Redefining Nature: Why broadening our definition to include cities, the internet, and technology can help save us.

Nature isn’t natural… or, at least, the way that we currently think about it isn’t. As a society, I believe that we’ve got it all wrong and that we create a lot of problems, as a result. I might even go so far as to say that the closer we can align our guiding principals with the way that the world works, the better off we (and nature) will be.

When you imagine nature, what comes to mind? A tree? A bird? What if I told you that these are products of nature (they are natural) but they themselves are not nature. To use an idiom, we can’t see the forest for the trees. Let me explain, but first, let’s examine a few mental roadblocks that we tend to get hung up on. As a culture, we tend to:

  • view nature as something static and fragile; a things that needs to be protected so that it can remain in its original state.
  • think of nature as competitive rather than cooperative; survival of the fittest.
  • think of ourselves as separate and incapable of interacting with nature in positive ways.
  • believe that we’re inherently at odds with nature; battling over resources.

Not only are these misconceptions fundamentally untrue and keeping us from experiencing nature’s true beauty but they’re preventing us from accessing the most abundant solution bank on the planet.

Venn diagram of human design and natural patterns and processes.


Nature Is A Network If we’re to solve many of the problems facing us, we need to broaden our understanding of nature as a collection of natural things to a network and the set of patterns and principals that make it function. In doing so, I believe that two things can happen (1) we can establish a framework for interacting with natural systems in ethical ways (ways that benefit the planet and ourselves) and (2) we can align our own systems with these same patterns and principals; we can become part of nature.

Nature is a network, created and governed by a set of patterns and principals that, over time:

  • increase interconnectedness.
  • increase complexity and diversity (diversity builds redundancy and resiliency).
  • expand the adjacent possible (increases the potential for more connections, niches, etc)
  • increase the ability to capture and store energy and resources.
  • slows the flow of matter and energy (cycling matter and decreasing enthalpy).
  • creates the conditions conducive to expanding.

Nature is a network of interconnected elements bound together by patterns and principals. So here’s the question: does the essence of nature reside on the elements (materials) being used or on the connections that bind them? A forest, as an example, is composed of trees, animals, soils, rock, carbon, water, oxygen, phosphorous, etc. but could a system of cables, electronics, data-storage, and users, bound together by similar patterns, also be natural? If a spider makes a web and we call it natural why couldn’t the human made “the web” be natural as well? In his 2010 book What Technology Wants author Kevin Kelly makes an exceptionally good case that technology is an extension of biology; he goes further by describing the “technium” as an emerging 7th kingdom of life. For me, this comparison becomes a lot more obvious when comparing the network maps of these two systems.

Muir Web and The Internet

Side by side network maps of an ecosystem and the internet. Though, the materials they’re made of are different it’s hard to deny that their success relies on the use of similar patterns and principals.

Kelly takes another step describing good technology as opening more doors than it closes (expanding the adjacent possible) and that each stage in technological succession is built upon the preceding stage (creating the conditions conducive to expansion). I think that he’s dead on; it’s the patterns and principals of nature, not the building blocks, that make something natural and, if this is true, we’ve just greatly expanded our own adjacent possibles. Does technology have Coinstar point an ecological footprint? Absolutely, but I also believe that (good technology) is allowing us to do much more with much less and that if we continue to integrate natural patterns into our systems that the impact will continue to lesson while benefits increase.

Can humans create natural things? I think that we do already. Though, as with the internet example, I don’t think that we’re always aware of it. In his book, Ecocities, author and urban theorist Richard Register describes cities as places for “maximizing connections” and, for the first time in history, more than 50% of the planet is living is urban environments. Why? One explanation is that cities are networks; exceptionally rich places for sharing experiences, commerce, culture, genetics, etc. and that they offer more opportunities than rural environments. According to studies done by physicist Geoffrey West, cities scale sub-linearly; this is to say that the larger a city is the less resources it needs to function. As an example, the average New Yorker has the smallest carbon footprint in the United States, “less than 30% of the national average” because of the city, not the people. How did this happen? Naturally, of course; stacking connections and opportunities is analogous to stacking layers in a forest. In close proximity, resources are shares and opportunities are created; in fact, according to West, if you double the size of a city you more than double the innovation within it (supra-linear scaling). Imagine the possibilities of further integrating natural systems into urban settings; urban ecology could grow food, increase biodiversity, capture and clean water, and process waste. As I’ve said before, cities could be among the most biologically rich places on the planet.

Curb Cut Swale     The Seven Layers Of A Forest     Stacking cities like stacking forests; integrating ecology into the build environment.

Curb Cut Swales, Layers of a Forest, Layers of a Forest City

So what’s the big deal? Why redefine nature if we’re already unconsciously adopting it to create solutions? I think that part of the answer comes from nature’s subtleness; we’re used to seeing the products of nature but not the underlying patterns that creates them and that’s understandable; they’re hidden. However, if we can consciously bring these patterns and principals to the front of our minds and embrace them, I believe that they could serve as ethical and life affirming guides to designing human systems; for we are their product so too can we use them to expand nature’s adjacent possible.

  • Daniel Halsey

    Some time ago, a person I was with had the argument that since we are beings from nature or natural beings that anything we do is natural. The conclusion being that we are nature and everything we do is within nature. I disagree with this since we have emancipated ourselves from nature and do everything we can to insulate ourselves from the natural systems that surround us. We do create ecological systems. A parking lot, a high-rise, a sewage treatment plant, and urban backyards are all ecological systems which we have created on top of or in place of a natural ecosystem. Nature then does its best to compensate and in many ways, reoccupy these spaces with natural systems.

    Although our human centric systems may mimic natural systems in structure and may have a resemblance to the natural processes, they are not self-supporting, they are not resilient, they do not build natural capital or supply ecological services to the surrounding ecology. The human landscape, architecture, and production systems are more toxic than they are beneficial, from an ecological perspective.

    This is also one of my issues with the biomimicry movement. Just because you mimic nature doesn’t mean it is natural.

    In this case, just because it looks like a duck, sounds like the dock, and the even taste like a duck, it does not supply any of the ecological services, resiliency, or natural capital of a duck.

    • Dustin Bajer

      Hi Daniel, I completely agree with you; don’t think for a second that everything that we do (by some default that we’re natural) means that its nature. Clearly we are human centric and have the potential to do a lot of harm… but we also have the potential to do a lot of good; if we choose to align ourselves with the patterns and principals that govern natural systems (the argument that I am trying to make above). Our first major hurdle is to recognize this potential and this gift; we’re not inherently evil, we can participate with nature, and that we can create designs that benefit people and planet.

      • Daniel Halsey

        Hi Dustin,
        I think that in this discussion I would have to clarify the difference between alignment and integration. We can align ourselves with nature, has some inherent but that separation. If we integrate ourselves into nature we accept nature’s momentum and principled limitations. At this point, I believe, all we can do is restoration. Any good we do will be in repair of damaged ecological systems, however from what I have seen most of the repair has a marginal effect and in many cases it would be best that we would just stop. Our paternal nature which influences our attitude seems to always come from a point of hubris. We do not participate with nature, we follow nature. All the benefits and ecological services already exist for mankind’s use.
        Technology has been great for gathering information, I love the access I have to educate myself and to build resources for others. The actual implementation of that knowledge is where we fall short if we do not follow a long-term ecological processes at work. From my perspective and the work I have done for the last 10 years, and the discussions I have had with University researchers working on solutions for forest and wetland restoration, we still do not know what we are doing.
        The researchers continue to study the effects of mitigation projects and quantify the benefits. If we could just convince people to stop the destruction and let nature repair itself, the natural processes would be much more efficient and resilient.
        We need ecological solutions not technological solutions. Nature will provide the repair. We need to cease the destruction. Reducing our dependence on technology, machines, Ipads, processed food, would help.

        • Jordan Wilson

          Daniel: It’s a very challenging discussion to have, trying to A) differentiate between human and natural, and then B) trying to figure out how to integrate them in a manner that produces as many benefits as we can. I once knew a physicist who looked at the world like this: If it follows the laws of physics, then it is natural. If it doesn’t follow the laws of physics, either change the laws of physics, or listen for the voice of God.

          I think the physicist has it right. Everything we can do in the world is natural. The difference between creating terrra preta, the abundantly rich soils that the Amazonians created more than a thousand years ago, and strip mining precious metals out of the hills of Africa isn’t what humans are doing – in both cases they are changing the ecosystem to achieve some benefit. The difference is in the long-term effects in the area – the benefits to the Amazonian basin are clear: the development of the amazon rain forests, and arguably the most biologically diverse and productive terrestrial biome on the planet. The effects in Africa (or elsewhere) are likely to be an area where little or nothing can live, because of the destroyed soil structure.

          Both create value. However, depending on your ethics either could be a terrible plan. If you’re a prospector with little care for the environment, terra preta could be a terrible thing, because it encourages growth of enormous forests that make extracting mineral wealth extremely cost prohibitive. If you’re a farmer or an environmental activist, strip mining is a terrible act because it inhibits the community of life’s ability to exist, propagate, and diversity in that location.

          So, in what a lot of people differentiate between Natural, and artificial, is in reality a function of their perception, as guided by their ethics. It’s the individual ethics that determine whether something is good or bad, natural on unnatural, valuable or worthless. So, if there are issues that people are struggling to address, they are not questions of natural vs. artificial, but questions of their own perceptions of the world around them, and their beliefs and values that make up their own ethics.

          I think I’ve gotten a little ways away from the original direction of the post… hope it provides some food for thought.

        • Dustin Bajer

          It’s is about redefining our relationship to nature and not about “improving upon it”. Natural laws are governed, intimately by the laws of physics and they aren’t changing. As I mentioned in the article ” the closer we can align our guiding principals with the way that the world works, the better off we (and nature) will be.”

          Where I disagree with you, however, is the unchallenged notion that we’re inherently destructive as, I believe, that we can align ourselves with natural patterns and be forces for/of (however you want to put it) nature; building biodiversity and creating healthy human habitats that benefit the plant and ourselves. To believe otherwise is self-defeating. Nature is there, showing us the way; we only need to listen, observe, and have the faith to look at our species’ creative capacity.

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