Learning to see nature everywhere
When on 4th November, 1869 the first edition of the scientific journal Nature went on sale it carried a foreword by the British biologist T.H. Huxley. In his introduction, Huxley quoted the German poet-scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) at length and concluded with the following sentence: “it may be, that long after the theories of the philosophers whose achievements are recorded in these pages, are obsolete, the vision of the poet will remain as a truthful and efficient symbol of the wonder and the mystery of Nature.” Here is an excerpt of Goethe’s vision of nature:
NATURE! We are surrounded and embraced by her: powerless to separate ourselves from her, and powerless to penetrate beyond her. […] We live in her midst and know her not. She is incessantly speaking to us, but betrays not her secret. We constantly act upon her, and yet have no power over her. […] She has always thought and always thinks; though not as a man, but as Nature. […] That which is most unnatural is still Nature; the stupidest philistinism has a touch of her genius. Who so cannot see her everywhere, sees her nowhere rightly. […] The spectacle of Nature is always new, for she is always renewing the spectators. Life is her most exquisite invention; and death is her expert contrivance to get plenty of life. […] We obey her laws even when we rebel against them; we work with her even when we desire to work against her. […] She has isolated all things in order that all may approach one another. She holds a couple of draughts from the cup of love to be fair payment for the pains of a lifetime. […] She is complete, but never finished.
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in T.H. Huxley (1869)
What would it mean to see nature everywhere? This is not a simple question of semantics. Our world would change, if we began to understand culture, society and technology as expressions of the same creative natural process that helped to create the atmosphere we breathe today and shaped the history of our planet for millions of years. It is quite a challenge to entertain this shift in perspective. If everything is nature, then nothing is un-natural, artificial or not part of natural process.
Can we really call an atomic power plant, a nuclear bomb or genetically manipulated organisms ‘natural’? Including everything in existence within the constantly transforming whole of nature becomes a necessity if we want to overcome the false dualism between nature and culture. Even dangerous technologies cannot be separate from the whole. The atoms they are made of are part of the universe and nature transforming. But even to put it this way can take us away from understanding the ‘authentic wholeness’ (Bortoft, 1971) of nature, since we should not think of nature’s wholeness as an additive wholeness — the sum of its parts.
The whole comes forth within all of its parts and the parts find their significance and identity through the belonging to the whole. Henri Bortoft writes in his mind-bending and deeply insightful book about Goethe’s way of science, The Wholeness of Nature:
We cannot know the whole in the way in which we know things because we cannot recognize the whole as a thing. […] The whole would be outside its parts in the same way that each part is outside all the other parts. But the whole comes into presence within its parts, and we cannot encounter the whole in the same way that we encounter the parts. We should not think of the whole as if it were a thing.
— Henri Bortoft (1996: 14)
Bortoft dedicated his life to the exploration, teaching and communication of what he called a dynamic way of seeing that allows us to experience “the coming-to-presence of the whole within the parts”. He warns us of the epistemological pitfall of a purely analytical and objectifying approach to ‘systems’ (as objects out there) as it predisposes us to explore counterfeit rather than authentic wholeness (2012: 17).
If we see nature everywhere, even in our way of seeing, we can begin to pay attention to the ‘coming into being’ of the whole through mutual reciprocity (interbeing) with its parts. Neither the whole nor the parts are primary. They co-arise. Nothing is outside the wholeness of nature, as it is not a thing, but a process of ‘coming into being’ through relationship. From this perspective everything is ‘natural’ and ‘nature’ manifests through everything.
I am not at all suggesting that because — from this perspective — nuclear bombs and GM crops are natural too, that they are expressions of appropriate participation in nature’s life-sustaining and regenerative processes. They are better understood as dead- ends in nature’s evolutionary exploration of novelty. It is up to us to recognize them as such and dismiss them as inappropriate before their effects on life and whole-systems health dismiss us.
This step towards fully embodying our own nature as ‘nature at large’ is crucial for cultural transformation towards a regenerative culture. To move on from the dominance of the ‘narrative of separation’ and into the ‘narrative of interbeing’ we have to heal the ‘Cartesian split’, embracing our experience of being separate individuals not as proof of separation but of being undividable from the wholeness of nature.
The narrative of separation brings forth a world where we separate mind and matter, self and world, humanity and nature into mutually exclusive categories, while the emerging cultural ‘narrative of interbeing’ brings forth a world in which we see ourselves and our technologies as expressions of life’s natural process. From this inclusive and participatory perspective of nature we can re-evaluate all our social and technological achievements in the light of the crucial questions:
How does this innovation affect nature’s life support systems?
Does this innovation increase systemic health and resilience?
Is the proposed ‘solution’ likely to lead to an evolutionary dead-end or does it create conditions conducive to life?
We should neither condemn nor reify science and technology. When, where and how to use these tools in ways that create conditions conducive to life is a crucial public dialogue in regenerative cultures. Seeing nature everywhere and understanding the wholeness of nature as a living process in which we participate, will lead us to understand collaboration as the prevalent mode of maintaining the health of the whole. Competition is both self- perpetuating and ultimately self-defeating.
Gregory Bateson warned us: “The creature that wins against its environment destroys itself” (1972: 501). Seeing nature everywhere can help us create technologies that contribute to the health of the whole rather than eroding it.
[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]
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Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.
Author of the internationally acclaimed book Designing Regenerative Cultures