Nature Has Lost Its Meaning

To solve climate change, we need to reimagine our entire relationship to the nonhuman world.

Denis Balibouse / Reuters

Humans were once a fairly average species of large mammals, living off the land with little effect on it. But in recent millennia, our relationship with the natural world has changed as dramatically as our perception of it.

There are now more than 7 billion people on this planet, drinking its water, eating its plants and animals, and mining its raw materials to build and power our tools. These everyday activities might seem trivial from the perspective of any one individual, but aggregated together they promise to leave lasting imprints on the Earth. Human power is now geological in scope—and if we are to avoid making a mess of this, our only home, our politics must catch up.

Making this shift will require a radical change in how we think about our relationship to the natural world. That may sound like cause for despair. After all, many people refuse to admit that environmental crises like climate change exist at all. But as Jedediah Purdy reminds us in his dazzling new book, After Nature, our relationship with the nonhuman world has proved flexible over time. People have imagined nature in a great many ways across history.

Purdy is a law professor at Duke, and as such, he feels most at home in American history. His book is, among other things, a panoramic tour of what he calls the “American environmental imagination.” In Purdy’s telling, European settlers initially took a providential view of North America, seeing it as a wild land set apart by god for human cultivation. The Romantics that followed saw America’s landscapes as “secular cathedrals,” meant to inspire awe and reflection. In the late 19th century, a new utilitarian cast of mind took hold, and America’s wild lands—especially its forests—became resources to be managed.

In more recent times, Americans have taken an ecological view of the natural world, seeing it as a connected, interdependent whole. “The main premise here is that nothing is isolated,” says Purdy. “The world is a network of inter-permeable systems, so that what comes out of a smokestack can travel through wind, rain, groundwater, and soil, and end up in flesh.” The “Anthropocene” or “age of humans” is, in some ways, a logical extension of this view.

Purdy hopes that climate change might spur yet another change in how we think about the natural world, but he insists that such a shift will be inescapably political. There is no other way to “build the movements and institutions that could match the scale of decisions that now have to be made,” he says. We recently discussed his book over a series of emails. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of our conversation.

Ross Andersen: For a relatively slim volume, this book distills an incredible amount of scholarship—about Americans’ changing attitudes toward the natural world, and about how those attitudes might change in the future. How long have you been thinking about this?

Jedediah Purdy: I started thinking about this project seven or eight years ago, when I was co-teaching a course at Duke on the law, science, and politics of climate change. What struck me then was how much of the scholarship involved very sophisticated analyses of futility. There were all these studies about why we should expect to do nothing: because climate change overruns our national borders, the timelines of our political decision-making, the scope of our moral concern, and even our cognition.

So I began thinking: This sounds familiar. Many of the ideas we take for granted now, at least as widely shared goals—democracy, gender equality, diversity, economic life without any form of slavery, overcoming the legacy of racism and even overcoming the myth of race itself—would have seemed impossible at many earlier times. In fact, they would have seemed unnatural. Not so long ago, the best minds believed they had seen the limits of human possibility, and those limits did not extend very far. And in a sense they were right. In fighting out these questions, humans became different kinds of people. They came to care about new and different things. The scope and shape of their moral communities changed.

So, I thought, maybe climate change—and, really, the whole global environmental crisis—is like that. Maybe it’s one of these deep problems that, if we engage it in a serious way, changes us. Maybe we need to become different people in relation to the natural world. And maybe that isn’t such a wildly utopian thought: that becoming different people is something that humans do, in wrestling with deep problems.

So I went back and started digging around in the history of environmental politics and lawmaking. I looked at all the different the ways that people talked about the natural world when something was at stake, when they were trying to move, persuade, inspire, shame, other people into acting with them.

I looked at all of these key moments in American political and cultural history—the definition of equality and freedom, the creation of a national state, the confrontation with the limits of technological mastery in the later twentieth century, the search for secular meaning, and so forth. The non-human world figured in many of these moments. It was this neglected thread running through political life, and its meaning had changed profoundly along the way.

Seeing those changes play out over the course of history gave me hope. It suggests that how we are going to live in relation to the world is a question that we have the power to answer in many different ways. That power is not just technological, but also cultural and imaginative. And in the Anthropocene, the pivot that turns its future, for better or worse, is politics.

Andersen: It feels like there is currently a backlash against that idea—the Anthropocene idea—especially on the left. Why do you think that is?

Purdy: Yes, there's a whole clutch of objections to it. For some critics, the Anthropocene is too focused on humanity as a species, and as a result, it ignores the systematic forms of inequality, such as imperialism and racism, which have shaped the world.

From this camp, you hear calls to name what we’re living through the “Capitalocene,” or the “Eurocene.” After all, the “humanity” that put most of the greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, created global commodity markets that have industrialized agricultural land use, started the sixth great extinction, and contributed most of the toxins and plastics that line the world—in other words, the anthropos of the Anthropocene—is good old homo europeanus. So let's not talk about human responsibility when this world order was made by and for some people, and others were drawn into it without much choice in its design, and often enough against their will and violently.

For others, talking about the Anthropocene smacks of anthropocentrism and arrogance: To their ears, the terms seems to celebrate human control and putting selfish human interests first. This is a more or less traditionally environmentalist objection to human selfishness and hubris. E.O. Wilson, for instance, takes many swipes at “Anthropocene enthusiasts” in his forthcoming book, Half-Earth, as does Elizabeth Kolbert in her work for The New Yorker. Wilson and Kolbert are identifying “Anthropocene” with anthropocentrism, meaning some mix of (1) the idea that people decide what matters, and what is worth saving, according to our own lights; and (2) the idea that we're in charge, that technological mastery is just going to keep on rolling, even deepen. Geo-engineering! Robots! Martian colonies! To hell with nature, anyway! That sort of thing.

I agree with Kolbert and Wilson that this version of the Anthropocene is worth rejecting. I also think they’re associating the term with Peter Kareiva, a senior scientist with the Nature Conservancy who has tried to brand (I hate this word, but it’s exactly what he’s doing, so he deserves it) his frankly anthropocentric, business-friendly, wilderness-bashing agenda, “conservation for the Anthropocene.” But recognizing that Kareiva’s agenda is narrow and opportunistic doesn't mean we can get out of the Anthropocene. The idea, and the reasons to take it seriously, are much more substantial and encompassing than the Kareiva version.

Finally, there are those for whom the Anthropocene perspective deepens the philosophical mistake of humanism, which is to emphasize what makes us special, what sets us apart from everything else, when we should be trying to move beyond that idea and explore what we have in common with the rest of the living world, including, obviously, animals, but also perhaps mushrooms, forests, supercomputers, etc.

These “post-humanist” thinkers want to talk about incorporating other species into democratic life, extending citizenship to them, developing extensive social and ethical relations with them. They want to think of the world in animistic terms, as full of consciousness, full of points of views—from other animals, but maybe also the wind, the storms, a tree.

I'm all for this as a matter of experiments in consciousness: Expanding aesthetics and moral imagination has always been an important part of moving environmental politics, and it should be central in Anthropocene politics, too. But I think this radical group is really confused, maybe willfully so, in their conception of politics.

What is distinctive about a politics that can organize a common world, and create an architecture for interdependence, is that it requires language. It is an artificial order whose materials are linguistic. People will object to this on sentimental or confused grounds, but I think it is irrefutable. You can't have politics without having linguistic access to others.

A political community can create rights in those who can't participate—you might think of the Endangered Species Act and animal-welfare legislation as doing this—and of course people's interactions with non-human animals will feed into human politics, and quite appropriately. But there is a limit. The idea of something like multi-species democracy shows a failure to understand what is at stake in democracy: joint participation in creating a common world, culminating in an authoritative decision about its shape (which of course can be revisited and contested). I wonder whether the idea that we could share a democracy with animals doesn't show the depth of our confusion—and despair—about democracy itself.

As I see it, a call for an Anthropocene politics, and specifically a democratic Anthropocene, is a call to move toward building movements and institutions that could match the scale of decisions that now have to be made, which affect everyone in interdependent (though unequal) ways.

Andersen: In your book, you argue, persuasively, that we should never look to nature itself for our values. Where do you see that happening today, in American culture?

Purdy: You see it in paleo diets, in the anti-vaccination movement, in arguments against gender diversity and marriage equality. You see it in “natural capitalism” types who see an ecologically complex, interdependent world as a template for a fully marketized society, where everything has a price, all “waste” is accounted for within the system, etc. I don't mean that there aren’t engineering and design lessons to learn from the workings of natural systems, but this is just reading a certain ideological version of our economy back into the natural world.

There’s also a subtler way that evolutionary psychology encourages people to treat, say, politics as just a side-effect of our animal nature. You see this at work in this idea that being a liberal or a conservative is about the strength of your disgust response. These stories tend to conceal how very much “human nature” has changed over centuries (a time much too short to involve biological change) because of politics, consciousness, and imagination.

Let’s say there really is a left-right spectrum connected with various aspects of disgust, fear, openness, respect for authority or parental figures, etc. None of this is the interesting thing. The interesting thing is that the person at the rightward end of that spectrum today would have been falling off the leftward end of the spectrum two hundred years ago, by admitting basic equality among people, the possibility of living a moral life without religious belief, the viability of democracy, etc. Outside the lunatic fringe, the right today is, in many respects, the revolutionary left of the eighteenth century. How that changed is not a question that “nature” can answer for us.

Valuing and relating to the non-human world is one of the richest among our cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual resources. My book is partly a loving, if critical, history of how some people—mainly Americans—have done this. But it is a human project, ultimately, an experiment in interpretation and living. No part of the natural world tells us how to value it, let alone how to live and relate to one another.

Andersen: Most people instinctively shrink from nature as a teacher of values when it comes to ideas like the divine right of kings, which was a kind of argument from nature. But what about John Muir telling us to, “keep close to nature’s heart,” or Wordsworth telling us to “come into the light, and let nature be [our] teacher.” What makes that kind of thinking objectionable?

Purdy: Wordsworth, Thoreau, Muir, the Hudson River School of painters, all developed this idea: By appreciating nature, we become better people and learn how to live. This has been part of the rationale for the national parks and wilderness areas, part of the recruiting pitch for the Sierra Club, and so forth.

This way of moralizing nature, saying that it has things to teach us, remains very prominent in environmentalist, agrarian, and other sub-cultures. At the same time, we have—or at least readers of The Atlantic have —mostly thrown aside the idea that nature teaches us how to live in more traditional ways: that the hierarchical structure of lions’ society teaches us that God wants us to obey kings, or that the design of our reproductive organs shows that we should confine marriage to one man and one woman, or that the biological differences between the sexes justifies keeping women out of politics and the professions. All of these were very respectable arguments about the meaning of nature when this country was founded or shortly before. Many persisted into the twentieth century—and I am not even talking about the nature-based theories that were used to justify slavery and expropriation Native American lands.

These rather terrible examples are not, by themselves, the philosophical argument against treating nature as a teacher. Any idea, stated at a certain level of generality, can be used for pretty awful purposes. The Belgians described their entry into the Congo on humanitarian grounds, for example. The Khmer Rouge were supposedly pursuing equality.

The larger argument against nature as teacher moves in two steps. First, for nearly any example of an argument about how nature wants us to live—equally or unequally, under kings or in feminist communes, eating fruit or burning coal—you can find the opposite. Second, this cacophony of uses of “nature” reflects a deeper point, which is that nothing in the natural world teaches us how to relate to it, how to value it, or how to relate to one another.

You can pick out instances of species, ecosystems, natural processes, or whatever, doing something you like—cooperating, conserving waste—and try to make a general lesson out of it. But what about the massacre of high-birth-rate species every spring? What about ants that enslave the pupae of the colonies they raid? What about parasites, like ticks weighing down Rocky Mountain moose that can’t pick them off, or a cat playing with its prey?

Picking out and interpreting these examples is always a human activity. It always involves smuggling in the human idea that, because we see something happening in the non-human world, we should emulate it. And to become effective, it always involves persuading other people, by reference to existing human values. So it’s not necessarily terrible to say, “I’m just following nature.” It may be quite innocent. But it’s an imaginative game, and that’s how we should hear it.

Andersen: Has the word nature itself outlived its philosophical usefulness?

Purdy: This is a good question. I find myself saying “the natural world” or “people and nature” all the time, and I basically think that’s fine, at the level of usage. We don’t need more neologisms. My sense is that we can use these old words in new ways.

But that’s not really your question. You’re asking something else. You’re asking about the idea of “nature,” a coherent system of principles that somehow adds up to a whole and orders all the material activity of the universe, at all scales, living and nonliving—and to which we can have a relationship of respect, or admiration, or reverence, or defiance. Let’s call it capital-N Nature.

I think Nature, used this way, is a religious holdover. It’s a monotheistic idea, as if the universe had a single meaning because it’s the work of a single mind. Now, I should say that I am not a monotheist, not really a theistic believer at all. But I think that, even if you are, this is a very difficult position to sustain. It’s difficult for all the reasons I was just setting out—from the human perspective, the world is both appealing and terrible, familiar and alien, cruel and generous, and it’s not at all clear how to know what we should take from it, what its meaning is. And I would say that’s because it isn’t the sort of thing that has a meaning. It just is, in all its variety.

I wonder whether—to stay with the religious imagery for a moment—a polytheist or animist image wouldn’t fit better today and going forward. It’s just not true that Nature has a meaning, or that we have relations with it, as a whole. But that doesn’t mean we are disconnected from the living world. Quite the contrary. We have bonds and relations with particular places, species, seasons in a place. All of these are fragments of what I think we should keep calling the natural world.

There’s an ethnography of Alaska’s Athabascan peoples, by Richard Nelson, called Make Prayers to the Raven. Its gist is that these “animist” folks don’t revere an abstract Nature, nor do they see it as just a set of resources and logistical problems. They have relations to it, rather like the relations you might have with your partner’s family, or the neighbors, or your co-workers: a bit opaque, touchy, a mix of affection, obligation, and prudence. And these relations are specific—not with Nature, but with the salmon, or a river, or a tree. They are on many scales, again, much like our relations with individuals, institutions, countries, cultures, in our human-on-human lives.

We can’t decide to be Athabascan, of course, but this strikes me as a promising direction for a realistic, open-minded ethical practice. It takes very seriously that we live with the rest of the world, and it can be a big pain in the ass, or even hurt or kill us, but it is also the only possible site and source of all the joys we can have.

Andersen: In the book, you identify four main ways that Americans have imagined nature. The first is providential, where nature is a wild place set apart by God, for human cultivation. The second is romantic, where nature is a place of aesthetic and spiritual inspiration, a “secular cathedral.” The third is utilitarian, where nature is a storehouse of resources, requiring expert management. And the fourth is ecological, where nature is the totality of many interdependent systems. You say that we can find these four kinds of imaginations in our law books, but also in our landscapes. Are there particular American landscapes where the imprints of these ideas can be seen most obviously?

Purdy: The farmland of the Midwest has that checkerboard pattern that everyone has seen from airplanes. (I don’t mean any disrespect to so-called flyover country: You can see it best from the sky!) That’s a transcription, in the form of land deeds, of a picture of an agrarian republic spreading west; it’s Jefferson’s grid, each farm plot with enough land, notionally, to support a family, each one nestled into a larger pattern, with checker squares reserved for schools, county seats, and so forth. It’s the providential landscape.

There is nothing innocent about this providential theory, by the way. This was the same theory that provided justification for the expropriation of Native American lands, because they were “failing” to put it to its proper use. Nature wanted Europeans to have it, on the condition that they filled it up with settlement and development. That was the theory, and the whole web of nineteenth-century law that granted private property in return for settlement and development was the mechanism. You could get land for cash, but also by settling it. You could establish ownership by clearing forest, planting trees in grassland, draining wetlands, irrigating drylands, mining valuable minerals—in other words, by making it bloom with something you could take to market.

In North Carolina, where I live now, for a time a settler could get 50 acres for each enslaved person he brought into the territory, on the theory that their labor increased his productivity. And of course this slavery was defended by another appeal to nature—the false nature of racial hierarchy.

Now take the romantic form of environmental imagination. if you visit a national park or wilderness area, especially one of the parks from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, like Yosemite or Glacier, you will find a landscape picked out for its approximation to an aesthetic ideal: the principle of sublimity, wild and inspiring nature, as theorized by Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke, and popularized for an American setting by Frederic Church, Asher Durand, and other painters from the Hudson River School. These parks were created by acts of Congress to approximate a painterly ideal. Of course the landscapes were already there; but now they are managed as secular cathedrals, our answer to the Sistine Chapel, the place where a person of a certain turn of mind goes to see the hand of God.

And of course the romantic landscape also has a history of deep inequality written into it. Native Americans were cleared from the parks. John Muir called them dirty and unpicturesque. The whole habit of seeing nature as God’s inspiring canvas appealed to a white, upper-middle class constituency, people who—in groups like the early Sierra Club, which Muir founded in 1892—set themselves up as Nature’s spokespersons. And some, like Madison Grant, who founded the first groups devoted to saving the redwoods and the bison, were outright white supremacists. (Grant wrote a book about race that Hitler once called “my bible;” Teddy Roosevelt liked it well enough to blurb it.)

It’s key that both the providential and romantic landscapes were produced by law. That was one thing that emerged for me in working on the book: that law is the tendon that connects imagination and materiality when it comes to landscapes. The way we live is a kind of collective landscape architecture. We make the world by moving around, getting food and shelter, staying warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Law orchestrates that activity, produces its shape, and in turn, shapes the world.

We can see this in the landscapes shaped by the utilitarian imagination, like the national forests managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and the Western regions irrigated by the vast irrigation projects built and administered by the Bureau of Reclamation (a telling name, by the way!). These are administered lands, built up coextensively with the branches of the federal government that oversee them. Teddy Roosevelt, who was a pioneer in creating them, once said that his whole domestic program—antitrust, public health, labor law—was just the principle of conservation writ large: expert management of natural and artificial systems for the public good. These planned, deliberately exploited landscapes, are the record of the utilitarian sensibility that built much of modern government.

And here, too, the history has some terrible aspects. Roosevelt’s chief conservation theorist and the head of his Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, was a leader in the eugenics movement. Treating people and the natural world as a spectrum of resources to be managed for the general welfare shaded into troubling territory, especially for people who were inclined to treat disfavored or excluded populations as not really mattering much anyway.

The ecological imagination is more multifarious. It shaped modern environmental law—the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, Superfund, etc—and it’s a part of how we think, increasingly, about all sorts of questions. Its premise is that nothing is isolated: The world is a network of inter-permeable systems, so that what comes out of a smokestack can travel through wind, rain, groundwater, and soil, and end up in flesh.

We’re still figuring out what it means to see ecologically. What does the food economy look like if we think hard about the kinds of landscapes we want it to form, the ways we want it to interact with waterways, long-term soil health, and the chemistry of the global atmosphere? What does it look like if we think also about the kind of work that we want people to be able to do in making food?

All of this is the next generation of ecological thinking: about all the systems at once, and seeing the links everywhere between their human and natural aspects. In some respects, Anthropocene thinking is ecological thinking turned up to eleven, with a keen awareness not just of the practical relations among human and natural systems, but also of the values at stake in those.

What I call a democratic Anthropocene is a way of naming the politics that could possibly be up to this situation. It’s about building movements and institutions that move toward an equal voice in shaping the planet. And it’s about building up the capacity to begin engaging in real collective self-constraint.

That may require building social systems where people have less to fear from the future and from one another, where they have room to breathe, and can relax their grip on whatever scraps of wealth they get hold of. It may require economies where basic safety and comfort are givens, and there is room to think about intrinsic goods that are less resource-intensive, such as friendship, reflection, and just learning to feel wonder at the world. Unfortunately, to state the obvious, a lot in our fractious politics and unequal economies is running in the opposite direction now.

Andersen: This week, the most important climate-change talks in a decade are taking place in Paris. Do you see a new way of imagining the natural world—and perhaps even a new anthropocene politics—emerging there?

Purdy: I wish I did. A lot of hope has been invested in these climate talks in the decades since Kyoto. And we have to wish for their success. But so far, the pessimistic analyses (of futility) that I was reacting against when I started this book are still more true than false. International efforts are still epiphenomena of national politics that are themselves, on the whole, pretty selfish and short-sighted.

The worst compromise would be a sugary layer of noble talk about global responsibility slathered on a world whose economies are still driving up greenhouse-gas emissions, toxicity, soil degradation, ocean acidification, species extinction, deforestation. It’s nice that there is much, much more of a climate movement now than there was even five years ago, and it’s nice that Canadians are back on the side of the angels. But the scary possibility is that we may know the right thing to do for decades, talk about it on the international stage, and keep living in a way that deepens the problem. A politics that can pivot how we live, freely and democratically, is a tall order, but it’s the only way forward.