Reflections by Chris Ives, Katie Klaniecki, Christian Dorninger and Joern Fischer
In his recent paper, Robert Fletcher criticises the idea of re-connecting people with nature (and with it, the perspective of “connection with nature”). His main argument is that through the very terminology being used, people and nature are treated as separate entities — suggesting that a true unity of them therefore is going to remain elusive. A people-nature dichotomy, or nature-culture divide, thus is entrenched in the terminology being used, rather than dissolved. As an alternative, Fletcher suggests a political ecology framework: According to this, with industrialisation, a “metabolic rift” occurred, and this alienated people from the environment both materially and philosophically. Such a framework would encourage a broader perspective, which perhaps would do a better job at getting at the root causes of un-sustainability.
We agree with Fletcher that there is a great need for critical reflection of the connection to nature concept. His arguments are conceptually sound, in that a close examination of the term “re-connecting with nature” shows it is indeed a potential oxymoron. Yet, his critique takes a relatively narrow perspective of the “reconnection” agenda, largely grounded in examples on ecotourism and environmental education. Indeed, taken narrowly, the concept of re-connecting people and nature is unlikely to solve major sustainability problems.
What Fletcher is perhaps missing, however, is that there are now many disciplines looking at “reconnecting” people and nature – though not necessarily under this label. Discussions at present go far beyond eco-tourism and environmental education. Recent work has examined, for example, experiential connections, biophysical connections, spiritual connections, and cultural connections. None of these, by themselves, will solve all sustainability problems. And indeed, looking at these disconnections (or possible re-connections), alongside other frameworks such as political ecology would probably be useful. But the usefulness of alternative frameworks (such as political ecology) does not, in itself, negate the potential for simultaneous usefulness of a “reconnection” agenda.
Probably then, reconnecting people and nature will be most useful in the context of a systems approach. There are structures or institutions within society (neoliberalism included?) that fundamentally contribute to disconnecting people and nature. We agree with Fletcher that reconnecting won’t work unless we also challenge the structures that have caused humans to be increasingly distant from the natural world.
On this basis, then, we believe that as a metaphor, the notion of re-connecting people and nature remains useful. The term sends signals that we need to be careful not to transgress the biophysical boundaries of our planet; that we are dependent on non-human species. By offering a number of ways in which we can re-connect, the concept also leaves room for different, complementary approaches to tackle the present sustainability crisis — be it through fostering experiential, material or spiritual connections.
In essence, we agree with Fletcher that “entering into deeper and more mutual relationship with nonhumans is vital”. Where we disagree is that we see re-connecting to nature as a potentially useful metaphor to get closer to this goal. Perhaps it won’t get us there all the way: but especially in industrialised societies, it will be a good start towards a more ultimate goal — namely re-embedding humanity within nature.