Are We Part of or Separate from the Natural World?
Language is a funny thing. The moment we use a word to represent something, we make it an object, something outside of ourselves. A “chair” is an object that is outside us, that we sit upon. “Love” becomes something we experience, rather than who we are.
I run into this dilemma whenever I write about the “environment,” the “natural world” or “creation.” The moment I use one of those words or phrases, suddenly I stand apart from the world in which I live, as if humans are somehow separate.
I was reminded of this limit of language when I read two on-line pieces about the Great Lakes Areas of Concern or AOCs. The Canadian and U.S. governments have designated 43 areas of the Great Lakes as AOCs because of their high levels of pollution, and they have created plans to clean these areas. Some of the plans have been successfully carried out, either in part or whole, while others have yet to be started.
In the Journal of Great Lakes Research, John H. Hartig, Grail Krantzber, and Peter Alsip wrote an article titled, “Thirty-five years of restoring Great Lakes Areas of Concern: Gradual progress, hopeful future.”
The article summarizes lessons learned from the work on the AOCs. Those lessons, they write, resulted from the plans using, “locally-designed ecosystem approaches that account for the interrelationships among air, water, land, and all living things, including humans.”
On the website, “Environmental Monitor,” Andrew Block wrote a piece summarizing the original journal article by Hartig, et. al., titled, “Lessons Learned from 35 Years of AOC Restoration.” In it, Block writes that the ecosystem approach, “acknowledges each site is a system in which natural resources, plants, animals and humans rely on the health of the system as a whole. Because humans are included as members of the ecosystem, their ability to safely use the sites is a measure of ecosystem health, too.” He goes on to quote Hartig, as saying, “Up until that point, humans were thought of as separate... This new approach showed that ‘what we do to an ecosystem, we do to ourselves.’”
First, I was happy to read about how some of the AOCs have been cleaned up, and second, I was heartened to read how humans were viewed as part of the ecosystem and not something separate. Then the questions came... How are humans seen as part of the ecosystem? Are we one among many equal parts? Do our needs or wants take priority? Are our needs even different from the rest of the ecosystem?
I keep coming back to something Anahkwet, Executive Director of the Menominee Community Rebuilders organization Menikanaehkem, said during our conversation: “These things that they call natural resources, we don’t view them like that. We see them as an extension of ourselves... We see this Earth as a mother. We come from her. We are the physical manifestations of her. What we do to her we do to ourselves.”
Both Hartig and Anahkwet use that similar phrase to describe our connection with the natural world in which we live ... what we do to our ecosystem or Mother Earth, we do to ourselves.
Grappling with that connection between humans and the natural world has been a theme in western/European culture for millennia. In particular, in the Christian tradition that I’m a part of, certain ways to understand that connection have emerged. In their book, A Spiritual Field Guide: Meditations for the Outdoors, Bernard Brady and Mark Neuzil summarize the approaches of philosophers and theologians to this human-environment connection. (pp. 53-55)
The first approach has the created world in service to the needs of humans. “The fundamental purpose of nature,” they write, “is to fulfill human needs.”
In the second approach, humans are seen as stewards or caretakers of the natural world. “We are responsible to God, our children, their children, and perhaps our ancestors. We are thus to use creation wisely to fulfill our needs and desires.”
The third approach sees humans as one equal part of creation and rejects, they write, “humanity’s claim of moral dominance. We are but one species among many.”
The fourth approach, according to Brady and Neuzil, “mediates between the second and third responses... Humans are to be responsible for creation while at the same time recognizing they are interdependent within creation.”
While the fourth approach sounds the most attractive, I disagree with it, or at least the wording. To say that “humans are to be responsible for creation” gives us a power that I’m not sure is appropriate. Creation does not belong to us, and therefore we are no more responsible for all of nature than our cat is, or an apple tree, or a whitefish in Lake Michigan.
However, we ARE responsible to play our role in creation, just as the rest of the animals, plants, etc. We ARE responsible for our actions and impact on the rest of life on this planet. Given our immense capacity for good or ill, that role and responsiblity are crucial. We seem to be the only beings on the planet capable of destroying creation (or with the inclination to do so), whether in part with our local river or the Great Lakes Basin, or as a whole across the entire Earth.
I believe that distinction may be subtle, but it’s important, as well as humbling. As a species, we seem to be stuck in our adolescence, coming to grips with our power and not yet learning how to contain or control our abilities and desires.
Whether we realize it or not, it is true that what we do to the Earth we do to ourselves because we are part of the whole of creation. When I gaze out on Lake Superior, do I see myself as separate from the water or the gulls flying overheard? I live in Wisconsin, but when I read about phosphorus run-off in Lake Erie, do I see that as polluting my life? Is it possible for me to feel the connection between my health and the health of my local Wolf River, the well-being of the watershed of Lake Michigan, or the state of the Great Lakes Basin?