Are humans part of, or apart from, nature?

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 on his (not so) cosmic estate, Earth. Nothing about this arrangement is part of nature. It is very much apart from nature—in fact, it is at war with it. Precisely because war is an essential constituent of the human-supremacist worldview, it never crosses most people’s minds to question war as such. Rather, they prefer to bemoan its existence and avoid thinking about it.

To move forward in any direction of hope, we should stop reciting the hollow truism that “humans are part of nature.” This statement ignores and obfuscates the reification of human supremacy. After the dominant human was forged with the emergence of empires, that human-in-charge identity was reified, again and again, in different sociohistorical periods up to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment of course orated newly minted praises to the specialness of the human. “Possessor of reason and master of nature” says it all. Enlightenment’s superlative view of man (in conjunction with fossil fuels) unleashed modern technology upon the world on a grand scale. With modernity, technology for the first time manifests, as philosopher Hans Jonas astutely observed, as a project and as a restless phenomenon (Jonas, 2010).

Modern technology is the apotheosis of the dominant human, for in the reaches and breakthroughs of modern technology that human identity sees lucidly reflected its cherished specialness. Moreover, by continuously making advances in technology and glorifying “innovation,” the dominant human expands the capacity to subjugate nature in increasingly penetrating ways—including smashing the atom and scrambling the gene. Through restless projects of modern technology, the imaginary of human supremacy spins newfangled grand narratives, such as humans colonizing space or achieving digital immortality. The story of the dominant human identity—trapped inside a narcissistic positive feedback loop with modern technology—is ongoing. We are in it. And, Houston, we have a problem: a problem that goes well beyond the confines of specific consequences of certain modern technologies (consequences such as climate change, for example).

For modern technology thus unleashed upon the world remains unaccountable to any primordial ground or primal order: technology is completely untethered to propel itself, as it will, including at the expense of everything and everyone, nonhuman and human. Consider the example of the United States military testing their nuclear bombs on the Bikini Atoll of the Marshalls islands. No one in the planning committee even gave a passing thought to the gorgeous, endemic, sentient, sparkling life that was there. Imagine that. Nor did anyone give (much of) a thought to the human inhabitants. They dropped the bombs there because it was a “remote” location. Remote from what we might ask, and therein lies the question.       

The dominant human is apart from nature and in centrifugal acceleration away from it—as human supremacy, oblivious to its self-reification, propels the world with giddy abandon toward terra incognita.

The dominant human has historically reified a supreme-and-entitled identity that is at war with nature, and this reification is hardened through the manufacturing of artifacts and technologies with which to take over the world and rip into its fabric. Let us just say it for once: The dominant human is not inaugurating the Anthropocene epoch, the dominant human is taking over the planet. Even Antarctica, inhabited by declining numbers of wild animals, is divvied according to the territorial claims of certain nation-states. Antarctica is sliced up exactly like a pie. How pathetic the human supremacist identity is, and clichéd, in its images.

The dominant human identity that has reified itself as overlord of nature must be superseded. The waters are muddied when humans are sweepingly said to be “part of nature” and it is even avowed that artifacts and technologies are no different from natural objects and living beings. This kind of thinking encourages planetary takeover to proceed unnoticed. Indeed, takeover is proceeding, in a word, through and as the Technosphere. The Technosphere’s tacit war cry, Occupy Earth, is overtly redundant. For it is man’s estate, after all, and in case you have not heard the Technosphere is taking over (Stokstad, 2020; Pappas, 2020).

The emergencies we face demand we unmask the human dominant identity that is performing the destruction of the world, and entirely transcend it. This is the meaning of the opening epigraph: a signal way to restate the insight of critical theory—“existence itself breaks through reification”—is that the reality of the living planet (existence) must break through the domination of nature having become “common sense” (reification). Our times call for a break with history—not for a green economy.

Unmasking the human supreme-and-entitled identity is about understanding what lies at its core: namely, attachment to hierarchy. Dualism is often lamented as problematic. But why should dualism itself be problematic, in a world replete with dualities and enriched by their tangos? Is there a problem with the dualist swirl of Taoism? What is problematic is the fateful freighting of dualities with hierarchical inflection. Human over Animal. Human over Nature. Man over Woman. Adult over Child. White over Black. “Civilized” over “Savage.” Stratification, slavery, exploitation, abuse, extermination, deforestation, defaunation, mayhem, and murder—all have been released into the world via the omnipresent schema of hierarchy structuring reality.

The human species is not at fault for any of the existential threats at hand—at fault is the human reified identity that has perched itself on an imagined summit of a confabulated hierarchy, nonchalantly overtaking the whole, especially by unleashing (in its modern phase) an unaccountable-to-anything-and-anyone modern technology. That “in charge” human identity will destroy the world and most likely also the human species. How do we stop it? Perhaps we have a chance to stop it by openly taking stock of what is happening: Extinction. The environmental fronting of climate change as “the problem” only discourages people from focusing on the mass extinction gathering speed. The dominant human identity, adrift in the worldview of human supremacy and its assorted hierarchies, is causing a mass extinction. This is the Main Event. Not thinking, talking, or knowing about mass extinction conceals the Main Event and supports the drift.

When the dominant human arrogated himself apex status in a constructed hierarchy, an ontological cover up was born and subsequently perpetrated. History’s foundational lie. Not “a verbal lie confronting a verbal truth,” in philosopher Martin Buber’s words. Rather, “an existential lie against being” (Buber, 1952). For reality is not a hierarchy it is a heterarchy, and the living world is not a stratified order but a harmonic symphony both literally and metaphorically (Bateson, 1978; Krause, 2012; Simard, 2021). This is the historical moment to see the existential lie against being and to acknowledge the symphony of life. Seeing and acknowledging, we might proceed to do what we need to do to keep the music.

Which we do by moving towards expansive protected areas of nature and rewilding projects, while at the same time harmoniously contracting ourselves: contracting the human enterprise economically, demographically, and technospherically (Crist et al., 2021). We keep the music by finding the freedom of will to slow down and rein in the technological. We keep the music by recognizing how much soul and healing we find in the beauties of pristine nature. We get a chance to keep the music, if we scream from the rooftops that the dominant human identity is driving a mass extinction.

Protecting the natural world generously, and contracting ourselves to align with nature’s returning abundances, we may open a pathway to become part of nature. Otherwise, we bring it all down and eventually bring ourselves down as well. Another choice remains. For as a poet once put it, “where danger is, grows the saving power also.”    

Read ‘Are humans part of, or apart from, nature?’, by Eileen Crist, on the #EarthTongues blog


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