The natural life: reframing the separation from nature debate

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.


7 thoughts on “The natural life: reframing the separation from nature debate

  1. Excellent. I like the way this thinking is headed. I also appreciate the reference to actor-network theory, hadn’t heard of that before.

    An aspect of this you may be thinking about which concerns me is the value assignment going on within notions like beauty (see Aldo Leopold’s ethic you’ve quoted). While I agree wholeheartedly with Leopold’s overall direction, I have some difficulty when I imagine someone might be cast as unethical because their particular concept of beauty is not locked in to some societal average. The natural realities of death and extinction are very widely considered as bad or ugly. We are IMHO too quick to paint as ugly those natural things as predatory kills, disease, and genetic deformities that make us uncomfortable. Indeed our seeking to be comfortable – limiting our exposure to the violence of the natural world may be why we construct our niches as we have.
    Being comfortable isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but like a lot of other things we desire – it can be overdone.

    So while I like the concept of viewing the plants and animals around us as fellow agents and actors in a milieu we find ourselves immersed within, I hope we limit imposing human centered values onto them. Projecting our beliefs onto our fellow humans is poor behavior, and we at least share a common natural life with them – the failure to appreciate the nature of other life forms could exacerbate the dangers possible from our projecting upon these “others”.

    It just now occurs to me how salient the title of your blog fits to this conversation. We must be ever vigilant to realize we interact with our fellow life by ‘Thinking Like a Human’. Would that from time to time we might try to see the world through a lens built by other fauna and flora.

  2. People are nature. To believe that we are something separate, is a reflection of biological and ecological ignorance. Nature’s rights are fundamental to human rights and human wellbeing. Aldo Leopold’s philosophy tells us that love of land and love of self are one and the same. Our attempts to dominate nature with technology is a fear based response to uncertainty, a misuse of the power that technology and fossil fuel energy have given us. We are currently in a situation where nature may well end human evolution and send us to extinction because of our childlike abuse of technology and our sense of entitlement to live in a perfectly predictable and stable world.

  3. Many thanks for an excellent post, Chris.
    Actor-network theory can be unduly obscure and taken too far, but the insight that not only humans are agents is a powerful one. However, we don’t need to regard non-humans as agents to see them as ‘morally considerable’ beings who have interests and intrinsic value that we (as unique bearers of responsibility) must take into account. That line of thought is compatible with many approaches to ecology, ethics and human embeddedness in ‘nature’. One that you might want to consider is the Integral Ecology set out by Pope Francis in his encyclical of 2015, Laudato Si. I’m no Catholic, and nor are many of those who admire this work: you don’t have to accept the theology to see in the encyclical a powerful framing of human responsibility and connection with other species. I think it could be fruitful for secular ecological-social thinkers to explore this work seriously.
    Another related approach, which I favour, is to consider our relationships with each other and with the ‘more than human’ in the light of the ethics of care and dependency, which rests on the recognition that we are, in Alastair Macintyre’s term, ‘dependent rational animals’.
    Finally, I’d make a plea for research and advocacy that can bring your kind of thinking into the land use planning system, which offers a milieu for considering and acting on our embeddedness in nature but which is by now reduced to a machine for commoditising both social and environmental value as ‘capital’.

  4. I have been round this loop. The feeling it engenders in me is uncomfortable, similar to what I feel when I wonder where the universe ends, and if it does end, what’s beyond it.
    Is it useful to distinguish between humans as animals and humans as thinking beings?
    At one level, of course, everything we are is part of nature, our technology, our ability to pollute and all other aspects of our existence. Despite a widely held belief to the contrary, the economy is a subset of the ecology, not the other way round. We evolved as part of nature, so nature must be responsible for inflicting damage on itself.
    But while this is true, what is also true is that nature has provided, or has evolved in us, the faculty to think independently. Our emergent property is conscious self-awareness. Sadly, this faculty is bounded, (Bateson argued that our consciousness is a lot less than we crack it up to be). This bounded rationality allows us to first think and then act in a way which is apparently against nature. Nature has given us an individuality, within the great individuality, which appears to allow us to act against ourselves and against nature itself.
    So when we talk about reconnecting, I believe we mean reframing our conscious thinking. As we ingest the universe to stay alive, we are part of nature. But as we think, as a precursor to action, we can choose to do things which go against nature, especially when our limited consciousness assumes the world is linear and like a machine, rather than a constantly unfolding complex web of cause and effect.
    To think in unison with nature we need to be in unison with nature. To be in unison with nature, we need to think in unison with nature.

    • I like Bateson’s thoughts on an ecology of mind which suggest that reframing the way we view and subconsciously interpret the world is the way forward. Rautenbeek and Cartier wrote about it in terms of “dezombification” as a process of social learning about the consequences of human use of nature, that might enable us to evolve from Homo economicus to Homo sustinens. Richard Norgaard has recently written about the fundamental need to surrender our beliefs in neoclassical economics and the ideology of neoliberalism if we are to adapt to global changes that we currently face.

      Neurology is demonstrating how plastic the brain is and how rapidly it can develop new connections between neurons and pathways that link our senses to the sub-conscious and conscious parts of the brain for more deliberate, proactive decision making. The difficulty is that people tend to strongly resist the surrender of their beliefs because of those beliefs have survival value under a given set of conditions. The open minded and quick witted who are willing to reframe their bounded rationality will do well in times of turbulent change. Perhaps H. sustinens will emerge as a consequence of the Anthropcene.

  5. Thanks for this thoughtful discussion Chris. I agree that the question of how to get beyond the nature-culture divide is crucial to the future of conservation and of sustainability generally. I also agree that understanding everything humans do and experience – whether in a national park or a jail cell – as part with a larger biophysical reality is likely key to this. But I wonder whether the idea of the “natural life” is really the best way to get us there. I outline my own perspective on this issue in a recent article (link below), but essentially I worry that using the term “nature” at all may be part of the problem we need to overcome.

    For “nature” to exist as a distinct concept then there must be something that it not nature to which it can be contrasted. And that “not nature” that helps define nature is almost always human consciousness and the products thereof. Using the word “nature,” therefore, commonly invokes the sense that we are speaking of something from which we understand ourselves as separate. Advocating connection with nature, from this perspective, can be seen as something of a contradiction in terms, since this very advocacy tends to reinforce the sense of separation between humans and nature that it seeks to overcome. We can of course try to redefine the term to eliminate this issue but it carries so much historical baggage that this may prove quite difficult.

    Trying not to use the word at all might prove a more fruitful strategy. I agree that actor-network theory offers a potential way to do this, since it allows us to discuss “assemblages” of different entities without needing to invoke the nature concept at all. What if we could give up the idea of nature entirely and instead just describe the things that actually exist in the world and the significant connections among them? Then we could focus on the relative consequences of different lifestyles or courses of action rather than worrying about which is more “natural”…

    • Hi Rob – many thanks for this. I’ve read your paper and would encourage others to do the same. I see your point about the baggage that comes with the term ‘nature’, however it is deployed. Certainly my intention was that ‘natural life’ would include interaction with other humans and human ideas / artefacts as well as with non-human nature, but as you say this may be missed because of knee-jerk assumptions about the meaning of nature. On the other hand, I’m not sure that reverting to no label at all (how is your ‘assemblage life’ today?) is a practical solution! I look forward to discussions with you and others on how to take this forward.

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