‘Neo-nature’ and the new world of the Anthropocene

Do you, like me, hesitate when you refer to floods or bushfires as natural disasters?

When Earth’s atmosphere is warmer and moister because of human-induced climate change, all weather events have a human fingerprint. The now well-developed field of ‘attribution studies’ calculates the increased likelihood and severity of extreme weather events as a result of the changed global climate.

We have always drawn a neat distinction between what is natural and what is artificial. (Insurance policies refer to the former as ‘acts of God.’) To be sure, city parks have always been a hybrid; but they are a hybrid of the artificial and the wild or untouched ‘out there’. But what if there is no longer a wild and untouched out there?

If every cubic metre of Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, rivers and soils now has a human imprint, it no longer makes sense to refer to the ‘natural environment’ or the ‘natural world’, does it? I have been in remote places that appear for all the world to be untouched by human hand, until the biologist or landscape ecologist with me points out the human impacts visible to the trained eye.

Having said that, it would make no sense to refer to an old growth forest or a coral reef as artificial simply because human activity has brought some change to them.

So the terminology developed in a world of relative stasis, and in which change was caused by natural processes, is failing us. On the new Earth, what do the words ‘native’, ‘natural’, ‘alien,’ ‘endemic’ and ‘exotic’ mean anymore? If a native species migrates from its traditional range to a new one made more suitable by climate change, is it now an exotic species? If humans translocate an animal (or a coral or a plant) to a range where it is better adapted to the emerging conditions, does it remain in its ‘natural habitat’ or is it ‘introduced’?

Ecologists now study ‘novel ecosystems’ created when species move towards cooler areas and do so at varying speeds so that new assemblages of species must learn how to adapt and live together, or not. These novel ecosystems have different dynamics including new predator-prey relationships.

In Living Hot, written with George Wilkenfeld, I coined the term ‘neo-nature’ as a way of preserving the common-sense idea of nature while accepting that the environment is no longer natural in the sense of being unaltered by humans.* Others have proposed adopting the term ‘neo-native’ for species that have been translocated to new ranges to help them cope with a changing climate, so ‘neo-nature’ is a generalisation of the idea and reflects the fact that humans have created a different kind of Earth, an Anthropocene Earth.

The Earth will change a great deal more in the coming decades. We cannot preserve nature the way it was, even those parts that still seem largely untouched by humans. We need to change our attitudes as well as the language we use.

All of this is hard to accept. The loss of the natural, as a moral benchmark dividing the good from the bad, is sad and disorienting. Perhaps, though, the sooner we accommodate ourselves to regarding and managing landscapes and ecosystems for the changing conditions the better. Preserving an ecosystem may entail helping it to change, helping it to adapt to the new climatic regime our actions are imposing on it. Managing ‘neo-nature’ asks us to enter into a new way of thinking.

* I say ‘coined’ but on subsequent checking I see that ‘neo-nature’ has been used in the design and landscape architecture communities to capture ‘a synthesis of the natural and the technological.’


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