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Episode 9: On Naturalness with Alan Levinovitz

What is nature, and what isn’t? Is it helpful to make that distinction?

If you had asked Alan Levinovitz a few years ago, he would have been skeptical. Today, however, he’ll defend the concept fiercely. As he argues, “largely unexamined and incredibly powerful beliefs [like nature] are dangerous, and they make dialogue difficult.” In this episode, Alex and Alan try to have that difficult dialogue. How do we preserve nature without knowing what it is, exactly, we want to conserve? Why do we tend to equate naturalness with a kind of morality? As a Religious Studies professor at James Madison University and a well-known food journalist and book author, Alan is uniquely positioned to take on these questions.

The issue of natural-unnatural line-drawing is not limited to environmental stewardship – it cuts across so many different areas of our lives. Ever touched a plant to check whether it was “real” or not? Is clean meat “natural”? Does nuclear energy count as part of the primal order? Tune in to better understand our innate drive to categorize, and why that might actually be a useful instinct. For more, check out Alan’s essay in the Breakthrough Journal: “On Naturalness: Nature as Metaphor, Not Fact.”

Here's a full transcript of the interview.

Mentioned in this episode:

  • Breakthrough often argues that the synthetic can help spare nature. E.g., synthetic rubber saves rubber trees; synthetic oil absolves the need for whale oil. Decoupling for conservation.

  • Dueling metaphors for how to care for nature: Emma Marris on humans as gardeners, Stewart Brand on humans as gods.

  • Alan specializes in non-Buddhist Chinese philosophy and religion. He’s fascinated by the concept of Ziran, which literally translates to “self-so,” but is often just a synonym for “natural.”

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