"This sounds dramatic, and it’s intended to be": Why imagining ourselves as "outside" of nature does more harm than good.

The Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History in New York is, as Stephanie Rutherford argues in Governing the Wild, a manifestation of green governmentality that seeks to define and regulate our understanding, experience, and treatment of nature.

Assistant professor in the environmental and resource studies program at Trent University

I am lucky to teach a course in environmental ethics to a lively, curious, and committed group of environmental studies students. Every year in the first class, I ask students what the words ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’ mean to them. Responses usually follow the commonly held view, one now famously outlined and deconstructed by historian William Cronon in “The Trouble with Wilderness,” that nature is pristine, pure, untrammeled, and apart from humans. That the grooves of this story are so well worn shouldn’t come as a surprise; as Raymond Williams noted, nature is one of the most complicated words in the English language.

Moreover, this separation of the human and nonhuman is given ideological heft through its precursors in biblical narrative, colonial practice, and American imaginations of self and nation. And it is a seductive story, in part, because it’s the one we know so well, buttressed by the sites where many come to know nature, particularly national parks but also museums, theme parks, university classrooms, in environmental organizations, and through film and TV, exemplified by something like the film Into the Wild. But what I spend the remainder of the course trying to do is to write a different story, or re-tell that which has been so effectively crafted.

In my view, along with Cronon and various other environmental critics, this story does more harm than good to the nonhuman world and our relationship to it.

The reason for my objection to what some of my students see as simple common sense is this: if we imagine ourselves as outside of nature, then there are only a very limited number of ways in which we can both interact with and work to preserve it. Nature becomes incarcerated, sequestered, set aside and spoken for. It becomes a place to visit, something we can walk away from. It becomes an experience to buy or an artifact to display. In short, what is forgotten in this neat narrative is that, in fact, animals, plants, bacteria, and so on, are lively, always already enmeshed in our daily lives, and co-constituting our very being in often taken-for-granted or unpredictable ways.

I would suggest that it is precisely now that we remember this, because this different perception has become increasingly relevant to our times. We exist in a moment of dire environmental prediction with a climate crisis looming.

This sounds dramatic, and it’s intended to be.

The Western world cannot continue as it has. We urgently need imaginative approaches to the problems we know so well: overconsumption, exploitation of the natural world, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, toxic dumping, environmental injustice, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Some of these problems manifested themselves during the Industrial Revolution and we have known, unequivocally, that something needs be done since at least the 1960s. The fact that so little has been achieved has much to do with our impoverished view of the nonhuman.

What might an environmental politics look like that considers humans and nonhumans as co-constituted? I can scarcely say, for we are so entrenched in a politics of environment versus economy, lowest-common-denominator approaches, and technological fixes. Witness the latest (non-)round of climate change negotiations. But I am at least intrigued by recent moves to extend to nature the same rights humans have to exist, thrive, and flourish. For example, Bolivia has passed “The Law of Mother Earth,” which flattens out the longstanding hierarchy between humans and nonhumans, making the rights of the earth equal to that of its inhabitants. Informed by Indigenous knowledge, the law recognizes the integrity of nature, not just for the ecosystem services it provides humans, but as valuable in its own right. As such, it mandates that air and water have the right to be clean, not simply because the befouling of such affects humans but because it affects nature’s balance. Moreover, it includes provisions on the right of the earth not to be genetically modified and to be free from large-scale alteration like dams or mines that, while (possibly) benefitting (some) humans, disrupts natural cycles and rhythms.

In a similar move, Ecuador has enshrined the rights of nature in its constitution. These efforts clearly offer a challenge to the kind of business as usual approach normally seen in global environmental politics. While I am generally a little suspicious about the value of rights discourse as it applies to the natural world (I am more inspired by Winona LaDuke, for example, than Peter Singer), it seems to me that these initiatives rewrite the story of separation to some degree, offering a relational ethics that might just open up new conditions of possibility.

Or, at the very least, it is a good place to start. And I hope so, because it is imperative that we get this right.


Stephanie Rutherford is author of Governing the Wild: Ecotours of Power. She is assistant professor in the environmental and resource studies program at Trent University.

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