Redefining nature

Humanity's relationship with nature has become fractured, with climate change as one consequence. How can we change our thinking to overcome this divide?

Illustration by Katharine Hall

Illustration by Katharine Hall

There is widespread consensus in the scientific community that climate change is one of the most monumental issues facing our world today. If current warming trends continue, we will deal with a host of challenges in the coming decades, including prolonged drought, increased frequency and severity of natural disasters, increased human crimes and conflict, disappearance of towns, cities and nations, destabilisation of infrastructure such as roads, trains, and bridges, and an increase in climate refugees. 

One of the biggest hurdles to fighting the impacts of global warming is overcoming the widespread and often politicised belief that, because climate change occurs naturally, it is not our responsibility to find and enact solutions for the consequences of a warmer planet.

Breitbart News is a right-veering American news and opinion website that recently gained international attention with the appointment of their chairman, Stephen Bannon, as chief White House strategist for American President-elect Donald Trump. The site frequently publishes articles with headlines like "Climate Change: The Greatest-Ever Conspiracy Against the Taxpayer" and "Paris Climate Talks are Doomed Because China Knows ‘Climate Change’ is a Hoax".

Breitbart's arguments against climate change often rely on the notion that humanity is separate from nature. One article cites that 2015 was only the third warmest year since 1979, with 2010 and 1998 even warmer, and the Medieval Period hotter still. Articles like this suggest that humans cannot be blamed for the current warming trends because the earth has undergone fluctuations in temperature before. While it’s true that for the past million years the Earth has cycled between warm periods and ice ages, it is also known that these historic fluctuations are much more gradual than the current uptick in global temperature

The notion that nature is separate from humanity is relatively new in historical terms. Hunter-gatherer societies viewed themselves as inseparable from their environments, and even practiced rituals tied to thanking nature. It wasn’t until humans began cultivating food and domesticating animals that we started to view nature as distinct from us and as something to manipulate and control for our own benefit. In the current technological age, many people feel completely disconnected from “wild” places. A businessman living in the concrete jungle of New York City may only experience nature when he takes a stroll through Central Park. For kids growing up in south-central Los Angeles, their only exposure to greenery might be the trees lining the sidewalks. If we do not redefine nature to include these human-impacted areas, many people around the world will have zero connection to nature. 

Urban parks, like Central Park in New York, are some people’s only exposure to nature. lightinacube/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Urban parks, like Central Park in New York, are some people’s only exposure to nature. lightinacube/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)


Being a part of nature

Environmental writer Emma Marris has recently pointed out that if we buy into the idea that nature is inherently pure and not corrupted by humans, we would be hard pressed to find any places that qualify as nature because we have influenced nearly every inch of the planet already. Even national parks and nature reserves, like Yellowstone National Park in the United States or Banff National Park in Canada, are heavily managed by people. In these supposedly “wild” areas, we cull animals to keep populations at certain levels, burn trees, spray pesticides, remove invasive species, and pave trails for tourists to experience the beauty of the flora and fauna.

Human influence on the environment is not a new phenomenon. As long as 12,000 years ago, humans began building permanent settlements. Early agricultural peoples cleared land to grow crops and created pastures for livestock to graze. It is worth pointing out that our manipulation of the environment does not make us any less a part of the natural world — after all, we are animals too. We build skyscrapers as tall as the 2,717 foot high Burj Khalifa in Dubai, while termites build impressive castles out of soil. We change the course of rivers, as do beavers when they build their damns. We carve tunnels through mountains, and gophers dig extensive underground communities that house thousands of their kin.

We do, however, affect the planet in a more substantial way than any other creature. We change the composition of the soil, alter the chemistry of the water, and are responsible for warming the planet with our greenhouse gas emissions. Our great level of influence comes with great responsibility. If all people come to understand that we are part of nature, perhaps we can begin to care for our world in the same way we care for our own families.

The redefinition of nature

In an interview for this article, Marris raised the question that if today’s youth “feel like they live in a world without nature, how on earth will they feel motivated to fight climate change or save species?” If our children only see nature as places free from human influence, when they look around their neighbourhoods, they won’t feel connected to the plants and animals flourishing around them. A redefinition of nature that includes humanity will allow young people to see an abandoned bridge overrun with hundreds of plant species, birds making nests on the roofs of skyscrapers, and weeds sprouting up through cracks in the sidewalk, as belonging to the fabric of their communities.

A bird’s nest should still be considered nature even when attached to a building. Renee May/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A bird’s nest should still be considered nature even when attached to a building. Renee May/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Marris also articulated that we shouldn’t consider nature to be just a pleasurable bonus or a luxury good. Research shows that nature provides real economic and environmental benefits. Green spaces lower crime rates, renew business districts, increase property value, enhance productivity among workers, and even reduce air conditioning costs. Plants and trees filter pollutants from the air, protect water quality, reduce soil erosion, prevent flooding, dust storms and mudslides, and provide shade in urban areas.

Clearly, our health and wellbeing is more closely tied to our environment than the view of nature as separate from humanity would suggest. Marris explained that the need to expand our concept of nature to include humanity “is a very urgent pragmatic discussion that we need to have in order to make sure that we have successive generations that care”. By strengthening our children’s understanding of our interconnection with nature, we can create a culture that incentivises and rewards actions that reduce the harmful impacts of climate change. Marris added that the best programs for children are the ones that take kids on walks around their neighbourhoods and teach them about the trees and birds living outside their front doors. Programs that put kids on a bus and take them to a nature reserve or national park might create lasting memories, but such trips reinforce the notion that nature is separate from human-run civilisation.

Working with climate-affected communities

Russell VergaraAssistant Professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work, is deeply interested in the education of young people, especially those living in areas vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Vergara founded CYPHER, a program that works with youths to come up with solutions to the consequences of global warming affecting their local communities.

Many of the local populations and indigenous communities that CYPHER works with retain vocations that are more connected to their local environments. For example, farmers in Southern California depend on rainfall to grow their crops and are deeply affected by the prolonged droughts that have resulted from global warming. The people in these farming communities understand they are part of nature because their livelihoods depend on it. “A big part of local and indigenous knowledge systems is this idea that nature is a family member,” said Vergara.

Vergara said that he and others at CYPHER “deeply believe in the wisdom in these climate vulnerable populations because they have direct personal experience in local manifestations of climate change.” Local people possess unique awareness of the needs of their own communities that outside policy makers and scientists do not. If we want to be successful in taking actions that reduce the impacts of climate change, it’s important that we work with local people to discover solutions that make sense within the context of their way of life.

Working with climate-affected communities helps create solutions to meet their unique needs. For example, mangroves were planted in Kiribati to help protect the coast from the effects of climate change. United Nations Photo/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Working with climate-affected communities helps create solutions to meet their unique needs. For example, mangroves were planted in Kiribati to help protect the coast from the effects of climate change. United Nations Photo/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Building a sustainable future

We are already witnessing some of the impacts of global warming on vulnerable communities. The government of the island nation of Kiribati purchased land in Fiji in anticipation of their entire country being swallowed by the rising sea. Within the United States, small towns like Louisiana’s Isle de Jean Charles and Tangier Island in Virginia are facing the prospect of losing their homes and their livelihoods to rising tides. The native Inupiat people in Shaktoolik, Alaska must decide whether to relocate or to build infrastructure to protect themselves against destructive flooding. The issue of climate change is very real for these communities, and a small population size or lack of wealth should not be reasons for the international community to dismiss their need for assistance.

Dr Lawrence Palinkas, a colleague of Vergara’s at the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work, explained that a sustainable community requires greater “exercise of democratic principles” because climate change is not “just an environmental issue. […] It’s a social justice issue.” Regrettably, there is great disparity in the levels of understanding of the severity of climate change across the world. The Pew Research Center found that countries with the highest per capita levels of carbon emissions are less intensely concerned about climate change, including the United States. Countries with high emissions also happen to be wealthier nations with great capacity to bring about change should their governments and people mobilise.

Dr Palinkas said that a powerful tool in influencing public opinion “is exposure to the experiences of those who are already dealing with the impacts of climate change”. It is easier to deny an abstract concept than to see the actual effects on a fellow human and turn the other cheek. By telling the stories of climate-affected peoples — like those in Kiribati, Isle de Jean Charles, Shaktoolik, and many other places around the globe — we increase awareness of the imminent challenges threatening our existence.

Taking matters into our own hands

Fortunately, many nations already understand that our future is tied to the health of our planet. 195 countries that participated in the Paris Climate Conference agreed to the first legally binding global climate deal. Though the agreement sets the bar for countries to limit carbon emissions, it will ultimately be up to the people of these nations to engage with their governments to create lasting sustainable communities.

Populism is on the rise around the world, which, at its core, refers to a belief in the power of regular people to influence politics. Populist ideas can be destructive or a force for social justice. Encouragingly, a recent poll commissioned by the Clinton Global Initiative and Microsoft found that millennials are more focused on the environment than their parents’ generation. A majority of 66% believe there is “solid evidence” that the earth is getting warmer. Many European countries have also experienced rising concerns about the environment, and most report that public awareness of the need for adaptation to the impacts of climate change has increased. Sweden is ranked as one of the most sustainable countries; their success in ratifying policies to limit carbon emissions and enacting sustainable practices is largely due to a high level of citizen engagement.

Porotesting in an example of citizen engagement that works towards changing government policies. Oxfam International/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Porotesting in an example of citizen engagement that works towards changing government policies. Oxfam International/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Given the immense danger of false and unethical ideas taking root in popular culture, it is increasingly important for us to educate people about our connection to nature, give voice to local communities, and listen to the wisdom gained from their direct experience in dealing with the impacts of climate change. When communities large and small across the globe work together they may well enact lasting solutions to the effects of global warming.

Edited by Deborah Kane