Are humans a part of nature?

and what are the implications of thinking of humanity as separate?

Last month before starting my new job (I joined Mailchimp as a senior software engineer a week ago and am loving it so far!) I took a weeklong break. With no obligations to be tethered to Slack or email, I spent as much time outside as possible reading on the deck, watching the birds visiting the bird feeder, and swatting away mosquitoes.

During the latter half of the week, my partner and I headed up to Hudson Valley to stay in a barn loft. The property was expansive with several vegetable patches and bright green grass glimmering in the sun. Every so often we heard the cows moo from the grass-fed beef farm across the street. At night we got the fire pit going and swayed in the hanging chair, listening to the screeches and hoots that can only be heard after hours. It was a wonderful trip in all its pastoral glory, an invitation to give attention to the many beauties and wonders still left in the world.

Then I went back to work, recharged and ready to hand my attention back to the capitalist machine. 🙃

This is the relationship the average modern person has with nature. We see nature as something outside of ourselves that will awe us, heal us, surprise us, and ground us. City and suburb dwellers appreciate the more manicured parks, but "untouched" nature on the outskirts feels more "real."

One way to guarantee a conversation without a conclusion is to ask a group of people what nature is.

-Rebecca Solnit

In reality, there is almost no part of nature untouched by humans. Even more importantly, humans are a part of nature.

Listening to The Cut podcast's "Are We The Virus" episode, this second point really stuck with me. Were I to be asked the philosophical question "are humans a part of nature?" before I would have maybe said yes; however the colloquial usage of the word "nature" categorizes humanity outside of other phenomena of the physical world. Scientifically the two are considered separate which makes sense, but I wonder how much this separation has caused humanity to dissociate from our complicity in destructing nature (and thus ourselves).

Critiques along these lines are not new. Val Plumwood is one such philosopher known for arguing against this dualism as well as anthropocentrism, the idea that humans are the most important in the universe.

To the extent that we hyper-separate ourselves from nature and reduce it conceptually in order to justify domination, we not only lose the ability to empathise and to see the non-human sphere in ethical terms, but also get a false sense of our own character and location that includes an illusory sense of autonomy.

-Val Plumwood

So what now? Like so many other problems, the consequences that humanity has wrought on nature can seem too late to fix, too large to change anything of consequence.

But I think remembering that it is possible to have a real relationship with the rest of nature, as indigenous cultures have for generations, is a great first step. (Indigenous people protect a whopping 80 percent of global biodiversity). That even though the urban environments we live in might not seem idyllic, there are still tree-lined streets, sunrises and sunsets, bugs, crops, seasons and weather patterns specific to where we live that we can notice and appreciate. We can choose to consider ourselves as part of the physical world, both affecting and affected by the natural phenomena around us.

Leave a comment

Further reads:

Humanity and nature are not separate – we must see them as one to fix the climate crisis”, The Conversation

The Myth of a Wilderness Without Humans”, MIT Press Reader