Being human, being nature

The idea that humans are separate from and above nature is central to the capitalist outlook that pervades contemporary public life.

A photo of a painting showing a dark purple curve in the top left giving way to a black curve in the bottom right.
Curve Tangents, Crockett Johnson

Something really cool happened after I wrote last month’s letter. I always seem to hear from one or two of you after the letter goes out into the world, always positive things (thanks, friends). And last time, one of you had some feedback, which I thought was so awesome. My hope in writing these letters is to seed conversations, and it seems to be working! Please do keep reaching out to let me know what you think.

In my last letter, I wrote about an idea at the heart of environmentalism that I think is flawed: the notion that humans are separate from nature, and that it’s our role to save nature by somehow restoring it to the pristine state it is assumed to have been in before greedy humans cut down the trees, filled in the wetlands, and polluted the water and the air.

I wrote mainly about how this idea was problematic because it assumes a state of nature that’s never existed as long as humans have existed on this planet. I wrote less about the more fundamental perception that undergirds this assumption—the sense that humans are separate from nature. This view is so broadly taken for granted that it merits more focused attention.

Human vs. nature

The natural is often contrasted from the built or human realm. Whereas humanity is developed and civilized, nature is unrefined and in need of improvement by humans. This line of thinking justifies extraction without limit. By extracting natural resources and using them to build new structures, we are improving the world.

This idea has biblical roots and was violently exported around the world by European colonists: “and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28).

Though stripped of the religious overtones, this stance towards nature is central to the capitalist outlook that pervades contemporary public life. It's taken for granted that the world around us is for us to shape as we will and its resources to be taken by any means for our use.

The human animal

In Genesis, animals—“the fish of the sea” and the “fowl of the air” and “every living thing that moveth”—are part of nature, part of what humans have a right to rule. So if humans are animals, we are a special kind, the first among animals. This idea goes back to some of the earliest thinkers of Western philosophy. Aristotle saw humans as unique among the animals because of our ability to think rationally. Over the years, Western thinkers have identified a litany of traits that supposedly distinguish the human animal from all the others, including rational thinking, language use, ethics, self-awareness, and consciousness.

But, the closer we look at any one of our supposedly special distinguishing talents, it becomes clear that humans aren’t so special after all. Many animals are capable of engaging in sophisticated thought that involves problem solving and perspective taking, even deception. Corvids, a group of birds that includes crows, use tools and can distinguish and remember human faces. Dolphins are highly social and communicate with clicks, some of which may indicate the names of individuals. Dolphins pass tests for self-awareness, as do elephants and apes. Other species are not only smart and communicative, but moral as well. Both apes and dogs will share food with disabled members of their troop or pack. And, at least some scientists think that virtually all vertebrates, including bony fish, have some form of consciousness or sentience. [1]

Comparative biology shows humans to be not outliers, but members on a continuum of shared traits that reflect our common evolutionary history with other species. Learning more about the way our fellow animals go about their own lives helps us see what is unique in our human way of living, but also, I think, what we share.


If the attitude that human and nature are opposite poles on a spectrum is one that we’ve adopted through a series of historical accidents, we should now make a more deliberate choice. The diversity of human cultures extant today and throughout history suggest some alternatives to us.

Many indigenous people see no sharp distinction between humans, other animals, and plants or even between humans and other features of the natural world generally considered inanimate, such as rivers or stones. Humans of deep history saw no distinction in kind between human and animal, creating tools that allowed them to harness the powers of animals. [2] Indigenous people of North America have seen animals and plants not as resources to be tapped, but kin to be respected. [3, 4] Many are now fighting so the rights of nature can be legally recognized. Because even to say what is alive and what is not could be more complicated that we assume.

In her book Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, Jenny Odell draws on numerous Indigenous and other thinkers to suggest that we consider whether even a mountain might be animate. To view elements and processes of the natural world as lacking agency leads us to act in ways that doom us. Odell describes homeowners in California cyclically buying property only to have it destroyed by landslides. The response of local government is a typical one that opposes human settlement from the natural world it exists within, erecting ever more elaborate and ultimately ineffectual barriers between homes and the surrounding mountains. Odell writes:

“[W]hat actually is the ‘issue’? On the material, everyday level, the issue in this case would seem to be a series of boulders that keep destroying property despite the city’s increasing infrastructural reinforcements. But what I want to suggest is something more: that the ‘issue’ is a failure to recognize the mountain itself. While the people… may appreciate what this rise in the landscape affords them—a vertical escape from the city, proximity to ‘nature,’ a masterful view of the valley or even some neat rocks—the San Gabriels seem to appear to them only as a backdrop or a nuisance, a collection of lifeless stuff that just happens to be there. The mountain is inert and thus controllable.”

However, our failure to control the mountain in fact suggests the opposite. Our belief that we are above nature is directly related to our attempts to control and exploit nature. It’s time to reconsider that attitude—and what it entails for our relationship with the natural world.

[1] Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility by Martha Nussbaum

[2] Magic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present by Chris Gosden

[3] Salmon Without Rivers: A History of the Pacific Salmon Crisis by Jim Lichatowich

[4] Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

I make no money if you click these links and/or buy the books, but I do hope you will check them out!

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