Is nature “natural” anymore?

It seems that we are definitely heading towards the bio-based society, a new way of interacting with the environment where fossil fuels won’t be needed anymore and “more natural” processes for producing energy, food and materials will prevail. Remarkably, this bio-turn often involves highly advanced biotechnology and strict competitive targets, both facts that challenge our general understanding of what a “more natural way of doing things” is. Politicians, scientists, and companies are well aware of this apparent contradiction but, are they willing to clarify the meaning of this tricky jargon (naturalness, sustainability, circularity…) within the so-called Bio-based Economy? A fascinating debate is open.

And this debate is anything but trivial. Anyone with an eye on marketing and communication techniques knows that concepts such as natural, green, sustainable, biotechnological, are at risk of being emptied of meaning and then populated with vague content coming mostly from commercial interests. These terms are often used in a rhetorical rather than in a scientific fashion, leading to a sometimes deliberate misunderstanding and a subsequent distrust among the general public. As a result, the latest advances in biotechnology, as well as their impact on the environment in the mid-term, remain buried in this conceptual confusion, where we are not quite sure whether nature still is what we were used to thinking it was.

Figure 1. The Fraunhofer Institute and Continental AG work together on a research project to develop natural rubber from dandelion plants. Credit: https://www.fraunhofer.de/
Figure 1. The Fraunhofer Institute and Continental AG work together on a research project to develop natural rubber from dandelion plants. Credit: www.fraunhofer.de

The fact is that people tend to have an Aristotelian concept of nature, that is, we usually conceive nature as everything that exists without human intervention. That’s why we are quite a skeptic about considering as “natural” those processes involving sophisticated technology and the modification of the building blocks of living systems. Traditionally, we have considered nature and technology as opposites, the latter playing the role of a relentless consumer of natural resources with the only target of making a profit out of them. Yet nature is now presented in a different way. Biotechnology experts interpret their intervention in nature as an act of mimicry, rather than as the exploitation of natural resources. From this point of view, scientists learn about the tools and methods that nature has been using to evolve since ancient times (and they do really well at this) and then they replicate this knowledge in order to go one step further.

This is the subject of a recent publication 1 from the Department of Philosophy and Science Studies at the Radboud University Nijmegen in The Netherlands. They emphasize the need for a critical assessment of the content of all these concepts related to the upcoming Bio-based Economy, and they choose the term nature as an important example of an evolving concept that has been subjected to constant modification throughout history in parallel to the development of human culture, science, and technology. So the question is: what is nature for us now, in the era of biotechnology and genetic engineering?

The truth is that biotechnology has carried out an outstanding scrutiny of nature and living systems in the last few decades. We have achieved an impressive knowledge of how nature works at the molecular level and how we can use that knowledge to give outcomes inconceivable some years ago in the fields of agriculture, medicine or industry. Life scientists have conquered the “molecular plasticity of nature”, in the words of the authors, and they are willing to improve and optimize its performance. But, are nature mechanisms something to be improved or optimized? This question has, according to the study, two main and opposite answers.

On one hand, there is the technical way of viewing nature. From this point of view, technology is not a stranger to nature, but the other way around. Nature is an immense laboratory, a biotechnological phenomenon, and we use its own methods as mere plagiarists. Advocates of this position don’t find a difference between the natural and the non-natural at the molecular level and, at the end of the day, human beings, as part of this nature, have their right to own its “know-how” and use it for their own good. Fair enough. Moreover, the promise of less disruptive technologies and the end of the fossil-fuel era give us reasons for optimism.

But on the other hand, there are those who claim that this new bio-based turn is nothing but a new chapter in the story of the industrialized world taking control over nature; an act of avoidance instead of criticism towards the alarming attitude of exploitation and consumerism of recent times. These voices find that behind this purpose of reprogramming nature to achieve a more natural world, there is a powerful tool for industry to continue its large-scale exploitation of natural resources.

The article also presents a case study where the use of words natural, green or sustainable are extensively used in several research programs whose main goal is the production of natural rubber from the latex of dandelion plants rather than the synthetic one coming from petroleum. In this process, the latest molecular genetics techniques are involved and important commercial interests are at stake. Not for nothing companies such as Continental AG, Goodyear, DuPont, Bridgestone and Michelin are involved in this line of research, together with well-known institutes such as the Fraunhofer in Germany. The study analyses how they publicize their research tiptoeing around high-tech topics such as the modification of natural resources and large-scale productions, and opting for a naïve, almost childish view of nature, trying to appeal the public. This video is a good example of this.

Probably what we all have in mind when we think about a more nature-friendly future is far away from molecular genetics, large scale productions, competitive markets and high-tech corporate knowledge. It might be something more related to the protection of our common heritage and the end of irrational patterns of economic growth. It will be really necessary, and that’s the main remark of the authors in this study, to consider the multiple dimensions of the problem: social, linguistic, political, philosophical, economic, and scientific. The current discourse of promises, hidden interests, and ambiguous terminology won’t help to discover if we are prepared to abandon the attitude of exploitation towards nature, and to embrace a more collaborative approach, learning from what nature has to teach us and thinking carefully about our footprint on the planet.

References

  1. Zwart H., Krabbenborg L., Zwier J. Is Dandelion Rubber More Natural? Naturalness, Biotechnology and the Transition Towards a Bio-Based Society, J Agric Environ Ethics (2015) 28:313–334. DOI 10.1007/s10806-015-9536-0

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