“Re-connecting people and nature”: wrong term, wrong goal?

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.

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12 thoughts on ““Re-connecting people and nature”: wrong term, wrong goal?

  1. You are mentioning an extremely complex subject here… Because even if we agree that the humans-nature divide is mistaken, very different consequences can be drawn from seeing humans as part of nature. For me, some kind of anthropocentrism is not in conflict with this perspective. For, yes, we are part of nature, we evolved just as dogs did etc. – still, we are distinct. We are sentient (many other animals are, though), self-aware (are there any, beyond maybe the great apes?), able to transcend ourselves, for instance when thinking about the future, long-term consequences of our actions (in this respect, we are unique). So, while being a part of nature, we are not a part like any other.

    At the same time, I don’t like the idea of “protecting nature for its own sake”. Why should we? Do wolves do it? The apes? Any other species? No. They are acting so as to survive – and do not bother if they drive other species to extinction. Being part of nature means that we are, from the point of view of other species, another “selection mechanism”. Quite a powerful one, yes, potentially very destructive – but in the end the changes we trigger in ecosystems are qualitatively not different from the changes triggered by other species’ behaviour. This is what “being part of nature” means to me.

    Back to anthropocentrism then: since humans are part of nature, but at the same time unique, there is a reason to act in the interests of our own species – we help humans because they are “like us” (I know, this is what Peter Singer calls speciesism and I am not entirely sure whether I am right – just sketching the thoughts spooking in my head). And if we protect nature, we do it not for its sake, because it does not have any (species live, species die if they cannot cope with their environment – that’s nature), but because it helps us to survive. And this is a powerful reason, actually, because we are constantly undermining our own survival by destroying ecosystems we are dependent on, at least in the long term.

    So, for me, the insight that humans are part of nature is not in conflict with anthropocentrism – rather, anthropocentrically inspired protection of nature is the logical consequence of this very insight. Now you are free to criticise me;-)

    • Thanks for your comment! I understand the reasoning behind your perspective. I guess it depends on whether we think there is something inherently problematic to be self-centred (as a species), or not. Those who think this is a reasonable starting point are likely to find your position sensible; those who are troubled by “speciesism” will find it less reasonable. That’s my immediate thoughts anyway …

    • zielonygrzyb, you’ve made a very good point. We would not be the first species to create a global catastrophe that triggered mass extinctions – the earliest photosynthesizing bacteria beat us to that title, by polluting the atmosphere with their highly reactive oxygen wastes 2.3 Billion years ago. But, it is not wise for a large, complex species like us to continue down a road to such catastrophe, as we are too interdependent with other species. Even if humans were to survive the eco-disasters we seem to be heading toward, it would not be a pleasant time for our species, and our highly complex civilizations are unlikely to remain intact. However, the biosphere will undoubtedly survive and slowly recover its lost complexity (as it has after each previous catastrophic extinction event).
      I think “re-connecting” with nature is (as noted by Joern) a useful metaphor for the kind of mental shift that the dominant globalized culture needs to make, in order to recognize our interdependence with other members of the biosphere and alter our own behavior. It is self-interest that requires this, but it will be good for a lot of other species, and for (approximately) maintaining current levels of biosphere complexity, so it’s a win-win-win scenario.

  2. Reconnecting people with nature reminds me of the narrative we employ often in Theatre for Development (TFD)…”Taking Theatre or Drama Back to its roots…i.e reconnecting it with its roots”…implying the need for both performers and audience to participate in the play or genre being performed to do away with performers-audience boundary in most of today theatrical performances making audience mere partakers. So to me the term reconnecting people with nature is very valid…people have become selfish and destroying nature as if they are not part of it and disrespecting co-existence principles of nature…so we need to reconnect people again to the nature…the other day was with indigenous Ogiek tribe in Mau Forest Complex, Kenya doing feasibility study for physical fence, economic fence or social fence and they reminded us that they do not need physical fence to control wildlife for they continue to be reconnected with nature!

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective — indeed, the lack of fences could be an interesting indicator in many parts of the world!

  3. Thanks Joern, as always, for the insightful provocations. I think it it important to put “re-connection” (as it is for ES concept) into context, and for us to be self-reflexive about when it is appropriate to use, and when maybe not. As you say, Ecosystem Services have become a successful and powerful concept to communicate the value of nature to actors who may not otherwise have taken nature into consideration. I personally, working in deeply connected, one might say biocultural, choose not to use Ecosystem Services, because it dichotomises a relationship which is ‘reality’ whole. The simplification of the relationship between seeds, language and culture into ES does not allow me to investigate the dynamics that truly matter, those mediated by power, politics and justice.
    Re-connection may be useful in contexts where there are clear disconnects, some urban food systems for example. So i fully agree with your conclusion, and I do think the re-connecting to nature is a useful metaphor. However, I urge us all to think about contexts which may not-yet-be-disconnected, and treat those differently and even learn from them as opposed to applying a blanket metaphor. Further, we must all question our own ontological starting points about how we perceive social – ecological relationships. Some have argued (such as Andrea Nightingale) that the social-ecological systems ontology is interactional, and that in order to understand systems in a more holistic way, we might challenge ourselves to take a more relational ontology. This is challenging because it means we have to re-think our methodologies! A group of young scholars has reflected on this here: https://sesscholars.wordpress.com/2015/12/18/critically-reflecting-on-social-ecological-systems-research/
    So I agree with you! Let’s use these concepts when they are helpful for us as scientists, either for analytical purposes or for communication, but reflect on the context and also be clear and transparent about how we see the world (or how we see S-E relations).

    • Hi Jamila – thanks for sharing that link, which is very nice extra food for thought. And I agree with you that depending on context and objective, different framings will be more or less useful. I guess I agree that we agree 🙂

  4. An interesting post Joern. It’s true that metaphors have a way of taking on a life of their own and I think it’s well worth taking a look at how ecosystem services research has evolved if we’re wanting to progress research into reconnecting people and nature. As I see it, part of the reason these metaphors can start running away from us is because we as scientists often fail to separate normative aspects from descriptive aspects. It’s so important to be asking ‘why’ we think people should be re-connected to nature. Is it because this will help solve environmental or social problems we’re faced with, or is it simply the way the world ought to be (and end in itself)? How we think about this influences whether we consider an anthropocentric framing to be problematic or not. So as part of clarifying the value of the metaphor in papers, I think we should be explicit about the underlying reason why we think reconnecting people with nature is a good thing.

  5. Thanks Joern. I agree with all that you are writing.

    Also the concept implies that humans are dis-connected in the first place, what is the rationale to ‘re’-connect otherwise. It implies perhaps also that humans actually can be dis-connected materialy from the Biosphere. The only examlpes I know of this, is space-trallers that have been outside of the biospehre, but taking some of it with them, in order to survive for a short while. But also I agree with you that there is many useful applications for this re-connecting concept. Not the least when assulting knowledge systems that are completely ‘dis-connected in their world-views’ such as some lines of economic thought. It is also a good concept for making claims that human-environmnetal relationships are benign in many different ways, not the least from health perspectives and from spirituality perspectives.

    The work continues.

    Stephan

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