Posted on 12 May 2021 by Naja Yndal-Olsen (Department of Sociology).
The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Agenda 2030 Graduate School or Lund University. The present document is being issued without formal editing.
In the time of climate and biodiversity crisis, nature is a concept through which we are often asked to rethink our position as human beings, our relations to and responsibility towards other species and our current use of natural resources. In the very beginning of the 2030 Agenda resolution, it is made clear that the United Nations are “determined to ensure that […] economic, social and technological progress occurs in harmony with nature”[i]. But what is nature at all?
As a contested concept, nature has been called a ‘terrain of power’ and an ‘ideological battleground’[ii]. Though the word is widely used in both everyday and academic language, its meaning is far from self-evident[iii]. When engaging in sustainability debates, it can therefore be useful to be critically aware of diverse latent assumptions about nature and naturalness – regarding how these different concepts of nature contribute to legitimize, reproduce, challenge or resist certain practices in society.
Embedded in a web of dichotomies
Nature does not let itself define effortlessly, and its meaning is easiest to explain by determining what it is not. Thus, nature is embedded in a web of dichotomies, often representing the opposite to civilization, human, culture, society and urban environment, though it can also be understood in opposition to what has been developed consciously by rational intention or the artificial, supernatural and preternatural[iv].
With an ambiguous symbolic load nature can be ascribed different extents of instrumental, recreational, aesthetic or intrinsic value. It can be viewed as the home of fellow beings or as empty, uncapitalized land. It can mean the untouched wilderness representing valuable and unspoiled or brute and dangerous places, or it can be understood as the idyllic countryside or a primitive condition before human society. Nature can be seen as living or objectified, a nurturing mother, spiritual goodness or the mundane and secular. It can be viewed as robust or fragile, a provider of ecosystem services, or it can represent spaces for recreational experiences. Sometimes nature means the totality of cosmos, including humans.
Nevertheless, nature most often refers to “the green”, “out there” understood as physical landscapes with plants and animals[v]. But even here, nature is interpreted differently: Does nature start on the other side of the city border, or could a small piece of nature exist in an urban plant bed? Can landscapes with monocultural fields or planted forest be called nature – or is nature only to be found in areas free from human interference? Should nature-management be about taming or rewilding nature? Are domesticated animals part of nature, part of the societal sphere or left in a boundless non-space? Farmed animals represent 60 % of the planet’s mammalian biomass, while wildlife only represents 4 % and humans 36 %[vi]. In this light, it is interesting to consider what it means that commodified animals have been completely separated from discourses of nature and thus have not been seen as a concern for the green movements – until the recent focus on the central role of present time’s animal agriculture in the climate and biodiversity crisis.
The crisis of anthropocentrism
Anthropocentric approaches position humans at the centre of the world, assuming that nature exists only to supply the needs of human flourishing – and human flourishing alonevii]. They manifest themselves in structural practices of human supremacy, marginalizing non-human perspectives and beings, and builds on hyper-separation of the human and the non-human through dualisms of human-nature, humanity-animality and civilization-wilderness[viii]. In these approaches, nature often connotes instinct, automata, passivity and object, whereas culture connotes agency, purpose, meaning and subjectivity. Yet in the light of the climate and biodiversity crisis, a widespread realization has emerged: namely, that the highly instrumentalizing and exploitative approaches to nature have shown to be self-subversive.
Different approaches to nature
Radical ecologies emphasize the value of both human and non-human life for its own sake. Some approaches focus on biotic communities where energy is transferred between different lifeforms and between living and non-living. From a biocentric view, everything living possess intrinsic value due to the preference for continuing life and interest in striving for their own good. Humans can exploit nature to cover our vital needs but are not the end of all things. Other approaches criticize systemic understandings of nature as ecosystems, biodiversity, populations and species, i.e. nature as abstract units, opposite to embodied of individuals with interests, perspectives and experiences of life. Some approaches advocate to include the built environment in understandings of nature. Other stress humans’ existential connectedness with many other species: We share a world, a planet that we co-inhabit, have bodies, are vulnerable, come into life and die, and our histories are entangled in social and institutionalized relationships[ix]
Nature-rights and indigenous perspectives
Nature-rights are getting traction, and several rivers have been granted legal personhood, a hybridization of indigenous concepts of reciprocity and Western concepts of rights[x]. Assembly of First Nations describes nature as Mother Earth, a provider of gifts such as air and water, and whose spirit lives in all things. Humans are caretakers, and ideals are reverence, humility and only to take what is needed[xi]. Where animism from a Western perspective was earlier seen as mistaking objects for subjects, today it is often seen as a vital alternative to over-exploitation. A shared key concept for many indigenous peoples is interrelatedness. Because of the strong tie to specific localities – animals, plants, glaciers, rivers and mountains are considered non-human relatives. This causes intimate relations to nature, which however, is not seen as untouchable but should be treated with honour[xii]. Nevertheless, critics point to a tendency that non-human relatives are anthropomorphized through a model of the human social world, which implies a failure to recognize the diverse uniqueness of non-human others[xiii].
A general struggle within less or non-anthropocentric approaches seems to be, whether nature should be seen as delimited or all-encompassing. When we define nature as places where humans are not, we lose sight of the fact that we are just one among countless species, but if the concept is extended to include all human activity, it doesn’t have a clear purpose and could become meaningless.
Conclusion: Concepts of nature as communicative tools?
All definitions of nature already contain a concept of nature: What is seen as nature and what is not? How is nature regarded? From which position is nature viewed? Concepts of nature are historically and culturally conditioned, interwoven in worldviews and have ontological, epistemological, existential and ethical implications. They are reproduced through practices, and dominant concepts are structurally embedded in society. Not least, they reflect the perceivers: How do we understand ourselves as human beings and relate to otherness?[xiv]
Nature is often divided into more precise terms such as ecosystems, biodiversity, habitats or populations. In this way, nature often comes in other “boxes”. Nevertheless, this does not remove the diverse taken-for-grantedness of different academic disciplines, stakeholders or lay people reacting to concrete sustainability projects or politics[xv].
It would be naive to believe that disagreements about ecological sustainability are solely founded in conceptualizations – clearly, economic interests play a fundamental role – but while acknowledging this, it might be useful in sustainability-debates to reflect on and explicit different concepts of nature in order to provide common vocabularies functioning as communicative tools in conflicts.
[i] Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
[ii] Pellow, D.N., Brehm, H.N. (2013) An Environmental Sociology for the Twenty-First Century. Annual Review of Sociology, 39, 229–250, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-soc-071312-145558
[iii] Soper, K. (1995) What is Nature? Culture, Politics and the Non-Human. John Wiley And Sons Ltd
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The “Nature” of ‘Nature’: The concept of nature and its complexity in a Western cultural and ethical context. Global Bioethics, vol. 17, issue 1, https://doi.org/10.1080/11287462.2004.10800840
[v] Casetta, E. (2020) Making sense of nature conservation after the end of nature. History & Philosophy of the Life Sciences, vol. 42, issue 2, https://doi.org/10.1007/s40656-020-00312-3
[vi] Yinon, M., Phillips, R., Milo, R. (2018) The Biomass Distribution on Earth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1711842115
[vii] Chakrabarty, D. (2020) The Human Sciences and Climate Change: A Crisis of Anthropocentrism. Science and Culture, January-February 2020, https://doi.org/10.36094/sc.v86.2020.Climate_Change.Chakrabarty.46
[viii] Weitzenfeld, A. & Joy, M. (2014) An Overview of Anthropocentrism, Humanism and Speciesism. In Nocella (Ed) Defining Critical Anima Studies. An Intersectional Social Justice Approach for Liberation. Peter Lang Publishin
[ix] Meijer, E. (2019) When Animals Speak: Toward an Interspecies Democracy. New York University Press
[x] Tănăsescu, M. (2020) Rights of Nature, Legal Personality, and Indigenous Philosophies. Transnational Environmental Law, vil. 9, issue 3, https://doi.org/10.1017/S2047102520000217
[xi] Assembly of First Nations (2021) Honouring Earth, https://www.afn.ca/honoring-earth/
[xii] Inoue, Y. A. & Moreira, P. F. (2016) Many worlds, many nature(s), one planet: indigenous knowledge in the Anthropocene. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, vol. 59, issue 2, https://doi.org/10.1590/0034-7329201600209
[xiii] Snodgrass, J. G. & Tiedje, K. (2008) Indigenous Nature Reverence and Conservation— Seven Ways of Transcending an Unnecessary Dichotomy. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature & Culture, vol. 2, issue 1, http://dx.doi.org/10.1558/jsrnc.v2i1.6
[xiv] Christensen, J. (2008) Hvad er et natursyn? Refleksioner over natursyn som begreb. Institut for Samfundsudvikling og Planlægning Aalborg Universitet. https://vbn.aau.dk/ws/portalfiles/portal/16063406/Hvad_er_et_natursyn.pdf
[xv] Keulartz, J., Van der Windt, H., Swart, J. (2004) Concepts of Nature as Communicative Devices: The Case of Dutch Nature Policy. Environmental Values, vil. 13, issue 1, http://dx.doi.org/10.3197/096327104772444785