Nature is IN right now. Everything is natural, organic, green, GMO-free, and environmentally responsible–and if something isn’t, it’s worthy of scorn and boycott. As someone who claims that nature is one of my primary values, both in Skyrim and in real life, I’m pretty jazzed about this, right?
Nature has some branding issues, and by that I mean her PR is way too good. We celebrate things we label “green” or “natural” even though these words are subjective at best and utterly devoid of meaning at worst. Nature’s brand has become its own entity, distinct from nature herself. Millions of social media warriors fight on behalf of Nature’s brand, but as often as not they’re waging war against Nature herself.
What in Oblivion am I talking about? Let’s use Skyrim to illustrate.
The Wrath of Kyne
“Please, do not do this thing.”
The pilgrim’s words echoed around Aemilian’s skull as he clutched Nettlebane’s strange, glassy hilt in his fist. Before him rose the Eldergleam, a twisted monstrosity of a tree with bark like iron and a living presence like a beating heart. This was the culmination of a task he had undertaken during his first days in Skyrim: by harvesting the sap of Kynareth’s sacred tree, he could restore life to its seedling, the Gildergreen, cultivated by the priests of Kynareth in Whiterun.
Yet a pilgrim devoted to Kynareth in the sanctum below had begged Aemilian not to harm the tree. To do so would be an affront to Kynareth herself, he claimed, leaving Aemilian confused: his task had been given him by an ordained priestess of the goddess. Which was the right course? To leave nature untrammeled? Or to do harm to one plant for the good of another?
His warring thoughts gave way to a mental image of another pilgrim, Maurice Jondrelle. Aemilian had agreed to escort Maurice to the Eldergleam, but along the way, they had been set upon by bandits holing up in the Valtheim towers. The image in his head was of Maurice as he had last seen him: his body, cold and broken, splayed on the floor of a ruined tower. Aemilian had found the man insufferable at first, but they had bonded, and Aemilian would carry his death on his conscience the rest of his life.
Aemilian took a deep breath. The sulfuric smell of the volcanic hot springs was fainter here, concealed by a cocktail of earth and sap and wildflowers. Opening his eyes and squaring his shoulders, he murmured a prayer before driving the cursed blade into the bark of the sacred tree.
Warm sap flowed over his fingers while all around him, the underground forest exploded in shrieks of wrath.
The Chemical Conspiracy
As Aemilian has recently learned, you can devote yourself to nature and remain unclear on how best to serve it. The situation is just as stick in real life, so let’s try to clarify things with two sample controversies.
I try to be respectful to all sides of an argument, but I can’t help myself when it comes to products marketed as “chemical-free”. The argument that we should avoid chemicals at all costs is hilarious because, well, literally everything is made of chemicals. Oxygen is a chemical, water is a compound composed of two chemicals, fire is energy waste given off by a chemical reaction, and any given sample of earth is just lousy with the stuff. If air, earth, fire, and water aren’t natural, what is?
Okay, okay, I’ll quit beating the strawman. When most people advocate for chemical-free, they’re actually advocating against “added chemicals”–chemicals that didn’t start there. Of course, everything is a chemical, so we can reduce this to anti-additives. Does that mean it’s wrong to put an additive like balsamic vinaigrette on your salad? When pressed, these advocates usually identify preservatives as the main problem. Salt and vinegar are preservatives, so are these out? No, because they’re natural.
This is where we get to the real conflict: it’s not chemicals or even additives that are the problem, it’s anything “unnatural”. Obviously you don’t want to put Unnatural stuff in your body. Fine. Question is, how do you identify the Unnatural?
Many people rely on the linguistic test: if it sounds chemically and scary, it’s probably unnatural. So azalea honey is in, a-Linolenic acid is out. This test breaks down when you realize azalea honey is a deadly toxic compound manufactured by bees which harvest azalea nectar, while a-Linolenic acid is a naturally occurring compound, the consumption of which is linked to cardiovascular health in humans.
Alright, you got me, that was another strawman, but you get the point. Natural vs. Unnatural is largely an aesthetic argument and doesn’t tell you a lot about what’s good for you or for the environment. Let’s forget about toxic azalea honey for a moment and focus on sweet, golden, delicious old regular honey. That stuff is natural, right? I mean, it’s mass-produced by brainwashed slaves in an assembly line that converts nectar into a gooey mush of saliva enzymes, but the factory is run by bees who are themselves a part of nature. That means when they use chemical additives during manufacture, the end product is still natural.
Humans, meanwhile, are no longer a part of nature. When we, like bees, take a naturally-occurring ingredient and mess it up with chemical enzymes, the result is decidedly Unnatural.
That makes it simple: apples are in, applesauce is out. Take that, Mott’s!
But hey, wait a second….
Gently Moderated Organisms
Theoretically, the anti-GMO argument is more clear-cut than the natural vs. unnatural argument. It’s tricky to find the line between mashed potatoes (boiling potatoes and crushing them is okay) and potato chips (frying potatoes and cutting them really thin–seems sketchy), but GMOs are simple. Either an organism is genetically modified or not, right? And if it is, that’s obviously over the line. There’s NO WAY you can argue that playing god with the essence of life is in any way natural.
Speaking of playing god, let’s talk about the Garden of Eden. Most people think of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge as an apple, but theologians and historians think it was originally a pomegranate. Why? Because apples weren’t invented until thousands of years later.
Invented? Yep, the apple is an early example of a genetically modified organism, as are carrots, cows, dogs, and horses. These things get a pass, though, because they are created over hundreds of years through grafting and selective breeding. In other words, primitive genetic modification is okay. If you get really good and really fast at it, then it becomes problematic.
The fear of GMO originates from a few specific cases: companies can modify plants to stop reproducing so you have to buy new seeds from them every year, or modify livestock to produce more meat of a lower quality. I won’t deny these things. You can modify in organism to be better or worse, to be more or less healthy. You could even modify kale into something toxic, if you really wanted to.
Genetic modification is a tool, like fire or the internet, which can be used for good or ill. Sure. I accept that some companies abuse it, but we should also accept that GMOs have potential for TREMENDOUS GOOD. Scientists are experimenting with apples that can grow in the arctic regions of Siberia and carrots that produce chemicals to treat depression. I’m proud to report that, right here in Mexico, scientists are working on adapting all kinds of crops to desert environments–potentially turning massive swaths of barren African badlands into abundant farmland.
The stickiest example I know of is the modification of crops to take up less space. Organic is a nature buzzword because pesticides are inherently BAD. What you may not know is that organic crops, by definition less efficient, higher maintenance, and lower yield, require more land to grow. The need for more farmland means more deforestation. In other words, feeding the North American organic vegetable fad means cutting down the rainforests to make room to plant more kale. Is that in keeping with what’s best for nature?
On the other hand, scientists have created crops that are so efficient, you can plant ten times as many of them on the same amount of land. That means digging up 90% less wilderness. Some of these are even modified to be toxic to pests, rendering pesticides moot. But they’re GMOs, which makes them nature’s enemies, no?
As we saw in Aemilian’s adventure, what’s good for nature isn’t always clear cut. My goal here isn’t to make you pro-GMO, although that would be dandy. The goal is to help you differentiate between aesthetic, broad arguments and logical, narrow ones. It isn’t always easy to identify what is for or against Nature, Freedom, Democracy, Capitalism, Globalism, Diversity, or Ethics in Video Game Journalism (too soon?). Rhetoric is exciting, simple, and easy.
The road to truth, on the other hand, is treacherous, boring, and ridiculously slow.