Nature Who?

A look at how “we” as humans connect to nature and the resulting implications…/lack there of.

7min read

How do you define nature? A heaving tide on a deserted beach, a native forest, a place that is ‘untouched’ by human disturbance, free of artificial structures? 

Countless books and journal articles attempt to define nature. Anthropocentrism, centering humans as the most important entities in the world and superior to the ‘natural world’, is a common philosophy in religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. In a western context, the Enlightenment brought forward the idea that humans were dominant over the natural world, and in many developed nations, science and technology has allowed humans to control the environment, increasing this separation between humans and nature. 

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In a 2008 study about people’s connection to nature, almost 77% of participants said they felt they were part of nature, but the majority proceeded to describe nature as being devoid of humans. How can we be part of something that we define as separate to ourselves? David Attenborough says “we’re totally out of balance with nature” and asks “how can we create a future in which both people and nature can thrive?” as if these two things aren’t intrinsically linked. As if nature exists outside of us, and everything was harmonious until greedy, silly humans came along and ruined the balance.

In environmental management, we seem to think that the only way we can completely protect our environment is by excluding people from it. We go further by separating our environment into forests, freshwater systems, and coastal areas to manage it, perpetuating an idea of a fractured landscape. Despite a move towards ecosystem-based management which incorporates the complex relationships between different species and the physical environment, this model generally fails to incorporate human communities. Often marine protected areas are established in places where communities rely on fisheries for their livelihoods and we wonder why fisheries aren’t recovering. Do these management practices feed in to the disconnect we feel by removing us from the very environment that we have a responsibility to protect? How can we be reminded of our obligation to look after something if we don’t see it or engage with it? How can we protect something that we aren’t familiar with? 

Geoff Park in Nga Uruora: The Groves of Life – Ecology and History in a New Zealand Landscape (1996) writes “How we inhabit a place can be the most telling expression of how we sense its worth, our intention for it and our connection with it”. 

Our waterways are degraded, one third of our fisheries are overfished, the Great Pacific garbage patch exists, and the IPCC has given us 10 years to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5°C – two degrees warmer and something like 99% of corals will die out. The shift to an urban and industrialised world means we’re so disconnected from our environment that meat comes from the supermarket and we have no idea what a tuna looks like out of a can (they’re fucking huge). There’s this website (www.footprintcalculator.org) that works out how many Earths would be needed if every human lived like you do. Mine was 2.5 Earths. I think the fact that New Zealand schools have recently introduced a curriculum that provides material for students to process feelings of “eco-anxiety” is a telling sign.

Is it because we eat too much meat, don’t catch the bus enough, use too much single-use plastic, and haven’t installed solar panels on the roofs of our homes (that we can’t afford to buy)?

There is a criticism that focusing on individual actions distracts us from larger issues. Discarded fishing gear contributes far more plastic to our oceans than single-use plastic straws and 100 companies are responsible for around 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Corporations love this individual action stuff because we keep buying the next best eco-friendly product as a form of performative environmentalism or because we’ve been told that’s how we can do better. But these companies aren’t changing their business models because they’re still reliant on us buying the next product that replaces the previous one. And these are often the same corporations that prevent small, sustainable, local businesses from entering the market.  It’s easier to punch down and blame marginalised communities for their ‘inaction’ rather than demand accountability from the corporations or policy makers who hold the power.  We celebrated the drop in air pollution in response to coronavirus lockdowns worldwide (how many lives lost?), we raise our eyebrows at the destruction of Orangutan’s habitat in Borneo to be replaced with a monoculture of oil palm, we consider the bushmeat trade abhorrent. We’re frothers for the blame game – but are the users of fossil fuel or those engaged in poaching really the ones to blame when there is an issue around access and choice? Environmentalism (as we know it) often goes hand in hand with wealth. When our basic needs are met, we can start removing food groups from our diet, we can design our homes to be energy efficient, we can buy local and choose ‘organic’. When we punch down on the communities and countries that have less control over available choices, we exclude these groups from engaging in discussions around environmental activism. 

I think a lot of our disconnect from nature also sits alongside our disconnect from ourselves and each other. Developing a sense of place and community can reconnect us with nature. If we know our place intimately, we can develop a sense of identity and belonging. Something that really stuck with me was when a member of a community I work alongside, said that in order to heal our environment, we have to heal our community first. Most people want the same things – a clean river, an abundance of kai moana, thriving estuaries and healthy communities.

So, what we can do beyond cutting out meat, catching the bus, recycling and switching to renewable energy sources? These are all solutions that are reliant on individual actions and available choices. Recognise that there is strength in the collective. Even if organising, mobilising, demanding change and working against the system might not be instant or that satisfying. Reconnect with your place, your community (wherever that might be), and expand your sense of identity to be founded in place. Try to find community groups that are engaged with active restoration projects and that put pressure on policy makers to create locally relevant legislation. I think we need to reframe our relationship with the natural world and realise that it should be based on connection, understanding and reciprocity. And that a flourishing environment and our flourishing wellbeing are one and the same.

Words by Lisa Van Halderen
December 2020

issue three playlist

Full Percent Pulp

Ideal location: Waiting in the supermarket queue
Accompanying snacks: Oranges
Curated by: Tigh Barrie

  • First Six Months of Love – Michelle Gurevich
  • Genius Of Love – Tom Tom Club
  • Dreams – Elan Vital
  • Step Off – ESG
  • Private Idaho – The B-52’s
Full playlist

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