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What is nature?

ARTS1240 Environment and Society - Week 8


A one minute exercise

! On your own, write down a one


sentence definition of nature.
! Nature is
A crocodile story
A crocodile story
I vividly recall my own disbelief
and outrage when confronted
with being food for a crocodile.
It was as if I had fallen into
another universe, where I was
just a piece of meat, all my
special individual and species
accomplishments subordinated
to this one thing of being food!
Plumwood,V. (2008) Tasteless Environmental
Values, vol. 17, p. 324
A crocodile story
Since then it has seemed to
me that our worldview
denies the most basic
feature of animal existence
on planet earth that we
are food and that through
death we nourish others.

Plumwood,V. (2008) Tasteless


Environmental Values, vol. 17, p. 324
Mutual life giving

! Plumwood: Living things are


woven into relationships of
mutual life giving. Just as
we are fed by the deaths of
others during our lives, in our
deaths we are given an
opportunity to provide
nourishment to other living
things.
Refusal to be food
! According to Plumwood,
however, people in the
West have tended to
refuse to view
themselves (ourselves?)
as part of a food chain.
! Instead, they understand
this as a one-way
relationship they are
nourished by others, but The Food Chain from The Simpsons
are not required to give
anything back.
Humanity set apart
! Plumwood argued that the
dominant western approach to
death is indicative of a larger
cultural perspective in which
humanity is understood to be
fundamentally outside of the
natural world.
! we are predators of others
but can never ourselves be prey.
We may daily consume other
animals in their billions, but we
ourselves cannot be food for
worms, and certainly we cannot
Val Plumwood (1996) Being Prey
be meat for crocodiles.
The complex place of humans
! This story highlights some of the
difficulties we often have in
understanding the place of
humans in the natural
environment.
! Are we part of nature or not (and
in what ways)?
! Are we animals or something else/
more (or in addition)?
What is nature?

! To understand how we
might have arrived at this
complex understanding
of humanity and our
place in the natural
environment, we need
to think a little more
about what we mean by
the seemingly simple
term nature.
nature

! As the readings for this week made clear, nature is a very


complex term.

! Two main meanings:


! Nature as essence
it is in the lions nature to hunt gazelles
! Nature as nonhuman
lions belong in nature, not in the zoo
nature as essence

it is in the lions nature to hunt gazelles

! Implies that a behaviour or a


trait is proper to someone or
something.
! It is in their nature, part of their
fundamental way of being, and
so difficult to change.
! In this sense, humans are
definitely thought to have a
nature: e.g. Its human nature to
want what we cant have
nature as essence

it is in the lions nature to hunt gazelles

! This is a very powerful conception of nature. Those


things that are deemed to be unnatural are often
thought to be wrong or unethical.
! As when conservatives argue that homosexuality is
unnatural: not the way that people are supposed to be,
not the way we were designed/evolved, but a deviation
from our true heterosexual nature.
nature as nonhuman

lions belong in nature, not in the


zoo

! This is perhaps the most


common meaning of nature.
! In this context, nature is
contrasted to everything
human: it is the forests, the
wilderness areas, etc.
nature as nonhuman
lions belong in nature, not in the
zoo

! As weve discussed in
previous weeks, this is a
dualistic understanding of
nature.
! Often referred to as a
nature/human or nature/
culture dualism.
Why divide up the world like this?
! The first and most fundamental feature of the
modern idea of nature is a sharp dichotomy between
man and nature a dichotomy that is all the more
radical because it is a feature of both wellsprings of
the Western intellectual heritage. In the first book of
the Bible, alone among all the other creatures, God
makes man in His own image, giving him dominion
over and charging him to subdue the earth and all its
denizens. In ancient Greek philosophy, man is set
apart from nature because he alone among the
animals is supposed to be rational. In the late
medieval and early modern periods, thinkers as
different from one another as Thomas Aquinas and
Rene Descartes synthesized these two strands of
thought, the Judeo-Christian and Greco- Callicott, J. Baird (1992)
Roman. Thus the man/nature dualism in each La nature est morte,
augmented the other. And Descartes' contemporary, vive la nature! Hastings
Francis Bacon, set the modern agenda for the
scientific conquest of nature by man. If we can Center Report 22.
discover the working principles the divinely
ordained laws of nature, he presciently pointed out,
we can bend it to our will.
Why divide up the world like this?
! The idea that human life takes place in a self-
enclosed, completely humanized space that is
somehow independent of an inessential sphere
of nature which exists in a remote space
somewhere else might be seen as the
foundational delusion of the West. A
dangerous doctrine, strongly implicated in the
environmental crisis, this framework of self-
enclosure is the love-child of the old
dominant narrative of human mastery
and centrality mated with the much younger
circumstance of human experience of
commodification in the global city.
Plumwood,Val (2001) Nature as Agency and the Prospects for a Progressive
Naturalism Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 12(4), p. 26
nature

Two main meanings of nature:

! Nature as essence
it is in the lions nature to hunt gazelles
! Nature as nonhuman
lions belong in nature, not in the zoo

! Unfortunately, these two meanings


are often conflated/confused and
the line between them is fuzzy
anyway which can cause a great
deal of confusion.
What nature?
! A potential problem: If we
understand nature as a place
uninfluenced by human activity,
there is none of it left
! For the longest time, in most
parts of the world, indigenous
peoples have profoundly shaped
the environment including
many of those areas that we
now think of as wilderness
(through hunting, burning, and
other practices).
What nature?

! Even if we ignore these older


changes to the environment,
more recent impacts from
climate change, mass
extinction, and the toxic
contamination of the food
chain (to name only a few),
have ensured that there is
now nowhere left that
has not been altered to
some extent often
profoundly by humans.
Nature is finished

! According to some
scholars, we have
already witnessed the
end of nature.
! After the greenhouse
effect, acid rain, and the
depletion of the ozone
layer there is no nature
left.
Diminishing nature

! When we understand
nature as, by definition,
the nonhuman world,
humans are
unavoidably positioned
as damaging to nature.
! Wherever we are,
however we are living, we
cant help but reduce and
diminish natures
naturalness just by
being there.
Rolston: nature and culture
! If I am hiking across the Lamar Valley,
the birds and their nests are natural;
but if I come upon an abandoned
boot, this is unnatural [or cultural].
! Humans evolved out of nature; our
bio-chemistries are natural. We too
have genes and inborn traits. But
human life is radically different from
that in wild nature. Unlike coyotes or
bats, humans are not just what they are
by nature; we come into the world by
nature quite unfinished and become
what we become by culture. Humans
deliberately rebuild the wild
environment.
Rolston Natural and Unnatural
Making decisions
! The idea that there is a fundamental
difference between humans and the rest
of nature has often been argued for on
the grounds that humans are unique in
our possession of a rational mind.
! This rationality allows us to reflect on
the world around us, and make
deliberate decisions about how we
will act.
! Unlike other animals, we are able to
decide if we will follow our own natural
drives/instincts.
! And so, it is we alone that have the
power to transform and control nature.
All others live within it.
Stepping outside nature
! Over the years, this position outside nature
has been variously celebrated and mourned.
! Enlightenment philosophers celebrated
the progressive ability of humans to liberate
themselves from nature and dictate the
conditions of our own lives and societies.

! On the other hand, romantic philosopher


and poets have often mourned the loss of
more natural ways of life and pristine
environments.
! Both groups, however, fundamentally
accepted this dualistic divide: at some
point, humans are understood to have
stepped outside nature.
Building homes
! According to the view
that only humans
plan and make
rational decisions, the
fundamental difference
between a human hut
(or a boot), a beavers
lodge and a birds nest
is that only the human
hut was designed and
purposefully built
the others are simply
expressions of an
animals instinctual
behaviour.
James Gould and Carol Grant
Gould: Animal Architects (2007)
The First Hut
! Perhaps logically, this
understanding that humanity is
defined and set apart by our
rationality which allows
conscious and deliberate acts
of building/making/
constructing led many early
archaeologists and
anthropologists to search for
the first hut as the moment
when humanity stepped
outside of nature and
began to control it, rather
than living within nature like
the other animals.
This image by: Eugene Viollet-le-Duc (1875)
Stepping outside nature

Before agriculture was midwifed in the


Middle East, humans were in the
wilderness.We had no concept of
wilderness because everything was
wilderness and we were a part of it. But
with irrigation ditches, crop surpluses,
and permanent villages, we became
apart from the natural world.... Between
the wilderness that created us and the
civilization created by us grew an ever-
widening rift.
Dave Foreman, quoted in Cronon The Trouble with
Wilderness
Farming aphids
! Some species of ants farm aphids.
! The ants milk them for the
sugary honeydew that they
produce (by stroking the aphids
with their antennae).
! The ants also protect the
aphids from other predators.
! Some ant species even store
aphid eggs in their nests over
winter, bringing them out again
when the weather is good, and
moving them around to optimal
pastures.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43id_NRajDo
So what?

! So, why should any of these


things building, farming, thinking
place us outside nature, and not
just be understood as part of
the particular way in which
humans might live in nature?
! Even if we are the only species
that makes rational deliberate
decisions and this is a highly
questionable view why should
this set us apart from the
natural world?
Evolved rationality?
! In fact, surely our rationality
should be understood since
Darwin at least as just one
more achievement of our long
evolutionary history as a
species in nature.
! It is now well documented
that we share many of our
emotional and rational The smartest crow?
capacities albeit in different A New Caledonian Crow
forms with other social
Japanese crows cracking nuts:
mammals and birds. http://www.youtube.com/watch?
v=BGPGknpq3e0
Strategies of Life
! French philosopher and
ethologist, Dominique
Lestel, reminds us of the
animal origins of culture.

! Humans have not emerged


from the state of nature but
have explored an extreme
niche of that nature.

Lestel, D. and C. Rugemer. 2008. "Strategies of


life." Research EU:The Magazine of the European
Research Area November: 8-9.
Ecologically embodied
! As Plumwood argued through
her encounter with a crocodile,
as much as we might try to deny
it, we are inescapably part of the
food chain.
! Humans are bound up with other
species in ecological systems
of mutual life giving: dependent
on them for our nourishment
and all of the other resources
that make our lives possible.
! Plumwood calls this ecological
embodiment.
Human beings
are collectives
! human genomes can be found in
only about 10% of all the cells that
occupy the mundane space I call my
body; the other 90% of the cells are
filled with the genomes of bacteria,
fungi, protists, and such, some of which
play in a symphony necessary to my
being alive at all, and some of which
are hitching a ride and doing the rest
of me, of us, no harm. I am vastly
outnumbered by my tiny companions;
better put, I become an adult human
being in company with these tiny mess
mates. To be one is always to become
Hird: The
with many.
Origins of
Donna Haraway When Species Meet Sociable Life
A current view of the
tree of life,
encompassing the total
diversity represented
by sequenced genomes.

Hug, A. L. et al. (2016). A


new view of the tree of life.
Nature Microbiology. doi:
10.1038/nmicrobiol.2016.48
In what sense are we outside nature?
! And so, in what sense are we
outside of nature?
! Why arent our bodies, our
actions, our building, our
thoughts, just a part of the natural
world in the same way that those
of all other animals are?
! While we may possess some
unique characteristics as a
species, so do all other species.
Part of nature?

! As a result of these kinds of questions,


some scholars have argued that
nature should be understood to
include humans.
! According to these people, we are
part of nature and our actions are
just as natural as any other
animals.
Humans in/as nature
! we can no longer think of humans as inhabiting a social
world of their own, over and above the world of nature in
which the lives of all other living things are contained. Rather,
both humans and the animals and plants on which they depend
for a livelihood must be regarded as fellow participants in
the same world, a world that is at once social and natural.
And the forms that all these creatures take are neither given in
advance nor imposed from above, but emerge within the
context of their mutual involvement in a single, continuous
field of relationships.

Ingold, T. 2000. "Making things, growing plants, raising animals and bringing up children." in The
Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London & New York: Routledge.
A provocative idea

Bluntly put, we are animals ourselves,


large omnivorous primates, very
precocious to be sure, but just big
monkeys, nevertheless. We are
therefore a part of nature, not
set apart from it. Hence, human
works are no less natural than those
of termites or elephants. Chicago is
no less a phenomenon of nature than
is the Great Barrier Reef.

Callicott, J. B. (1992). "La nature est morte, vive la


nature!" Hastings Center Report 22(5).
Causing change
! According to scholars like
Callicott, the fact that we alter
environments building cities,
etc does not mean that we
are not part of nature.
! Other species sometimes alter
their environments
considerably too.
! More importantly though,
environmental change
always occurs, with or
without human or other
animal presence.
Ecological stability
! In the mid-20th century,
ecologists tended to view
ecosystems as static,
unchanging and balanced.
! While they certainly evolved
and changed, once an
ecosystem reached a climax
community it was thought
to be relatively stable.
! Undisturbed by people, it was
thought that an ecosystem
would stay this way.
Ecological dynamism
! In the late-20th century, however, this idea was largely
abandoned (or heavily refined).
! The natural world was seen to be constantly
evolving and changing.
! Ecosystems are constantly reshaped at the
intersection of complex biological, climatic, geological,
evolutionary and other changes.
! In this context, perhaps human introduced
changes are just one more factor in a long list
although they are often the most immediately visible
changes (to us).
Ecological dynamism
Very recently (in geological measures of time) they were
under a glacier. As the ice retreated, they were covered by
very different forest communities from those that are there
now. After the removal of the Iroquois, who managed them
for game with fire, they were invaded by exotic tree
diseases and competitors. In the absence of acid
precipitation and global warming, the Adirondack ecosystem
could be maintained, but only by proactive ecological
restoration and intensive wilderness management. Merely
protected or preserved, it would become something
different yet.

Callicott, J. B. (1992). "La nature est morte, vive la nature!" Hastings Center Report 22(5).
Which change is good change?

! It is no surprise that this kind of


understanding has made some
environmentalists uncomfortable.
! If humans are part of nature,
and nature is constantly
changing, how do we know
which anthropogenic changes
are good and which are bad?
! Does this mean anything goes?
Can we no longer say that people
shouldnt change the climate or
drive other species to extinction?
Which change is good change?
! In response to these concerns,
ecologists, philosophers, historians,
and others that accept the view
that nature should be understood
to include humans and our
projects, ask us to find more
precise ways to determine
which changes are good and
which bad for environments.
! It is not enough to say this change
was made by humans, so it is
unnatural and bad: what precisely
about the change is bad, and can
human induced changes be good?
Ecosystem health

! One possible option here is to think in terms of ecosystem


health.
! As Callicott puts it:
Conceptually putting man [sic] back into nature implies that
human activities are as natural as any other. But it also implies
that [we] are embedded in a hierarchy of natural systems.
The viability of the human enterprise thus depends
upon our helping maintain the health of the
ecosystems with which [we and] our cultural systems
are ultimately and inextricably integrated.

Callicott, J. B. (1992). "La nature est morte, vive la nature!" Hastings Center Report
22(5).
Maximising biodiversity
! Others have argued that we ought to
focus on maximising biodiversity in
ecosystems.
! Rather than assuming changes
brought about by people are bad and
undisturbed wilderness is good, we
should ask which environment
supports the greatest range of local
biodiversity.
! In this way we might distinguish
between different kinds of human
activities/impacts: a mine in a
national park is a bad thing, while a
program to cull over abundant Sarkar S. (1999) Wilderness
kangaroos might be a good thing. preservation and biodiversity
conservation. Bioscience 49:
404-412.
Why does it matter?

! But what are the benefits


of thinking in this way?
! Why does it matter
whether or not we
understand nature as
including humans?
Why does it matter?
1. Thinking about and valuing
nature as a human free area
diminishes all of the other
fallen places that might also
be cherished as valuable and
wild the natural
environments of our daily lives.
2. Thinking about nature in dualistic
terms hinders more than it helps
in our efforts to imagine and
achieve a sustainable place for
humans in the world, in
nature.
1.) Diminishing other environments

! Accepting humans as part of


the natural world encourages
us to look at how our
actions and ideas take
shape and are influenced
by the rest of nature.
! Humans may play a central
role in shaping an urban park,
but they/we never create it
on our own.
1.) Diminishing other environments
! In any environment, including
a thoroughly human-managed
park, other species and
the environment more
generally also play active
roles in creating the
place.
! Weather, climate, trees, birds,
they all play their roles in
shaping the place Controversial flying foxes in the
sometimes explicitly pushing Royal Sydney Botanic Gardens
back, undermining human
plans and desires.
1.) Diminishing other environments

! Paying attention to the


agency and activity of all of
these nonhumans is an
important step away from
understanding nature as a
passive background to
human actions.
! It also helps us to appreciate
how largely human shaped
environments might still be
important to various
nonhumans.
1.) Diminishing other environments

! This matters because less


natural forms of nature are
not second rate. They might
be incredibly important
places, providing:

! Habitat for urban wildlife;


! Recreational space for people;
! Sheltering biodiversity, and
perhaps even endangered A long-nosed bandicoot. Now a
species. listed endangered population in
inner western Sydney.
1.) Diminishing other environments
! This is not to say that larger areas,
where human interests take a
back seat to those of other
species (i.e. National Parks) arent
also valuable and important if
created in ways that are respectful of
both biodiversity and human
inhabitants.
! The point is just that they arent
the only or even the primary
expression of nature that
should be valued and
protected, and that a fixation on
pure nature or wilderness has
often diminished the perceived
value of other expressions of
nature.
A contemporary Australian example:
Delisting World Heritage Tasmanian Forest
! Former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott: One of the first acts of the
incoming Government was to begin the process to try to get out of
world heritage listing 74,000 hectares of country in Tasmania,
because that 74,000 hectares is not pristine forest. It's forest which
has been logged, it's forest which has been degraded, in some cases,
it's plantation timber that was actually planted to be logged.
! In reality, World Heritage areas arent required to be pristine:
UNESCO recognises that no area is totally pristine and that all
natural areas... to some extent involve contact with people.
! It also looks like very little of this area has ever been logged, that
most of it is not really disturbed at all, and that almost all of the
areas that have been are now recovered (i.e. quite similar to how
they were at the time of European arrival).
! In short, Abbott is basically misleading people, but from our
perspective what is most interesting is that he is doing so
through a reference to pristine wilderness that devalues
any areas altered by people.
2.) A sustainable place for humans in
nature

! Thinking about nature in


dualistic terms hinders
more than it helps in our
efforts to imagine and
achieve a sustainable
place for humans in
the world, in nature.
2.) A sustainable place for humans in
nature
! Understanding the environment
in dualistic terms sets up a crude
distinction in which all human
activity or presence is damaging.
(all use is ab-use).
! But our ecological embodiment
requires that we, like all other
organisms, use the natural world
draw upon its resources in a
range of different ways.
Human extinction?
! Voluntary Human
Extinction Movement:
The Movement presents
an encouraging alternative
to the callous exploitation
and wholesale destruction
of Earths ecology As
VHEMT Volunteers know,
the hopeful alternative to
the extinction of millions of
species of plants and
animals is the voluntary
extinction of one species:
Homo sapiens... us.

http://www.vhemt.org
Obligations and Dependency
Plumwood also gives us another reason to think that dualistic
understandings of nature are problematic. Put simply, that this
understanding leaves us with two important and dangerous
cultural blind spots:
1. Failure to see nonhumans in ethical terms: A dualised notion of
nature prevents us from understanding our obligations to
the rest of the world, to be part of the food chain, for
example.
2. Failure to see ourselves in biological terms: A dualised notion of
nature also blinds us to our dependency on the rest of the
world (denied dependency), to the fact that our lives are
only possible because of the broader more-than-human
world that sustains us.
! And so, she argued that this nature/human dualism and the
consequent failure to understand our broader obligations and
dependency is a core part of our current ecological crisis.
2.) A sustainable place for humans in
nature
! And so, we need non-dualised ways
of understanding the world that
allow human to have an impact, but
that pay attention to the very real
differences between various
human ways of using and valuing the
natural world. Which of these ways of
living are most sustainable.
(supporting biodiversity, ecosystems
health, etc).
! At the same time, we need to re-
imagine ourselves as beings who are
dependent on, and have
obligations to, the wider world of
nature (a world that includes
people).
Essays
! You will get your marks back for essay one at the end of
the week.
! The questions for the second essay are available through
Moodle.
! In tutorials this week we will be looking at essay 2 and
the readings on Nature. You will also have time to work
on your group project.
! Next week in tutorials we will discuss tips for improving
your writing for essay 2.
CREATIVE INTERVENTION: CHANGING BURIAL PRACTICES
https://www.ted.com/talks/jae_rhim_lee?language=en#t-274151
COMPOST
! Corresponding mortuary symbolisms
and grave practices might aim to nourish
rather than exclude other life forms,
affirming rather than demonising our
transition to the non-human in death.
(Val Plumwood 2008, 74-75)

! Plumwood,V. (2008) Tasteless Environmental Values, vol. 17


CREATIVE INTERVENTION: FLYING FOX NEGOTIATIONS
https://vimeo.com/17506825