Nature matters: caring and accountability
Nature matters: caring and accountability

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Nature matters: caring and accountability

1.2 The influence of narratives and spiritual traditions

In his 1974 publication Man’s Responsibility for Nature, John Passmore – an Australian philosopher who pioneered a concern for developing a change of attitude towards the environment – argues from an explicitly anthropocentric perspective. He suggests that the special ties between parents and children provide the basis for continual development of obligations amongst humans, which can then translate into a more responsible engagement with the environment.

People normally care for their own children, and will make sacrifices for them. They also care for their grandchildren. Each generation is thus connected to later generations through these caring relationships. Passmore argues that, as a consequence, each generation of parents will contribute to the welfare of their descendants, and thus indirectly to the welfare of the environment, through a chain of love and concern, as described in Box 2.

Box 2 A chain of love and concern

Love, no doubt, extends only for a limited distance in time. Men do not love their grandchildren’s grandchildren. They cannot love what they do not know. But in loving their grandchildren – a love which already carries them a not inconsiderable distance into the future – they hope that those grandchildren, too, will have grandchildren to love. They are concerned, to that degree, about their grandchildren’s grandchildren. ‘For myself,’ writes Macfarlane Burnet, ‘I want to spare my grandchildren from chaos and to hope that they will live to see their grandchildren getting ready to bring a stable ecosystem into being.’ Such a degree of concern for one’s grandchildren’s grandchildren is a natural consequence of one’s love for one’s grandchildren; it is, as it were, an anticipation of their love. And so is a concern for the future of art, of science, of one’s own town or country or university. By this means there is established a chain of love and concern running throughout the remote future.

Of course, a particular chain may be broken; not every parent loves his children, not every pupil of a philosopher loves philosophy. But such links are sufficiently common and persistent to lend continuity to a civilisation. They serve to explain sacrifices beyond the call of a Benthamite calculation or a sense of justice. There is, then, no novelty in a concern for posterity, when posterity is thought of not abstractly – as ‘the future of mankind’ – but as a world inhabited by individuals we love or feel a special interest in, a world containing institutions, social movements, forms of life to which we are devoted – or, even, a world made up of persons some of whom might admire us.

No doubt, this concern has often been made worthless by ignorance or outweighed by greed. But the new settlers in America or in Australia were not, for the most part, deliberately disregarding, when they destroyed the countryside, the interests of posterity. Many of them believed that the resources of the new countries were endless. As late as 1909, it is worth recalling, the United States Bureau of Soils officially committed itself to the view that the soil, at least, was an infinite resource. (‘The soil,’ so the Bureau pronounced, ‘is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses. It is the one resource that cannot be exhausted; that cannot be used up.’) The best of the new settlers – others, of course, were obsessed by greed – were convinced that they were building a better country for posterity to inherit. Total indifference to posterity has not been a leading characteristic of Western civilisation over the last few centuries; much of what has been most devastating has been sincerely done for posterity’s sake. Jesus’ ‘take no thought of the morrow’ has not served as a guiding principle in the West, not even in monastic orders. In general, men have sought to create a better world for those persons and activities they love.

(Source: Passmore, 1974, pp. 88–9)

Here Passmore presents a ‘chain of care’ argument. If we care for our own children to the extent of considering their welfare after they are adult (and after, as is likely, we predecease them), and they in turn care in the same way for their children, each succeeding generation will have its interests protected by its predecessor. However, the main objection to this is that if each of numerous sets of parents tries to make provision of the kind suggested for its children, there is no reason to think that this will lead to all the children benefiting. In many cultures, parental care and provision leads to competition, for example to secure better education, better jobs and so on for one’s own children.

This suggests a second, more general, point. Many people are concerned both for their children and for the future of their community. Although, of course, they expect their children to be part of that future community, there will also be considerations that result solely from their concern for the community rather than parental concern, and these too will affect actions and policies. However, this does make concern for future generations in other families, other communities or even other cultures in distant lands progressively more tentative.

Such models appear to reinforce the separateness of human from non-human nature (Figure 2). This disconnect amongst humans, and between humanity and nature, has been a particular hallmark of Western rationality and the emergence of secular society – that is, societal development based more on material wellbeing and growth, rather than on spiritual wellbeing.

Figure 2 Human distance from nature

So how might human communities connect amongst themselves and with nature to support a caring disposition? Anna Peterson makes the case for focusing more on the development of endeavours to reconnect human and non-human nature (2001, p. 214):

[A]t this point in our history it is not just useful but also vital to emphasize human continuity with the rest of nature, or at least to avoid dichotomizing, to insist on continuity as much as on difference. The need for this emphasis stems both from the predominant emphasis on human exceptionalism in academic and folk models and from the severity of environmental problems.

Peterson, an academic specialist in religious studies, draws on ecofeminist ideas and a range of spiritual traditions – including mainstream religions – to argue for what is called a ‘lived ethic’. This is an ethic that explicitly connects people to nature: ‘To speak of lived ethics points to the mutual shaping of ideas and real life and suggests that moral systems should not simply be applied to concrete situations but rather applicable to and livable in them’ (pp. 4–5). With reference to the informal side of environmental responsibility, a lived ethic might be considered as constituting development of actual obligations and entitlements – associated with human relationships with Nature – that embody what is good and what is right. Citing the influence of the ecofeminist scholar Karen Warren, Peterson suggests that the development of stories or narrative provides a particularly powerful way of enacting a lived ethic (see Box 3).

Box 3 Narratives as a support for environmental responsibility

Only in the light of stories can people come to understand themselves, the multiple roles they play, and the origins and trajectories of their communities. This insight provides the foundation for an explicitly narrative approach to ethics, as advocated and explicated by some feminist theorists, among others. They contend that moral decisions emerge out of history, relationships, and setting, rather than abstract rules or reasoning, or at least that narrative provides a context within which rules and reasoning make sense and can be compelling.

[N]arratives can provide a meaningful and coherent framework for people to think about the relations among understandings of the world, values, and actions. Because narratives embody rules and goals in concrete images, they help to make ethical systems practicable, livable. Further, as feminist scholars have pointed out, stories often tie moral decision to significant relationships, thus reinforcing a social view of human nature and drawing on the motivating power of loyalties and personal ties … [N]arratives take seriously relationships and the relational character of the self, which, as I have argued, are central to environmental ethics … [A] narrative form makes it possible to express and reflect upon diverse ethical attitudes in ways that mainstream Western philosophical styles do not permit. Narratives may, for example, present an indigenous or even nonhuman voice as that of a moral actor whose perspectives and interests demand serious consideration. At their best, stories can help us recognize difference without legitimizing subordination … [E]thics ought to take into account the concrete, embodied, and particular dimensions of humanness. Warren suggests that a narrative form is uniquely able to provide this contextual framework. In stories, ethical values and conclusions emerge out of particular situations in which moral agents find themselves, rather than being imposed on those situations.

(Source: Peterson, 2001, pp. 18, 224–5)

Peterson clearly sees religion as the most powerful form of narrative: ‘Like any narrative, religious narratives tell a story, but theirs is one in which secular history is linked in some way to sacred history, so that the latter gives a deeper meaning to events in the former’ (ibid. p. 19). She gives extensive attention to Max Oelschlaeger’s 1994 book Caring for Creation: An Ecumenical Approach to the Environmental Crisis, in which he argues that in the USA, from a pragmatic perspective, religious traditions and their particular narratives – particularly the dominant Judeo-Christian narratives – provide the best hope for developing the kind of informal conversation required to reconnect humanity with nature. Just as in the previous section a link was made between informal conversation and the development of obligations and entitlements, Oelschlaeger appears to suggest a similar link with the mode of religious creation stories as particular forms of narrative; he is quoted as saying ‘A creation story is primordial, carrying both obligations with it and injunctions for human behaviour toward all aspects of the world’ (Peterson, 2001, p. 8).

Judaism and Christianity are just two of many religious traditions in the world. Spiritualism can be represented by the mainstream traditions of Islam, Hinduism and various forms of Buddhism (and associated Taoism), as well as by the variety of traditions associated with indigenous tribal communities originating in the global South and variants of these – such as New Age – amongst communities in the more prosperous global North. A particularly relevant feature for environmental responsibility is the human–nature relationship associated with each tradition, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1 Some features of spiritual traditions

Tradition Founder Age (yrs) Main text(s) Human–nature relationship
Indigenous tribal worldviews None Tens of thousands of years Oral tradition Humans are often generally seen as part of nature and all nature is essentially spiritual
Hinduism None 3500+ Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita Humans are an integral part of an organic universal whole
Buddhism Siddharta Gautama (the Buddha) 2500 Tripitaka, oral traditions of the dharma Nature is a network of interconnecting relationships; humans in harmony with nature
Taoism Lao-Tse 2500 Tao Te Ching or Daodejing Similar to Buddhism. Tao is a pathway to natural harmony of opposites; basis of acupuncture, herbalism and holistic medicine











Old and New Testaments


There is a range of viewpoints on human–nature relationships within each of these traditions, but generally each has historic roots with humans having dominion, or stewardship, over nature. The stewardship ethic provides for an intrinsic valuing of the non-human natural world

These traditions are not static; they change and evolve with changing circumstances. But they do provide narratives, not least on the relationships between human and non-human nature. Each potentially carries a narrative that gives reverence to non-human nature – that is, accords some intrinsic value to nature. Box 4 provides some examples of the kinds of ecocentric perspectives held by indigenous peoples.

Box 4 Valuing nature from an ecocentric perspective

Donna House, a Navaho botanist (North America), remembers the teachings of her grandfather, chairman of the Navaho nation and a yeibechi (singer of traditional tribal songs about the common origins of people, plants and animals):

He taught me that our creation stories protect the land and its people. What we do to the land we do to ourselves. We don’t understand the separation you Anglos make between ‘out there’ and ‘in here’. In the Navaho language, we refer to all things as ‘people’.

(quoted in Wolf, 1990)

The spiritual world is the ordinary everyday world. Somé (1994), for example, explains that in his native Dagara language (Burkina Faso in Africa) there is no word for the supernatural, because there is no split between the material and the spiritual. ‘For us, as for many indigenous cultures, the supernatural is part of our everyday lives. To a Dagara man or woman, the material is just the spiritual taking on form.’ Alfonso Ortiz, a Tewa (North America), explains that ‘there’s nothing that is religious, versus something else that is secular. Native American religion pervades, informs all life’ (Knudtson and Suzuki, 1992, p. 16).

Power is essential to the relationship between humans and nature (Martin, 1978, p. 34):

Power – called manitou in Algonkian [North American Indian] – is a phenomenon common among pre-industrial people the world over. Roughly defined, it is the spiritual potency associated with an object (such as a knife) or a phenomenon (such as thunder). To the Micmac, as well as to all the rest of these Eastern Canadian hunter-gatherers, manitou was the force which made everything in Nature alive and responsive to man. Only a fool would confront life without it, since it was only through the manipulation and interpretation of manitou that man was able to survive in this world. To cut oneself off from manitou was equivalent to repudiating the vital force in Nature; without manitou Nature would lose its meaning and potency, and man’s activities in Nature would become secular and mechanical.

The Amazonian Tukano (South America) similarly seek to conserve power by caring for the environment (Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1996):

The forest … is a depository, a vast storage place of vital forces upon which man can draw according to certain, culturally determined, rules. It follows that to destroy the forest or to misuse it would be equivalent to the destruction of a vital source of energy; even to ignore the forest would be man’s loss.

A similar concept in Maori (New Zealand) is mana, which is defined as power and authority derived from the gods. Mana resides in nature, but in addition Maori social groups can have mana over a particular geographical area, and this obliges them to exercise stewardship over that area. Failure to do so will result in the loss of the life-sustaining capacity of the land and sea (Given, 1995).

The traditional views of the relationship between humans, nature and spirit described in Box 4 provide the foundation for what we might regard as an environmental ethic. The environment is not simply a collection of resources to be exploited, but is both a repository of power and a community of related beings, linked to humanity by ties of kinship. Acceptable behaviour towards something that is not only alive but also essentially spiritual is bound to be very different from behaviour towards a non-sentient, non-spiritual, material resource. Many indigenous groups therefore feel a great responsibility towards the natural world.

Of course, not all ‘indigenous’ populations or even individuals within those groups may share the ecocentric perspectives depicted above. In the same way, it would be misleading to caricature all of Judeo-Christianity as essentially anthropocentric in its narrative regarding nature. There are likely to be variations of perspective within as well as between different cultural traditions. What is important, though, is the influence of spiritual traditions on the quality of conversation; how we converse not only with non-human nature but also between human cultures. Peterson points out that Western observers often regard indigenous cultures, and particularly their ideas of animism (attributing agency to non-human others), as being ‘primitive’ and hence inferior. She does not suggest wholesale adoption of such worldviews, but argues instead that narratives of all kinds would benefit from having their assumptions questioned. There may be considerable benefit in carrying out such conversation with respect to developing Western or global North perspectives on nature. The aim is not to acquire some perfect understanding of nature, including the different human cultures that make up the natural world; rather, it is limited simply to living more respectfully with nature.

The task of conversing with different human cultures is similar to that of conversing with non-human nature itself. Here, Peterson’s challenge resonates with that presented by Talbott (Peterson, 2001, p. 223):

We cannot know their worlds fully but we can reach toward them. In fact, we cannot really know what it means to live as humans in our world without recognizing and valuing the worlds created and inhabited by other species. This task requires expansiveness and imagination, which we should not forget even as we recognize the value of limitation and restraint. Again rethinking human nature means not only dethroning humans but also liberating other animals from their passive and mechanistic portrayal by Western rationalism. This tradition, no less than animistic ones, presents a nature that is always already interpreted through specific cultural and ideological lens.

Activity 1 Conversing with other cultures

Describe one attribute of your own cultural perspective that may promote conversation with other cultures, and one attribute that you think inhibits such conversation. Try out this thought experiment with respect to conversing with (a) other human cultures and (b) non-human nature.


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