Concepts of Nature: are Environmentalists Confused?
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Like many of us who come in various shades of green these days, in my activist life I accept a position more or less like the statement above. Unfortunately, when I come to analyze such statements philosophically I find them riddled with conceptual confusions. The aim of this paper is to identify a number of these confusions. The environmentalist position has two components. First, it requires a concept of nature which enables us to understand what the term means and what entities and events are comprehended by it. Secondly, this concept must guide us in determining our attitude and conduct to nature. That is, we need to be able to derive values and norms from our understanding of nature.

By "values" here I mean things like the worth of nature such that it deserves our respect, the dignity of a species which prohibits us from exterminating it without cause, or the beauty of a landscape which inclines us to preserve it. By "norms" I refer to the rules which govern our conduct with respect to nature and which proclaim the rightness or wrongness of our actions. The environmentalist position assumes that a proper understanding of nature will make it possible for us to see what we ought and ought not to do.

My difficulties stem from the fact that environmentalism seems to hold not one but at least four different, often completely incompatible, concepts of nature and each of these concepts in turn involves a different way of dealing with the relationship between nature and values, that is, with the is-ought gap. I will label these concepts 1) The Natural Law concept, 2) The Evolutionary concept, 3) The Non-artificial concept and 4) The Physicalist concept. After describing each in turn, and their relationships to norms and values, I will then show how some positions taken by environmentalist are confused because they switch back and forth incoherently between the different notions.


Aristotle thought of nature as made up of a fixed number of eternal species. Each species has its own essence or form which defines what it is and how it fits into the rest of nature. The telos is one of the most crucial elements of each species: the finality of each member of the species, its function, is central for understanding what it is, indeed for it being what it is.

The medieval conception of natural law is based on Aristotle, with a little help from the Stoics. It assumes that the indwelling telos in each natural entity is created by God and is the basis for moral decisions. Human beings are capable of grasping the purpose of each entity and have the freedom to either respect or violate its essence. Natural law is composed of these norms inscribed in the natural world; to trespass against these norms is to disobey God, that is, to sin. Note that this concept of natural law allows that such laws may be disobeyed: humans can act against nature. In other words, natural laws in this sense are, among other things, rules for conduct and do not automatically guarantee that events will happen in accordance with them. It is from this conception of nature that we derive the notion that acting against nature, "unnaturally," is wrong. Since the being of a natural entity includes its telos, there is no gap between understanding what a thing is and how we should act towards it. In the natural law tradition, there is simply no is-ought gap.

Some environmentalists describe aspects of our present life-style as "unnatural" in this sense. For instance, one could argue that it is unnatural to kill calves to make veal since it is obvious that the goal of a calf is to live to adulthood, to have a life, and since our gourmet tastes disrupt this natural order they are evil.

The notion of "Gaia" is a contemporary version of this same world-view, with minor modifications. Lovelock thinks of the whole earth as itself like an organism in which each element plays some role in keeping the system operating.(1) The forests, the oxygen, even the rocks perform functions which are defined in terms of the whole, much as the heart and lungs play functional roles in an animal body. The homeostasis of the whole Gaia system enables us to determine what the function of each of the parts should be. We can thereby establish norms for healthy and unhealthy functioning, for sick and well, for right and wrong. The telos of each element is made visible by looking at the totality. We can therefore declare certain human activities to be "anti-environmental," or wrong and we can determine how it is that we ought to act to rebalance the harmony of the earth as an organic whole.

What the Gaia hypothesis drops from Aristotle's conception is the notion of an eternal essence or form for each species. The earth as an organism developed historically over the past four billion years and created for itself the present harmony of Gaia; there is no eternal essence or norm which Gaia instantiates. As a result, there is no basis within the Gaia hypothesis for declaring some particular harmonious system to be the "right" one. If, for instance, a nuclear war were to convert the earth into a kingdom of ants and cockroaches, the new system would, if stable, be just as valid as the old one. Or rather, there is no basis for any system being judged valid or invalid. Within a given system we have some basis for determining its telos, but there are no norms for deciding on the relative validity of different systems as wholes.


The present environmental crisis is presented by many as a conflict between the human and the natural.(2) "Nature" is presumed to refer to the world as it is, or as it was, or as it would be, without human intervention.(3) Humans and their technology are seen as distinct from nature; they and their products are "artificial." Humans are of a different order than nature. This position is often linked to religious conceptions of human destiny.

There are two variations on this approach, depending on what relative evaluations one places on the natural and the human. In one variant man (and/or woman?) was sent to dominate nature, to complete it, to perfect it or to sanctify it.(4) Nature is there for us to use and in using it we raise it to a participation in human (or divine) life. This position is adopted in Genesis, by Francis Bacon and by technological Utopians in our own century.

The other variant assumes that humanity is a corrupting influence. In the Garden of Eden, before human intervention, we find nature by itself, left to its own resources, and it is good, pure, and beautiful; only the intervention of humanity brings disruption and evil.(5) Nature is divine, or at least created by God and so is good. Only the arrival of freedom, or artificiality, or technology, in short, of human beings, on the scene disturbs the pristine innocence. Through humans, sin enters the world. The English romantic poets, facing the industrial revolution, crystallized this standoff between pure virginal nature and the ravages of technology. They understood the term nature to mean the non-artificial, the non-technological. (Of course, this was a very relative distinction: in 1800 the plough was seen as natural, the factory artificial, but 10,000 years before, food-gathering must have been seen as natural and the artifices of agriculture were the technological violations of nature.)

These two variants, the idealization of nature and the denigration of nature, are not very different conceptually. Just as the idealization of women and their denigration go hand in hand in a society in which women are man-defined, so both approaches to nature are anthropocentric: they take humans as the centre and define the natural only by contradistinction to the human. In both cases the conception of nature remains basically the same: nature is still the world independent of human intervention and humans are non-natural, beyond nature, whether above it or below. In either case, humans are outside of nature and use nature for their purposes. Whether this use is salvic or destructive is secondary. Both definitions are anthropocentric.

It is easy to confuse one side of this anthropocentric approach with real respect for nature. A long-term, technological anthropocentrism realizes that in its own self-interest humanity must, at least for the moment, preserve the quality of its environment. Without crops and animals, without exotic species yielding new gene-pools and new medicines, we cannot at the moment survive and prosper. But this is a temporary limitation of our technology. One day we may well be able to artificially photosynthesize, manufacture proteins and other large molecules, and manipulate genetic material. At that point we will no longer need other species and will be able to exterminate them if we wish. That this "final solution to the problem of other, inferior species" is inherent in the anthropocentric conception of nature is disguised by the practical point that, for the moment, it is pragmatically advisable to act as if we respected nature.


The similarity of these two anthropocentric definitions of nature is particularly clear if we contrast them with a radically different understanding of nature: Darwin's. From the evolutionary point of view, human beings are as much part of nature as plants and animals. All species struggle for survival and as some win, others become extinct. Techniques of nutrition, such as photosynthesis, carnivorous feeding or gobbling pills of synthetic Vitamin C are all ways for individuals of different species to survive. The exaggerated dichotomy between a rabbit growing fur and a person weaving clothes is an ideological construct to preserve the illusion that human beings are other than nature; in truth these are two equally "natural" modes of survival for two different species, although weaving may be a more adaptive and efficient mode. Humans are neither above nor below nature; they are simply one other species, governed by the same history and laws. There is nothing "artificial" from this perspective. Aircraft are to humans what wings are to birds: their way of flying. Technology is "humans' nature."

In evolution, species try different adaptive techniques. Some are successful and the species survives and prospers; some are failures and the species may die out. This is how life has evolved for four billion years. It is perfectly "natural." The survival of ants for a billion years is no cause for celebration; the extinction of the dinosaurs no cause for tears. Species come and go; there is no more to it. Humans have been very successful so far, by some standards (although the total biomass of humans is much less than that of insects), but there is reason to think that, like the dinosaurs, we too may soon be extinct. Our major adaptive strategy, technology, results in us using up our resources very rapidly so, like most (temporarily) successful species, we can expect a "readjustment," a bust after the boom. The species may not survive it. If we do vanish, we might have cause for tears, but nature will not, for from the evolutionary point of view our extinction is no more disastrous than that of the dinosaurs. Nature will have tried one more survival strategy (large cortex, opposing thumb, intelligence, technology) which failed.

There is no basis here for norms. No outcome is better or worse than any other. If humanity becomes extinct, nature has not lost. If humanity exterminates all of the other 100 million species presently on the planet yet finds some technological means of survival, nature will not have lost; it will just have discovered the most successful strategy for the propagation of life so far. Nature can never lose any more than it can win. Nature is just nature. Even the total extinction of all life would not necessarily be bad; an earth made up only of minerals is perhaps the most stable system of all.


But would a totally lifeless earth be considered "nature" at all? Well, that depends on our concept of nature, which is the issue.

For the last four centuries since the scientific revolution, Western "natural" science has been dominated by what we might call the physicalist conception of nature. This is the concept of nature presupposed in the physical sciences, and established in the seventeenth century by Galileo, Bacon, Descartes and others. For these thinkers, nature is a mechanism governed by deterministic, natural causal laws. "Laws of nature," being deterministic, cannot be violated; they are not regulators of conduct, such as the "natural law" tradition refers to. Whatever happens is the effect of causes acting in accordance with general laws, usually of a mathematical kind. Such causes are purposeless. Indeed, Descartes is very conscious of his rejection of the notion of Aristotelian forms, with their norms, goals and functions; he saw them as mystical, unscientific elements that must be rejected if the new mechanistic science is to take hold. Values, purposes and meanings must be exiled from the world of physical reality as pure appearances superimposed on nature by the human mind. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as are purposes and values of any kind. (Religious scruples led some to acknowledge that maybe the natural world had some goals, but such goals are not accessible to the scientist: "the purposes of God are inscrutable." )

From this point of view, it makes no sense to ask what the purpose is for the sun rising each morning. The story that the sun rises to give light to the earth, to warm humans, or to give life to the crops is just an unscientific myth. The sun doesn't really rise, and the earth's rotation is due to inertial and gravitational forces which are purely mechanical, that is, aimless. To suggest that the earth rotates purposefully is pre-scientific, anthropomorphic nonsense.

As Hume has made abundantly clear, there can be no basis in physical nature of any values or norms. The is-ought gap is unbridgeable. This physicalist concept of nature, still presupposed by the hard sciences, has absolutely nothing to say about how we should act towards the environment. The physical world simply is what it is. What will be, will be. Deterministic laws govern the universe from the Big Bang to the Great Implosion and these laws will lead to the survival of life (human or otherwise) or to its annihilation. No state of the universe is any better or worse than another: all just happen inexorably. It is as pointless to rejoice in the luxuriousness of a tropical forest as it will be to mourn the destruction of the earth when the sun explodes as a supernova. Everything is meaningless. Even the Great Implosion at the end is in no way a destiny towards which the universe is striving: it is just an event like any other which will inevitably happen. It is not in this conception of nature that environmentalist can find any justification for urging us to action.


As environmentalists, we seem to want to have it all. We would like to be able to use whichever concept of nature suits our purpose in a particular argument. But if we work with a concept of nature which is a hodge-podge of the four notions I have described above, the result is incoherence and even self-contradiction. Let me offer a few illustrations.

"The problem is that humans think of themselves as above nature (and should not)," we say at one moment, and "Human beings have used technology to artificially disturb the harmony of nature," at another, as if homo sapiens and her technology were not part of nature.

We condemn the destruction of hundreds of species every year in the rain forests, presumably on the grounds that the arbitrary extinction of a species violates its natural law right to exist. Yet in the next breath we proclaim these species to be the valuable result of a billion years of evolution, when the evolutionary approach might just as well be used to justify human success at filling every niche on the planet to the exclusion of other species.

We complain that humans cannot continue to violate nature's laws with impunity, confusing the natural law tradition with the inexorability of physicalist laws of nature.

We declare our potential extinction by the process of evolution to be a disaster, as if we had some eternal telos, when the theory of evolution would interpret the loss of any species, including the human, as a case of business as usual.

We insist that humans must play their assigned roles in the organic whole of the planet's system, while yet holding us responsible for reestablishing the harmony we have disturbed, as if we were on the outside of nature looking in.


My approach has been critical. I has shown the incoherence of the concept of nature held by some environmentalists. It is as if we are trying to combine at least four historical streams of thought, despite the fact that these are often incompatible. Perhaps we could say, more hopefully, that we are in the process of forging a new conception of nature. We certainly are not there yet. Maybe the present confusions are part of the birth-pangs.


1. J. E. Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at the Earth, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

2. World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. The Brundtland Report conceptualizes the relationship this way throughout. For examples, see pp. 44, 60.

3. Paul Taylor, Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986. p.3.

4. This seems to be the position taken by the Book of Genesis, especially as Francis Bacon interpreted it.

5. Consider, for instance, Hopkins' "God's Grandeur:"

Gerald Manley Hopkins, A selection of his poems and prose by W. H. Gardner, London: Penguin, 1953. p. 27.
©David L. Thompson
Memorial University
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