Choosing our story
It may seem strange to think of choosing something as deeply embedded in society as a cultural narrative about human-nature relationships. These understandings are so ingrained they can go unnoticed. But the future of how we address climate change is shaped by how we perceive our relationship with the rest of nature. Even the difference of saying ‘our relationship with nature’ versus ‘our relationship with the rest of nature’ reveals an entirely different mental model and will lead us in different directions. I believe the way we choose and express our human-nature stories are a high-leverage place to create the foundations for change.
In the first part of this series, I shared my concern about the term “Anthropocene” as the name for our time because it lacks what I think are three important criteria for a good human-nature story. These are three underlying paradigms that correct our perception of the role of humans in natural systems and align with principles that support loving relationships.
“We are love.” An orientation to caring that grows from reciprocal partnership rather than domination.
“We are one.” An orientation to seeing humans as part of nature, not as separate from it.
“We are smaller than we think.” An orientation to finding our place as one species among many within the larger family of life on Earth.
Although “Anthropocene” came from the scientific community, presumably as a way to objectively describe the outsized impact of humans on earth systems, it is full of hidden and not-so hidden narratives and is used (and challenged) extensively based on its narrative implications. In part 3 I’ll describe how I think it fails to accurately or helpfully convey our current story. But in this part let’s look at five other stories that have been prominent in North American history. By seeing the multiplicity of our past stories, we can better question and shape our current ones.
Five Human-Nature Story Models
1. Original Integration: Indigenous Models
Indigenous and land-based cultures mostly did, and still do, hold a holistic view of the place of humans within the rest of nature, seeing us as more recent, younger siblings in a mutually reciprocal, respectful, and caring relationship with the rest of the natural world. Robin Wall Kimmerer is one contemporary indigenous writer and scientist that illuminates an indigenous point of view, for example on plants as generous teachers of human learners.
2. Dominating Dualism: Settler Models
According to historian, David Nye, American settlers were guided by a paradigm that has been called, “second creation built in harmony with God’s first creation.” American settlers believed it was their duty and right to transform the ‘wild’ landscape to make it useful as farms, lumber, and other commodities. Without the long history of living with and learning from the land like Indigenous peoples, settlers use was unsustainable and lacked humility about their role on the land.
3. Inferior Dualism: Early Naturalist Models
Partly in response to the loss of natural landscapes from the settlers and industrial expansion, some early naturalists with good intentions misdiagnosed the problem of the human-nature story, casting humans as spoilers of wild nature, strengthening the limiting idea of human-nature separation, but switching the roles.
4. Benevolent Negotiated Dualism: Environmental Pragmatism Models
Believing that humans should have a place in the world, but that they can’t run roughshod over nature, environmental pragmatists tried to take concerns of nature into account, balancing progress with preservation of natural systems. But equal partnership is a poor map of our power relationship, since the health of natural systems are a prerequisite to our own well-being.
5. Ecological Integration: Humans as members of Gaia
Though the scientific Gaia Hypothesis draws from mythology in its name, its western-scientific basis is both its strength and its weakness. It paints a more accurate picture of humans place within and as part of larger natural systems, but as a scientific concept it is out of its element in shaping story, meaning, and ethics.
In the table below, here’s how I think these models stack up against the three Caring Ecology criteria for a good human-nature story. In the next part of the series, I’ll put forth the Apprenticene model — a counter-narrative to the Anthropocene and explore how they both compare to my Caring Ecology criteria for a good human-nature story.