Breakdown of the Bio-Cultural Interfaces in the European Renaissance
"In Europe, the bio-cultural interfaces began to break up during the Renaissance, before fully collapsing after the industrial revolution. To discuss the causes in full is beyond the scope of this article, but the bio-cultural interface eroded gradually, while the Cartesian object-meaning-distinction gained dominance. Minds and bodies are principal different realms, Descartes claims in the last chapter of his Meditations. Reality hence comprises two profound aspects, the reality of the thinking mind, and the realty of matter. Solely human minds comprise thinking and conceive meaning. Things and objects, on the other hand, are mechanical bodies, and "it is not necessary to conceive of this machine as having any vegetative or sensitive soul or other principle of movement and life" (Descartes, in Cottingham et al., 1984, I:108).
The object-meaning distinction allowed nature to be conceived as assemblages of neutral, dumb 'things'. Now, Titá could be chopped. It was 'just a forest'. The word 'just' succinctly sums up the modern mind, which transforms environments into 'resources', or even 'ecosystem services', which may be utilized or converted to cash. Cities and urban areas grew, requiring the subsistence farming principles to develop into rational and effective methods. Harvests turned into crops and commodities. By improving healthcare and nutrition, population growth rates accelerated.
The phenomenon of waste is indicative for this cognitive shift. Waste is indeed well known from premodern cultures, too. Most of it, however, was organic leftovers and feces, which broke down and recycled into soil, atmosphere and hydrosphere (Strasser, 1999). But the more 'object' and 'meaning' separated, the more things and objects could be classified as waste: packaging, metals, scrap, clothing, asphalt, concrete blocks and vast numbers of synthetic materials, hydrocarbon polymers and plastics. "Waste is not simply a product of material and intellectual progress but is in fact foundational to the practices of modernization" (Cooper, 2010). In addition to visual waste, an ever-expanding application for chemicals generated accelerating venues of pollutants, that accumulate along biogeochemical cycles in atmosphere, soil, sediments, and food webs. Inventive scientific processes, moreover, enabled purification of substances so far unseen on earth, like Aluminum, Titan, Fluor and Silica, which neither break down nor oxidize through weathering – substances that will remain largely unaltered over geological time spans. Calculations reveal that the total mass of human products (houses, roads, metal, plastics etc.) presently exceeds the natural biomass of the planet (Elhacham et al., 2020). During the interwar period, physicists even created completely new elements, which lack any geo-ecological home range on our planet. They will remain waste in any foreseeable future – substances that the ecosystems look alienated at and are unable to integrate. The extraordinary proliferation of waste acts as tangible proof for the new cognitive ability of humans to separate objects from meaning. The simple word 'just,' sums up the core problem of the environmental crisis."