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Definitional Boundary Games and De-signing the 21st Century

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In response to some contributions to the Workshop on 'Who is Designing the 21st Century?' (Buffalo, September 1995)
of the Center for Integrative Studies and under the auspices of the World Academy of Arts and Sciences (WAAS)

"Nature is Dead"

Jim Dator presents this as a key insight to impel us to take responsibility for designing our future. There have indeed been studies emphasizing the death of nature.

But his statement was made during a period when a hurricane was raging in the Caribbean causing an immense, and unusual, amount of damage. Traditionally such phenomena have been recognized as the 'forces of nature'. It is therefore somewhat perplexing to be asked to understand nature as being 'dead'. On the occasion of the next earthquake along the San Andreas fault, will this be an action of dead nature? And when some appropriate mutation emerges with dramatic biological consequences for life, will this too be an act of dead nature?

There is the old joke: 'God is dead, Signed Nietzsche'. Followed somewhat later by 'Nietzsche is dead, Signed God'. Is the same to be said about those establishing death certificates for nature?

Jim Dator clarifies his statement by defining the death of nature to be due to the death of 'forms and processes uninfluenced by human activities' on 'Spaceship Earth'. Are hurricanes and earthquakes now to be seen as essentially artificial? Many are concerned by the possible impact (in some cases literally) of extraterrestrial forces. Does nature exist on other planets? Will the future accept our current understanding of the boundaries of nature?

My quarrel with the statement is the emphasis placed on its absoluteness as an article of dogma determining any efforts to design the 21st century. It has a degree of truth to it - the butterfly effect from chaos theory would confirm that nothing is uninfluenced by anything. But where does that leave us? And might it not be such intellectual absoluteness that it is in fact symptomatic of our impotence is responding to the challenge of designing the future. There are complementary truths, notably the fact that it is only natural processes that ensure the survival of human and other species. Human's are not yet able to create non-human life, however well they can interfere with life creating natural processes. Whether our capacity to produce cyborgs or to prolong longevity by organ replacement will be considered as a victory over nature remains to be seen. Is nature to be understood as not existing beyond Earth?

Stating that nature is dead is one example of a definitional game. By appropriately choosing boundaries for a definition, any statement can be made with a certain degree of truth to it. But where does that leave us?

Kenneth Boulding has argued that the artifacts humanity produces should also be considered as part of nature -- after all what is not? The statement that 'nature is dead' is such an artifact. Perhaps the point is that, for many, it is in our heads that nature is dead -- and that is the problem. Who is responsible for its death in our heads?

The 'wilderness' of Western intellectualism

Walter Anderson argues that 'wilderness' now only exists in the minds of urban intellectuals. This too is a boundary question. What constitutes a wilderness? Deep ecologists defend one understanding of wilderness.

If wilderness is defined by area, there are clearly some very isolated areas, notably in the depths of the oceans. If it is defined by absence of humans, this too is the case. If it is defined by absence of pollutants, then clearly there may be no place with traces of products produced elsewhere. The fact that aircraft con trails may carve up the sky of the remotest regions, or that satellite surveillance can view vulnerable ecosystems in such regions, may also be seen as stripping the wildness from nature by making it 'known' in some way. But the con trail is a passing phenomena which may denature nature as effectively as trailing a finger in a river, and what is the knowing achieved through satellite images -- what the satellite perceives may have as much impact on nature as the actions of an unseen voyeur.

More interesting in both the case of 'nature' and 'wilderness' is what the two authors seem to be somewhat desperately concerned to declare dead or absent. Is it some archetypal wilderness place? But surely such a place would, almost by definition, be unknown to those who make such definitions. For the ability to know of such a place would be to have an impact upon it -- in the light of some current physical theories.

But for those experiencing wilderness, or 'nature in the raw', there are certainly places where carefully crafted definitions are of little relevance. It is still possible to be lost at sea, to die of thirst in a desert, to die in a jungle, or in the ocean deeps. Such experiences can hardly be considered as fictions in the mind of urban intellectuals. And then there are those who suffer such experiences unbeknown to urban intellectuals - where exactly do they suffer them?

But if 'wilderness' is to be understood as a place of wildness and disorder, it is easy to forget that human society actually recreates such places with great efficiency, just as it appears to be annihilating them. The irony is that it is the actions of architects and planners which have contributed so dramatically to creating the wilderness of inner city 'no go' areas and the urban 'jungle'. Development programs have in many cases created wilderness in this way. Current approaches to population control will continue to do so with a vengeance. (Within a different framework, a Tibetan Buddhist was asked in the USA, in the light of his belief in reincarnation, where the present number of people came from. He answered: 'And where do you think the bison went?') The dimensions through which nature strikes a balance are as yet unclear.

Often urban no-go areas are more savage and dangerous than those of human-free areas -- but 'wildness' may of course have nothing to do with 'wilderness'. One of the problems is that such places tend not to have any reality in the minds of urban intellectuals who prefer to discussles chaotic matters to which their theories appear to have greater relevance. This raises the possibility that 'wilderness' may also be that domain which is challenging to human comprehension -- where the efforts of conceptual law and order are essentially impotent. Intellectuals continue to avoid the wilderness areas which their avoidance helps to engender -- nature abhors a vacuum, whether dead or not. What impact exactly does human activity have upon a vacuum?

It might however be argued that such wilderness is not characterized by appropriate species that would constitute a 'real' wilderness. This too is indicative of lack of understanding of the kinds of species that evolve so effectively in whatever is meant by an urbanized society. The rat and cockroach populations are doing very well -- better than the humans in many cases. Presumably this is also the case for the less visible species. Hospitals face a dramatic challenge from certain viruses and bacteria. Resistance by such species to humanity's much vaunted efforts to conquer nature is increasingly evident. Epidemics and dangerous mutations are expected.

But maybe wilderness has to have 'big game' to qualify as real. Here too it is convenient to ignore the degree to which the urban jungle offers scope for the development and evolution of species more challenging than those in archetypal nature. The behaviour patterns associated with urban violence lead to recognition of 'animals', 'sharks', 'snakes', 'rats', 'reptiles', 'spiders', 'scorpions', 'slugs' and the like. Of course these may be mere metaphors, but the reality of any encounter with them tends to be memorable if not fatal. And at the higher end of this little known food chain there are the barons of organized crime whose behaviour is readily compared to that of monsters beyond normal ken.

A responsible relationship to nature

The convenience of denying the continued existence of nature and wilderness lies in the possibility of then denying any responsibility for a relationship to it -- and, more challenging, any responsibility for sustaining it. Man has 'conquered nature'. It has been subject to the Final Solution. The artificial reigns supreme. But strangely, in the case of Jim Dator, we are now faced with the severely unnatural phenomenon of a tsunami which we are called upon to respond to with whatever artificial insights we have been able to cultivate.

However one meaningful view is that the nature that has been so effectively conquered and denatured never actually existed except in the minds of urban intellectuals. Humanity created Mother Nature as a concept, groping to understand that which gave it birth. That understanding may indeed be scored with conceptual graffiti, making it impossible to appreciate that which underlies the defacement.

Humans are however free to enter into other understandings of nature, as many choose to do. One person's appreciation of a woodland scene does not have to be subject to the dogmas of those who have lost the ability to bond effectively with nature -- just as the latter do not have to be persuaded by the illusions of the former. The 21st century will be a century of illusions. Just as the 20th century highlighted tangible product choice, the 21st century is liable to highlight choice of conceptual framework and belief system.

If such is the case, those who choose to do so may recreate understandings of nature which then determine their policy reactions -- just as those convinced of the supremacy of the artificial will be determined by theirs. The question is whether the track record of architects and planners over recent centuries is such as to suggest confidence in their ability to design the 21st century. Are we to be persuaded by the logic of megalopolis and the manner in which it argues for more of the same -- and who could have predicted that it would? Or are we to be inspired by the patterns of nature, elaborated over many millions of years, in endeavouring to design our experience of the 21st century? Is it even possible to turn to architects and planners if they wish to define nature as dead?


A comparison has been made between French and Japanese cooking in the following terms. The most eminent French chef is known by what he does to the food. He is recognized by the tastes he adds to it in the form of sauces -- in which his hand is to be experienced at every turn. By contrast a Japanese chef is known by the impossibility of distinguishing his hand in the food that is offered. His work is to reduce the interface between the eater and the food to the strictest minimum -- allowing the flavours of the food to emerge of their accord. The question is whether the designers of the 21st century are to be of the first kind or of the second.

Designing can be understood as removing the significance of the underlying experience of nature. In this way architects and planners have eliminated the experience of nature. Essentially they are of the French school, and the influence of French planning after the Revolution is not incidental to the recent history of urban planning. In this way it may be understood as de-signifying.

However design may also be understood as removing the architectural graffiti imposed by architects and planners on nature. Production of graffiti is a way for some to impose their tag or sign on any available surface. In this way de-signing may be understood as the removal of such defacement, namely of the artificial signs imposed upon nature rendering it invisible. The 21st century will undoubtedly witness the battle between these two schools of thought -- and presumably there will be others. Whilst nature may be affected by this process, it will adapt in its own way. This may not be to our liking, and we may choose to claim that it is denatured or dead. But even if the human race is survived by the rats and the cockroaches living in a wilderness of devastated megalopolises, they will continue to be a manifestation of nature.

Globalization as economic totalitarianism

Globalization is the other extreme of the boundary game, although limited by the surface of the Earth, a 'global' system is nevertheless 'unbounded'. The arguments presented by Walter Anderson for the importance of this phenomenon are entirely credible. Yes indeed humans, like flies and smaller species, are everywhere and their activities are increasingly interconnected. They will fortunately tend to cluster into megalopolises. But it is not clear in what way this suggests a breakthrough in thinking about the design challenges of the 21st century.

Clearly there are dramatic problems in designing megalopolises, and architects and planners will have a great time extrapolating their current paradigms to encompass such challenges. However it is not clear whether their efforts to deal with quality of life factors as 'externals' will have any more positive effect on the 'internals' than their efforts in the past -- and their inadequacies may catch up with them in dramatic surges of citizen unrest against alienating environments, even in the Western countries.

There is a certain intellectual glibness to the notion of globalization. As a simple framework, it serves the strategic interest of globalizing industries, notably the trade and communications industries. But it is far from clear that it addresses the concerns of those who have to live in a globalized environment -- and, other than for Internet enthusiasts, it offers little new to guide those in search of a higher quality of life (especially if they live, like most, 'beyond the last telephone pole'). And in this sense it is a conceptual device which bears a surprising resemblance to communist totalitarianism. And, as suggested by the Peter Principle, it can be considered as a concept promoted beyond its capacity to perform effectively.

Surprisingly the various points above are brought into focus by the arguments of Vaclav Havel in an open letter published in The Wall Street Journal (24 October 1995). Remarking on the severe environmental problems resulting from communism, Havel states:

'I come from a country where the boundaries between fields were abolished, causing landslides, soil erosion and degradation, and where this soil is then poisoned by chemical fertilizers which go on to poison the groundwater.' He continues:

'When I think about what caused these frightening conditions and when each day I encounter the barriers that make any quick improvement impossible, again and again, I have to conclude that the root causes are neither technical nor economic, but are philosophical in nature. In my view, Marxist ideology and the communist style of rule reflect an extreme and threatening culmination of arrogance of new age human beings who enthroned themselves as lords of all nature and of all the world. This human being is the only one who understands them, who is to be served by them, and who is the only reason for the existence of this planet. Intoxicated by the performance of the human mind, by new age science and technology, this human being totally forgets that there are limits to human learning, that there is a deep extensive secret beyond these limits, and that there is something higher and endlessly more sophisticated than human nature.'

The letter continues in a similar vein, including the following:

'I think that environmental desolation created by the communist regimes is a warning for the whole of civilization today. I think that the message that is coming from this part of the world should be read as a challenge to defend ourselves against all those who despise the secret of being, might they either be cynical business people pursuing nothing but the profits of their business or left wing saviours who have succumbed to the drug of cheap ideological utopias. Both of these lack what I would call a metaphysical anchor. I mean a humble respect for the whole of creation and awareness of our obligations to it.'

It is necessary to ask whether 'globalization' and its effects on 'nature' should not be seen as the western equivalent to the effects of communist totalitarianism. In both cases the question is ideological and philosophical.

The challenges to design are not clarified by declaring nature dead in an increasingly globalized world. Nature, which preceded and gave birth to humanity, will continue to survive long after the death of human nature. Globalization has been a characteristic of the Earth since its formation, with or without the Gaia hypothesis: travel between continents has been an achievement of birds for thousands of years; whales have long communicated over thousands of miles; ants build sophisticated megalopolises. Havel points beyond the limitations of these conceptual devices -- which lead to highly dangerous and counter- productive conclusions.

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