Primitive Imagination in Mechanical Metaphors

Essay by Jozef Keulartz for "TechnoMorphica," 1997.

Primitive Imagination in Mechanical Metaphors

TechnoMorphica 1997

The Netherlands have of old known a rich natural environment which has come under a lot of pressure, however, in the last 150 years from several economic and demographic developments. The Netherlands are very densely populated, there is intensive agriculture as well as an expansive chemical industry, and, being the delta of several large rivers like the Rhine, Maas and Scheldt, this country is also Europe's "cesspit." In response to the ever deteriorating nature, over the past few decades a relatively strong nature conservancy movement developed here, with a large following in comparison with surrounding nations. The two largest organizations, the Association for the Conservation of Natural Monuments and the World Wide Fund for Nature, boast a membership of 800,000 and 700,000 respectively (on a total population of over 15 million), while Greenpeace also enjoys a lot of support here with its 585,000 members. 1

1. All figures are based on data from 1996.

In view of this involvement of large parts of the population it is hardly surprising that Dutch nature policy is more progressive and energetic than elsewhere. It aims at realizing the so-called "National Network of Important Ecosystems," a network of principal areas of at least 1250 acres connected with a number of smaller areas (by means of stepping stones and corridors). The National Network of Important Ecosystems will take up a rather large portion of the Dutch territory: 1.7 million acres of a total of eight million acres. This ambitious plan reflects the turn in policy from a defensive towards an offensive approach which started to emerge around 1980. Not nature conservancy but nature development has been the motto ever since. This turning of the tide was accompanied by a shift in the perception of the ideal landscape from the pastoral to the primitive.

The touchstone of classic nature conservancy had always been the landscape of around 1850, when the Dutch nation prepared itself for large-scale modernization. This cultural-historical landscape is the result of various forms of agricultural activity and can therefore only be maintained by traditional agricultural techniques like growing reed and brushwood, by mowing and cutting sods, by establishing duck decoys and by using water mills. Nature developers regard this "farm nature" as degenerated nature which has to be constantly maintained and is far from cost-effective. They reject the pastoral idyll as a criterion for nature policy and cherish instead the primitive ideal of original, untouched wilderness. In this "primeval nature" human has only a very modest role to play "as a hunter, gatherer and scavenger," as formulated without a trace of irony in the main explanatory document that comes with the Dutch national Nature Policy Plan 2.

2. The national Nature Policy Plan contains the official government position on policy with regard to nature, and was written in 1991 by the Section Nature, Forest, Landscape and Wildlife of the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries.

Nature developers focus mainly on the last interglacial era when human did not even yet have projectile weapons (such as the throwing-spear or the bow and arrow) and therefore was not yet capable of submitting his natural enemies. In order to reconstruct these prehistoric conditions they apply geological, physical-geographical and biological-archaeological research. In addition to this, research is done into still existing ecological communities whose combination of species strongly resembles that of ecological communities from the last interglacial era in Europe. Such ecological communities can still be found in the National Parks of India and Sri Lanka as well as in a number of African nature reserves. Where nature as sponsored by traditional conservationists depends on applying old agricultural crafts, nature as championed by nature developers is reconcilable only with the most primitive techniques. However ? and this constitutes the main paradox of nature development ? this alleged primeval nature has vanished from the Netherlands since 1871 when the Beekberger Woods were cut down in a matter of days, and therefore has to be reproduced in a technological manner. Our country may look rather nicely here and there from an aesthetic point of view, but ecologically speaking it is no less than a disaster area, according to nature developers. Land reclamation, cultivation, dike-building and canalization have curbed or completely annihilated various natural processes, such as the flooding and aridization of river forelands. But living nature as well has been completely disrupted according to the nature developers: on the one hand certain species are no longer there because of human's intervention in the landscape; on the other hand our nature is riddled with "exotics," plants and animals which really don't belong here "by nature." Only those species are truly autochthonous and indigenous which are supposed to have reached the lowlands by their own effort alone after the last Ice Age. Sheep are not among these, nor are pheasants, black grouse and house martins. Their presence is considered to be "fauna forgery." Even our sparse woods turn out to consist mainly of exotics like the Canadian douglas and Japanese larch. This "genetic pollution" by exotic material allegedly resulted in strongly diminishing our national forests' vitality. So, there is no such thing as primeval nature or even a remnant of it in The Netherlands. In order to regain it, all sorts of dynamic processes will have to be initialized anew. An example of this is "re-meandering," a process by which bulldozers make twists and bends in streams and rivers that were once neatly canalized. To give free reign to the dynamics of wind and water, everywhere summer dikes are breached, layers of clay are cut, parallel ditches are dug and high grounds are raised. The most ambitious project in nature development today is the Grensmaas project, the scale of which is as large as the Delta works or other comparable cultural-technical project in the past. It is sold to the general public with the catchy slogan "Green for Gravel," inadvertently revealing the thoroughly technological character of nature development. Developing nature and quarrying gravel are presented here as two sides of the same coin, in trying out a new technique of shallow quarrying instead of deep quarrying, a method that has yet to be developed and tested. As far as living nature is concerned, a lot of work has to be done as well. Nature developers wish to remove exotic creatures and (re)introduce vanished species. Unfortunately a number of species that supposedly had established themselves here after the last Ice Age, are by now extinct. This is true of the Irish deer and the mammoth as well, which probably sought refuge in the lowlands during severe winters. As a result of elaborated (re)breeding programs however, some extinct species however can be successfully replaced. The Heck ox serves as surrogate for the aurochs (?1627), and the konik acts as the understudy of the tarpan (?1887), the European wild horse. Because the Heck ox is unsuitable for areas where recreational activities are allowed, a human-friendly version will now be bred: the "ecolander." These (re)introduced herds of cattle and horses are submitted to a process of de-domestication and are forced to return to the wild. In order to give natural selection processes a chance again, they are no longer fed nor attended to in sickness, and they are directly exposed to parasites and predators. In this way they have to learn (again) to procreate on their own strength and according to a seasonal cycle, to organize themselves in harems and acquire all sorts of skills. The resulting stress and mortality among animals that are returned to the wild are so high that only an average ten percent of all (re)introduction programs are successful.

How purely technological the enterprise of nature development is, can be heard in the rhetoric accompanying the (retro)breeding and (re)introduction programs. (Re)introduced animals are primarily being presented as the instruments of a modern style of nature management, supposedly more reliable and cheaper than traditional nature management aimed at the conservation of the agricultural landscape. By making use of (large) herbivores ? grazers (like cattle), browsers (like deer and elks) and "intermediate feeders" (roes and wisents) ? forests are prevented from growing thick and the landscape is allowed to become a mosaic of alternating open and closed places. That is, if the (re)introduction of (large) predators like wolves and lynxes is implemented vigorously. If not, the herbivores will not disperse sufficiently and the forests will not be able to rejuvenate themselves overall. Just how strongly nature developers cherish an instrumental vision of the (re)introduction of animals, is apparent especially from their use of mechanical metaphors. Repeatedly they speak in terms of "adjusting the grazing-pressure" by herbivores, of "number regulation" of these cheap "mowing and browsing machines" by their natural enemies and so forth. Another example of the engineering mentality of nature developers is the way they portray nature as the "main contractor" of nature management. This quite common phrase reveals how much this spontaneous, self-regulating, self-ordering nature, which nominally at least is the main issue, is really nature that is totally produced by technology. This instrumental vision of nature fits in seamlessly with the "ecosystems theory" which is the basis of nature development. This theory presents the entire biosphere, including human and society, as a gigantic recycling system of energy, matter and information which, thanks to a number of feedback mechanisms, is in a state of dynamic balance within certain margins. The accompanying background study of the national Nature Policy Plan mentioned earlier phrases this as follows: "In complete ecosystems all cogs of the machine are in place and everything runs on solar energy without additional external input." But since there are no complete ecosystems in The Netherlands anymore because of human intervention, nature developers also and especially like to fall back on the "island theory." This theory deals with groups or communities of organisms. It predicts the number of species that will occur on a specific island, using the size of the island and its distance to the main land as its principal parameters. The island theory has a lot in common with the ecosystems theory because of its cybernetic foundations. The groups or communities of organisms are seen as systems that try to maintain their stability in an ever changing environment by feedback mechanisms. Here too, the existence of a dynamic balance is pre-supposed: although the combination of species on any given island is subject to continuous change, the number of species remains constant.

Ever since it was introduced in the early 1980s, the island theory has risen meteorically in the ranks of Dutch nature policy. Together with the ecosystems theory it forms the basis of the National Network of Important Ecosystems, in the sense that nature reserves are seen as "islands in a sea of cultivated land." Based on this theory, the idea is to make as large an area of contiguous nature as possible and make as many connections between them as possible. Both the ecosystems theory and the island theory cherish the idea of an orderly, balanced nature which is fundamentally knowable and manageable. Time and chance, irreversible as well as unpredictable events play no part in these approaches whatsoever. And although the importance of stochastic processes is recognized as such, it is only because of the consideration that in stable ecosystems species usually don't spread out enough and therefore are threatened with extinction if they wind up in an island situation as a result of loss of terrain or too much dispersion. To keep these species "on the move" they have to be (re)exposed to natural processes "in the form of local catastrophes like forest fires and storms, but also in the form of a biotic dynamics, such as grazing, cutting sods and predation." And where nature refuses to oblige, a helping hand is easily lent by pushing over a few trees (in case of lack of stormy weather). This way of thinking demonstrates quite clearly how (stable) ecosystems are still considered as ideal and as touchstones, and that stochastic processes are only "tolerated" in as far as the "completeness" of these ecosystems is severely compromised. The static and mechanical vision of nature developers is very much at odds with the views of "evolutionary ecology" that has proven to be a sturdy post-war opponent of the ecosystems theory. Undisturbed nature, according to these evolutionary ecologists, is not constant; neither at the population level nor at the level of ecosystems, no matter which time period or spatial scale is adopted. Evolutionary ecologists have made short shrift of the idea of sharply delineated, stable, self regulating systems; they point to situations which are well "out off balance" and seek recognition for the importance of unique situations and historical events. Nature according to them is less predictable and therefore less controllable and manageable than nature developers would have us believe.

From an evolutionary point of view, the belief in the constructibility of nature is just as suspicious as the allergy for the exotic and the obsession with what is truly autochthonous and authentic. An arrogant scientism that degrades nature to a "main contractor" is as inappropriate as a meek holism that elevates it to "primeval nature." Nature and culture are not mutually exclusive entities, they form hybrid mixtures (the "culture-natures" of Bruno Latour or the "cyborgs" of Donna Haraway), which alternately are wholesome and poisonous. Nature is open to human design, with all possibilities and risks this incurs. When this message will one day reach the policy makers, developing nature can become an exciting and adventurous enterprise ? an experiment in the true sense of the word.


© 1997 Jozef Keulartz / V2_

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