Paul Cowdell Issue 8 2018-12-24T23:20:46+00:00

Paul Cowdell

Red Skies

Wolves which batten upon lambs, lambs consumed by wolves, the strong who immolate the weak, the weak victims of the strong: there you have Nature, there you have her intentions, there you have her scheme: a perpetual action and reaction, a host of vices, a host of virtues, in one word, a perfect equilibrium resulting from the equality of good and evil on earth.
-de Sade

Is it raining outside? Unseasonably? The question of climate change replicates, in all its blusteriness, the weakest aspects of discussion of Nature more generally. The climate is changing, and this is presented as either entirely down to human activity (all bad) or entirely independent of it (nothing to worry about).

Neither is right.

We live in an ecosystem. We do not occupy an isolated place within it, as if visiting in a diving bell. We are an interactive part of it. An ecosystem is not a two-dimensional diagram: once relative positions within the system are established they do not just exist in that way, requiring only observation from a distance. Parts of the ecosystem remain in constant tension, striving with and against each other, constantly adjusting their balance for good or ill. Maintaining a place in a food chain, for example, is not an exercise in categorisation: it requires eating and being eaten by other parts of the ecosystem.

There is a problematic language legacy from our High Romantic forebears. ‘Nature’ means something outside the human, beyond the human, but it also encompasses everything natural, including the human. That both usages persist is a complication, but not one we can just ignore. If we do not recognise this distinction we will be suckered into cheap moralising and lazy rhetoric. The different usages, however, also convey something of the dialectical reality of our interaction: we are Nature, and we stand against Nature.

Sade rightly saw through the limitations of High Romanticism’s glorification of Nature as something unaffected by and remote from Humanity. Gothic Grandeur is itself the product of human interaction with landscapes: if those Gothic cliffs then fall on the unwary traveller, that is a Sadean quid pro quo, part of an ongoing negotiation between Human and Nature that must result in the death of one or the other.

There are no passive relationships with Nature. It is not ‘kill or be killed’. It is ‘kill and be killed’. Any failure to grasp this dialectical and violent relationship will open the way to clumsy and fatal decisions. Seeing human intervention as somehow alien to the ecosystem, rather than an integral part of it, can lead to various forms of abstentionism: a mistaken attempt to withdraw from participation in the ecosystem altogether on the grounds that we are outside it, or a deliberate hampering of the technical resources we use in our engagement with it. Such faux primitivism is a step backwards from the interaction we have already achieved, which raises the question of why its advocates think this somehow more respectful of Nature. It seems, rather, to be insultingly dismissive of the subtle and complex adaptations of which Nature is capable. Any failure to trust Nature’s capacity for brutal adaptation can only be at our own expense.

‘The primary and most beautiful of Nature’s qualities is motion, which agitates her at all times, but this motion is simply a perpetual consequence of crimes, she conserves it by means of crimes only.’ (Sade)

Our responsibility is to ensure that we dominate Nature in such a way as to maintain our ecosystem, just as Nature strives to dominate us to that same end. Humanity needs to maintain domination to retain its place within a system, not outside one, and Nature must do the same, but our responsibility, like Nature’s, is to ensure this domination so as to maintain the balance of the ecosystem.

The natural world, like libertinage, requires the contention and exploitation of competing factions in a tension of balance. ‘All, all is theft, all is unceasing and rigorous competition in nature; the desire to make off with the substance of others is the foremost—the most legitimate—passion nature has bred into us … and, without doubt, the most agreeable one’ (Sade).

It is the ecosystem, the striving itself, that matters. Striving to maintain domination under such conditions by no means indicates an inevitable victory, as we continue to negotiate changes within our environment. ‘Nature, who for the perfect maintenance of the laws of her general equilibrium, has sometimes need of vices and sometimes of virtues, inspires now this impulse, now that one, in accordance with what she requires’ (Sade).

Unchecked climate change would not destroy Nature. It would divert and alter it, without leaving any place in Nature for us. If we were to abandon our place in the contest we would be giving Nature free rein to destroy us. In the perpetual and necessary war of Humanity and Nature this would simply be breaking our sword on the field of battle.

Nature, with its customary indifference, would find other life forms with which to contend.