Nature matters in conversation
Nature matters in conversation

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Nature matters in conversation

2.2 Informal and formal conversations

The process of conversation is, of course, interactive. It requires listening (Figure 5) and feeding back. In human conversations the interactive process is largely enabled through a shared language. In conversing with nature the challenge is in formulating the right ‘language’, in terms of both ‘listening’ and ‘feeding back’. Any conversation – with nature or between humans – therefore requires some degree of formalisation (i.e. in the words or other language tools used). However, just as with human-to-human interaction, an ecological conversation may have varying degrees of formality.

Figure 5 Nature screaming to be heard

We are often confronted with the Other, either directly or indirectly through images (such as Figures 3 and 4). The full force of Nature can often be distressing as well as awe-inspiring, commanding fear as well as respect (Figure 6). So how might we engage in conversation with this natural world? Figure 7 uses the visualisation of environmental responsibility to represent conversation.

Figure 6 The complex world of Nature (the Other): (a) the immense natural force of a hurricane can cause distress and fear; (b) a spectacular landscape can inspire awe; (c) taming powerful beasts can generate respect between human and non-human
Figure 7 Visualising the process of environmental conversation

The conversation represented in Figure 7 puts more emphasis on the formal dimension – the need to construct ‘nature’ and ‘environment’ as particular conceptual tools. Talbott’s essay gives expression, though not explicitly, to both dimensions; first, the informal in terms of a preservationist perspective, and second, the more formalised scientific management perspective.

SAQ 2 Radical preservationism and conversing informally with the Other?

Refer back to the Talbott reading. In terms of contributing towards an ongoing ecological conversation:

  • a.What reservations does Talbott have about the position of ‘radical preservationism’?

  • b.What significant change in mindset is required for preservationists to engage more in ecological conversation?



  • a.The radical preservationist has such complete awe and reverence towards Nature or the Other, and such total acceptance that it is unknowable, that it impedes engagement.

  • b.It is acceptable to acknowledge the mystery of Nature, but preservationists should also acknowledge that we as humans are part of that mystery and have a responsibility to express ourselves as part of Nature.

SAQ 3 Scientific management and conversing more formally with the Other?

Refer back to the Talbott reading. In terms of contributing towards an ongoing ecological conversation:

  • a.What reservations does Talbott have about the position of ‘scientific management’?

  • b.What significant change in mindset is required for ‘managers’ to engage more in ecological conversation?



  • a.The scientific manager assumes that humans have a higher moral worth, and can therefore adopt an extreme anthropocentrism that treats Nature as having instrumental value only. The conversation is thus more a monologue than a dialogue.

  • b.The ‘manager’ should appreciate that what distinguishes us as humans from non-human nature is not greater moral worth; rather, we bear the burden of moral responsibility.

The conversation metaphor is helpful in delineating a role for humans in environmental responsibility. This can be seen when examining the characteristics of the two modes of conversation – informal and formal – discussed above. Although both may promote the notion of the essential integral relationship between human and non-human nature, both also regard the natural world as constituting some externalised Other (as partly suggested in Figure 7). Talbott reflects on this by criticising both the preservationist and the scientific management positions: ‘Both camps regard nature as a world in which the human being cannot meaningfully participate’ (2004, p. 40). This is important in two contrasting respects. First, it suggests a risk of distancing from, unbelonging superiority over and non-conversation with fellow life worlds of nature. But second, it also reminds us of the peculiarly human cognitive capacity to draw a conceptual distinction from our environment and create abstract ideas: ‘There is no disgrace in referring to the “uniquely human”. If we do not seek to understand every organism’s unique way of being in the world, we exclude it from the ecological conversation’ (ibid., p. 53).

Talbott claims that an extreme ecocentric perspective – putting equal value on human and non-human nature alike – denies the unique value that humans have with respect to being morally responsible. In this sense, Talbott takes an anthropocentric (human-centred) perspective. However, he also warns against assuming human superiority: ‘nothing here implies that humans possess greater “moral worth” (whatever that might mean) than other living things. What distinguishes us is not our moral worth, but the fact that we bear the burden of moral responsibility’ (ibid.). There is here a difference between attributing moral standing to entities (i.e. recognising them as worthy of moral consideration) and attributing moral responsibility. Only humans can be morally responsible. As Peterson comments (2001, p. 219): ‘If people are “plain members and citizens” of the biotic community … then why do other members not have the same responsibilities as humans? Why should we not hold elephants responsible for deforestation, cats for endangering songbird species?’

These points have implications for the informal and formal modes of conversation. Drawing on the unique position of humans within nature, an informal conversation might involve a change in how nature is valued. Nash (1989) describes an evolution of ethics that might be seen as a gradual widening of moral consideration from the individual ‘self’ outwards to family, tribe, region, nation, towards non-human nature and even beyond (rocks, ecosystems, planet, etc.). It is perhaps debatable whether this ethical widening is indeed evident (or possibly even working the other way), though there is amongst preservationists, at least, a hope of being more inclusive in valuing non-human nature. Values are not fixed but change according to circumstances. Humans continually communicate meaning and value through developing common cultural understandings.

A preservationist viewpoint implies treating something – nature – as though its value is fixed and cannot be changed. However, there have been many examples in the past in which the value attributed to certain entities was fixed for a long period of time, but then underwent a change. Think, for example, of the mainstream value given during long periods of human civilization to slaves, women, indigenous minority populations, racial groups, the poor, the disabled, etc. Although there is much that still needs to be done in changing values globally, few would deny the considerable changes that have occurred in the past two hundred years.

A more formalised conversation might involve a change in the language tools used to articulate issues of significance. Scientific conversations around environment rather than nature provide a good example. Environment in scientific discourse is often viewed as little more than a set of detached entities of curiosity, or ‘resources’, or other forms of significance for human wellbeing. In the process, it becomes almost lifeless and lacking in self-autonomy, let alone having the potential for conversation. Despite his criticism of this stance, however, Talbott warns against relying totally on what I call the informal aspects of conversation. He anticipates questions regarding oneness with nature (2004, p. 46):

But doesn’t all this leave us dangerously rudderless, drifting on relativistic seas? Surely we need more than a general appeal to responsibility! How can we responsibly direct ourselves without an understanding of the world and without the guidelines provided by such an understanding?

So there is a role for another type of conversation, one based on more formally conceptualising nature and creating some distance precisely in order to appreciate the particular responsibility we have as humans to offer protection, particularly given our potential for harm and wrongdoing. Of course, the biggest risk involved in conceptualising nature in this way is that we may end up seeking some ultimate, fixed understanding of nature. Talbott goes on to state, ‘Yes, understanding is the key. We need the guidelines it can bring. But these must never be allowed to freeze our conversation. This is evident enough in all human intercourse. However profound my understanding of the other person, I must remain open to the possibilities of [our] further development’ (ibid.).

Guidance on improving the condition of our mutual environment – whether it’s an environment of climate change, or that of a community park or household garden – is always welcome, but to have responsible guidance requires an openness to enquiry and challenge. ‘None of us would want to see the entire world reduced to someone’s notion of a garden, but neither would we want to see a world where no humans tended reverently to their surroundings … We should not set the creativity of the true gardener against the creativity at work in our oversight of the Denali wilderness’ (Talbott, 2004, p. 55).


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