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Why sustainability is unnatural

Updated: Jun 27, 2022

Let’s not fool ourselves. To save nature, we may have to get a little less natural.

By Johannes Kopton

Solar panels on a green field in Rockbeare, England, United Kingdom. (Photo: Red Zeppelin/Pexels)

Whether in parliaments, on talk shows, on recycled toilet paper or organic cheese, in brochures from environmental NGOs or adverts for solar power providers: When it comes to sustainability, the term “natural” is never far away.

This is unsurprising: naturalness requires no elaborate sustainability balance sheets or CO2 measurements. And unlike such terms as “climate justice”, naturalness appeals not only to left-wing intellectual ecologists but also to Christian conservative pensioners. Or even right-wingers who would rather live in the good old days, when the world was supposedly simpler, more masculine, more national, and somehow also more natural.

The concept of naturalness seems made for eco-marketing, environmental campaigns, and vaguely sustainability-related election programmes. I want to show why it should nevertheless have no place in enlightened, progressive environmental activism.

The concept of naturalness seems made for eco-marketing

In one sense, the natural is the opposite of the artificial, or that which is nonman-made. But solar power is just as man-made as coal-fired power. And recycled toilet paper is just as artificial as toilet paper directly made from wood.

And if you compare nature and technology? You then have to admit that the silicon semiconductor panels used for photovoltaics are rather high-tech compared to the “natural” burning of coal.

Another concept sees the natural as opposite to the unnatural or counter-natural. And here it becomes exciting, because the unnatural or counter-natural is almost always used and interpreted in an automatically pejorative way. In philosophy this is called the “naturalistic fallacy”: Because something in nature is so, it should automatically be good, even if there is actually no reason for it.

Thus, for example, the “right of the strongest” could be said to be natural and thus automatically morally right. Restrictions to this, such as human rights, the rule of law, or separation of powers, are highly unnatural, and therefore morally wrong.

A God has not been needed for a long time; it is enough to claim that something is “unnatural”.

Even if the abolition of human rights for the sake of naturalness sounds far-fetched and extreme, the natural has always been used to legitimise patterns of oppression. Be it the colonial racism of recent centuries, which continues in various forms today. Be it the oppression of women all over the world. Be it homophobia and transphobia.

According to each respective ideology, whites/men/heterosexuals are naturally superior to their respective “other”. Consequently, an unequal distribution of goods, power, privileges, and even basic rights, is just as natural, and therefore desirable or at least tolerable.

A God has not been needed for a long time; it is enough to claim that something is “unnatural”. And actually, naturalness then weighs more heavily than human rights. Such pseudo-arguments can be found today mainly in conservative or even right-wing extremist circles.

But when environmental organisations make the case that genetic engineering is unnatural (i.e. bad), or that organic cheese is natural (i.e. good), the same method is being used. Here, too, it is ultimately not about the wellbeing of people, not about justice, not about sustainability. Behind it is the same worldview of a natural order that we as humans have to follow.

If we eradicate polioviruses worldwide with the help of vaccinations, that’s not natural. Who cares?

Is global justice natural? Is the climate crisis natural? Eco-progressivism shouldn’t care. Because what matters, in the end, is the world as it is. How much CO2 is in the air. How wealth is distributed around the world. Where sea levels stand. How many people have access to healthy food and medical care. How many species are still around to stabilise complex ecosystems.

If we protect the climate by using genetically engineered 30° laundry detergent, that’s blatantly unnatural as far as I’m concerned. If we eradicate polioviruses worldwide with the help of vaccinations, that’s not natural either. Who cares?

However we define naturalness, the sustainability goals themselves are man-made; they do not occur in nature, and they are not inherent in any supposed primordial human nature. They clearly contradict the natural right of the strongest. Sustainability doesn’t even follow nature’s example. Let's just look at sustainability goal two, “zero hunger”. Nature is full of hunger and starvation. And for populations to live beyond their means while wiping themselves out is perfectly normal in nature.

We have to stop using “natural” as a soft synonym for “sustainable”. Because serious sustainability itself is absolutely unnatural.

Johannes Kopton is co-founder and chairman of ÖkoProg, a German network of “eco-progressives” and a member organisation of RePlanet. After studying cybernetics, he is now pursuing his PhD about sustainability of agricultural robotics and holistic decision making.


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