Ed. Note: We are happy to share this reader response, which is part of a series developed by environmental science students at Loyola University Chicago from the course ENVS 390: Integrative Environmental Seminar.
As humans, our individual tendencies toward the environment only matter so far as we spread those environmentally beneficial ideas into our cultural values as a society. Whether or not we view ourselves as separate from, or as part of nature, is somewhat irrelevant in the sphere of environmental preservation. In both systems of thought there is the ability for humans to develop beliefs that involve anthropocentric/environmentally complacent ideals. This does not mean that the intrinsic value of nature is entirely dependent on OUR connection to it.
As the urbanization of the American industrial revolution proved, humans felt the need to distance themselves and be separate from nature, ultimately leading to the widespread destruction of natural resources. In conflict, human connection to nature does not automatically necessitate environmental preservation, although in many aspects and cultures the two are related. Many early societies felt deep intrinsic connection with the environment yet understood that connection and dominance could still be correlated. In many modern cultures we are able to understand the importance of our connection to nature, yet still use natural resources for our benefit. This is because in our current environmental situation we relate our connection with "nature" as being wholesomely different than our connection with the "wilderness.”
Nature is constantly introduced to new generations as something important to human kind and connected to us, but also as something monumentally different than any previous society that came before us. The problem with this is that each generation takes the current environmentally degraded condition as a non-degraded standard and is generally unaware of damages inflicted by previous generations. In previous generations the level of environmental degradation was much less severe. Also many previous cultures lived in balance with nature and valued the ecological system as inherently important. One such culture is that of the Cree Hunters of Mistassini, a Native American tribe that values the sustainability of nature as having religious importance. This is not to say that the tribe does not have an ethical view of nature, but more to highlight the cross-generational prevalence of attitudes that value human connection with nature.
The philosophical reasoning behind the connection of natural resource destruction and perceived human separation from the environment is relatively cut and dry compared to the idea that human unity with nature can also resolve in environmental degradation. As a majority of humans began to flock to urban centers in the mid 1800s, many of them understood and treasured the centralization of public goods. As urbanization has continued, the perceived separation from nature has increased in human populations. The idea that our species is separate from nature despite being evolved from nature, dependent on nature, and involved in the cycles of nature seems far-fetched at the slightest. Although this idea may not be factually accurate, the perceived separation of humans from nature is as authentic as can be.
How can one be born into a society dependent on the coupling of economic growth and natural resource destruction and still be able to recognize the historical relationship our species has with nature? The answer is simple but comes with many explanations. Many times individuals who are part of recent generations cannot grasp our intrinsic connection with nature. This can be explained by the normalization of our economic system, which centers on growth and the use of natural resources. It can also be explained through our learned cultural ideology. For example, many large industry supporters have grown up in a culture that values technological optimism, an idea that technological improvements in such areas as environmental quality and energy will sustain life as human population soars. It is important to understand that many of these people are disconnected from nature because of the influence of capital gains and/or acculturation.
Disconnection from nature does not automatically define an individual as an environmental hazard. In fact, the intrinsic/non-intrinsic valuation of nature also isn't a predictor of one's feelings toward sustainability and environmental protection. Often individuals who feel separate from nature agree with environmentalists because they know we all coexist in the global environment and therefore our fates are in some ways influenced by one another. Usually individuals who feel they are a part of nature also feel that nature deserves great respect from us.
Anthropocentrists would also agree that environmental protection is important because the Earth's biosphere is shared and intertwined with all aspects of nature. Much of the rhetoric concerning our disconnection to nature often misconstrues scientific evidence in order to promote environmentally degrading actions. People who feel they are a part of nature also may not care whether or not many parts of the ecosystem are destroyed; the only concern for these individualist thinkers is their own preservation. For these people aesthetics, animal rights, and the intrinsic value of nature are not important.
Regardless of rhetoric from anthropocentric thinkers, every being has primal concern for the continuation of their own species. Because of this, many feel a part of nature's community because every being in that community has the ability to value their own species' perpetuation. Hopefully, in the future, a majority of people will feel they are a part of nature because of the intrinsic value and not the instrumental value of nature. These people believe that Mother Earth is a rare and monumentally special place with an environment that necessitates balance. In this view the people of Earth are beholden with the responsibility of sustaining the natural environment in as much of an undisturbed way as possible. Earth is our niche, along with millions of other species. It deserves the same respect as our mother, because not only do we rely on it for our life, but its value is fundamentally dependent and derived from the development of life (the most precious aspect of nature).