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What is nature?

In this video, Thom van Dooren explains why the conceptual framework of nature was never a good way of understanding the world around us.
If we accept the dominant Western understanding of nature as a catch-all term for the non-human world, the forests and the rivers, the place where people aren’t, then in the 21st century, we’ve arrived
at a significant problem: there is no nature left. From climate change to nuclear radiation, from mega-cities to mass extinction, every landscape now bears the marks of human presence and impacts. Some have been altered less than others. So perhaps from a relative perspective, these are the best nature that we now have. But accepting this view of naturalness as a spectrum, not a black and white condition, just sidesteps the key conceptual problem. Why do human-caused changes, however disastrous and undesirable many of the may be, make a place unnatural? Think about a forest. All around you there are trees rising up to form a dense canopy.
In one of the trees is a bird’s nest, twigs carefully woven together by a pair of birds, to produce the perfect cradle for their delicate cargo. As you walk on a little further into the forest, you encounter a river. Looking downstream, you notice a large pile of sticks and branches gathered together. But this is not a haphazard collection of driftwood. Rather, it’s the purposeful work of a beaver, a lodge carefully constructed to provide shelter and warmth. All of what we’ve seen so far would be called nature, by most people. But if we move on a little further into the forest, and encounter a small clearing, and within it, a modest wooden hut, would this too be a part of nature?
For many people, the bird’s nest and the beaver’s lodge are in, but the human hut is out. All three structures are built by their inhabitants, but only one is not natural. Why do we conceptually divide the world up in this way? The traditional answer to this question is a simple one. Only the human hut is the product of deliberate, rational activity. While all animals act, in this case they build, only human activities alter nature. Birds and beaver activities take place in nature. Humans act on nature, transforming it from its natural state. From this perspective, it’s often assumed that humans are fundamentally different to other animals. These others are said to act from instinct, natural drives if you like.
Whereas human are able to consciously decide how to act. We might have instincts, but we can choose not to follow them. But this is not a very good understanding of either humans, or other animals. In a variety of ways, people’s activities are also shaped and determined by forces beyond their control, from hormones and instincts, to the external constraints of the environment. At the same time, many animals are making far more rational and conscious decisions than we often give them credit for. It was this idea, that purposeful action separates humanity from the beasts, that led some 19th century anthropologists to look for the first hut.
They reasoned that if they could find this primordial dwelling place, they would have located the precise point at which culture emerged out of nature, the birthplace of civilisation in the form of a building. But even if humans were the only species making rational and deliberate decisions, why should this place us outside nature? In fact, surely our rationality should be understood as just one more achievement of our long, very animal, evolution? An achievement that we likely share in different ways with other social mammals and birds, our evolutionary ancestors and cousins. Along these lines, the philosopher Dominique Lestel argues that, “Humans have not emerged from the state of nature, but have explored an extreme niche of that nature.”
We should also remember that however separate we might like to think we are, humans are still fundamentally biological organisms, dependent on a diverse range of non-humans to produce the food, clean water, and air that make our lives possible. From an ecological perspective, we are very much part of nature. But even within our own bodies, we are tangled up with, and dependent on non-humans. Ongoing research on the microbiome is weekly adding to our understanding of the vital roles microorganisms play in digestion, hormone production, immune system functioning, the list goes on. Quite literally, we cannot live– we cannot be human—- without these non-humans. As Donna Haraway notes, “I am vastly outnumbered by my tiny companions.
Better put, I’ve become an adult human being in company with these tiny mess mates. To be one is always to become with many.” And so, in what sense can we go on thinking of humans as existing somehow outside, separate to the non-human world we call nature? We are woven through with it. We evolved in it, and as part of much larger communities of life. We continue to depend on these others for our nourishment, and in many other ways. It’s this kind of understanding that’s led many scholars to insist that we need to rethink nature.
From this perspective, the issue is not so much that in the 21st century there is no nature left, no place untouched by human hands, but rather, that nature never really existed in this way— that this was never a good way to understand our complex world, or our place in it.

In this video, Thom van Dooren proposes that nature never really existed in the way that many of us understand it. He responds to a range of provocative questions:

  • Why do human-caused changes — however disastrous and undesirable many of them may be — make a place unnatural?
  • Why do we conceptually divide the world up into categories of natural and unnatural?
  • In what sense can we go on thinking of humans as existing somehow outside, separate to, the nonhuman world that we call “nature”?
After watching the video, what does it actually mean to argue that nature never really existed in a dualised way? For example, are we prepared to follow J. Baird Callicott to his provocative conclusion, that:
Bluntly put, we are animals ourselves, large omnivorous primates, very precocious to be sure, but just big monkeys, nevertheless. We are therefore a part of nature, not set apart from it. Hence, human works are no less natural than those of termites or elephants. Chicago is no less a phenomenon of nature than is the Great Barrier Reef.[1]
How far can we take this idea? What does it really mean for our understanding of the world, our place in it, and our obligations to others?

What do you think?

Do you agree or disagree with Callicott’s statement? What are some of the consequences of, or potential problems with, the view that “Chicago is no less a phenomenon of nature than is the Great Barrier Reef”?


  1. J. Baird Callicott, “La Nature est morte, vive la nature!” The Hastings Center Report 22, no. 5 (1992).
  2. Tim Ingold, “Building, dwelling, living: How animals and people make themselves at home in the world,” in The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. (London & New York: Routledge, 2000).
  3. Dominique Lestel and Christine Rugemer, “Strategies of life,” Research EU: The Magazine of the European Research Area, November (2008): 8–9.
  4. Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
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Environmental Humanities: Remaking Nature

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