Nobody Likes Dichotomies (But Sometimes You Need Them)

Helen Kopnina
  • Anthropological Forum, October 2016, Taylor & Francis
  • DOI: 10.1080/00664677.2016.1243515

Dichotomies between nature and culture or humans and environment: good or bad?

What is it about?

Dichotomies between nature and culture or humans and environment are discussed. Both what might be termed deep ecology scholars as well as more ecumenical, post-modern, open, inclusive, plural, anthropocentric, etc. scholars, reject the human/nature dualism, but they do so for different reasons, drawing diametrically-opposed ethical conclusions from their opposition to it. The reason why some conservation critics argue that humans are part of nature is to show that, as products of evolution, our presence in ‘nature’ is natural, and so are human-made objects – in other words, there is no distinction between ‘artificiality’ and ‘wilderness’, as William Cronon or Robert Fletcher, among others, have argued. In other words, the human co-optation of the elements of biosphere then becomes as unobjectionable as any other phase of evolution. In this framing, it is assumed that since human beings are part of nature there is no reason to insist upon the detrimental role of communities. In this context, the term, 'nature', does not adequately designate the intended object of conservation. From the deep ecology perspective, humans are indeed also seen as part of nature, and products of evolution. In deep ecology, human beings are also seen as one of many species on this planet and not morally privileged in relation to other elements of nature, but must share those resources equitably with other species. Reserving some areas exclusively for the use of non-human species is then consistent with the non-dualist stance of deep ecology. The deep ecology (Naess 1973), land ethics (Leopold 1949), and animal rights (Singer 1977; Peters 2016) conceptions of unity with nature require recognition of the integrity of ecosystems and a certain balance of needs, which can be interpreted in terms of interspecies egalitarianism or equity (Baxter 2005). If the questions of interspecies equity and animal rights were taken seriously, the planet would need to be divided on the basis of species’ natural resource requirements (e.g. Noss 1992; Mathews 2016), and not on the basis of what one single species proclaims to be its entitlement. Most critics I cited in my initial article are specifically drawing attention to situations where strict designations of human and nature made by groups of environmentalists’ –who are generalised, and often misrepresented as misanthropic –‘can effectively sever indigenous/local people from their land and livelihood(s), and that environmentalist/local relations should be understood through the lens of power indifferences. My criticism of this position is that by displacing entire non-human communities – and in some cases annexing their entire habitats and exterminating them – the perpetrators of ecological injustice seem unaware that they themselves support the apparatus of oppressive governance that entirely discounts the most vulnerable groups – those of nonhumans.

Why is it important?

I absolutely agree that a dualistic vision of nature and culture should have no place in holistic ways of thinking. Yet, to me, this means that humans and nonhumans should be treated equally. Deconstructing the dichotomy implies no discrimination on the bases of being nonhuman – no medical experimentation, no close confinements within the concentrated animal-feeding operations, no euthanasia or sterilisation of pets. Deconstructing this dichotomy also implies that those who kill animals should be tried for murder. Obviously, this is not happening, other than in very isolated incidents of killing of poachers, which human rights advocates decry as violating human rights. I am not sure whether any of us are prepared to go so far in carrying out the logical implications of deconstructing dichotomies. The primary problem is well-summarised by Strang: ‘But even accepting the need to extend social justice to the non-human, how many anthropologists would give non-human beings priority over the interests of human groups severely disadvantaged by colonial (and neo-colonial) appropriations of their land and resources? It is difficult for our profession to think counter-intuitively to a century of advocacy on behalf of such communities’. Reuter: Thomas Reuter makes a number of insightful observations as to the need for a radically different cosmology in order to achieve the broadening of human identity away from a narrow subjective conception of Self, and toward a more world-embracing and objective sense of Self. I fully agree. I am afraid we are very far from achieving the ancient ideal either of the hermetic Anthrôpos and the Vedic Brahman. As Reuter himself reflects, his proposal describes an ideal spiritual and moral condition, and while both the Anthrôpos and the Brahman have been around for millennia, few have lived their lives in conformity with this ideal. As an idealist, I believe these embracing cosmologies will always shine light in the dark. As a pragmatist, however, I suspect that without employing the increasingly globalising language of liberal individualist cosmology and derivative notions such as subjectivity, rights and justice, very little can be understood, and more crucially done, either by academics, policy-makers, political leaders and society as a whole to advance the ambitious objectives of ecological justice. I agree that we must work harder to strengthen small-scale economies through cultural protection. On the other hand, I do

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The following have contributed to this page: Dr Helen Kopnina