Respecting Nature’s Autonomy in Relationship with Humanity
Ned Hettinger, Philosophy Department,
(Forthcoming in Thomas Heyd, ed., Recognizing the Autonomy of Nature,
Preservationist environmental thought involves the following interrelated ideas. Nature’s value is significantly a function of its degree of independence from humanity. “Naturalness” or “wildness” is what most centrally grounds nature’s value. When considerably modified by humans, nature loses much of its value and even its essential character. A strong conceptual separation exists between humans and nature. Nature is to be understood in opposition to humanity; nature is “the nonhuman.” Wilderness is thus quintessential nature. Respect for nature most importantly involves preservation of wilderness areas, free from significant human influence.
In the context of today’s massive and ongoing humanization of the planet, these ideas have much truth and power. With perhaps half the planet’s surface significantly disturbed by humans, and half of that human-dominated (Hannah 1993), valuing nature for its remaining wildness, separating humans from nature, and preserving wilderness are essential if nature as independent other is to continue to flourish on this planet. But as important as they are, these preservationist ideas--left by themselves and unsupplemented--have a dark side.
Most troubling is that such views of the human relation to nature make it difficult to envision a positive role for humans in nature. As the antithesis of nature, humans necessarily degrade and destroy nature. But an adequate environmental philosophy must explain how humans could be something other than an ugly scar or nasty stain on the natural world. Purely preservationist views also fail to provide guidance for how humans should treat the nature with which we must interact. Specifying how to value and respect nonwilderness lands (and less than fully wild animals and plants), including the rural, middle, or “working” landscape, is also a crucial task for environmental philosophy. At best, pure preservationists tell us to minimize our use of such lands and entities. At worst, preservationists see such lands (and the animals and plants on them) as human artifacts totally lacking natural value. But an adequate conception of humans’ relation to nature must allow for the possibility of respectful use of nature. Unsupplemented preservationist views fail to account for how respect for nature can go hand in hand with the human use of nature.
I believe that a particular concept of nature’s “autonomy” provides an important resource for responding to these challenges. Preservationist intuitions need to be joined with the idea of respecting the autonomy of nature. A healthy respect for the wildness of the nature that is significantly uninfluenced by humans combined with a respect for the autonomy of the nature with which humans are involved provides a far more adequate and comprehensive ethic of respect for nature than does either ethic alone. This essay explores the concept of respect for nature’s autonomy and relates it to preservationist intuitions.
environmental philosophers, including some of the most influential, accept some
version of these preservationist ideas and are vulnerable to the criticisms
For example, Paul Taylor’s fine book Respect
for Nature (1986) is concerned only with respecting wild nature and
intentionally leaves out a discussion of proper treatment of the nature that
has been heavily used in the fulfillment of human ends. This type of nature
Eric Katz’s conception of the value of nature and our obligations to it also leaves little room for a positive account of humans’ relationship with nature. His characterization of the human/nature relationship suggests that any human use of nature is abusive. Katz says, “When humans shape and manipulate the natural world to meet their own interests, to satisfy their desires, it is a form of anthropocentric domination, the oppression and denial of the autonomy of nature” (Katz 1997: xxiv). But humans, like other species, must influence the natural world. Human survival, much less human flourishing, requires this. Katz’s language suggests that humans--by their very nature--dominate, oppress, and subvert the autonomy of nature. For Katz, even well-intentioned human involvement with nature--such as restoration of degraded nature--is oppressive. Katz writes, “The re-created natural environment that is the end result of a restoration project is nothing more than an artifact created for human use” (1997: 97) and although “these restored and redesigned natural areas will appear more or less natural . . . they will never be natural” (1997: 98). For Katz, then, the human stain on nature is so toxic that once soiled, it has been spoiled forever; nature will never return. Given Katz’s account, it seems impossible to envision an environmentally just future in which humans live in the natural world in a morally appropriate way.
At times, Holmes Rolston’s account of nature approaches the same set of problems. In a powerful response to J. Baird Callicott’s (1991) critique of idea of wilderness as unpeopled places and to Callicott’s suggestion that human interaction with nature might benefit nature, Rolston says: “The fallacy is to think that a nature allegedly improved by humans is anymore real nature at all” (Rolston 1991: 371). This borders on the claim that only pristine wilderness is real nature. Such a view leaves no place for humans in nature. Although Rolston sometimes writes about rural nature, he conceives of it as a “hybrid” between nature and culture (Rolston 1988: 330), suggesting that real/pure nature has been degraded in rural landscapes. Furthermore, Rolston has a decidedly “tradeoff view” concerning interaction between humans and nature. Although in various places Rolston suggests humans might add to natural value, the dominant story is that human interaction with nature is a loss for nature. To flourish, human civilization must trade in natural values in the pursuit of cultural ones (Rolston, 1994: 85-86). While there is much truth in this perspective, it is important to allow for types of human flourishing that need not compromise natural value.
If we accept the troubling idea that “nature can be fully itself and thus have full value only when left undisturbed by human beings” (Kane 1994: 71), we are left with the unfortunate suggestion that--from the perspective of nature’s value--a policy of “human/nature apartheid” would be best. In the context of today’s harmful human transformation of the planet, apartheid is a major part of what is needed. Leaving much of nature on earth alone is an absolutely central part of any adequate environmental ethic. But this is not all that is needed, and an environmental ethic that suggests nature necessarily loses or ceases to be nature in any significant interchange with humans is an ethic that makes the human presence on earth a tragedy for earthen nature. Environmental philosophy must ultimately articulate a constructive human/nature relationship that allows us, as John Visvader (1996: 18) says, to “imagine giving more to the world around us than the gift of our mere absence.” The alternatives of either minimizing human influence on nature (Katz’s ideal of human/nature apartheid) or sacrificing natural value for human good (Rolston’s tradeoff view) fail to provide for such a positive role.
For humans to have something other than a purely negative and harmful role with respect to nature, we must distinguish between human involvement with nature and human domination of nature. Modification and alteration of nature must be distinguished from mastery and control of nature. If we define human alteration of nature as ipso facto degradation, humans who want to be respectful of nature will not be allowed to interact with it at all. Activities such as birdwatching from a distance would seem the extent of allowable interaction. Relatedly, we need to explain how certain types of human uses of nature need not be abusive and how humans can use nature as a means, without necessarily using it as a mere means. If our use of other humans need not be devoid of respect for them, one would expect that our use of nature need not be devoid of respect and concern for its flourishing. A positive vision for humanity’s role in nature might involve a partnership relationship between humans and nature, where humans use nature respectfully while nature does not lose and perhaps even benefits from the interaction. A symbiotic, mutually-beneficial relationship with nature is the ideal. Such an ideal should supplement, not supplant, a preservationist ethic that requires significant separation.
Varieties of Nature’s Autonomy
A particular way of understanding respect for nature’s autonomy can provide a means to address these concerns. Autonomy is a form of independence that is distinct from absolute independence (i.e., maximum avoidance of influence). Respecting the autonomy of others does not mean avoiding interaction with or influence on them. What respect for autonomy requires is that one not dominate or control the other. Thus nature’s autonomy need not be compromised by human involvement as long as this involvement is not domineering, just as a person’s autonomy need not be compromised by the involvement of others so long as they avoid dominating and controlling that person. Jack Turner puts a related point this way: “Although autonomy is often confused with radical separation and complete independence, the autonomy of systems (and I would argue, human freedom) is strengthened by interconnectedness, elaborate iteration, and feedback–that is, influence” (1996:113).
Nature is clearly not autonomous in some senses in which persons are autonomous. With the possible exception of psychologically sophisticated animals, natural entities or systems do not survey the range of possible alternatives and intentionally choose a plan of action. Nor is the activity of natural entities autonomous in a sense that would justify us holding them morally accountable for their behavior. Nonetheless, the behavior of natural entities can be plausibly described as autonomous in a number of respects. Human action can be seen as thwarting or respecting nature’s autonomy in these senses.
The most fundamental sense of nature’s autonomy is freedom from human domination and control. Call this the autonomy of nature in relation with humanity. This is a purely negative sense of autonomy and it consists in the lack of a certain type of human influence over nature. Autonomy in this sense is a relational property between natural entities and humans. To say nature is autonomous in relation to humanity is to say that nature carries on independently of human control or domination. Humans dominate nature when they exercise mastery over it by exerting the supreme determining or guiding influence. When human influence over a natural entity or process outweighs all the other determining factors, humans are dominating that entity or process and failing to respect nature’s autonomy in relation with humanity. For example, regulating the height and timing of a geyser by the systematic application of soap in the underground plumbing undermines the geyser’s autonomy, for humans are then the chief determining factor in the geyser’s eruptions. In contrast, watering a tree so it grows more quickly and larger (or shading it with one’s house and thus slowing its growth) does not dominate the tree, despite constituting significant influence over it.
To respect nature’s autonomy in relation to humanity is not to respect nature in virtue of particular properties it possesses, but to treat nature in a certain way. We respect nature’s autonomy by avoiding exerting the preponderance of influence over it. Humans can respect the autonomy of nature in this sense whether the natural entity is goal-directed (e.g., organisms and perhaps some ecosystems) or not (e.g., rocks and mountains), whether the natural entity is quite active (like a river) or relatively passive (like a pond). A natural arch about to collapse because of anthropogenic acid rain has had its autonomy undermined as much as has a drive-though sequoia whose life cycle has been cut in half by the tunnel, even though the former is not a self-organizing or teleological being. In both cases, humans dominate these natural entities by exerting the preponderance of influence over their fates. Similarly, keeping an arch from falling due to wind and water erosion by using metal cables and bolts puts humans in control of the fate of the arch and fails to respect its autonomy from humanity.
All natural entities and processes have headings or trajectories in the minimal sense that they have beginnings, endings, and patterns of change. Humans can participate in and influence these “journeys” while respecting the autonomy of the entities undergoing them by avoiding a controlling or dominating influence. For example, human mimicking of the natural fire regime in a fire-adapted forest is significant human involvement in a natural system, which nevertheless does not constitute domination or mastery over it in part because the overall trajectory of the system is not altered. Selective, multi-age logging, which preserves forest species and successional processes, might also be compatible with the forest’s autonomy from humanity for similar reasons. Affecting the population of deer and the predators that feed on them by subsistence hunting influences this predator/prey system without necessarily controlling it. In contrast, regulating deer and predator numbers by scientifically-managed hunting seasons, a birth control regime for the deer, or systematic poisoning of predators approaches human mastery over this predator/prey relationship and thus fails to respect the autonomy of this natural process.
It is sometimes suggested that if humans are necessary conditions for the existence of an entity, then it is ontologically dependent on them and thus lacks autonomy in relation to humanity (Katz 1997, Lee 1999). Domesticated animals and plants would not exist but for humans and thus, the argument goes, are dominated and controlled by humans. In so far as this is a critique of contemporary agriculture, it is much too broad. According to this account, all agriculture, whether it be small-scale organic farming or industrial-chemical agriculture, is disrespectful of nature. On the account given here, humans dominate a natural entity when they exert the preponderance of influence over it. Being a necessary condition for something’s existence is not itself to exert such influence over it. Parents are necessary conditions for their children’s existence, but may not exert such influence over them. Many species on the planet--including those existing in wilderness areas--have human forbearance a necessary condition for their existence. But this is not to dominate them. Thus that humans are necessary conditions for the existence of some aspect of nature is not necessarily to dominate or show a lack of respect for their autonomy in relation to humanity.
There are other
conceptions of respecting the autonomy of nature that, unlike autonomy in
relation to humanity, suggest that we can and should respect natural entities
and systems because they possess specific properties or capacities. Respect for the autonomy of nature might mean
respect for self-organizing, autopoietic systems in nature, or it might mean
respect for natural entities and systems that are powerful, active, resistant,
or resilient to human-induced changes. A
wild river actively and powerfully resists human attempts to change its course
or flow. Rainy eastern
Whether or not humans dominate a natural entity or process (and in this sense fail to respect its autonomy in relation to humanity) depends not just on the sheer amount of influence humans have over it, but also on whether that entity/process influences us in return. Consider that although spouses exert a high degree of influence over each other, they typically do not dominate each other. That same amount of influence exerted over an acquaintance would likely be considered domination. We are less likely to judge that a high degree of influence of one over another is domination when there is significant influence in return. The autonomy of nature is thus dependent not just on the amount of influence humans have over nature, but also on the amount of influence nature has over humans. When a natural system or entity plays an important role in what happens in human culture, that is, when it exerts significant influence over our lives, then substantial human influence over that natural entity is less likely to count as domination and more likely to be compatible with respect for nature’s autonomy in relation to humanity than when the natural entity exerts little or no influence over humanity. In human affairs, it is a sign of a healthy relationship when two people exert significant nondominating influence over each other. Such influence is a similar sign of health when present in the human relationship with nature.
This mutual influence dimension of respect for nature’s autonomy can help us see certain types of human relations with rural nature in a positive light. Contrast human interaction with rural landscapes and with wilderness areas. Many preservationists would argue that humans significantly dominate rural lands, while wilderness has autonomy from humanity. This need not be the case, given the above account of autonomy. While it is obviously true that wilderness is less influenced by people than are rural lands, it does not follow from this that wilderness is more autonomous. For rural nature significantly affects people’s lives in a way in which wilderness does not. Often people who work with rural nature live by the rain, the soil, the sun, the animals, and the plants. Instead of letting the banker, boss, or stock market determine their lives, they let the seasons, temperature, and presence or absence of predators or pests determine their lives. Rural nature can preserve its autonomy in relationship with humanity even when significantly influenced by humans because it can significantly influence us in return.
It is true that a farmer might have machinery, chemicals, irrigation systems, greenhouses, insurance, and so on, so that she is hardly more influenced by nature than is an urban dweller. But some farmers put their livelihoods in the hands of nature. They depend on the rain coming, instead of irrigating with fossil water. They depend on insect predators in the hedgerows, instead of chemical pesticides. They depend on the hawks to keep the field mice down. They depend on horses to plough and manure the fields. By leaving themselves open to significant influence from natural entities and systems, their relation with nature is likely to be a nondominating one.
One implication of this account is that if we want to respect the autonomy of nature, it helps to not protect ourselves too much from it. We can sometimes work toward a respect for nature’s autonomy by leaving or making ourselves vulnerable to nature. Leaving or restoring predators is one way to accomplish this. When rural people must take down their bird feeders, properly seal their garbage, hike with bells, or give up certain trails because of bears or cougars, they are vulnerable to nature’s influences and thus more likely to relate to an autonomous nature. Restoring wolves to the rural landscape who might eat our sheep forces us to change our grazing practices, adds to nature’s influence over our lives, and lessens our control of the situation; thus it likely increases the autonomy in relation to humanity of local nature. When humans accommodate themselves to natural processes and entities, rather than reworking or eliminating those processes or entities, they show a respect for the autonomy of the nature with which they live.
Thus unlike a pure preservationist ethic of noninterference, respect for nature’s autonomy in relation to humanity gives us some guidance for how to treat the mixed or rural landscape. The only guidance pure preservationists offer for our treatment of the nature we use is to minimize our involvement with that nature (or use it as efficiently as possible). As Eric Katz says, “Even in the case of hybrid environments we ought to lean towards leaving nature alone” (Katz , THIS VOLUME: PAGE?). But then our advice to the farmer, the forester, and rural homebuilder is to do as little farming, forestry, or home building as possible. If respect for nature means leaving nature alone, then using nature involves disrespecting it and at best we can minimize our disrespect by using it as little as possible. In contrast, if respect for nature can mean respecting its autonomy in relationship with humanity, then it is possible to use nature while respecting it. Use of nature that does not compromise its autonomy can be respectful use.
Not only does a pure preservationist ethic give no real guidance for our treatment of less than fully wild nature but it tends to disparage the value of that type of nature. The lack of respect for less than fully wild nature is an increasingly frequent target for critics of the pure wilderness preservation ethic. Val Plumwood puts the criticism this way: “A dualistic wilderness cult which confines respect and the status of ‘nature’ to pure virgin land does not support a culture of respect for ordinary land or for nature in context of everyday life” (Plumwood 1998: 667-668). By making respect for the autonomy of nature in relation to humanity a central focus of an environmental ethic, we can avoid viewing non-wilderness lands and humanly influenced species as inferior, degraded versions of wild nature. Rural lands and domesticated animals and plants--though more greatly influenced by humans--can be just as autonomous as wild nature. We can respect them by influencing them in a way that does not dominate them and letting them influence our lives in return.
A purely preservationist ethic tends to define nature par excellence as wild nature or wilderness, entities or places devoid of a high degree of human influence. Once natural entities have been significantly influenced by humans, they lose their status as nature or natural. Thus for Rolston, a nature improved upon is no longer “real nature” and for Katz and Keekok Lee (1999), significantly human-influenced biota are artifacts, whether they be restored landscapes or domesticated animals or plants. But it is not plausible to claim that a formerly barren lake in which humans introduce fish is no longer nature, nor is it plausible to claim that replanted forests, horses, or cattle are non-natural human-created artifacts, as artifactual as plastic chairs. Granted these entities are not wild nature, but unless unspoiled wildness is one’s criterion for nature, things can be nature and natural, without being wild nature.
The concept of the autonomy of nature in relation to humanity can help us here as well. We can argue that human influence over landscapes or other natural entities need does not render them non-natural, artifactual beings, if they retain autonomy in their relation to humanity. On this account, some rural landscapes and some domesticated animals and plants can continue to count as nature and natural, even though significantly influenced by humans. Only when their relation to humanity is such that their autonomy has been undermined does it become plausible to argue that they are no longer natural, but rather artifactual beings who belong to the category of culture more than to nature. When nature is not defined as the absence of humans or human influence, but as requiring the absence of human control and domination and the presence of autonomy in relation to humanity, then less than fully wild nature can be natural and remain real nature
One example of the excesses of defining nature as wild nature is Keekok Lee’s claim that “transgenic organisms are artifacts with a degree of artefacticity analogous to that of plastic toys” (1999: 53). Inserting a few genes into an organism with tens of thousands of genes is hardly to turn it into a human-created artifact analogous to a cultural phenomenon like a hoola-hoop. Similarly, a replanted forest, or even a vegetable garden, retains sufficient autonomy from humanity to qualify as nature. Sun, rain, birds, bugs, and all sorts of natural processes continue to operate beyond human control in gardens and forests giving them a plausible claim to autonomy from humanity. A fish tank or bonsai garden, on the other hand, may be sufficiently under human control and artifactual that the label ‘nature’ may be more plausibly withheld. By defining nature not as the absence of humans or human influence, but as requiring the absence of human control and domination and the presence of autonomy in relation to humanity, we allow for a human place and role in nature. Humans can use nature and natural entities without necessarily destroying their essential character. Our use of nature can be respectful of it, provided it retains its autonomy in the context of this use. The strict separation of humans and nature (i.e., human/nature apartheid) need not be our only way of respecting nature. Human participation in nature and involvement with natural entities, constrained by respect for their autonomy, is an equally important component of an ethic of respect for nature.
While preservationist intuitions and policies are of crucial importance to a proper respect for nature, by themselves they provide a merely negative model of humanity’s relationship with nature. By supplementing preservationism with an ethic of respecting nature’s autonomy in relationship with humanity, we allow for a positive role of humans in nature. With respect for the autonomy of nature as a central moral norm for the human relation with nature, human involvement with nature need not be harmful or degrading to nature in this important respect. This opens the door to the respectful human use of nature and to humans flourishing in nature as real possibilities.
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. In addition to the examples in the text, see Robert Elliott (1997), Ned Hettinger and Bill Throop (1999), and Keekok Lee (1999).
. Callicott (1991) is right about the importance of envisioning such a notion, which he calls “sustainable development.” Unlike Callicott, I believe that such a relationship should go hand in hand with an ethic of wilderness preservation and need not displace it.
. For a discussion of these notions, see Rolston (1988: 197-201 and 1994: 181-184) and Lee (1999: 177-180).
. Of course, mutual domination is possible. But a high degree of influence of one party over the other which would be considered domination absent a corresponding influence in return need not be a situation of mutual domination when the corresponding influence is present.
. It is true that when a person hikes or camps in wilderness, nature has great influence over that individual and the individual has little or no influence on the wilderness. But such influence is temporary. It is a kind of “vacation influence” and much less powerful and long term than the influence rural nature has over the lives of rural people who live with and by nature.
. I thank Bill Throop for this idea specifically and for discussions that helped enormously in the genesis of the ideas in this essay.
. Examples where people are vulnerable to nature and have little choice in the matter--lightning strikes, tornadoes, the inevitability of death, etc.-- provide particularly powerful evidence for the idea that nature is not completely under the human thumb. In these respects, nature might even be seen as dominating humans and thwarting our autonomy. See Katz (1997: 133-146) for a discussion.
9. Michael Gill has raised a worrisome counterexample to the suggestion in this section. If making ourselves more vulnerable to nature is a step toward respecting nature’s autonomy in relation to humanity, then human-caused global warming--a dramatic human-caused alteration of nature if there ever was one--should be seen as a step in the direction of respecting nature’s autonomy, for global warming may well make us more vulnerable to nature and it is a clear example of nature influencing us in return. Other examples raise the same worry: Are humans respecting nature’s autonomy when they clear-cut hillsides and make their homes and villages more vulnerable to massive landslides? Are we respecting nature’s autonomy by suppressing fire so that we are more vulnerable to massive landscape-scale fires? I am not sure what to say about these examples. On the one hand, these examples of human influence over nature that makes us more vulnerable to it illustrate the point that humans are not in control of nature in these situations. That when we dramatically influence nature we often do so at our own peril suggests that we are far from dominating nature (despite trying to). Nature remains autonomous from us even in such cases of significant and harmful human influence. On the other hand, such human activity and nature’s response hardly constitutes healthy human/nature interaction and increasing human vulnerability to nature by such dramatic influence is not a way of respecting nature’s autonomy in relation to humanity. A comparable human analogue might be driving one’s spouse to mental instability with the result that your life is greatly and negatively affected in return. Perhaps these examples should count as examples of mutual domination and not a type of mutual influence that lessens the likelihood of domination. These examples suggest that the intentions of humans whose activity increases their vulnerability to nature may play a role in whether or not to characterize this activity as a step toward respecting nature’s autonomy in relation to humanity. They clearly show that increasing human vulnerability to nature is not a sufficient condition for acting in a way that shows respect for nature’s autonomy in relation to humanity.