“What is nature? What is humanity’s place in nature? And what is the relationship of society to the natural world?
In an era of ecological breakdown, answering these questions has become of momentous importance for our everyday lives and for the future that we and other life-forms face. They are not abstract philosophical questions that should be relegated to a remote, airy world of metaphysical speculation. Nor can we answer them in an offhand way, with poetic metaphors or unthinking, visceral reactions. The definitions and ethical standards with which we respond to them may ultimately decide whether human society will creatively foster natural evolution, or whether we will render the planet uninhabitable for all complex life-forms, including ourselves.
At first glance, everybody “knows” what nature is. It is that which is all around us-trees, animals, rocks, and the like. It is that which “humanity” is destroying and coating with petroleum. But such prima facie definitions fall apart when we examine them with some care. If nature is indeed what is all around us, we may reasonably ask, then is a carefully manicured suburban lawn not nature? Is the split-level house it surrounds not nature? Are its furnishings not natural?
Today, this sort of question is likely to elicit a heated avowal that only “wild,” “primordial,” or even nonhuman nature is authentically natural. Other people, no less thoughtful, will reply that nature is basically matter, or the materialized stuff of the universe in all its forms–what philosophers sweepingly call Being. The fact is that wide philosophical differences have existed for centuries in the West over the very definition of the word nature. These differences remain unresolved to this day, even as nature is making headlines in environmental issues that are of enormous importance for the future of nearly all life-forms.
Defining nature becomes an even more complex task when we include the human species as part of it. Is human society with its ensemble of technologies and artifacts-not to speak of such ineffable features as its conflicting social interests and institutions-any less part of nature than nonhuman animals? And if human beings are part of nature, are they merely one life-form among many others, or are they unique in ways that place major responsibilities on them with respect to the rest of the world of life, responsibilities that no other species shares or is even capable of sharing?
Whatever nature may mean, we must determine in what way humanity “fits” into it. And we must confront the complex and challenging question of the relationship of society–more specifically, the different social forms that appeared in the past, that exist today, and that may appear in the future-to nature. Unless we answer these questions with reasonable clarity-or at least fully discuss them-we will lack any ethical direction in dealing with our environmental problems. Unless we know what nature is and what humanity’s and society’s place in it is, we will be left with vague intuitions and visceral sentiments that neither cohere into clear views nor provide a guide for effective action “Murray Bookchin
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