By Joern Fischer
As part of our research on leverage points for sustainability transformation, we are investigating the potential to “re-connect” people and nature in order to advance sustainability. But does this framing just reinforce a false dualism between people and the environment?
In a recent paper, Karen Malone describes child-dog encounters in La Paz, Bolivia. Focusing on poor urban children, and dogs living in the streets, she challenges the simple notion of “re-connecting” people (here, children) and nature. First, street dogs de facto represent “nature”, but a very different kind of nature from the wild and romantic images Western scholars may hold when thinking about nature. Second, children talk about their relationships with dogs as friendships, rather than as subject-object relationships, which a dualistic human-nature view would suggest. Third, anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism – i.e. people being inherently more special than other living beings – are not supported by the narratives provided by the children.
So how problematic is the concept of re-connecting people and nature? How problematic is the term?
To me, the answer is twofold. On the one hand, we need a communication tool to reach those who do think of humans as separate from nature, or of humans as being somehow different (or more advanced) from other beings. It’s all very well to highlight the non-exceptionalism of humans in academic circles, but “post-humanism” is going to be one step too far for most people to be willing to go. In the meantime, however, we might still be able to get an important point across by talking about “re-connecting” with nature. Using an anthropocentric narrative thus can be a tool to be understood in a culture where more radical (post-humanistic) messages are unlikely to be heard. This intuitive appeal of anthropocentric framing is not new: it has, in fact, been a central tenet of the ecosystem services argument. As I highlighted quite a while ago on this blog, scholars like Gretchen Daily never intended to say that nature has no worth beyond that to humans – but they chose to highlight the values to humans because it’s these values that are likely to attract an audience. (Which worked, by the way.)
On the other hand then, just like with ecosystem services, some caution is warranted. It’s fine to use a simple metaphor in the first place, knowing the world is more complex – but metaphors have an annoying habit of taking on a life of their own. Ecosystem services are no longer being thought about critically by many users of the concept. And if we’re not careful, the nascent agenda of re-connecting people and nature may also be at risk of inadvertently reinforcing the human-nature divide, rather than closing it.
This suggests scholars like us ought to use the “re-connect” term carefully, and allow for at least a couple of sentences in any given paper that explain the value of the metaphor, while acknowledging that a metaphor is by necessity a simplification of reality.
We need conceptual models so we can communicate. And to communicate effectively, we need to meet our audiences on a level that they are receptive to. Interdependent origination of all phenomena may get closer to the ultimate truth of our existence – but for that truth to come within reach at a societal level, re-connecting people and nature could be a good first step, despite the dualism implicit to the term.