Natural Born Humans and the Neo-Materialist Flip

This first appeared in Perspectives 5(2013).

My interest in the environmental humanities began badly, as I came to the field for what I now think of as all the wrong reasons. I started off as a historian of technology, studying with the scholar of American industry and science, David Hounshell, at the University of Delaware. My move to the crowds and factories of northern Delaware—a state practically synonymous with the chemical artificiality of the giant DuPont corporation—did not come easily. Having grown up in the Big Sky country of the northern Rocky Mountains, much of the American northeast struck me as hopelessly ruined and divorced from the vibrant power of capital “N” Nature. As soon as the first summer break came, I boarded a plane and headed back to the wilder lands of my home state of Montana.

 Sitting in the cramped seat of a Northwest airlines jet, I looked out the window as the plane banked sharply for landing. For a brief moment, the ragged knife-edge of the Bridger Mountain Range lay beneath me, the snow-dusted peaks glowing pink in the light of a setting sun, vast tracts of dark pine forests stretching beyond the mountains with scarcely a single electric light to disturb their shadowed perfection. What a contrast this land was, I thought, to the unnatural human-created machine hurtling me through the cold thin air. My fellow passengers and I seemed more akin to astronauts than travelers. We were kept alive thanks to the roaring jet engines outside my Plexiglas™ window, a bizarre technology that burnt ancient hydrocarbons to pump warm pressurized air into a narrow tube of aluminum metal while spewing noxious wastes into the pristine sky. What we needed to better understand, it seemed clear to me then, was the history of how and why humans and their artificial technologies had left the natural world behind. We needed to find a path away from technology and towards Nature, to get humans out of their screaming jets and back in touch with those peaceful green forests below.

Almost twenty years later now, I look back at my younger self at that moment and think that, while my goals were admirable enough, my analytical approach was entirely wrongheaded. Indeed, today I would argue that my views then were more symptomatic of the problem rather than a solution to it. For this I can thank the many influential thinkers I’ve encountered in the years since: Latour, White, Cronon, Noble, Russell, and others. Slowly, even a bit painfully, I have come to believe that one of the root causes of our contemporary and historical environmental problems is not that humans and their artificial technologies have left nature, but rather that so many of us came to believe that we even could leave nature—that humans could ever be anything else but the entirely natural animals that we are.

 In my forthcoming book, The Matter of History, I try to make this point in a chapter called “We Never Left Eden.” The title suggests how ancient and pervasive I believe the problem is, going all the way back to the western idea of humanity’s fall from an earlier paradisiacal harmony with nature. This idea in turn, I argue, is close kin to the even more widespread belief that humans are somehow special, a point on which most of us agree even if we debate precisely why. Some emphasize the human use of tools to manipulate a distinctly separate and exterior natural environment, others, the development of language or complex urban societies. Regardless, all implicitly or explicitly insist that at some point the hominin animal left nature behind to become the master manipulator of the material world rather than its product. From there flowed, depending on one’s perspective, all the blessings or all the curses of the modern human-dominated world of the past few millennia.

 This deeply anthropocentric worldview has endured through the centuries, despite suffering what looked to be mortal blows from Copernicus, Darwin, Carson, and many others. Surprisingly, scientific thinking has done relatively little to undermine it. To the contrary, many scientists continued to embrace human exceptionalism in other forms, often believing that our extraordinary intelligence would permit us to transcend the limits of this material world and become akin to gods. Not too surprising given their name, humanists have been even more eager to proclaim the worth of their chosen subject of study, which is to say, themselves. Among historians, this long tradition of anthropocentrism reached something of an apotheosis in recent decades when social constructivist thinking kept many focused squarely on humans and a concept of culture that drew a clear line between the human sociocultural world and the material world around them. While only the most radical of constructivists ever questioned that a separate material reality existed outside of human ideas, for many years the possibility that this external world might construct humans as much as it was constructed by them was largely ignored. Human ideas about matter mattered a great deal more than matter itself.

 In the book I mentioned above, I call my chapter on this topic “The Denial of Matter,” and if that were all I had to say about the topic, it would be rather depressing. Fortunately, in more recent years a very different way of thinking about the material world has begun to take shape, one that has potentially radical implications for humanists, scientists, and people in general. Smitten by Stephen Greenblatt’s wonderful 2012 book, Swerve, I’ve toyed with calling mine Flip, though that title may be too redolent of recent American real estate practices and charismatic sea mammals to really work. Regardless, the idea is that I and some other neo-materialist scholars are proposing that we need to flip the conventional view of the relationship between humans and matter on its head. Instead of understanding humans as the master manipulators of a separate and passive material world, we argue that humans and their cultures are, to a significant degree, products of matter: that the material world creates us and our diverse cultures every bit as much as we create it. Indeed, recent scientific and humanistic insights strongly suggest that it no longer makes sense to draw a clear conceptual line between humans and matter (or nature, as some prefer to call it), but that we should instead focus more attention on the many ways that humans and their cultures are made of and from matter and cannot logically exist in isolation from it.

 Lest I begin to sound vaguely misanthropic here, let me briefly assert for the record that I have the highest regard for human beings and their many accomplishments. Indeed, some of my best friends are humans, and I am particularly fond of the ones who are my wife and two children. My intent is not to revive the foolish anti-humanism of neo-Malthusian movements like Earth First!, nor to deny that humans have accomplished many wonderful things, at least by our own inherently provincial standards. Rather, I want to suggest that humans did not achieve these things on their own, that they were aided by countless powerful material partners, great and small, operating in complex biogeochemical ecologies that have created not only the human animal, but also many important aspects of human culture and society.

 Which brings me back at last to that younger version of myself in the cramped economy seat of a Northwest airlines jet. As I look back on it now, the problem with the jet was not that it was divorced from the real nature I thought I glimpsed in the mountains and dark forests below: on the contrary, I would insist today that engineers had merely shaped the natural material world to create the jet. They had not fundamentally altered or left it behind. More importantly, the real problem was that I, like most humans, failed to appreciate how the dynamic power of nature had created the jet too, that this odd machine was as much a product of the extraordinary chemical abilities of hydrocarbons and aluminum as of the much-vaunted mental capabilities of human brains. Because we fail to see that humans are best understood as partners with things rather than their masters, we also fail to appreciate the many complex ways in which we become deeply entangled with those things, some of which we might well have done better to avoid. There was nothing inherently unnatural or bad about the jet. But having thrown our lot in with oil, aluminum, and the other materials and properties that we call a jet, we humans have partnered with some very powerful things that now threatened to lead when we had meant for them to follow.

 The neo-materialist flip thus suggests that far from being akin to Nietzsche’s Übermenschen, we humans might do better to think of ourselves as a gang of occasionally charming but frequently foolish children who have stumbled upon an abandoned locomotive idling quietly on a siding. Eagerly climbing aboard, we carelessly push and pull at the controls of a machine whose powers we can only vaguely comprehend. By chance, we throw the machinery into gear and send the engine careening down a track towards a destination we can scarcely imagine, all the while praising ourselves for how very clever we are. I wonder: even if we somehow figured out how to stop the locomotive, would any of us get off?