Our frail relations with nature

The meaning of nature has changed over time and the crisis of today needs to be addressed urgently

“The idea is that when nature is “observable”, it becomes separate from man.”

A baby drinking formula. An apple orchard. A skyscraper. A giraffe in the Savannah. Out of these four options, which one is nature and which is culture? This begets us to question the idea of nature and how we have built our relationship with it.

Nature is an abstract concept devised by humans. The way it is defined has been shaped by political, economic, and cultural factors of the human world. Speaking to Dr Katja Bruisch, the Ussher Assistant Professor in Environmental History, on the divide between humans and the natural world, she explained that “the separation has always been fiction. Humans have relied upon, while at the same time actively shaped, their non-human environment at all times. Yet, of course, there are different ways in which humans interact with the nonhuman world”.The idea is that when nature is “observable”, it becomes separate from man. It can be studied, changed, and used a means to human ends. However, she elaborates that “seeing humans as nature’s enemies is not really helpful to address environmental problems. I believe that if we became more aware of the implications that our behaviour has for the environment, we could find ways to channel this interaction in a more sustainable way.”

“It’s not just a setting for solace, thought, [or] great profile pictures, it’s where we come from, what sustains us, what we’ll go back to.”

The modern world was created by humans placing arbitrary monetary value on nature. Today utility maximising individuals or companies fail to recognise the interconnectedness of the pulsing ecosystem of a forest. Forests are seen as monetary gains and values are assigned to trees; where x units would cost y. The far-right President-elect of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, is now in charge of the world’s lungs, the Amazon forest. He has pledged his support for agri-corporation and promised the relaxation of environmental laws. His plans of infrastructural development are going to lead to the depletion and deforestation of the Amazon on a large scale. The pursuit of economic growth has created a funnel vision where everything is blanked out except what is of utility in the name of modernity. Speaking to Alexandra Tone, the Green Campus Committee Coordinator, she explains: “As a result of a distancing from nature, we tend to assume that the gains from modernity-related actions will have greater and more direct benefits than natural ones. But you can also associate modernity with sustainability. You can take it to mean revisiting our relationship with nature, and taking a look at the assumption that we’ve made and built upon that we’re running on a different set of gears than nature. In this case, modernity is a new way to look at things, and I don’t think that comes at the cost of nature. I think that we can reduce this separation by expanding the way we value nature. It’s not just a setting for solace, thought, [or] great profile pictures, it’s where we come from, what sustains us, what we’ll go back to. If you change the very root of your understanding, I think your actions tend to follow.”

This modern period of rapid and high economic growth is a feature of the industrialised age. In the expanse of human existence, a high level of economic growth is a relatively new feature. Clutching onto economic growth has created a dissonance in reality. It has displaced the places of production from the place of consumption. It has created exploitative work practices for cheap labour. It has regimented nature with private property. It has regimented human life with the time. However, climate change is our reckoning. As Tone explains: “In climate science, climate change is an exacerbation of existing conditions: drier places will get drier with more intense droughts, wetter places will get wetter with more intense storms.  Climate change will most severely affect the tropics, where the majority of less economically developed countries are located. Climate conditions are going to get much harder for many more people in a much less stable environment. Because climate change exacerbates existing conditions – climatically, socially, politically, and economically – we’re going to have to take a good look at our relationship with nature as we start to face the products of our global system when the power is turned up a notch. Climate change forces us to recognise that our actions have an impact that goes so much farther beyond ourselves: both on the planet and other people.” Climate change challenges our current production and consumption patterns; our notions of borders, our exploitation of cheap labour and nature. It has used time, a scale used to measure efficiency and order days, to give us a countdown of 12 years to reverse our ways as prophesied by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

“The ideas of conservation continued to perpetuate the mental separation between nature and humans.”

While looking at redefining nature, we need to go beyond our existing understanding of conservation as well. Historically, the concept of conservation as William Beinart describes in his book, Environment and Empire, emerged during colonialism and was a facade to preserve economic prosperity. The depletion of forests created fears of resource finiteness and exposed the vulnerability of economic growth to resource availability. The ideas of conservation continued to perpetuate the mental separation between nature and humans. To safeguard economic prosperity, nature had to be conserved. Today, conservation means environmental activism, reusable and biodegradable products and packaging, rejecting plastic and divestment in fossil fuels in the hope that the planet would survive for a few more years. To what extent do these biodegradable products actually help the environment is the current contention. Dr Bruisch further discusses this when she explains: “I do definitely think that present day consumerism is not sustainable. I am sometimes a bit surprised that in order to address this issue we are offered alternative forms of consumption that appear green and make us feel better. One example is the compostable single-use coffee mug that has recently entered the market. In principle, this sounds like a good idea. Alas, many of these green mugs will never be composted, but end up in landfills where their components are prevented from decomposing for decades if not centuries.”

Tone encapsulates the essence of these factors: “I think that the current relationship between man and nature is one in which humanity is trying to deny that it’s a part of nature. To me, nature is everything on the planet: dead, alive, man-made, wild. It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting in a café on the fifth floor of an office building, you’re still playing by nature’s rules, even though the costs of breaking them may show themselves at a different time or to a different place.”