Urbanature

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technologies such as nanotechnology and genetic manipulation, the once defined border between nature and culture is obsolete.”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

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3 Comments

Along with the urban, let us

Along with the urban, let us not dismiss the rural. The 18th century saw the rise of the Agricultural Revolution. Nature shakes the hand of culture quite clearly in AgriCulture. My favorite example is cattle (and most livestock) breeding. The animal is part of nature but our methods of breeding selection change the body of the animal and make the material body natural and cultural. The poetry, prose, and art on gardens, deer parks, hunting, farming, etc. are worth evaluating under the ecological hybrid Ashton N. suggests of human-animal.

I find this notion of

I find this notion of "urbanature" intriguing, as well. I've been reading a New Yorker essay on cave paintings, which notes the problem of achieving any satisfying understanding of the paintings' meaning or even use. Yet the paintings at Lascaux and elsewhere certainly attest to the close relationship between such cultural markings and natural phenomenon, and indeed to the indistinct, problematical borders between the two. Some paintings feature human beings with animal heads; other drawings make clear the movement of seasons in the animals' own changing colors. Nature makes its mark on culture, to such an extent that culture is imbued with nature as, of course, nature is with culture. There is nothing more cultural than nature, I'm fond of saying to students--"nothing more" because nature as a concept is so marked with values and borders--however permeable they may be. All that said (and to play devil's advocate just a bit), I do worry that losing that border--however cultural and even imaginary it may be--could diminish what little 'nature' is there 'outside' (or even inside) the urban. Will human beings care more, or care less, if the Everglades are viewed as a part of rather than as apart from Flobrida's human communities? If such areas lose their special status as "wild," as "nature," will we do more or do less to preserve them? Wasn't it Asimov who opined that if we destroyed ourselves and the planet it would just be a natural turn of evolution, since we're a part of nature? Does seeing ourselves that way enhance or diminish our sense of responsibility and stewardship? If Disneyland in Anaheim (or Florida) is as much 'nature' as the orange groves that preceded it, and of the desert (or estuaries?) that preceded the organge groves, what's to impede paving paradise? I'm more Sierra Club than Nordhaus and Shellenberger, perhaps. But it's also clear that our eco-home needs a lot of help--more than current policies and vantages of "nature" seem to be affording. That we are animals, and part of nature, seems almost beyond dispute, except for the fact that we're human animals with human capacities (and dangers), and the 'nature' and urbannature we make or alter, to suit ourselves, is way beyond a beaver dam.

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