Science - March 13, 2018

‘Nature isn’t disappearing, it’s evolving alongside us’

Tessa Louwerens

Climate change, explosive population growth, genetic manipulation, robots and drones. It cannot be denied that humans are putting their mark on the planet. Untouched nature is getting increasingly hard to find. According to philosopher and artist Koert van Mensvoort, it is time to adjust the image we have of nature. On 13 March, he will come to Wageningen to talk about this during Science Week.

© Sebastiaan ter Burg

When a bird builds a nest, we call that nature. But when humans build an apartment complex, we speak of culture. According to philosopher Koert van Mensvoort, founder of the Next Nature Network, this distinction is not as clear anymore. ‘Initially, we saw everything made by man as culture, and nature as what is born or budded – untouched by man. But what about cloned sheep, rainbow-coloured tulips, control over climate or hypoallergenic cats? Nature as something that has completely been untouched by man practically does not exist anymore.’

Boundaries are fading
The boundary between nature and culture is fading, with the roles sometimes even being reversed, Van Mensvoort believes. ‘Technology and nature are traditionally seen as opposites, with technology coming at the cost of nature. During the Age of Enlightenment, the need to understand and control our environment arose. Partially to be able to protect ourselves from the destructive forces of nature. But I believe that our relationship with nature is changing. The initial distinction between born and made is slowly shifting toward a new definition, where culture comprises everything we control, while nature is everything we cannot.’

Nature 2.0
Within this new definition, the rainbow-coloured tulip and hypoallergenic cat are also part of our culture. Van Mensvoort wonders whether the reverse is also possible: could culture become part of nature? ‘Our “old” nature, such as plants, animals and the climate, is indeed increasingly controlled and guided by us. However, this doesn’t mean that we stand above nature like gods nor that we can force it to do our bidding. Many aspects of the technology that we develop turn out to be just as wild and unpredictable as nature. Take our economic system or computer viruses, for example: things that we have created, but that are so complex that we do not fully control them. This might just be our “new” nature.’

Bio-inspired design
People will always create. ‘This is what makes us human. But we also participate in the evolutionary process’, Van Mensvoort says. ‘And nature isn’t disappearing, it’s evolving alongside us. In a world where insect drones pollinate flowers and we use 3D printers to prepare our food, technology is an integral part of our nature. A kind of nature 2.0.’

An example of nature 2.0: luminous plants. © Dr Seonyeong Kwak, MIT

According to Van Mensvoort, once we adjust our image of nature, we will be able to change our thinking about the way we design our world. By using bio-inspired design when creating and building, for example. In that line of thinking, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have managed to accommodate plants with nanoparticles, making them luminous. In the future, trees might replace lamppost using this method. An additional advantage is that they capture more CO2 when producing light. It is not a reality yet, but it shows that the mindset of the people is changing, Van Mensvoort explains.

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