The current generations of the west tend to consider themselves as separate from nature, just as western culture has tended to since the Christianization of Europe. The culture of the west distanced itself from nature, taking humanity out of nature and nature out of humanity.
While there are more reasons to why and how this happened, a major point in Christianity was the concept of the Earth belonging to mankind. While Christianity wasn’t the first to propose the concept of land ownership and entitlement, it is a driving force of how Western culture views nature. Since Western culture is inherently linked to Christianity whether we realize it or not, social norms that are not thought of as linked to religion come from ideas and beliefs from Christianity. One prime example being the entitlement we feel over animals. We see ourselves as better than, exploiting animals and the natural world for our personal gain. In the first testament, it is stated that the natural world, animals included, were made for Adam and Eve to consume and live off of.
Western culture loves the narrative of “Man vs. Wild”. When someone is acting unruly or out of the social norm we call them an animal as a way to degrade the person. We are trained all our lives that nature and the wild is the enemy of humanity, foolishly forgetting that we, too, are animals. We write great tales of strong men defeating monstrous beasts, praising them for their bravery. These tales of triumph over the natural world make us cement in our minds that we are in control of the land.
This divide that we have created between the natural world and us has made us see the Earth and nature as an object. As an it. This divide is so cemented in our culture that it is present in the language as well. Even a detail as small as referring to an animal as an object, as it, as something instead of someone shapes the way that we think of the natural world in relation to ourselves. Because the language itself we use to describe the natural world draws a line between human and nature, it is difficult for us to not think of ourselves as separate.
However, succumbing to the comfortability and tradition of our society and language comes with a grave consequence. Our distancing from nature makes us numb to its peril. We begin to think of nature as expendable because it is the other. Marking a separation between humans and nature makes it harder for us to empathize with nature. The harder it is for us to empathize with nature, the less we care about it. After millennia of disconnection, we have reached a point in time in which we are finally realizing the impact that our actions have had on the natural world.
A big reason as to why we have realized that we have negatively impacted the world over centuries is that it has finally started affecting us as well. Today, we are faced with pollution that traps more heat in the atmosphere than before, polluted waterways, and the depletion of animal populations that we feed off of, along with many other problems that have started at the fault of humanity. Our society is so disconnected from the natural world that there are people that still do not believe that we are causing harm to the natural world.
One of the main problems in our society that has resulted in negative consequences at the expense of the natural world is the concept of ownership of land. The concept of private property in terms of land is not something that is or was practiced by every culture. In pre-colonial America, many of the native peoples living in the Americas did not have a concept of private property. One could not own land the way our society does. Many native peoples also saw animals as equals. Animals would only be hunted for food, and the hunter would ask the animal’s spirit permission to kill it.
I have noticed that when people personify nature, we tend to take better care of it. We can see this illustrated in native American cultures through the concept of spirits. In our modern culture, many dispute the existence of the soul or spirit, but it is generally thought that humans have spirits. Native Americans recognized a spirit in much more than just people. They believed that every animal, plant, waterway, and other elements of the natural world all had spirits. Because of this, they treated everything that they believed had a spirit as they would another human.
One may make the argument that we shouldn’t have to personify nature to be able to care or empathize with it. However, I believe that if personifying the Earth helps become more empathetic and considerate towards the Earth, then so be it. One instance in which humanity separates itself the most from nature is in scientific fields of study. When we study and observe certain aspects of nature, we tend to become bystanders to nature. We study as if it something alien to us, rather than something with which we are intricately connected to.
While it can be hard to see the connection between humans and nature in the 21st century, it is impossible to separate ourselves completely from nature, seeing as we are a part of it. The undeniable fact is that we are, in a sense, nature itself, since nature is not just one entity, but rather a network of billions of living beings all connected by the Earth they live in.
The separation of humankind from nature is an ingrained concept in many societies in the world. It would be impossible to suddenly change the way the relationship between humans and nature at this point. What we can do, and what I believe is imperative to do, is to provide people with thought experiments and provocations to challenge their ideas on our relationship with nature. Helping people understand and think critically about our true place in nature is a step towards societies with better relationships with nature, like those of the indigenous tribes of the Americas.