Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

11: Our War Against Nature - Ontology, Cognition and a Constricting Paradigm

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    Learning Objectives

    • Learning Outcomes & Big Ideas
    1. There is a real world out there, and science is the human endeavor that observes and investigates ‘how things are’ with that reality. Integrate what humanity has learned recently, by way of science, into a new way of seeing the world, shifting our worldview, to lead us off our ecocidal track that threatens human security.
    2. Living organisms have been discovered to be immensely complex autopoietic systems. Ecosystems, the biosphere, and the biogeophysical Earth system as a whole, are successively larger complex systems; understanding their function requires taking into account the nonlinear interactions of many factors. Think holistically using system thinking, not just linear thinking, in order to understand living organisms and those levels of organization.
    3. All living organisms have much in common, from their bodily composition and vital biochemical processes to their purposive activity, which is always aimed at maintaining and elaborating the lives that their individual genetic endowments make possible. Accept that all living organisms have interests, and respect those.
    4. Life has been flowing into increasingly elaborate forms on the Earth over the last four billion years. In each period of time, life flows over space through patterns of dynamic interaction among innumerable living organisms, joined together by matter and energy exchange within ecosystems. Learn to look at the Earth in evolutionary terms, including the history of life. Understand how human societies evolved into their present state, looking at certain aspects of that development through several different disciplinary lenses.
    5. Ecosystems are structured by the ways in which solar energy flows through the system, energy initially trapped by the photosynthetic activities of the ‘producers’ of living matter, and powering successive trophic layers of ‘consuming’ organisms, whose biomass diminishes moving upward toward the apex of the biotic pyramid. Understand how energy flows through the trophic levels of an ecosystem.
    6. Humans are primates, not carnivores, and did not evolve as apex predators; our closest evolutionary relatives, with whom we share a basic physiology, are primarily vegetarian. Place yourself, and your species, into the correct trophic level of an ecosystem that supports your existence.
    7. Since all living organisms must sense ‘how things are’ in their environment and respond appropriately to it if they are to stay alive, all living organisms have some sort of awareness. Many types of nonhuman animals have well-developed brains and manifest intelligent behavior; many have special senses and abilities that we humans don’t have. Develop an awareness that all life forms have minds, and that some are comparable to human minds in complexity.
    8. Human beings are a part of nature, and therefore share in what all lifeforms have in common. Accept that there is no empirically identifiable characteristic that makes humans metaphysically unique and superior to nonhuman beings. Accept that a ‘war on nature’ is a war against ourselves as well as the larger community of life on Earth, and therefore a threat to real human security.
    9. Early humans must have been highly social primates that developed group identities through shared symbols and ways of communicating meaning through sound and gesture. Describe the evolutionary advantages of such skills.
    10. Language allowed us to divide up the nature around us into separate parts and name them, creating ‘re-presentations’ of things. The ability to cut from context and name things in a particular way enabled us to ‘grasp’ parts of nature and use them in a coordinated way, giving us a great deal of power over the world around us. The kind of thinking that divides and separates also promoted group cohesion and conceptualizing ‘other’ groups as ‘enemies,’ threats to the security of our ‘own’ groups. Describe some examples of those developments that describe how human societies evolved.
    11. Many vertebrates show a functional difference between the right and left hemispheres of their brains, the left focusing on parts and pieces of things to categorize them in terms of their usefulness, the right taking in the whole scene with an eye toward relationships with other beings, for good or for ill. In the majority of humans, our primary language centers are located in our left hemispheres. Describe examples of how your left and right hemisphere interpret the world in different ways.
    12. The culture of Western Europe, more so than other human cultures, has emphasized the abstract world of our representations and valued them over and above the real world of nature, and has exalted the superiority of human beings because of their ability to speak and think ‘rationally’. The mechanistic physics successfully applied by Newton to the solar system was projected onto the universe, envisioning it as a great machine, and all living beings (with the exception of the human being) as merely clockwork mechanisms. This image of an inanimate, ‘dead’ nature persists today as an implicit metaphor which still serves to justify treating the rest of the living world as nothing but a store of ‘resources’ and provider of ‘services’ for human beings. Interpret those developments in terms what might have been gained by ‘Western’ cultures and what might have been lost – or benefits vs. harms, if you prefer. In the same way, evaluate Iain McGilchrist’s interpretation of the history of the development of Western thought as evidence for the emergence of an increasingly left-hemisphere dominated, use-oriented approach to the world, an approach that is now manifesting in many parts of the globe with the spread of industrial society.
    13. John Searle maintains that we humans construct our ‘social reality’ by using shared symbols that allow us to organize and coordinate our collective behavior; he claims that our very complex social institutions are created through many iterations of the bestowal of this sort of functional symbolic status. Most people are not aware that our social institutions are human creations, and tend to take them for part of the ‘ontologically objective’ reality of the physical and biological world, when they are actually ‘ontologically subjective,’ being ultimately dependent on the beliefs of minded beings for their existence. Our economic and political institutions are ontologically subjective. As social constructions, they are open to conscious revision as warranted. Name examples of ontologically objective and subjective objects in your everyday life. Suggest how you would prefer the latter to be revised and describe for what benefits.
    14. Searle’s theory holds that all human social institutions come into being through ‘a single logico-linguistic operation,’ and as such it is likely that McGilchrist would consider them products of left-hemisphere cognition. Most of us just grow up within a society and absorb a certain set of ‘background’ capacities that enable us to live within the institutional structure without thinking consciously about it. Zerubavel discusses our ‘shared mindscapes’ and our tendency toward conformity that may sometimes lead us to ‘go along with the crowd’ against the testimony of our own senses. Follow Norgaard’s application of Zerubavel’s ‘cognitive sociology’ in her analysis of collective denial, ‘conspiracy of silence,’ and selective attention among those who benefit in various ways from the war against nature. Describe examples from your own social life where collective behaviour proceeds unexamined, in spite of individuals’ contradictory sensory information.
    15. As we begin to get the picture, not only of the intricate workings of the Biosphere and the Earth System, but of our escalating human impact on these systems and its disastrous consequences for all life on Earth, we will realize the necessity for bringing ‘our war against nature’ to a close. Applying the insights of these several thinkers, some of the ways we can begin to ‘reverse course’ become clear. Describe how you interpret the following suggestions for your own life decisions: (a) overcoming our denial of what’s happening and our own role in it, (b) correcting the myths and metaphors in our culture that promote a mistaken view of how things are, (c) righting the ‘ontological reversal’ in thinking that the economy is what supports our lives, independently of the ecology, (d) reducing the dominance of left hemisphere cognition in our culture and in ourselves, (e) promoting a right-hemisphere approach of openness to others of both human and nonhuman form.
    16. Anthropocentrism signifies the belief in the centrality of the human, both insofar as human consciousness is taken as the exemplar of all consciousness, and with respect to the overtly normative judgment that humans are superior to all other life and thereby justified in taking nonhuman lives and habitats for their own use. The belief in human centrality and superiority is unwarranted on the basis of what we now know about life on Earth. At the end of this chapter and Chapter 12, the questions will be posed: Who are we? What kind of being is the human being going to choose to be? Will we continue to exalt our own species above all others, and “war” against them, or will we be the kind of being that accepts our place within nature, and calls off this misbegotten “war”? Describe your own personal environmental ethic in terms of anthropocentrism or alternatives to it. Engage with those questions on the basis of your personal beliefs and hopes.

    Ronnie Hawkins

    With respect to human security, the scene at this point in time has us teetering on the brink of further escalating ‘our war against nature,’ as mega-projects are being planned and carried out all around the globe, while the product of our numbers times our per-person consumption reaches never-before-seen proportions. This ‘war,’ like many biological processes in nature, took quite a while to build up steam, but ever since the ‘Great Acceleration’ of the mid-20th century—which will be discussed in the next chapter (Chapter 12)—we have been engaged in an all-out assault on nonhuman beings and natural systems. This chapter presents a brief outline of what nature is like, to the best of our current scientific knowledge, tracing the flow of life on Earth over time and space and the emergence of minds within it; after all, if we’re going to continue engaging in a ‘war,’ we should at least know something about ‘the enemy.’ One thing that integrating current scientific knowledge into our worldview should give us is a vision of organisms and ecosystems as immensely complex, self-maintaining systems quite unlike anything the outdated myths, images and metaphors we have inherited from past ways of thinking have made them out to be. The simultaneous realization that we humans are equally biological organisms in continuity with and dependent on the larger biosphere and that we are currently destabilizing planetary systems in a major way (the latter point to be illustrated by examples in Chapter 12) should shock us into a species-wide bump-up in our collective awareness that might be sufficient to bring about a serious effort to ‘scale down and pull back.’ The several avenues for turning the tide explored here—revising misleading myths and metaphors, recognizing the differential ontological status of what actually supports our lives versus what currently channels our collective activities, dialing down the left-hemisphere dominance that has driven the transformation of living nature into that quantifiable abstraction we call ‘money’ by imposing upon it the image of a lifeless heap of resources to be ‘used,’ and—the necessary first step—getting over the collective denial that locks us into a ‘conspiracy of silence’ about this unacknowledged war—all might contribute to creating the kind of human being who finally makes peace with nature.

    It is becoming clear that the relationship between our species and nature will be of critical importance to human security in the coming years, as we move ever further into this new geological epoch we have named after ourselves, the Anthropocene so named because there is evidence that our human activities, in the aggregate, have become so enormous that they are altering nature, changing the parameters of the biogeophysical systems of the Earth in measurable ways that bode no good for the continuation of human society. In order to understand how this relationship became so fraught with difficulties—which will be necessary if we are ever to repair it—it will be helpful to look into the problematic approach that has been taken up to now, which can be termed ‘Our War Against Nature.’

    The Anthropocene is a monumental security problem, yet we lack the conceptual resources to effectively deal with it. We cannot see it. We cannot think it. Even if we could, the conditions of the new human age are of such a magnitude that our interventions will never be able to fully meet its challenges. (Harrington & Shearing, 2017, p. 141)

    11: Our War Against Nature - Ontology, Cognition and a Constricting Paradigm is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

    • Was this article helpful?