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Why we need to stop talking about "Nature"

One of the big problems at the back of the serious pickle we are in with climate breakdown and the threat to bio-diversity is how we think about the non-human part of life on earth – which we usually call Nature. When we give it that name we are usually thinking about it as something quite apart from humanity – as the Other. If we want to be really precise we would need to accept that clothes and internal combustion engines and the internet are quite as “natural” as orang utans and lichen – otherwise we are thinking of humans as somehow dropped into reality from some external source.

Thinking of humanity as absolutely and categorically different from the rest of nature has been part of our mindset for millennia. Here are the beautiful words of Psalm 8:

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars,

which thou hast ordained;

What is man, that thou art mindful of him?

and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels,

and hast crowned him with glory and honour.

Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands;

thou hast put all things under his feet:

All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field;

The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea,

and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.

I am not sniping at religion here. There are plenty elements in religious tradition that emphasise a wholesome relationship with non-human nature, but Psalm 8 catches perfectly the notion of a stratified universe (God then Angels then “Man” then the rest). And, of course, human society has added more strata (Men then Women, Whites then Blacks etc.) and we are still thirled to this way of thinking (God then Queen then Elites etc.). The Non-Human Nature as Other and the Stratified Universe mind-locks go hand in hand.

Note too that this habitual thinking track requires what we might call “hard boundaries” so that we don’t allow categories to merge gently into each other but draw hard and inflexible lines (blacks at the back of the bus, “just a dog”, lining up by Boys and Girls to go into school etc. and forever). We help maintain these boundaries by emphasising differences rather than commonalities. And of course it is this mindset that has justified our ruinous behaviour, our exploitation and devastation. You can more readily accept that cows have to suffer cruelly to make parmesan cheese if you can think of cows as on the other side of a categorical boundary. In the toxic culture of the incel community the hate and violence is warranted by classing all women as inferior, nasty and dangerous. Seeing Japanese people as less than human made the dropping of atomic weapons feasible for ordinary family men.

In this pandemic and its restrictions we have learned more and more to acknowledge and value what “Nature” can give us – the way the open air lifts our hearts, the benign shade of the trees, the expanding vistas, the bugs, the running water. Yet we need to take a step beyond the “love of Nature” to an abandonment of seeing and feeling it as the Other, and instead admit our place in the middle of it all, our actual connectedness to it, the sober fact that in dominating and ruining it we are fouling our own nest and choking our own essence. This is not some obscure notion about words and their meanings – it is rather a matter of a transformation of the understanding of who we are and where we are inextricably placed.

This article was first published in Saor Alba, the magazine of the Edinburgh Yes Hub


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