Updated: Oct 16, 2020
Eurocentric, colonial narratives pit ‘(hu)man’ life in opposition to ‘nature’, separating humanity from ‘the natural world’ to see ourselves as superior and the rest of nature as one unanimous ‘other’. Nature is the exterior, the provider, somewhere to ‘escape to’ rather than something we comprise. We spin a story of surprised wonder at its power through David Attenborough's awe-filled tones, or fear it as a mass to overcome, to be survived by Bear Grylls. It is a power to be controlled, ordered and studied.
Anyone or anything that falls closer to nature than to the idealised rational (straight, white, ‘civilised’ hu-)man, is conceived of en masse, distanced and pushed backwards down the hierarchy of human vs. nature. But however we manipulate language, humanity is embedded within complex ecosystems, cycles and flows. We are just one among many diverse actors.
So long as we refuse to accept this we blind ourselves and force others into a warped view of the world. Beneath this naturalised and invisibilised divide, divorced separation is wreaking havoc, sending our collective systems into destabilisation and conflict.
Wherever we see segregation, more often than not it follows a power imbalance. By creating this image of (hu)mankind that sits in binary opposition to ‘nature’, we justify the behaviour to both flout our responsibility and connectedness, yet reappropriate ‘nature’ when it suits us. We imagine that we don’t follow ‘natural laws’, that we are unique, immune and that technology will save us; whilst on the other hand we romanticise the instinctual parts we wish to hold onto, applying ‘nature’ to ourselves to normalise, ‘naturalise’ and therefore invisibilise our actions – "its just human nature".
For those rendered ‘other’, this power imbalance has huge impacts as we commodify nature as ‘resource’, justifying exploitation, ownership, abuse and destruction. For ‘us’ too, this false superiority is unsustainable. We are disconnected, unembedded, deluded and therefore weakened.
Our language reveals how deep seated and normalised the ownership of ‘nature’ has become. We see it as a pool to be extracted from – a ‘natural capital’ of economical value that exists as a ‘bank of resources’, ‘stocks’ and ‘assets’ that we can convert into products and ‘ecosystem services’. Yet this construct of ‘nature’ as the ever benevolent provider has led to an isolated economical model, built purely around financial value to the 'human'. The trouble "lies in what [and whom] it leaves invisible" (Kate Raworth, 2017). Nature has been completely externalised, commodifying the actors our economy relies upon as resources to input or to deal with wasteful output. Without recognising this and seeing the full picture of an 'embedded economy', we cannot reach a place of balance and stability.
Raworth's doughnut economics provides a huge source of framing for me, rendering a multitude of processes visible and providing models that start to envision counter-narratives and systems. However, I would argue that even an economy embedded within ecology relies on the commodification of ‘nature’ as a ‘resource’ to be plugged in. It still views 'non-human' agents as less-than, to be manipulated in service to the human.
So long as we see nature as other and attempt to merely include it within an existing narrative of a ‘modern and technologically advanced humanity’, we fail to see nature beyond a unified, externalised object in its relation to use-value for us. We dismiss agency, subjecthood and the damage we inflict on others, creating divisions within humanity as our success in society becomes dictated by where we sit along the spectrum of human-nature. Whether we have ‘access to natural resources’, or indeed whether we comprise that 'resource'.
Othered species become commodified as ‘livestock’ - owned, bred, controlled and extracted. Othered humans become a resource, their time, agency and knowledge consumed by others. Flora, organic matter is commodified as material to dislocate, extract, divide and redistribute to serve us. Geography becomes property, unevenly distributed and defined according to land value.
Objectifying nature as ‘other’ and ‘over there’ renders it a unanimous object to be admired and fetishised from afar. We see urban environments as the domain of the 'human', inviting the 'non-human' in only when we see fit. We curate landscapes, designing out species we don’t find useful or attractive. We pluck out ‘weeds’ to replace them with imported cherry blossom trees, exterminate ‘pests’ to ‘cleanse’ the streets for labradoodles and hairless cats. We concentrate materials, removing existing earth and organic matter and replacing it with imported marble, extracted from a ‘resource rich’ land elsewhere.
The ‘exterior’, outside of humanised cities, is where we send ‘nature’. It is a romanticised a rural idyll or a fetishised wilderness. Something to drive to and look at, to photograph and step into for an ‘escape to the wild’, rather than a part of us and our wider collective. Nature is an object subject to our desires and whimsy; vulnerable and in need of protection. We create boxed off reserves of bits we think we like, preserve those traditions we decide are ‘natural’ - hunting, fishing, biological superiority, 'save' the parts we decide are precious and endangered.
As an object, ‘nature’ gains its value in relation to our experience of it as beautiful. Those we consider to be pleasant to have around become accepted, protected or even coveted. Fluffy animals with cute faces can stay, whilst smelly ones that are uncompliant must be culled. Morning glory are plants with pretty flowers, whilst bindweed is to be removed, growing uncontrollably and ripping through our spaces. 'Man-made' spaces are embellished with a ‘feminine touch’, bringing a ‘natural feel’, adorning and bringing value through beauty.
Nature and the Feminine | 'a natural beauty'
The term ‘natural’ is not a protected term, yet it is used extensively to sell us the idea (and products) of health, safety and even superiority.
The beauty industry exemplifies this objectification of 'nature', selling femininity as an image of ‘natural beauty’. Despite societal pressures for a curated female form, presentable and desirable, it is somehow expected that we still appear ‘natural’. Cosmetic surgery and heavy make up are over the top or ‘fake’, yet a made-up and even cosmetically enhanced 'natural look’ is still often expected for those presenting as female. Even as woke millennials shun make-up and hashtag 'all women are beautiful'; women, like 'nature', are still valued as an object of beauty. 'Why am I beautiful? Because I'm a woman... It is part of my nature to be an object of beauty, to be admired" (Syl Ko, 2017)
The term ‘natural’ is synonymous with safety, gentleness and purity; the opposite to 'artifical chemicals' that are foreign, toxic and overwhelming. Women are situated within this soft vulnerability of the natural, easily overpowered by the stresses of humanity, and 'nature' is repackaged and applied to sell us protection. ‘100% natural’ ingredients are mixed together in fancy glass jars to ‘defend against aging’, 'shield from the elements' and 'protect your skin from environmental pollutants' (The Beauty Myth, 2002). The image of ‘natural youth’ is expected from those who are not youthful, of healthy skin from those who are sick, natural slimness from those who are not slim.
Indeed diet culture and femininity are inextricably linked and the diet industry too has massively capitalised upon the term ‘natural’. The concept of ‘clean eating’ in particular has a field day with the labels ‘natural’, ‘additive-free’ or ‘no added …'s'. We can be sold pretty much anything by the idea that it was made with dates rather than added sugar; yet sugar cane is a plant, when did that get pushed into the zone of ‘unnatural’?
I think what we really mean (and fear) is the meddling of humans when in this mindset of being divorced from the rest of nature. More accurate terms might be labels such as free from ‘refined…’, or ‘synthetic’ additives. Where food products have been created under capitalist mindsets of separation, the wholeness of food is often mass-produced as a commodity, ‘nature’ exploited as a resource. Food is objectified via singular qualities, identifying individual aspects to present and refine and creating products of desire, addiction.
This distinction between products that we see as processed by humans vs. those created by ‘nature’ has become absolute. The grey zone that sees humanity as part of nature and all foods as co-created to differing degrees has been accepted as a binary, leading to disorders, hierarchies, fears and absolutes.
It is ‘human nature’ to crave addled beauty and synthesise a high and if we see all food along the spectrum of co-creation, rather than as a bountiful resource nature ‘provides’, perhaps we could recognise food production as a more reciprocal action. All products have aspects that are created by sun, plants, other animals; and others created by human animals, shaping food to form what we want or need.
The human-nature divide is part of the male-female gender divide. Feminine qualities of connection, collective creation, gentleness and care are correlated with qualities of nature, whilst the concept of humanity, progress and technology are the domain of ‘mankind’. 'Mother Earth' is the invisible support bed for technological progress, ‘providing the resources’, nurturing and replenishing the workforce. The association of pregnancy, child-bearing and reproduction with femininity leaves the provision and raising of population to women bear as part of the ‘natural system’, whilst the provision of capital, and the progression of man-kind typically falls to men.
The biological differences between sexes are seen as binary and the appropriation of nature comes into play, naturalising biology as a defence for maintaining this division. Moves towards joint parenting and acceptance of non-binary reproduction often meet incredible resistance. Abortion, contraception and alternative forms of child-bearing are feared as ‘unnatural’, failing to recognise humans themselves, and therefore any technology that supports reproductive planning, as part of nature. The biological, societal and emotional role of masculinity is overlooked and dismissed to view reproduction as the domain of the female. Periods and feminine hormonal cycles are seen as ‘natural’, whereas testosterone is supposedly stable, predictable, a force of power.
The closer we are to 'human' as White, able-bodied, cis, middle class, ‘civilised’; the more we reap the rewards of power and emancipation from the commodification and objectification of nature. 'The human' is distinct from the species 'homo sapien', referring less to biology and instead to the social construct of the human. "'Human' means a certain way of being, exemplified by how one looks or behaves" (Syl Ko, 2017).
Women of Colour are rendered closer to ‘nature’ along both gender and racial lines, left disproportionately bearing the weight of care work, their time, bodies and emotions commodified in cleaning up the destruction of ‘humanity’. Indigenous communities are either studied and objectified as a source of knowledge – to learn how humans could live harmoniously ‘alongside nature’ (still missing the point that we can do nothing else, we are nature!); or otherwise commodified and colonised, their way of life dismissed in the fight for access to ‘natural resource’.
Those who are not cis are seen as ‘unnatural’, forced to constantly justify their existence and conform to societal gender norms. Despite homo sapiens, just like so many other species in the so-called ‘natural world’, comprising a multitude of sexual variations along the spectrum between male and female), we find it difficult to accept that humanity may differ from the constructed image of rationality and order – a biologically determined binary of male or female. Unable to place intersex and non-cis persons within the construction of humanity, yet simultaneously rejecting the idea of a human body that reflects such natural variation, we are likely to accept gender non-conforming persons only if they perform the role of ‘natural humanity’, altering their bodies and ‘passing’ for male or female.
Health is also policed, constantly aiming to ‘fix’ the body to perform the best example of ‘human’ possible. Human health is recognised in comparison to the constructed ideal of humanity – slim, able-bodied, rational. Anything that deviates too far from this is viewed as ‘sick’ and policed with the aim of bringing it back to conformity. Fatphobia labels larger bodies ‘obese’, automatically assuming poor health and a lesser-than status. Autistic, attention defecit or alternative ways of thinking, bodies that don’t fit our constructed landscapes are disabled and medicated to conform to society, rather than adapting humanity to incorporate and enable others. Anything too far from rationality and order is labelled ‘mad’, ‘sick’ and studied, ‘healed’ to conform.
We feel the impact of this divorce between humanity and nature on our health, drawn to 'escapes to nature', 'natural healing' and the 'paleo' diets of our ancesters to fix us. But rather than dismantling the human-nature divide, recognising ourselves as part of nature, we reach for the commodification of nature as a resource. We aestheticise the concept of 'nature' to sell a commodity that can immerse us within nature. We dismiss the co-creative spectrum of human-natural, instead either dismissing natural healing as soft and unproven, or glorifying it as a saviour. Again we use the term 'natural' to apply liberally, implying guaranteed safety and gentleness against the harsh invasion of synthesised medicines created by man.
As (hu)man progress is separated from nature, prioritised and steamrollered out of balance, it falls to women to care, clean up, regulate and ‘restore nature’.
Nature and Wildness | taming, restraining, containing
Anything that is not rational, contained and controlled is wild, animal, madness.
Just as we revere nature from a distance, we also fear the wilderness, the power of the ‘full force of nature’. It fights back against civilisation, takes over ruins and replicates behind our backs, cloning itself and popping up without our knowledge (Plant Horror, 2013). It threatens our careful extraction of humanity from nature, breaking through concrete, infesting croplands and eroding seaside towns. We fear its 'invasion', the potential of Japanese knotweed to 'rip through property', deflating value and crashing the power of real estate (Cooking Sections, 2016).
Wild nature is synonymous with animality; an opposing force to humanity that must be controlled, dominated and ordered. Other species are automatically less-than, commodified, owned, curated and controlled. The animal within ourselves is outcast.
Non-human animals are allowed closer to humanity than nature via a control of wildness. We breed and train other species into conformity and obedience; far more likely to accept a compliant animal such as a dog or a horse into our spaces, than wild, feral and ‘disease-ridden’ animals – badgers, rats, foxes. We fetishise the idea of a humanised nature, bringing wild animals into ordered displays of rationality. Circuses beat lions, tigers and elephants into standing on two legs, juggling, replicating humanity. Dogs are designed and trained to dance round show arenas for Crufts, far removed from their feral wolfish ancestors. Trees are curated and topiaried into box hedges, weird representations of squirrels, not an untamed bush.
Within the human species too, animality dehumanises and naturalises. Blackness and People of Colour are seen as animalistic, impulsive, uncontained and subhuman (Aph & Syl Ko, 2017). Non-Western and indigenous cultures are seen as feral, regressive, uncivilised. Children are impulsive, taught to conform to society and suppress their wild spontaneity before reaching adulthood.
We fear this animal wildness in society - in ourselves and in others. We attempt to shape ourselves into presentable and ordered rationality and anyone who doesn’t conform is perceived as a threat and otherised, pushed to the outskirts of society. We fear differences in culture, tone policing and code-switching to fit Eurocentric values of humanness. We respect the voices of children only when they present rationally, in awe of ‘how mature’ Greta Thunberg is, yet dismissive of tears of distress, 'teenage angst' or adolescents 'running wild, out of control'.
Irrational behaviour at its extreme is illness, to be locked away in safety. Anything unpredictable or unusual should be contained and controlled – emotions, behaviours, thoughts. Instincts to suddenly yell in distress, leap around with unexplained joy or dramatically scream in fear are contained in favour of a reasoned and curated response, whilst anything that cannot be rationalised is left inexplicable and labelled ill, mad.
What is deemed too close to nature and wildness runs the risk of being separated and pitted against the ‘rational man’. Changes in character with fluctuating hormonal cycles have had women tried for witchcraft, non-straight sexualities are given ‘conversion therapy’ to impose conformity and those experiencing mental illness are locked into asylums, taught strategies of 'behavioural change' to better cope with our ordered, restrained society.
But isn’t it this segregation of 'nature' and wildness from humanity that is actually the problem? A cause of madness in itself? We can feel kinda free when allowed to run wild, release some madness! Heightened emotions are natural and I think it is the suppression of these emotions, bottling them up under a facade of rationalisation and control, that leads to maladaptive coping or even mental illness. It is the risk to our status of 'human' and the descent into chaos that we fear and weed, restrain, train into obedience.
We recognise the calming effect of situating ourselves within nature, seeking out wild landscapes, breathing in sea air or escaping to the countryside when we need to take a break and rejuvenate. Yet rather than recognising ourselves as intrinsically part of nature; our reactions as acceptable and natural in themselves, we set these two modes against eachother. We build society as controlled, tamed and predictable; something we design and curate, rather than something that comes ‘naturally’ to us.
We reject rationality within nature and wildness within society, instead operating only via an extraction of humanity, domination and control. Control of our places, control of others, control of ourselves.
Constructing Nature | 'man-made' vs 'the natural world'
Cities and urban landscapes are designed, curated and ordered to centralise ‘the human’, relegating ‘nature’ to the exterior.
The stark divorce of culture from nature feels wrong and we lament that our spaces are ‘unnatural’. We try to fix barren foyers with plastic potted plants, sterile waiting rooms with imprisoned tropical fish, grey touristic seafronts with lines of palm trees and a flower bed spelling out ‘English Riviera'.
Nature is wild and unsafe, so we curate its aesthetics without the risk of ‘damage’, the risk that we may become a little further from human. We make artificial grass so it can’t grow too much, get us dirty, attract insects or mould. We create barriers, defending ourselves against the sun, the cold, other species and other cultures. We make a ‘controlled indoor environment’ of artificial heating, wipe-clean wood veneers and posters of 'the great outdoors'.
Spaces that we label ‘nature’ are automatically objectified and fetishised. Rural and agricultural landscapes are assumed to be beautiful, whilst urban and industrial landscapes are ugly and excused from aesthetics. Despite half of all habitable land being shaped by humans for agriculture; landscapes of fields, farmed animals and monocultured crops are still seen as ‘natural’, normalising them and blinding us to the ugly practices they support. Agriculture is heavily industrialised and divorced from nature itself, yet by placing it within the realm of the ‘natural’, it goes largely unquestioned. Instead we admire a trip to the countryside, blinded to the commodification and exploitation of farming animals - rurality is assumed to be beautiful even when brutal.
Twee cottages and villages are romanticised and protected. There is an assumption that a location within ‘nature’ is enough in itself and that we no longer need to consider the impacts of design. Rural planning control is highly protectionist, trying to meet the challenge of bridging the human-nature divide through an aesthetic preservation of 'natural' rural vernacular. Human culture, design as part of nature itself is seldom valued, leading to places that merely replicate an image of ‘human nature’ whilst dismissing the consideration of community, social value and integration beyond appearance.
Landscapes even further from ‘human culture’ are no longer countryside but wilderness, sectioned off into ‘areas of outstanding natural beauty’, ‘conservation areas’ and ‘nature reserves’. They are visited from car windows, via a brisk walk to get our fix of nature. We decide which parts of land qualify as pretty enough to be protected from private ownership and manage them to ensure they stay pleasing enough to remain ‘natural’.
This design of human vs. nature, incorporated vs. externalised, creates divisive societies. Power imbalance is reflected and reinforced by the colonisation of space and the communities that inhabit them. We segregate centrality from periphery to make hierarchies of space, one defined in service to the othe, whilst any liminal spaces that blur these boundaries confuse us.
Space is distributed highly unevenly as nature is commodified and divided it into pockets of land and 'resource' to own. Indigenous communities have a long history of invasion and dislocation as dominant societies claimed ownership of ‘discovered lands' and its rich ‘natural resource’. The same pattern still occurs today, normalised under land grabs of corporate rather than monarchal ownership of space, resource flows still centralising according to power and hierarchy. Cities are the space of culture and ‘nature’ is relocated for the ‘human’, objectified and displayed in zoos, ‘cultural centres’ and museums.
Nature is fetishised within architecture itself as we otherise indigenous, 'more natural' communities and romanticise the vernacular. Rather than looking deeper into the meaning of vernacular - buildings that respond more to our position within nature - we instead mimic the appearance of nature. We stick on mock tudor facades, shape triple glazed PVC into sash windows rather than working with the elements, incorporating nature, supporting it and letting it support us.
There is even a whole strand of architecture dedicated to the study and appropriation of an externalised 'nature' - biomimicry. In response to a segregated built environment that is failing to serve, we are again looking to an externalised 'nature' to 'provide' the answers. Biomimcry promises a more embedded approach but still talks of building 'just like nature does'. It leaves little room for an approach of co-design, instead cherry picking what we want and appropriating it to fit, extracting resource and knowledge from nature, for human gain.
As we become critically aware of this divorce from nature, threatened by climate change, resource depletion and mass extinction, we are talking increasingly about how to create a ‘green architecture’. It is the next big challenge for the discipline as we grapple with how to build sustainably. Now more than ever I believe we must police our division of humanity from nature and relearn how to co-create alongside the power of nature, to stop ostracising those who are ‘less-than human’ and build ‘more-than human’ spaces.
Initial focuses on energy as the way to design ‘sustainably’ have not sufficed. ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’ (Audre Lourde, 2018) and adding a solar panel on the top of suburban cinder block constructions is simply a plaster of the same hegemonic thinking, an attempt to replicate what we already know and try so desperately to maintain.
As thinking and research has progressed, we do now talk more of circularity, of learning from nature and seeking 'nature-based solutions'. Yet we are still pitting the ‘technological solution’ against the ‘natural building’ solution - greenwashing, kidding ourselves that modernity brings a greater environmental awareness? How far have we really decided to ‘include nature’ and who has decided? Are we just curating which forms we wish to study and ‘mimic’ and which we design out?
We still talk of working with nature in terms of how we can manipulate it to conform to an anthropocentric lifestyle. Nature is a resource, providing ‘ecosystem services’ or it is an embellishment, curated and applied at the end to conceal its true exclusion.
By conceiving of ourselves as outside of 'nature', we retain this assumption of power and control. Either ruin, wildness and overgrowth are feared as nature taking over, or nature is seen as vulnerable, in need of protection and saving. We build groynes to save beaches and barbed wire to keep wildness out. Fence off reserves to ‘encourage biodiversity’ and spray pesticides to push nature away. We are concerned with global warming to ‘save the planet’, but natural equilibrium will always adapt, fight back, find a new normal. Its not 'nature' that needs saving, its the stability that supports our society, the world's current inhabitants - all of us.
Conclusions | human nature
The construct of ‘nature’ as a universal panacea, the opposite of ‘human’ touches a huge proportion of our lives. We must learn to recognise and deconstruct these narratives in order to recognise the oppression and exploitation that goes hand in hand with it. We need to stop denying our embeddedness within nature and reposition ourselves from above to alongside, to rebuild our physical, societal and mental relationship with the world and others around us.
This means an acute awareness of the messages in our language. We should be careful around the term ‘natural’ and what this normalises, what it blinds us to. To question the binary between natural-artificial and see human creation as part of nature.
It means deconstructing the Eurocentric and patriarchal creation of 'human' as White, cis, able-bodied, male; the resultant exploitation and objectification of anyone who is othered as ‘nature’. We must address our fear of wildness, allow ourselves into nature and nature into ourselves. Feel wild emotions, madness, instinctual unpredictability.
We must let spaces become co-created. Shared and within mutual, collective control; less curated, aesthetically driven. They need to be representative and supportive of others alongside ourselves rather than a one-way relationship of ‘nature’ providing and humanity extracting. Not throwing out all potted plants to fill our houses with dandelions, but recognising that human curation itself is natural and has its place.
We are not outsiders looking in to study, extract and mimic. We are not even guardians of a vulnerable nature, subject to human folly and in need of protection or human saviour. We are natural agents ourselves, spaces are co-created by us all - ants, beavers, oil processing, root networks, floods, landslides, walking, worshipping… all at once and all together.
Learning to co-design is a long process and it will take time to build our vision of a counter-system and changing physical world. It may look more temporary or reactive as we loosen the grip on what is 'ours' and what is ‘theirs’. It may embrace the grey zones of liminality, becoming more intertwined as we accept wild processes, change outside of our terms. It will break down spatial segregation to embrace cross-species co-habitation and foster plurality, multiple cultures.
It will involve an embeddedness, a circular economy that recognises ourselves within nature and ceases to rely on an invisible support bed. Perhaps this will look more biological, as Kate Raworth predicts, just lets be careful not to fall into this trap of division – biological or technical and recognise that all are both. Biology is not a commodity or a 'tool of nature’, nor are technical agents tools unique to humanity, material to be capitalised, consumed until extinction.
It will take a re-envisioning, an imagination that doesn’t simply appropriate and assimilate, bringing the othered into the spaces of the dominant; but that rebuilds our thinking from scratch. Who knows, it might just come ‘naturally’!
sometimes a little wildness can be very fruitful...!
Some resources I've clocked so far...
- Aphro-ism by Aph & Syl Ko - on the intersection between animality and race
- The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf - on femininity, nature, beauty and diet
- The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House by Audré Lourde
- Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth
- Cooking Sections Collective - work exploring the value we define 'nature' by
- The 'Making Nature' exhibition, The Wellcome Collection, 2017
- Green Beauty Conversations podcast, episode 44 - 'What is Clean Beauty?'
- Actor Network Theory by Bruno Latour - on more-than-human agency
- Plant Horror by Dawn Keetley & Angela Tenga - on the fear of wild plants and its manifestation within horror
I have explored this distancing, commodification and objectification of nature, in particular of other species, through my work:
- Cultural Cultivation - on the exploitation and romanticisation of the fishing industry
- The Unseen Labour Force - on the commodification of human and non-human producers within the dairy industry
- Intersections - on the reintegration of othered humans and non-humans into our living environments