Nature matters in conversation
Nature matters in conversation

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Nature matters in conversation

1.2 Connecting human and non-human nature

Environmental responsibility – caring and generating accountability – requires interaction between human and non-human nature. For example, from a caring perspective what matters in climate change might constitute, say, the continued existence and protection of an arctic wilderness (Figure 3). But this necessarily involves a connection between human perception and appreciation of such a wilderness (‘nature’) and the actual wilderness itself (Nature), which may or may not actually contain humans.

Figure 3 Perception of care: polar bear in arctic wilderness

In contrast, from a perspective of accountability what matters might be not so much the (human-constructed) perceptions associated with preserving some wilderness, but rather the (human-designed) measures used to signify change in the environment (temperature rise, biodiversity loss, glacier movement or other such variables) as appropriate devices for representing problems of the global environment.

Human-designed measures, such as Michael Mann’s famous ‘hockey stick’ depiction of climate change using actual and anticipated temperature changes (Figure 4) are, not surprisingly, open to debate.

Figure 4 Measures of accountability: ‘hockey stick’ depiction of climate change

Caring for an arctic wilderness is dependent on a relationship between our perceptions of what this wilderness represents and the actual wilderness itself. Generating accountability for, say, global climate change involves human design in measuring significant levels of temperature change that might be used as a gauge in relation to any harm done to the actual environment. (Here, of course, I am using the term environment to include both human and non-human nature.) In both cases – caring and accountability – it is the relationship between human and non-human nature that ultimately matters, including the actual act of making a distinction between the two natures.

We can perhaps differentiate here between what I think matters in the realm of ‘environmental responsibility’ and what matters in more formal disciplines associated with environmental studies. In the natural sciences, for example, what primarily matters is an understanding of the entities themselves (living and non-living) and the complex interrelationships and interdependencies amongst them. On the other hand, what primarily matters in environmental studies associated with the social sciences is the multiple and changing human interests associated with natural phenomena. Both sets of scientific endeavours are important for drawing out matters of importance for environmental responsibility, but I would argue that what primarily matters in the field of environmental responsibility is the relationship between human and non-human nature. So how might we conceive this relationship?

Caring for environment and developing appropriate measures of accountability suggest two types of relationship between human and non-human nature that can be likened to relationships in an idealised family – an analogy used by van den Born (2008) that I find useful for adaptation here. ‘Caring’ relates to the sense of belonging in a family. In an ideal-type family there might be an intuitive mutual understanding of care between members, where they may voluntarily contribute towards some collective commitment to ensuring family togetherness. From a caring perspective, members are co-respondents in the sense of having equal standing. ‘Accountability’ speaks to a more specific relationship, formalised and rather more distant, as sometimes experienced between a parent and a child. In such a relationship, a responsible parent provides not only care but also protection, by constructing guidelines and rules to ensure some level of agreed-upon compliance in fostering responsibility.

Drawing on this analogy, the human relationship with non-human nature can be similarly understood. First, as mutual partners in the survival of a shared planet or universe, human and non-human life might be regarded as nurturing a sense of collective destiny and care for an environment to which we collectively contribute. Second, at times the relationship may require humans to stand above nature, somehow negotiating rules of behaviour to ensure appropriate accountability and compliance to protect against harm and wrong.

The important relationship in environmental responsibility – like that of an idealised family – is one of communication. This applies to both caring and developing accountability. As with fostering effective family dynamics, including the protection of more vulnerable members such as young children, environmental responsibility requires elements of developing respect for non-human nature through continual informal negotiation on obligations and entitlements, as well as the more formal elements of establishing duties and making claims about what is right and wrong in order to guide our interaction w

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