There are many branches of philosophy, within which an entire web focuses on how we humans think and feel about the natural world. Yet, despite several philosophical movements and advancements over centuries, we still fail to agree on the level of respect and care nature deserves, making critical thinking to change social paradigms toward conserving nature essential.
The most direct connection between philosophy and conservation is Naturalism. There are many definitions of Naturalism but most are instilled with a sense of realism, to observe, record and quantify. The modern scientific revolution ran in tandem with philosophical naturalism, as the movement centred on recognising the scientific processes and natural forces we adhere to.
This was later expressed in naturalist literature as authors and poets began defining characters in their works through their relationship to nature and their surroundings; making the connection that humankind is a part of nature and how it plays a pivotal role in what it is to be human.
The irony is that while our ability to discover, communicate and understand has advanced so too has our self-importance. Granted many grew a newfound respect and connection to nature but this deepened the longstanding fork in thinking. Those considering our intelligence as that of above all else resulted in delusions of grandeur; human superiority and by extension domination, over the natural world and it's this severance from nature which has led to its exploitation.
Speciesism is the notion that humans are somehow superior to all other life-forms. A prime example of this is the measure of human intelligence; not only among ourselves to categorise and judge but as a comparison to the value of other species. For instance dogs have poor eyesight relative to their sense of smell, in fact it would take several human noses to equate the value of one dog, yet to test its intelligence we put them in front of a mirror.
The same can be said for any species and their lack of written language or opposable thumbs, which outshine us with incredible abilities but are still deemed inferior. The fact that we conduct research and test all manner of things on animals perceived as lesser for our progression. Even the portrayal of hierarchical food chains is biased towards humans being at the top, even though we are preyed upon by species of the most commonly occurring lifestyle on Earth; parasites.
Wikimedia Commons | Haslam M, Gumert MD, Biro D, Carvalho S, Malaivijitnond S (2013)
However other philosophical movements blossomed through those on the other branch of thinking. For example Utilitarian philosophers developed the first ethics surrounding the thoughts and feelings of animals to dispute Dechartes, who thought because animals didn't have the same mind as people, were merely expressing mechanical responses to vivisection and not actually feeling pain. Thankfully we've come a long way since then.
Another influential and ongoing movement is ecofeminism, also challenging speciesism alongside other social dualities to achieve equality within society and therefore equality between society and nature.
Rachel Carson, author of the ground-breaking Silent Spring, not only changed the face of conservation but spurred the origins of the ecofeminism movement. Ecofeminism focuses on the inherent link between women’s oppression and domination over nature by looking at socio-political constructs.
The movement’s origins in the 1960’s has since been reinforced by many, including Val Plumwood, whose work established respect for nature by challenging the dualism present in society that is subsequently extended to dominion over nature. That is to say that the dualism between male and female in patriarchal-dominated society is the same division seen between humans and nature and therefore to redress the balance of equality would mend these harmful chasms.
“I argue that western culture has treated the human/nature relation as a dualism and that this explains many of the problematic features of the west’s treatment of nature which underlie the environmental crisis, especially the western construction of human identity as ‘outside’ nature.”
Her work Feminism and the Mastery of Nature focuses on the culmination of four core oppressions and their relationship to one another; gender, race, class and nature. These dualities were also the focus in many 19th century creative naturalist works.
The dualisms confronted by Plumwood have come closer to equilibrium with further understanding our place as a functioning part within nature. This has been reinforced with recent scientific discoveries which demonstrate that we are a part of nature and do not exist outside, or indeed have ownership, of it.
Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
For instance Shinrin Yoku, translated as forest bathing, has proven restorative effects simply by being in the presence of nature. The exacerbation of climate change has shown us not only our impact on ecosystems but the consequences we will face as part of those ecosystems, as we cannot separate ourselves from nature.
Though speciesism has dwindled with the continued rise of ecofeminism, veganism, animal rights and environmental awareness another notion has arrived in the form of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is to mentally justify shortcomings when faced with a problem, therefore separating oneself from the problem. This dissonance is highly present in climate change deniers, causing yet another fork in thinking in regards to our impact on the environment.
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