A plastic Godzilla glares at us from across the table, arms raised in defiance, painted teeth bared. Professor Matt Klingle, a History and Environmental Studies “double major” at Bowdoin College, sits behind the scale toy replica of the famous monster, arms crossed, teeth equally bared in a expectant, knowing grin.
“Is Godzilla natural?” Professor Klingle asks again. We all consider the question and the deeper implications of the question. What is natural? What is nature? Is nature pure?
After a brief crash course in environmental history, these were the core questions that drove our kickoff discussion, alongside two articles: “History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value” by Julia Adeney Thomas and “The Problem with Purity” by Richard White. Nature is a part of all human societies, but the ways in which we perceive nature vary greatly. Nature has long been thought of as this “pure” entity, something separate from humans, something to be kept pristine and categorically different with discrete boundaries. Now, though, those lines are less clear. As White argues, “purity” is difficult, especially when it comes to culture versus nature, because they are “mingled, confused, and increasingly impossible to separate.” Thomas echoes these sentiments, pointing to the different scales at which biologists operate and how those complicate the supposed “purity” of nature; that is, if humans are composed of an incredibly diverse microbiome (i.e. microbiologists’ scale) that is constantly perfused and penetrated by various chemicals, benign and toxic (i.e. biochemists’ scale), how can we call humans and nature separate at all?
Are we getting hung up on all these abstract definitions of “nature” and “purity” and “scale” and “value”? I don’t think so. These questions inform other questions about environmental issues, how we define the Anthropocene (i.e. humans becoming a major driving planetary force on numerous scales, a position formerly reserved only for geologic processes), and even issues of race and gender. Here, purity plays a big role; reducing race and gender to biology as a justification is no more than confusing the categories of “culture” and “nature.” And, all of these definitions and culturally-loaded interpretations of these terms we discussed in English. Now try translating that to Japanese or any other language.
I’m excited for all the other discussions we’ll be having on a variety of environmental topics and Japan. I’m especially interested in seeing how everyone’s individual projects fit into the larger picture and also the details of what we each discover in this journey. Today’s discussion definitely set a strong framework to work with and have in our minds, moving forward. So to you, dear readers, I pose the same question Professor Klingle and Richard White and Julia Adeney Thomas posed to us:
What is nature?