Humanity's Changing Metaphors of Nature

Uploaded by FindingTheLi on 09.09.2012

Humanity's Changing Metaphors of Nature
Hi. This presentation is entitled "Humanity's Changing Metaphors of Nature," and a reasonable
question to ask -- especially in a History conference -- is...
... why study metaphors?
Well, that's the first thing we're going to look at, and then, after I've hopefully convinced
you that it's worthwhile, we'll be looking at the changing metaphors humans have used
to understand the natural world throughout history, and then take a look at some of the
newly emerging metaphors of nature in our present time.
So, most of us think of metaphors as some kind of poetic conceit, such as in this quote
from Shakespeare's Hamlet, where...
... the metaphor is the idea of the morning being a person walking in the distance.
But a metaphor is, in fact, far more than a poetic conceit. It can also represent a
transformation from an embodied experience to an abstract idea, and it's necessary for
virtually any kind of conceptual thought. When we begin to look at the metaphors we
use unconsciously, it can help us to see the underlying values we implicitly hold through
that metaphor.
The cognitive linguist, George Lakoff, who wrote a ground-breaking book on this subject
some years ago, explains that we can understand metaphors as describing one domain of experience
in terms of another. So, if you think of a person having embodied experiences of things
like up/down, near/far, warm/cold, he's actually talking metaphorically when he says something
"I'm feeling up today," or...
"She's grown distant from me," or...
"She gave me a warm smile." In fact, what Lakoff points out is that...
... metaphors are ubiquitous in common speech. Just take a look at these sentences -- I
gave you that idea, He broke under cross-examination -- all sentences that we automatically understand
without thinking of them as metaphoric.
Now, consider the metaphors implicit in each of these sentences.
When we begin to really examine our language, we discover that in fact metaphor is required
for most kinds of conceptual thinking. As Lakoff says, it "makes possible science, philosophy,
and all other forms of abstract theoretical reasoning" and on closer examination we
begin to see that...
... "our most fundamental concepts -- time, events, causation, the mind, the self, and
morality -- are multiply metaphorical."
Metaphors matter because the core metaphors we use frame how we think about virtually
everything. Our cognitive frames affect how we act individually, socially, ethically,
and politically. Our choice of metaphor can fundamentally affect human behavior.
And now, as we examine the changing metaphors of nature through history, we'll see how they
indicate changing assumptions, attitudes and behaviors towards the natural world. And by
the way, for those of you who saw me present a couple of days ago, you'll be seeing some
of the same phase transitions I discussed then, but this time through a different lens.
As we go, I would invite you to ask yourselves the following questions: "How does our lived
experience create our foundational metaphors?" and "How do our metaphors affect our priorities
and actions?"
We'll begin our study with the hunter-gatherers who have comprised 95% percent of human history.
Even today, most discussions of hunter-gatherer societies tend to get bogged down by the centuries-old
debate between two sets of clichés...
... there's the Hobbesian view that life was nasty, brutish and short...
and on the other side is the Rousseau-inspired set of ideas about the noble savage. Well,
there's a lot of truth to both sides, but perhaps Rousseau actually has the edge.
When Captain James Cook first discovered Australia, he was amazed to observe the aboriginals there
living in what he saw as "tranquility," because "the Earth and sea ... furnishes them with
all things necessary for life."
And it turns out, he was largely right. Modern anthropologists have found that hunter-gatherers
do indeed place minimal value on possessions, enjoy plenty of leisure time, have access
to a wide variety of food sources which provide them with good nutrition, and historically
at least, before the rise of agriculture, they were free of infectious disease.
One anthropologist, Marshall Salins, famously called hunter-gatherers the "original affluent
society," because they had everything they needed. In these words of an aboriginal elder,
"Everything come up out of ground."
And with this relationship to the natural world, we find that across the globe, from
the Ojibwa in Canada... the Nayaka in India...
... hunter-gatherers view the spirits of nature as their relatives, their grandmother, grandfather,
or "big mother and father," leading to the core hunter-gatherer metaphor...
... of nature as GIVING PARENT.
And in fact, over the millennia, as Nature gave and gave, our hunter-gatherer ancestors
took and took, leading to vast extinctions of large mammals across the world. As this
chart shows, each time early humans migrated to a new landmass, the large mammals there,
naïve to humans, were driven very quickly to extinction by those pioneering hunter-gatherers
who took full advantage of Nature's generosity to them.
But this all changed with the rise of agriculture, about ten thousand years ago.
It's with the domestication of animals and plants that we first see notions of property
and land ownership arise, along with hierarchies and inequalities.
Specialized skills emerge, with massive organized projects such as irrigation and temples leading
to large, complex societies with cities and empires. Along with all this came a profound
change in the human condition which you might call...
... Agricultural anxiety. For the first time, lives are dependent on the fluctuations of
the weather.
People are committed to the crops they've cultivated and the animals they've bred.
They are locked in to their location by their housing, storage, machinery and possessions.
The reduced variety of their food sources leads to vulnerability to crop failure...
... and the higher population density results in famine, epidemics and warfare.
Not surprising, then, that the agricultural view of the gods becomes more distant and
threatening. Across the world, from Egypt to the Incas, from China to the Aztec, people
saw themselves as "active participants in a great cosmic drama." Nature could no longer
be counted upon for its generosity, and humans became supplicants to their gods, "introducing
an entirely new relationship between god and man." Along with this comes a rise in priesthood,
sacrifice and ritual, and a new metaphor of nature as...
And there was an ever-increasing need to propitiate those divinities, since the growth of agriculture
led to new forms of environmental degradation, with erosion, decreased fertility, salinization
and deforestation.
One historian, for example, has estimated that the crop yields in Sumer were reduced
by two-thirds over a seven hundred year period, with so much salinization that you'd regularly
read in the ancient texts...
"The earth turned white..."
Then, around two thousand years ago, we see the beginnings of monotheism...
... with the ancient Greeks who were the first to separate the human soul from the body...
... leading to an all-encompassing dualism, where the meaning of the universe came from
a transcendent dimension, completely separate from the material world.
This gave rise, before long, to Christianity, the first systematic dualistic cosmology,
with a transcendent God who was the ultimate source of the laws of nature.
And one of those laws was that Man's role was to dominate Nature, to "have dominion
over the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth."
This was an idea that took hold of the Christian world through the millennia. From Philo in
the first century who saw the human role to "drive and steer the things on earth" like
a "governor subordinate to the chief and great King,"...
... to Peter Lombard in the 12th century who recognized that "the world is made for the
sake of man, that it may serve him," ...
... to Matthew Hale in the 17th century who saw Man as the "Vice-Roy of the great God
of Heaven and Earth in this inferior World" ...
... generating a new metaphor of Nature as SUBJECT OF MAN'S DOMINION...
It's a metaphor that justified further exploitation of both nature and other humans. As John Locke
put it in the 17th century, "land that is left wholly to nature... is waste." This "ethic
of human domination" legitimized the conquest of those humans, such as the indigenous people
of the Americas, who were in a "supposedly animal condition," and were wasting the land
that God had given them.
Which leads us to the Scientific Age...
... and a view of nature as a machine, causing Descartes to see no difference between machines
made by craftsmen and those "various bodies that nature alone composes," ...
... and the theologian William Paley to come up with the analogy of God as the Great Watchmaker.
The clarion call of the scientific age, in the words of that great scientific visionary
Francis Bacon, was to "extend the bounds of human empire," and render ourselves "the masters
and possessors of nature."
Throughout the modern age, the one thing both right and left agreed upon was the goal of
exploiting nature. Here's Peter Drucker, a business consultant, noting that "human possession
and use is what activates the true nobility of any natural object" ...
And here's Karl Marx from a century earlier, writing that the goal of socialism was bringing
nature "under the common control," resulting in the current predominant metaphor of nature
... which is something we've done only too well, as shown by the exponential rise in
human population in the last few centuries...
... which has unfortunately brought with it an exponential rise in other things such as
the unsustainable level of carbon dioxide we're putting into the atmosphere...
... which leads us to the final section in the presentation on the newly emerging metaphors
of nature being offered by those who are trying to respond to our current global environmental
One metaphor, popularized by scientist René Dubos, based on the philosophy of the Benedictine
order, is Nature as PROPERTY FOR STEWARDSHIP, with the message that we should continue to
change the world to suit our needs, but do it in a spirit of "noblesse oblige."
What are the underlying implications, or entailments, of this metaphor? That we have ultimate control
over Nature, that our motives are beneficial for Nature, and that we have the right to
prioritize what benefits humanity.
The darker implications arising from this can be seen in this quote from political commentator
Charles Krauthammer, stating that nature will just "have to accommodate" because ultimately
it is "man's environment."
Another metaphor sees nature as a source of what are called Ecosystems Services, an approach
championed nowadays by many environmentalists. The idea is to put a monetary value on the
services that healthy ecosystems provide for human populations, and thus align market forces
with conservation.
This, however, also brings with it some disturbing entailments, with the risk of inappropriate
trade-offs, moral justification for continuing exploitation, and the ultimate value of nature
being a resource for the global marketplace.
So, for example, one study put the value of coral reefs at $1.2 million per hectare.
At the same time, however, prime beachfront property in Cancun is valued at $25 million
per hectare. If we have to decide on a trade-off between the two, then the ecosystems services
metaphor would justify choosing a new high rise hotel on the beach even at the loss of
the coral reefs.
This entailment becomes even more disturbing when we look at the melting Arctic polar ice
cap which has lost 40% in the past three decades. From an economic point of view, this opens
up commercial sea lanes, and makes available $9 trillion worth of oil that was previously
impossible to access. So from an ecosystems services perspective, the melting ice cap
is great news for all concerned.
A third metaphor sees Nature as a GEO-ENGINEERING SUBJECT, advocating deliberate large-scale
intervention in the Earth's natural systems to counteract climate change...
... thus protecting "critically vulnerable natural ecosystems ... from damage that otherwise
could no longer be avoided."
This metaphor also carries with it some disturbing entailments, such as the risk of unforeseen
consequences, political issues, and some fundamental moral issues, including the fact that it permits
continued growth without fixing the underlying dynamics of our society's problems...
... which is why it's not surprising that this metaphor has been warmly adopted by the
oil industry, as in this recent statement from the Exxon CEO that "global warming is
an engineering problem that has engineering solutions."
But a branch of modern science known as systems thinking offers us an alternative metaphor
of nature. Findings in systems biology and complexity science teach us that all living
entities are complex, self-organized, dynamical systems; that interactions between things
are more important than the things themselves; and that no system is autonomous, but continually
interacting with other systems.
This understanding suggests a new metaphor of Nature as a FRACTALLY CONNECTED ORGANISM.
A fractal is a pattern that repeats itself at different scales. It indicates self-organized
activity and is ubiquitous in the natural world...
... in coastlines...
... in leaves...
... in lightning...
... in lungs...
... and in neurons. Everywhere in the natural world, from the tiniest cell to the shape
of continents, from deep within our bodies to the vastness of the sky above, fractal
patterns remind us of our ultimate connectivity to everything around us.
Seeing Nature as a fractally connected organism means recognizing that every cell exists...
... as part of an organism...
.. which is part of a community...
... which is part of a greater ecosystem...
... which is ultimately part of the Earth.
The benefits of this metaphor is that it represents a scientifically valid view of the natural
world, and sees humans as embedded in nature, not transcendent over it...
It emphasizes humanity's dependence on the health of the earth, and encourages sustainable
values and priorities.
As George Lakoff wrote, metaphors matter. They can determine questions of war and peace,
economic policy and legal decisions...
I hope this presentation has shown that "the metaphors we use determine a great deal about
how we live our lives."
For anyone interested, I'm writing a book incorporating some of these ideas. It offers
a cognitive history of humanity, documenting our changing modes of thought over the millennia,
and how the choices we make about our thought patterns will affect the future course of
humanity. It's called Liology: Towards an Integration of Science and Meaning. You can
check my progress on my website or email me for more information.