This post is the second in a seven part series on the state of introductory environmental politics literature. 

Thematic Breakdown

Man’s Relationship with Nature

The writings of this theme are tied together by a conception of the interworking relationship between mankind and the world around him. Nature is considered not only nonhuman life, but also non-sentient life. Through the past several decades, primarily since the 1960s, there has been a changing notion about what is considered alive. Some more contemporary writings find agreement with earlier works that there is not—and should not be—a distinction or hierarchy between sentient and inanimate life forms (Mies and Shiva 1993; Nuttall 2000). This view regards all life as equally intrinsic in value and importance to biodiversity. This literature recognizes the challenges that come from establishing a flat value based system, rather than a hierarchy. This equal-footing theme tends to be most common in ecofeminism writings (Mies and Shiva 1993). Indeed, later writings tend to move away from this flat consideration as a development from an increase in trade-offs of well-being have been made. Most of mankind engaged in priority systems when given a choice between the life or well-being of a human and the life and well-being of an animal. The priority towards sentience is made even clearer when prioritizing animal over plant life.

Rather than building upon the non-distinction, much of the environmental literature following Mies and Shiva recognizes that man will tend to self-prioritize in the game of all living things. Consequently, efforts to frame the relationship between humans and nature have focused on the situation that while humans may shape nature at the top of earth’s hierarchy, they are still part of the system. They are not apart from the system, even if they consider themselves at the top. All forms of life are contained within our closed biosphere.

It is well worth noting that conceptions of humankind’s position at the top of the living hierarchy tend to be culturally rooted. On one hand, Western states and societies tend to develop management style environmental policies. Conceptions of hierarchy are therefore quite prominent in Europe and the United States (Sand 2001). There is a strong and continued sense of obligation among individual states and regimes. This sense of responsibility over nature is a cross-cutting theme among the several environmental subfields. In addition to having cultural roots, exogenous events can trigger the development and expansion of man-nature hierarchy and categorization. The rapid loss of forests in Eastern Asia has resulted in some states implementing strict logging limits and reforestation efforts (Dauvergne 1997). The melting of Arctic ice results in regime formation and emergency management teams (Young 1998).

The concept of culturally-rooted preference for hierarchy is taken further by Nuttall. Contrasting Western state and indigenous group interactions, he demonstrates support for the concept that a man-made nature hierarchy can be rooted in social values and cultural practices. Indigenous and state plans for the Arctic often differ greatly. Melting of northern ice in Alaska and Canada can have vastly different implications for state and industry oil collections and indigenous populations. Yet critics do state that indigenous connections to nature may not be intentionally sustainable, or at least more hierarchical than scholars have traditionally thought (Dove 2006). Dauvergne seems to challenge the notion that some societies may have greater inclination to prioritize themselves over nature, yet from an Eastern context. Within the timber industries in East Asia, it appears that Japanese society does not necessarily frame itself superior to nature, but instead forms a man-made hierarchy: patron-client relationships (1997). These relationships serve as the intermediary which uses nature (timber purchases) as a tool to fulfil human-to-human obligations of hierarchy.

The concept of stewardship is developed by Sand (2001). This also falls within the sense of hierarchy in nature. While stewardship contains obligations to protect and monitor nature, this does not challenge the sense of hierarchy, and even falls into its sphere. Stewardship suggests man has a responsibility to maintain nature—that it is incapable of self-correcting. It appears me must go back in time to find literature that expressly moves away from the hierarchy so prominent today. Mies and Shiva point to the need to move away from a hierarchy by claiming that second-tier citizens through history have consisted not only of animals and plants, but also women. Therefore, the idea of subjugation should be especially unappealing to at least half the human population. It is critical to note that this does not demonstrate moving forward toward equal footing among all forms of life, given it came earlier and the stance was not repeated. We must then ask: are we moving away from a sense of one-ness with nature, content to accept a ‘responsible hierarchy’?

Finally, as we examine the concept of man-nature hierarchy, there is a large state and regime level emphasis. Given Dauvergne, Wackernagel and Rees’ state and society level actions and policy, there is little emphasis on individual actions and responsibility (1997; 1996). Indeed, there is surprisingly little emphasis on for a sub-theme focusing on the man-nature relationship. This indicates there exists a broader conception of a ‘mankind-nature’ relationship.

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