Magazine article The Futurist

Wild Metaphors: Nature as Machine or Person?

Magazine article The Futurist

Wild Metaphors: Nature as Machine or Person?

Article excerpt

Nature is more than just a collection of physical and biological resources. It is also an image in our minds and in our hearts. This image includes all the thoughts, feelings, and values that nature evokes--a place of refuge from the demands of society, of encounter with natural forces, and of personal and spiritual transformation.

In thinking about the future, we are confronted with a basic question: To what extent are we willing to live in a world that includes natural processes that are not under our control? Our answer to this depends on the fundamental beliefs that we hold regarding nature and our place in it.

Two very different metaphors have often been used for understanding and thinking about the natural world: nature as a machine and nature as a person. These two metaphors lead to very different implications regarding our rights and responsibilities toward nature.

For the last few centuries, the metaphor of nature as a machine has been the primary means by which science has understood the natural world. Viewing nature as a machine means that it is predictable and, yet, has no mind of its own. It implies that humanity can operate and steer nature in whatever direction we see fit. We might even claim that it is our right and responsibility to take control of the machinery of nature. After all, a machine that is not under anybody's control is not of much use, and perhaps even dangerous. Machines are always built with a purpose in mind--to perform a task, to create products, or to provide entertainment. Machines also exist for the benefit of the people who build and operate them. If we look at nature in this way, we will probably come to see it as a kind of production process. We will conclude that wilderness areas, when properly managed, can produce benefits for people in the form of pleasurable experiences like solitude and beauty.

But if we look at nature as simply mechanistic, we risk losing the image of wilderness areas as places of refuge, encounter, and transformation. They become just another form of entertainment--a place where we can select and consume the experiences we desire without any risk of being changed in the process. This does not necessarily involve anything that is done physically to the land. …

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