An important theme in recent thinking about conservation has related to the question of whether people are becoming more separated from nature in various ways, and if so, what might be the implications. Several versions of this argument exist, including Richard Louv’s idea that a loss of contact with nature creates a kind of ‘nature deficit disorder’ among children, George Monbiot’s call for the re-wilding of human experience, and Michael Pollan’s critique of how factory farming severs links between people and nature that are mediated through food. Indeed, Peter Kareiva has said that an experiential separation from nature, as demonstrated through a decline in nature recreation “may well be the world’s greatest environmental threat”.
I have argued in a recent blog that there is a strange paradox in contemporary conservation practice which seems determined to create spatial separations between people and non-human nature, whilst lamenting the resulting emotional / experiential disconnection between the two. In this article, however, I want to focus on a deeper and more philosophical criticism of the ‘separation thesis’ – namely that a separation of people from nature is impossible because people are part of nature, and therefore cannot be separated from it. This line of criticism draws from longstanding arguments in philosophy about the relationship between humanity and the rest of life on earth, rejecting the dualistic view that humans and nature are two separate categories, and preferring instead to see society and nature as inextricably connected ‘socionatures’. This view emerges from academia, but is also a common feature of the non-western worldviews of many human groups around the world.
Debates about whether people and nature are one are important because they provide the foundations for thinking about how we as humans should relate to the rest of nature. However, they can, in my opinion, also distract us from some important practical issues. Take the example of the ‘separation from nature’ thesis described above. From the purist socionature position, separation of people from nature is by definition impossible. Therefore there is no need to think about re-connecting or repairing a link between people and nature. This makes sense logically, but it seems to overlook the quality of relations between constituent elements of nature, whether human or non-human, which surely do matter.
I can explain what I mean here using an analogy. Imagine a prisoner locked away in solitary confinement. Nobody would deny that she or he is a human, despite the fact that they are denied any direct contact with the rest of humanity. But equally, nobody could claim that the prisoner is experiencing a rich social life. In other words, the prisoner belongs to the category of humans but is nonetheless disconnected from the rest of humanity in their day to day lives, doubtless with negative psychological consequences (otherwise solitary confinement wouldn’t be much of a punishment).
I believe the same argument can be applied to people and non-human nature. A human in solitary confinement is no less part of nature than a jaguar roaming the Amazon rainforest, but is experiencing a greatly diminished set of relations with the rest of nature (other than the food they eat and the armada of gut bacteria they carry with them). The same argument could apply to a non-human organism kept in captivity. By analogy with the term social life, I propose to call the collected set of ongoing relational experiences we each have with the rest of nature (including our gut bacteria and other people) our ‘natural life’. This term seems to do what is says on the tin as a descriptor of ones interactions with the rest of nature. It is not entirely new – Thoreau wrote about natural life extensively, but in his case it was used to describe a particular positive vision of the ‘good’ natural life, whereas I intend it as a neutral descriptor of all forms of connection or disconnection with the rest of nature. There are also echoes of Leopold’s land ethic, which rejected the dualist separation of people and nature but went on to emphasise the quality of relationships between human and non-human, declaring “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
If we now return to the various claims made about separation from nature, we can perhaps re-frame them as having in common a concern about the ‘natural life’ of many contemporary people. Rather than arguing that they are ‘separate’ or outside of nature completely, the focus is shifted to whether people are experiencing as many elements of nature, or the same quality of experiences, as in the past. Instead of crunching into a philosophical dead end, we are now left with a whole series of questions that demand to be answered. To what extent is human wellbeing a product of one’s natural life? How might the natural life be measured or changed? Does direct contact with non-human nature matter, or can a fulfilling natural life be achieved through watching nature documentaries, reading books or eating food? How do one’s life experiences and status affect the need for a natural life (e.g. do desirable elements of a natural life change as one gets richer)? Should some concept of natural life be built into ideas about multidimensional poverty or human rights? How can the concept incorporate the potentially negative aspects of connection to nature, such as predation, conflict and disease? What do policy interventions such as the Ecomodernist Manifesto imply for the natural life (some kind of reshaping away from everyday connections with local nature towards occasional but spectacular interaction with far away ‘wild’ nature)?
Many of these questions are already being explored in research on things like biodiversity and happiness, some of which I am involved in. I am therefore not proposing the invention of a new arena for research, but rather finding a different theoretical framing through which to understand it. I am also thinking about possible links to Actor-Network Theory, which seeks (in my limited understanding) to avoid pre-determined categories and to focus instead on the constantly unfolding network of connections between human and non-human actants. This seems similar to my aim to move away from the crude binaries of the nature/culture debate and to focus instead on what actually happens – the lived experience of nature. There may also be interesting links to Jamie Lorimer’s writing on multinatures, which suggests that there is no single nature or even socionature, but rather a jumble of different ‘natures’ experienced by human and non-humans alike. Perhaps the natural life of an organism is just another way to describe the particular version of ‘nature’ that is experienced by that organism.
I hope that the ideas presented here will stimulate further thinking about the relationships between humans and non-humans. I would like to move on from crude nature / people binaries, and focus instead on the quality and content of experiential connections with the natural world that comprise the natural life, and that I believe are far more useful (and interesting!) to study. At the same time, I realise I have barely scraped the surface of thinking about nature and society in this article, and I would welcome your ideas, corrections and suggestions.