What is nature for?

Battle of Ideas festival 2011, Saturday 29 October, Royal College of Art, London


Even in our culturally advanced and technologically sophisticated modern world, it seems we are fascinated by the natural world. Recent government plans to sell off woodlands were met with a storm of outrage; David Attenborough’s Planet Earth and Blue Planet documentaries have been international success stories, and Cornwall’s Eden Project has long outlived the Millennium Dome as a tourist attraction. But what do we mean by ‘nature’? Many of the ‘natural’ habitats we revere are actually the products of human activity, from agriculture and horticulture to the very act of selective conservation itself. Moreover, for much of human history, untamed natural forces were to be feared rather than admired. Even the 21st century citizen is not entirely insulated from such forces: whether it is the devastation wreaked by natural disasters such as the Asian Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina or the Haiti earthquake, or the unintended consequences of our own activity, from landslides caused by deforestation to anthropogenic climate change, we are regularly reminded how precarious civilisation can be in the face of Mother Nature.

The contemporary reaction to such rare disasters – ‘Nature’s Revenge’ ran one headline after the Fukushima earthquake – seems to suggest we are a long way from the Enlightenment view of man gaining freedom by controlling nature. As Rousseau put it, ‘Nature commands every animal, and beasts obey. Man feels the same impetus, but he knows he is free to go along or to resist; and it is above all in the awareness of this freedom that the spirituality of his soul is made manifest.’ Today, mankind seems more concerned with protecting nature than mastering it: witness the ferocity with which the Heathrow airport expansion was opposed. While many talk up the possibilities of alternative energy sources drawn from wind, solar and biofuels, the prospect of using ambitious bio-engineering to ‘improve’ nature makes others uncomfortable. Environmentalists insist we should see ourselves as an integral part of nature, rather than somehow outside it.

Is human history the story of man’s gradual but relentless domination of nature? Or is it possible for even the most ardent modernist to argue for keeping some spaces ‘natural’? Is nature an obstacle for mankind to overcome, or should we learn to work within its limits? What do we look to nature for, and why does it still have such a hold on the imagination of those who have benefitted from industrialised living?

Josie Appleton
director, civil liberties group, Manifesto Club; author, Officious: Rise of the Busybody State

Dr Jim Endersby
senior lecturer, University of Sussex; author, A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology

Matthew Oates
specialist on nature & wildlife engagement, National Trust

Ruth Padel
poet and writer; author, The Mara Crossing and Darwin: a life in poems

Patrick Hayes

director, British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA)