- Introduction:Beyond Nature/Culture Dualism: Let's Try Co-Evolution Instead of "Control"
In the original call for papers for this special issue, nature/culture dualism was characterized as a way of thinking that holds human culture and nonhuman nature to be radically different ontological spheres, hyperseparated and oppositional, or, as Val Plumwood maintains in her essay, an orientation that assumes "separate casts of characters in separate dramas." In the human sphere, individuals are unique and their lives are precious (at least theoretically), with concerns understood "from the inside," in terms of experience, intention and agency. In the sphere of nature, on the other hand, nonhuman beings are seen "from the outside," at best as replaceable members of species or populations needed for ecosystem functioning and, at worst, as unagentive, thinglike objects open for unbridled human exploitation. With our vast information and communication systems now largely in place, however, our human "noösphere" is rapidly enlarging to place us firmly within the biosphere (which, of course, in the imagery of Venn diagrams, must make up the larger circle on the screen), illuminating "both casts in both dramas," or perhaps joining all actors on the stage in a many-act, multidimensional play, the denoument of which, whether or not the extant lifeforms on this [End Page 1] planet will continue to evolve, remains as yet unwritten. The five essays in this collection speak to these points, and together they develop an alternative vision to our present dualistic impasse, seeing multiple natural agencies engaged with humanity in ongoing co-evolution and, as Freya Mathews suggests, raising the hope for a synergistic restructuring of lifeways that may yet save us from anthropogenic catastrophe.
In "The Culture of Nature As Seen Through Mississippian Geographies," Jeff Baldwin shows us the broad scope of interacting agents, human and nonhuman, biological and geological, in what he terms "the nature-culture of the Mississippi River," as highlighted by the recent devastation of human habitation along the Gulf Coast of the United States wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. By enacting a role in which we "believe [our]selves to rule over a mechanistic world," we humans have, over the last century or so, stemmed the natural flooding of the Mississippi, rerouting the sediments that maintained and extended the delta, funneling them into the sea and thereby bringing about the subsidence and erosion of hundreds of square miles of coastal land. Concomitantly, we have let agricultural runoff from the huge Mississippi drainage basin eject excess nutrients into the Gulf of Mexico, stimulating algal blooms and die-offs, depleting the water of oxygen so as to create a hypoxic "dead zone" that is now the size of Massachusetts, and (though Baldwin does not discuss this aspect of the problem) we have released enough petrochemical pollution in the area to have earned the lower reaches of the River the name "Cancer Alley" decades ago. A failure to grasp the import of these large anthropogenic effects is, sadly, evident in calls for rebuilding the New Orleans area according to the same mechanistic model that has already proven so inadequate. Baldwin observes that the earth changes wrought through human cultural innovation often occur so rapidly, or have their negative feedbacks technologically so displaced through time and space, that their eventual impacts on the larger system may initially go unappreciated. His vision of "the culture of nature," however, is ultimately an optimistic one, since his functional understanding of culture is that it ultimately works toward mutualism, promoting increasingly appropriate relationships among all interacting components, and he finds evidence of a growing effort to establish an "intentional co-evolution," a conscious alignment of human projects with the ongoing projects of a living nature that encompasses them. [End Page 2]
If Baldwin's essay helps us see our human activities "from the outside"—not just "from within" prevailing human culture, where they seem taken-for-granted necessities given a certain form of social construction, but as they alternatively appear inside biospherical space, often as inappropriate, exploitative interferences and intrusions—Stacey Sowards' essay, "Identification Through Orangutans: Destabilizing the Nature/Culture Dualism," explores the potential for our connecting with nonhuman life "from the inside," relating...