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Are humans part of, or apart from, nature?

"Uncompromising, incisive writing driven by love for the living world." This is the tagline for Earth Tongues, the blog site of 'independent voices from The Ecological Citizen.' Prof Eileen Crist's article was first published there on March 20, 2023.

Photo credit: Sean Goswell, UK

Knowledge of one’s own historicity and concrete historical existence becomes possible at the moment when existence itself breaks through reification. Herbert Marcuse

It has become standard fare in the humanities to regard the world as filled with all sorts of agents. It’s now widely granted that the human is not sole agent—far from it. Even beyond having no monopoly over agency, humans admittedly find themselves entangled with all manner of agents who push and pull humans hither and thither; humans are not necessarily in control (Latour, 2017). On the face of it, and celebrated by its exponents, this turn in thinking appears avant-garde in “decentering the human.” Were humans fully to take on board that their agency coexists and jostles amongst innumerable others, then the realization may dawn that we are not separate from nature but integral with the world’s entire fabric. In environmental literature, this idea is commonly conveyed in the claim that humans are part of nature and not apart from it.

In this au courant reasoning, included among all the different agents acting upon the world and upon one another is everything from satellites to scallops. In the big parliament of things there is no ontological distinction between technological and natural objects, nor between artifacts and living beings. In fact, we see that a dizzying number of ever-proliferating hybrids populate the world—things like hyperobjects, synthetic life, chimeric organisms, cloned animals, artificial intelligence, and so on. Everything is caught up in one existential process of multitudinous agents among agents acting—in spirited alliance, mortal combat, and everything in between—within the common world.

To be sure, everything is caught up in one existential process of unfolding within the common world. But something of critical importance is lost when all the categories of the world are flattened, and the technological is made ontologically continuous with the natural and the artifactual is made equivalent with the living. Relatedly, keen discernment is preempted when humans are offhandedly declared to be part of nature and not apart from it. Here, I counter this familiar platitude by arguing that the human—qua the dominant human identity—is very much apart from nature. Precisely because human separateness from nature is largely the reality of our situation, we need to protect the natural world expansively (and on all scales) from the de-parted dominant human (a point to which I will return).

For now, I want to stay with the “all agents in process” perspective on our collective predicament. What it bypasses is the central relevance of what critical theory calls reification. Reification occurs when an idea is turned into an object or objectified as reality. When reification happens, it’s like throwing a monkey wrench into “process.”

This is exactly how things have transpired vis-à-vis the dominant human identity: that identity is the historical reification of the idea of the human as supreme-and-entitled (human supremacy). The human, (self) conditioned repeatedly over the course of history into a supreme-and-entitled identity, de-parted from Earth’s abundant and biodiverse ecological process, deciding instead to take it over. Over the centuries, human supremacy developed into a worldview—meaning exactly that: world + view—in which the dominant human runs the show