fabric of life on earth (as the modern culture is currently doing) is at all natural or an inevitable product of our evolution. Influencing the environment does not automatically equal destroying it, and creating technologies does not equal building cities, mines, factories, petrochemicals, etc. I think this distinction is a crucial one to make.

    • Here’s my stance on evolution and evolutionary psychology: they’re objective frameworks on which we hang subjective experience. I am not a fan of reductionism in the least; however, I feel it’s important to factor in the parts of who and what we are that are inherited when we’re discussing what we are creating as a species. We are informed by both Nature and Nurture, together.

      As to technology? Huge fan of it, but not a fan at all of how it’s been advanced without keeping environmental impacts at the forefront of considerations. I’m hopeful that more environmental awareness will continue to filter into new developments, so that we’re seeing zero impact spread across actual consumer products and not just TED Talks.

      (And thank you again 🙂 )

  6. Absolutely! I once heard this concept in different words put thusly (and I like it): It is about BALANCE between Nature, Technology and Magick! 🙂 When one gets out of whack, things happen. And as mentioned – are Cancer and Tsunamis “bad” when Nature is the one pulling the strings hard? However, I think the part that most people speak of without really thinking first is that we have an imbalance of technology – a REAL imbalance. However, just like all things that go to the extreme – what goes up must eventually come back down and it will. I must admit – we are pretty good at REALLY delaying this process hehe! 🙂 Thanks for your great post – you are on a darned ROLL girl!

  7. This has always bugged me, too. The romanticizing of tribal life or colonial life as “better” has likewise always bugged me. We reached this stage of nesting out of the true need to protect ourselves from the elements and dangerous wildlife, and I don’t think that living in a lodge or tepee or log cabin is automatically better just because it originates from a simpler time of our history. But so many pagans create an unnecessary dichotomy (and usually while ignoring their own personal impact on the environment), and it’s bizarre because I think they’re ignoring the truth of that yearning they feel — it’s not about reconnecting with nature, because we can do that anytime we want to. (Nothing’s stopping these romantics from doing their commune thing or what have you.) It seems to me that it’s really about people feeling a simpler time had fewer problems.

    Speaking as one who actually got rid of everything I owned and lived in a tent for two months, seeking the core of me… the “simpler” life was focused 24/7/365 on survival — surviving the winter, for instance, or growing one’s own crops. This is just as stressful (if not more) as our busy, rat-race lives are now, but was more focused on immediate and urgent needs, rather than on our 3 p.m. conference call.

    I think what people really want is a way to strip their concerns down to a manageable level, and this leads them to view older societies as quaint and attractive in comparison.

    • Yes, I do definitely agree with you that we’re trying our damnedest to make sense of a culture that has gotten more and more complex as we’ve gone along. Sadly, people think too often that we can’t simplify what we have here, which is a shame, because it dooms everyone else to not knowing that we can do that, either.

  8. In reading Ecopsychology the push seems to be toward reorienting ourselves in relationships to the world around us. One essay talked about the collective insanity in humanity stemming from the idea that “we” are “separate” from this world. We can’t be. We exist within this world; even ascetics at some point come back to where the metal meets the meat.

    • Yup. This is one of the reasons that ecopsych is one of my main interests as a psych student. Reconnection is a huge part of that, because we have fallen prey to Cartesian-flavored dualities for so long.

      • This is a similar reason to why it and more cognitively-oriented, as opposed to biological or behaviorist models, as I’ve had them taught to me, appeal to me. It seems more relational, and the other models are overused or ill-applied. The idea of us relating to the world around us and finding balance with that, and yes, our biology and behaviors, finds much more truck with me than a lot of “we do this because x or y is hardwired into us”. Such psychological models have been used to denigrate people who weren’t part of the dominant paradigm, and in their use have seen a lot of abuse.

      • I do like things like evolutionary psychology and so forth, but only as an objective framework on which to partly understand subjective experiences, if that makes sense.

  9. *nods* That makes a lot of sense to me.

    These models, to me, poorly explain or encapsulate a lot of subjective experiences, and are not, to me, as widely useful as people have made use of them. I’m not going to say they can’t give perspective to subjective situations, because, as I see it, they can. I’m willing to entertain, perhaps accept, that religion serves and/or served some kind of evolutionary psychological function and that it can have an objective reason for having been so long a part of much of humanity’s makeup. I think, however, that broadly applying it to large sections of subjective experience is something it is ill-fitted to.

  10. Are all natural things “good” and all artificial “bad?” What determines the “goodness” or “badness” of things? Is it possible to come to a consensus of what is good or bad?

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