Is connection with nature an oxymoron?

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.

16 thoughts on “Is connection with nature an oxymoron?

  1. “His main argument is that through the very terminology being used, people and nature are treated as separate entities” I really struggle to accept this argument. It seems to me what what is actually being studied/conceptualized/discussed in most of this literature is something like “humanity’s (dis)connection to non-human aspects of nature” and human-nature connections is just a snappier less cumbersome shorthand for that. I don’t think it implies humans are not part of nature at all. Certainly none of the papers I have read explicitly, or even in my reading implicitly, argue that humans are not part of nature. You could argue that they treat humans as different from other aspects of nature, but I fail to see why that is problematic (unless you believe that nature should only be thought of as some undifferentiated all encompassing whole).

    That does not mean that terminology and framings in these debates don’t matter, but in this instance it feels to me a bit like trying to create a problem that does not exist.

  2. I’ve not yet read the Fletcher paper but on the basis of this summary I’m struggling to see how, grammatically, “connection with nature” is an oxymoron. An oxymoron is defined as “a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction”. The only two terms in that phrase (“connection” and “nature”) are not oxymoronic.

    Perhaps he means the concepts of connection and nature, and how they are applied in this instance, but even then it seems to me that these are not contradictory concepts per se, they are just being applied in a false dichotomous manner, as you say. If use of language is so important in Fletcher’s opinion, then better choice of words would have helped his argument.

    I agree with Dave (above) that this is “trying to create a problem that does not exist” and would go further: that these sorts of academic debates about use of language deflect us from addressing real issues of real importance. Of course language is important but, in this case, is it really important?

  3. Hi Dave and Jeff — just to be clear, this is how I understood it. If nature is something one can connect with, this implies it is outside oneself. Or, in other words, it is an entity that is separate (a separate box in a flowchart if you like) from the entity “humans”. The boxes “humanity” and “nature” are separate entities. If that is so, then the very conceptual model underpinning connectedness to nature implies a human-nature dualism — that is, it implies that humans cannot be part of nature, because humanity is a separate box in the conceptual model. In that sense, one could see the concept as an oxymoron. Or, this is how I understood it anyway! Perhaps this helps? — Joern

    • Thanks Joern….no, it doesn’t help me at all 🙂 Lots of things can be “separate” from one another yet still “connected” – the keyboard on the laptop I’m using at the moment and the laptop’s processor, for example – but that doesn’t make “keyboard connection with processor” an oxymoron, does it? Perhaps I need to read the original paper….

  4. I do think that the paradigm represents a real problem, though perhaps it is not sufficiently embodied in the phrase “connection with nature,” itself. There are several parts to the “real problem” to my mind–

    1) Precision. Whether “oxymoron” may not be the correct word, the argument that the incorrect use of a word invalidates a discussion about the incorrect usage of words is not, itself, valid 🙂 But I do think it is important to realize that humans and nature are not distinct or separate, and conceptually–but not necessarily in every case–I think Dave’s clarification of “non-human aspects of nature,” is an important distinction.

    2) The distinction is important BECAUSE of the Edenic/misanthropic tendency of ecology. There tends to be a “pure nature/human spoilage” dichotomy that I have found very damaging in my teaching and work. Anything with humans in it, or “too heavy” a human hand, is viewed as “unnatural” or in some way less worthwhile than systems that have a (less obvious but not always lighter) human hand in them. I think it is of the utmost importance to distinguish “what kinds of systems do we desire” from “what kinds of systems represent nature ‘untrammeled’ or unaffected by humankind.” For example, Ford Denison has argued convincingly that we wouldn’t want blindly emulate “natural” systems in order to improve agriculture, as there are “natural monocultures” and “naturally leaky” and “naturally pest-heavy” systems that may not provide the functions (or aesthetics) we often say we want. More directly, conservation biology has any number of times sought to “restore” an ecosystem to what is was/would be like without humans. But THAT can TRULY be a purely academic, “how many angels on the head of a pin” argument, as there are times where the systems we want to “return” to were already heavily modified by humans. But is that a problem? No, if you accept that humans and nature are not strictly separate. Yet a huge amount of effort has been expended, for example, debating to what degree Amazonian biodiversity is anthropogenic. But in the end, if we appreciate a biodiverse system, and it isn’t causing damage (e.g. releasing lots of carbon or something), then isn’t it worth supporting even if it represents the legacy of human management and not “pure” nature? Who the hell cares if it’s “pure,” whatever that may mean? If we appreciate it AND it allows for the existence of non-human beings, must it truly reflect an elusive ideal of immaculate non-human creation?

    3) Related to the above, the human/nature dichotomy is very very often used, and has been used in the past, to expropriate local peoples from their land, under the guise of protecting nature from them. After all, if nature is defined as “non-human,” then we can’t have humans managing it while living among it, can we? It should be “scientifically” managed by a small number of non-resident experts in “nature.” Or, at the alternative extreme, we must believe in the “noble savage,” a qualitatively different sort of human being who lives in perfect harmony with their natural environment. The idea of an active human presence that may maintain many healthy natural functions, but does not maintain them in such a way that they can be thought of as wholly “non-human,” or “natural,” well, that can’t stand, can it?

    So I don’t know that I buy the argument that the phrase “human-nature connections” itself worsens/perpetuates the problematic of human/nature separation obscuring our true goals and values, and justifying expropriation of the less politically powerful. But I DO think it ORIGINATES from the same problematic source. The fact that the phrase itself may be somewhat innocuous should not distract us from the fact that the dichotomy has been, and can be, used in ways that blind us to certain possibilities, or even worse, justify injustice towards humans in order to provide a self-defined dispensation of justice for non-human “nature.”

    Paul Robbins’ text Political Ecology covers these ideas quite well.

  5. OK, I’ve finally had a chance to read Fletcher’s paper so I have a better understanding of what it is I’m discussing 🙂 I still maintain that the phrase is not strictly an oxymoron, but I can see how the concept underpinning it could be viewed in that way. And agreed, invalid use of words doesn’t invalidate the concept, but it does lessen its impact 🙂

    I enjoyed reading the paper but I agree with the blog post that it has a very narrow frame of reference in terms of how it’s critiquing “connecting with nature”. In addition I think that there’s a point to be made that no person on the planet (unless they have been kept in a sealed, sterile, environment their whole life and fed artificial food supplements) is actually “disconnected from nature”. We are all of us connected, directly and indirectly, with non-human life and landscapes. I was thinking about that last night on a visit to a very built-up part of London – a city synonymous (at least in the UK) with the idea of disconnecting from nature – and I was seeing non-human life everywhere; plants growing in the most unlikely and sterile of places; large gulls crying overhead; house sparrows chirruping in gardens. Yes it’s common-place stuff and yes some of it is anthropogenic, but that doesn’t make it any less “nature”. The real question for me is about how many people actually perceive this, either consciously or subliminally. I suspect there’s far more of the latter than the former, but that if the non-human elements of “nature” were removed from even the most built-up parts of large cities like London, that people would notice and respond negatively to its removal. I think I might develop some of this on my blog and add some photographs that I took last night, and link through to this discussion…

    One final thing Joern – the “notify me of new comments via email” tick box doesn’t seem to be activated on your blog, only the “notify me of new posts”, which means that people only see new comments if they check back on the blog.

    • Thanks Jeff … re: “notify me of new comments” — good point, but where in the interface do I find this?! Do you happen to know? I looked around a bit and could not find it… in case you know, perhaps you can let me know. Thanks!

  6. Pingback: Connecting with Nash, connecting with “nature” – reflections on a recent discussion | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

  7. Great post, and excellent discussion in the comments! I actually enjoyed reading Fletcher’s paper and agreed with most of it. Similar to Joern’s comment above, I interpreted Fletcher’s argument as based around the concept, rather than the term itself (or the metaphorical/oxymoronic use thereof!). Promoting ‘connection to nature’ activities means nothing (regardless of how many people participate) if we are not also teaching the laws of ecological consequences. Many of the ‘connection to nature’ marketing & educational activities I have come across present Nature as a separate place that we can visit when WE choose, and manage our interaction in the way WE want, and then walk away from it when WE’RE ready. I think ‘connection to nature’ needs to teach not just physical connection or participation, but also how to understand and respect all the workings of nature, the goods, the bads and the tradeoffs, and understand our role in all of it – as you put it, ‘re-embedding humanity within nature’.

  8. I’ve really enjoyed reading all these comments! I just came across another blog by Chris Sandbrook. Essentially he argues that logically we cannot separate people from nature, but that framing the debate in this way ignores the spectrum of types and qualities of these relationships. The analogy he uses is a prisoner in a cell: while he/she is fully human, the quality of human experiences has been diminished. In the same way, while people are part of nature, we have reduced the quality of experiences with other parts of nature. I think this is a useful line of thinking that could help stimulate fruitful research on human-nature connections.

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