Amazon Achuars

Is it still necessary to talk about nature?


As long as we stick to the balance of nature, we perpetuate the dualisms of modernity (which oppose man and nature, the artificial and the natural, culture and nature) by simply reversing the signs: instead of praising man as the conqueror of nature, we denounce him as its destroyer. CIt can lead to the violent denunciation of men, at the risk of provoking legitimate criticism. Moving from a static to a dynamic vision means overcoming these dualisms and including men in the processes we want to encourage.

Cn ecology is the "subversive science" that calls into question the certainties reductionists of certain currents of biology (such as molecular biology), to show us that we are not independent atoms, that man is not apart from nature, but is part of it, belongs to a world in which all components are interdependent.

This is the good news that environmental ethics - or an 'ecosophy' like that ofArne Naess - are working to elaborate in philosophical terms: how to develop a relational vision of the world, how to move from a morality of uprooting (from nature) to an ethic of attachment (to our common world)?

Questioning the monopoly of science

But is it still necessary to talk about nature? According to Bruno LatourWhether we are questioning the moral dimension of our relationship with nature, or whether we want to "bring nature into politics", nature, as referred to in environmental issues, is not a necessary part of the solution, it is part of the problem: it serves to empower scientists by making them spokespersons for a unit, nature, presupposed as a given.

According to Philippe DescolaIn order to be able to do this, one must learn to situate oneself "beyond nature and culture". But does this imply that, as Bruno Latour and Philippe Descola state, we must abandon all reference to nature and be concerned with creating "a common world" bringing together "humans and non-humans"? Should we not rather consider that one of the effects of the environmental crisis is to put the discussion on nature back into the realm of philosophy, by removing from science the monopoly on the question of nature that it had made its own in modernity?

When Philippe Descola presented to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCNa leading nature conservation association) the ideas he will develop later in Beyond nature and cultures, he intended to warn against the consequences of exporting Western models of nature protection: imposing Western standards - those of the wilderness - In other parts of the world, it is not protecting nature, it is emptying spaces of their usual inhabitants, to turn them into leisure parks for western tourists or places under scientific control. It is therefore by defending the life of non-Western cultures and respecting their own ontology that we will protect what we conceive of as their nature - for what we consider nature is part of their culture.

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A necessary empathy

But if it is thus excluded to impose protection schemes that lead to forms of neo-colonialism on cultures other than our own, does this mean that we should give up talking about nature? We do not think so. If only because we don't get rid of nature so easily. It is perhaps no coincidence that the very titles of two of the books that have done the most to challenge the received idea of nature in environmentalist circles, Nature Policies and Beyond nature and cultureThe term that they criticize is mentioned. And, in cases like these, the mention of the word matters more than what is said.

The notion of nature is certainly not universal, but it is because it is a Western category that it condemns us, to a certain extent, to remain attached to it. One does not change ontology, or ways of expressing oneself, by a simple decision, and the categories by which one can try to replace nature (the couple of humans and non-humans, or biodiversity) are also Western categories. And if we speak only of humans and non-humans, we run the risk, quite quickly, of becoming interested only in humans, since the category of non-humans is so indefinite and has meaning only in relation to us.

It is therefore not a question of renouncing any idea of nature, but one can avoid its disadvantages by relying on the plasticity of naturalism, in the sense, which is that of Philippe Descola, of the ontology characteristic of Western modernity, which poses the physical continuity of all that is natural, while reserving interiority for humans alone. The main characteristic of naturalism is its dualism: if it has made it possible, by objectivizing nature, to develop scientific knowledge of it, it is also what makes it possible to oppose man and nature, even though the distinction between the natural and the artificial, between human history and natural history, is more and more difficult to make. But naturalism is also characterized by its plasticity. This can be seen in the critical, or reflexive, capacity of naturalistic ontology.

Concern for nature stems from modernity: it is at a time when the domination of nature is asserting itself that we also begin to question this domination and to preserve natural spaces. The fact that environmental ethics have been able to question modern naturalism from within shows the inventiveness allowed by the Western idea of nature. Plasticity is also found in the ability of naturalistic ontology to accommodate segments of other ontologies, such as animists The growing interest in animal sensitivity goes hand in hand with empathy for animals. In order to change our attitude towards nature, and in a way that does not only consist in leaving it outside of us, but in knowing how to intervene in it, we have to stop considering it as a pure mechanism, and show some empathy with the living, and nature in general. In this way, we can try to harmonize our attitude towards nature and our conception of it.

Catherine Larrère...University Professor of Philosophy, University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne


Find this text in its entirety by consulting the collective work "A Guide to the Environmental Humanities" (edited by Aurélie Choné, Isabelle Hajek and Philippe Hamman, Presses universitaires du Septentrion), to be published in December 2015.


The original text of this article was published on The Conversation.

The Conversation
Photo: In the Achuars of Amazonia, the relationship with nature is part of an animist approach, attributing to all human and non-human beings the same kind of interiority, subjectivity and intentionality.

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