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Humanity and Nature

In this article we will delve deeper into how nature and culture are entangled with each other and how this implies that a human being is always more-than-human. Before doing so, we will begin with a historical background about how they became separated.

In this article we will delve deeper into how nature and culture are entangled with each other and how this implies that a human being is always more-than-human. Before doing so, we will begin with a historical background about how they became separated.

In the western world, nature and culture were historically thought as separated spheres. Nature was understood as mechanistic and dead, rather than as a living ecosystem.

The Problem with Anthropocentrism

The separation of nature and culture has supported the worldview of anthropocentrism which places human beings in the centre and all other existences (e.g. animals, trees, water) are valued in relation to how well they serve humans. This is problematic as such a division fails to recognize mutual environmental dependencies that stretch across species boundaries. A wiser standpoint is that the human is more-than-human meaning connected to and dependent on multiple ecologies.

In anthropocentrism, not even all humans are equally included and catered for in ways that can be considered human. There are hierarchies drawn between men and women or between people living in different parts of the world that direct who has more or less access to resources to fulfill even basic needs. In the Anthropocene, boundaries are being formed between present day generations and generations who will live in futures still to come.

The Separation of Nature and Culture

One example of how the separation of nature and culture and of human and non-human came to be can be found in the writings of the philosopher Descartes. His famous dictum “I think therefore I am” can be interpreted to mean that the thinking human is the only creature that truly exists . This way of thinking may form a basis for privileging ourselves and subordination of those creatures and ecological processes deemed as not capable of thought. Furthermore, the writings of Enlightenment philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) formulated the relationship between humans and nature as if the environment was a larder for human use. The writing of Locke exemplifies the Anthropocentric reasoning of some Enlightenment thinkers.

Locke writes that “The Earth, and all that is therein, is given to Men for the Support and Comfort of their being” hence, the planet is there to serve human needs. Further on, Locke writes that man has the right to take the resources of Earth and make them his own. This is exemplified in the quote “Though the Earth and all inferior Creatures be common to all Men, yet every Man has a property of his own Person: This no Body has any Right to but himself. […] Whatsoever then he removes out of the State that Nature hath provided and left in it, he hath mixed his labor with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby make it his Property”.

This is one of several such ideas that have built up anthropocentrism and the view that humans have the right to dominate nature and to conquest and colonize the planet. Such colonizing has led to material exploitation where nature is treated as a resource there for the taking.

The ideas and practices of anthropocentrism can be linked to the development of what Nicholas (2021) calls the exploitative mindset whereby:

  • production and consumption of material goods gives purpose and progress in life
  • speed, efficiency and profit quantify what is a worthwhile action
  • natural resources are churned over, turned into products and eventually made into waste

Philosopher Rosi Braidotti writes:

“Not all of us can say, with any degree of certainty, that we have always been human, or that we are only that. Some of us are not even considered fully human now, let alone at previous moments of Western social, political and scientific history. Not if by ‘human’ we mean that creature familiar to us from the Enlightenment and its legacy: ‘The Cartesian subject of the cogito’, the Kantian ‘community of reasonable beings’, or, in more sociological terms, the subject as citizen, rights-holder, property-owner, and so on.”

More-Than-Human

Drawing on Braidotti, another approach to counteract the exclusivity of some humans in the midst of the climate crisis and to make the human more inclusive is to work with the more-than-human. That is to approach the world from a relational and interconnected understanding of both humans and animals, where “I think therefore I am” is challenged by “I relate therefore I become”. Hence, humans and nature are entangled in a number of significant and changing ways.

Such a new way of thinking can be used as a basis for finding out what relations are essential for a multitude of species to thrive together, as well as for underlining the difference between the exploitative and regenerative mindset.

This article draws from the following works:

Braidotti, R. 2013. The Posthuman. Cambridge:Polity Press.

Merchant, C. 1990 (1980). The Death of Nature. Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. New York: Harper Collins

Nicholas, K. 2021. Under the Sky we make. How to be human in a warming world. United States. G. P. Putnam & Sons.

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