I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “nature” lately—a word which I think is seized upon in confused and inconsistent ways in our ecologically-sensitive times. Several streams contribute to what follows: 1) Stanley Fish’s amusing editorial in today’s New York Times; 2) a piece I came across on the First Things blog a while back; and 3) a chapter from Matt Hern’s Watch Yourself which discusses our views of nature in the broader context of our cultural obsession with safety.
At the beginning of a cheeky, irreverent confession that he resents the demands being placed upon his lifestyle by our cultural obsession with the environment, Fish says the following:
I resist and resent the demands made on me by environmental imperatives. I don’t want to save the planet. I just want to inhabit it as comfortably as possible for as long as I have.
Now I suspect that this isn’t a terribly uncommon sentiment, even if it’s not often breathed aloud. The question I’m interested in is why views like this aren’t breathed aloud and whether our cultural reticence in doing so is consistent. Our conceptions of nature are, I think, worth unpacking a little. We’re not always consistent in our understanding of the term itself, or the ethical imperatives that may or many not follow from it.
At the heart of the imperative to care for our world is the assumption, whether it is acknowledged or not, that human beings are somehow different than nature—an odd assumption, when you think about it, especially if naturalistic accounts of our origins and destiny are taken at face value. Despite broad acceptance of a naturalistic master narrative where human beings are nothing more than the result of time plus chance, we tend to retain conceptions of nature as something separate from us. Matt Hern, in a discussion about how our obsession with safety and “risk-management” leads us to insulate ourselves from nature, puts it this way:
Historically, “nature” has meant deep, inherent tendencies, either in plants, animals, or humans. It can refer to innate characteristics and the forces that caused movements and developments in the world. Almost always, nature is contrasted with the made that which humans have built: culture…. So are humans inside or outside nature?
Hern predictably goes on to indict monotheism for its introduction of an anthropocentric view of the world in which human beings were sovereign over a “wild” nature which was to be dominated and exploited for theological reasons. Yet it’s worth wondering just how lamentable this construal of the world really is. Indeed, upon closer inspection it seems that the impetus toward care for the environment depends upon this split. Without it, Fish’s statement above makes perfect sense as a general way of being in the world. If human beings really are just another part of nature, no more or less significant in the grand scheme of things than a toad or a tree, then the kind of blissful, irresponsible self-interest betrayed by Fish’s statement is perfectly justified.
But that’s not the way the logic of environmental ethics usually works. What we see, instead, are impassioned moral pleas to take care of the world as a kind of sacred obligation. At the most extreme end, we find the kind of stupidity highlighted by Joseph Bottum for First Things. Here, our desperation to promote environmentally-sensitive behaviour, leads to a troubling “anti-humanism” (I don’t know how else to describe a movement which seriously advocates discovering when you should die so as to be as little a burden to the planet as possible) where we stand accused simply by virtue of being human and tramping our dirty, impure feet all over the natural world. The pendulum has swung violently indeed; so far from human beings having dominion over creation, creation now is claimed to take moral precedence over human beings. (If you want to see some of the bizarre [I would say immoral] extremes that this philosophy can be and is being taken to, read the post.)
Mercifully, the kinds of sentiments described by Bottum would still (I hope) be considered extreme. The main point I want to make, though, is that the reverence our culture has for “nature” is profoundly theological in character, whether our enviro-prophets care to admit it or not. The claim that humans have a responsibility to protect the world cannot get off the ground without assuming that nature is something “other” than us—something which it is our unique duty to guard and preserve.
Western monotheism in general and Christianity in particular are no doubt responsible for understanding “dominion” in false and damaging ways, for treating the natural world carelessly and exploitatively, for failing to recognize that God created the world, called it good, and commissioned human beings to care for it accordingly. But our reverence for “nature” depends upon the separation between nature and human beings lamented by Hern above. If there really is no separation, there we have no grounds for critiquing Fish’s tongue-in-cheek cavalier approach to the world.
There is little to be gained, in my view, by claiming that we are just another part of nature. Quite obviously, we are not. Far better, I think, to acknowledge that while we are, in some sense, “of the earth” we have abilities and obligations that transcend the rest of “nature.” We are special. We are unique. We have ethical responsibilities to the planet, to each other, and to God. The sooner we stop apologizing for this, desperately attempting to minimize our uniqueness in a strange, inconsistent, and misanthropic devotion to “nature,” the more good we can do for a planet that so desperately needs its divinely-appointed care-givers to fulfill this important (but not all-encompassing) aspect of their duty as image-bearers.