Environment After Nature: Time for a New Vision


Environmentalism clings to a limited vision of environment-as-biophysical nature. Breakthrough Senior Fellow Jim Proctor traces the origin of this vision in progressive understandings of environment over time, and notes resonances with our understandings of science and religion. In both cases, an assumed binary of nature and culture is at the heart of the problem. The recent "death of environmentalism" debate, initiated by Breakthrough's Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, suggests both the need and the challenge in defining this new vision of environment.

January 4, 2010 | Jim Proctor,

The following is an excerpt from Breakthrough Senior Fellow Jim Proctor's essay "Environment after nature: Time for a new vision1," one of 16 essays examining the five central visions of biophysical and human nature in Envisioning Nature, Science, and Religion, which Proctor also edited.


Recently I left an enviable faculty position of thirteen years, sold my house on the ocean, and became director of an environmental studies program at a small liberal arts school in the US Pacific Northwest. I say this, so that when I say what I will say next you will not ignore me as some rabid anti-environmentalist:

I am anti-environment.

At least in the sense that environment is generally understood today, a taken-for-granted notion underlying everything from environmentalism to "environmentology."2 Somehow our notion of environment got wrapped up in our notion of nature, and with it came a whole host of conceptual binaries that effectively drive a wedge through any lasting resolution of environmental problems.

This is not a new argument; in fact, everything I cite to support my claim is someone else's idea, not mine.3 What is surprising is that so little of it has found its way into environmentalism. Thirtysomething years ago, around the time of the birth of the modern environmental movement, there was a great deal of low-hanging fruit to be picked, lots of obvious environmental problems that had pretty much been ignored up to then. Maybe this is why environmentalists didn't want to spend too much time forging new conceptual tools: nature was imperiled, in some cases people were imperiled as a result, and the imperative was action, not talk. Well, thirtysomething years later, it's no revelation that there are environmental problems; we've all tasted the low-hanging varietals. And, sadly, it's no secret that many have proven rather indigestible, while the higher-up fruit has been virtually impossible to reach, let alone digest. Maybe it's time to rethink--to paraphrase Neil Evernden--what exactly is this environment we struggle so hard to save.4
High-Hanging Fruit A solution to climate change has proven to be out of reach of the conventional environmental vision.

I offer no magic here: environmental problems will not go away once we forge a new vision of environment. Indeed, when you start walking down this path you may feel more and more uncertain as to where we are going. I've learned that many environmentalists are impatient folks: climate change demands an immediate and lasting response, biodiversity is being lost at an alarming rate, more toxins are finding their nefarious way into pregnant women, more families in the Third World are working more degraded lands, harvesting less and less each year. The imperative of decisive and timely action is inarguable. And this, perhaps, is the very problem: we have been so busy talking about strategy, so deeply committed to proclaiming facts and prescribing action, that we've not taken the risk to think deeply. When we do, as I will suggest below, we may find that not only our notion of environment is in need of repair, but also our notions of the sources of authority upon which we often justify environmental concern, science and religion being the most prominent.

If there is one thing I want to retrieve about environment, it is the vision of connectedness articulated--perhaps a bit expansively--in John Muir's famous quote below5:

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

Connections matter empirically, morally, politically. The best of our knowledge of nature, of scientific inquiry, of religious wisdom is the sense of connection they offer. The worst of environment in the contemporary sense is the binary disconnect it presumes by its very utterance. As such, environment echoes a recent usage of nature as biophysical reality separate from culture--whether above or below us in beauty, intelligence, worth, or moral considerability.6 Even to say that we are connected to nature/environment itself presumes a disconnect. Would you ever need to argue that there is a connection between mother and child, lover and lover, predator and prey? No, because these are relational terms: a mother is a mother by virtue of mothering a child, a predator seeks prey which avoids predator.

Recently, there has been a great deal of talk about whether or not there are connections between science and religion, but here too the very discussion presumes a disconnect--one enforced by the disconnection police, those who for many good reasons wish for science to remain distinct from, say, creationism, or those who wish for religion to be more than, say, an empirical experiment. And the disconnect between science and religion is perfectly analogous to the disconnect between nature and culture, a conceptual gap that leaves us resorting to the unimaginative language of seeking some "balance" between environment and society....

To restore relationality, connection, to environment requires a new vision only in listening to all the existing visions that entail relationality--this is not an entirely new vision! When we do this in a wholehearted way, we find that our other guiding landmarks such as science and religion change too. This is threatening to the very best of us. It sounds abstract, of little practical value. There are lots of good reasons to turn away. Now would be a good time. But if you can be patient for a little while, I can at least sketch a broad-brushstroke picture for you.

The environment, defined

Will the Real Environment Please Stand Up? The 17th century definition of environment encompassed both of these realms, but the more recent definition separates each scene into two different types of environment.

You would think that one easy way to resolve this semantic issue is simply to go to a dictionary. What we find is that environment is a relatively recent word, by no means as old as nature, so perhaps it is understandable that environment has increasingly been understood in terms of nature. But this was not always so. The Oxford English Dictionary7 traces environment back to the early 17th century, a mere 400 years ago: at this incipient moment, and for the next two centuries, environment was used in its etymologically direct sense as that which environs or surrounds. Yet by the mid-19th century a more specific sense had arisen, of environment as consisting of those surroundings necessary to the development of moral character or biological life. This suggests a binary, stated explicitly in the Webster's Dictionary8 second definition (the first being that which surrounds) as environment consisting of either (a) the biophysical factors that determine the life of an organism, or (b) the sociocultural conditions that influence human life. What we see already, tracing back to the mid-19th century, is a parsing out of environment into natural or cultural surroundings, both of which are significant but dissimilar enough to warrant distinction.

The third step in the evolution of our notion of environment is much more recent, possibly dating back only several decades. To get at this most recent step, consider Rachel Carson's Silent Spring9, which to many marks the birth of the modern environmental movement. Carson begins her famous book with a brief fable, then immediately presents her notion of environment at the start of the second chapter: "The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings. To a large extent, the physical form and the habits of the earth's vegetation and its animal life have been molded by the environment" (p. 5). To Carson, the environment is our environment, our biophysical surroundings, to which we are connected. Silent Spring in many ways echoes Carson's 1951 bestselling The Sea Around Us in stressing connection.10

Environmentalism is Born Rachel Carson's Silent Spring is often seen as the instigator of modern environmentalism but in separating humans from their surroundings, her definition of environment may preclude many of the solutions she hoped to inspire.

Fast-forward to the major environmental agencies today. As noted on its website, the US Environmental Protection Agency aims to "protect human health and the environment," working for "a cleaner, healthier environment for the American people." Is this not Carson's very wish, born of the damage wrought by DDT to chicks and now spread to a thousand and one connections necessary to life and well-being? Or what of the UK Environment Agency, whose job it is to "look after your environment and make it a better place--for you, and for future generations"? Or what of the United Nations Environment Programme, whose motto is "Environment for Development"? These agencies have by no means cast their backs on the received notion of environment as a connection with our biophysical surroundings.

But a closer look behind the rhetoric reveals a common set of compartments into which the environment is divided: the European Environment Agency website features content on acidification, air quality, biodiversity change, chemicals, climate change, and so forth. Each of these compartments is given due scientific and policy scrutiny. This attention to the environment would have been lauded by Carson, but there is something that has been lost, too, in its bureaucratized management: the environment as connection. Now, it is a an object among other objects to be managed. Environment is little different from roads, or the economy, or a disease outbreak. All of these are things, important to human well-being to be sure, but things nonetheless.

What has happened? Environment started as a relation, a sense of connection, then turned into a thing. First a generic expression of one's surroundings, then either one's connection to biophysical or sociocultural surroundings (the two tacitly understood as distinct), then just the biophysical stuff constituting our surroundings: air, water, and so forth. Each of these three steps is related: from surroundings to biophysical (or, alternately, human) surroundings to simply biophysical reality, what many people would call nature. The result is a double disconnect: first, moving from environment as surroundings to environment as a thing, and second, splitting environment into nature and culture sets of things along the way....

Compartmentalizing the Environment The EEA website addresses major environmental issues but its presentation neglects their connectedness to other human issues that are not necessarily "environmental."

Yet I am not sure you will be convinced by the above, especially in how I have characterized the final chapter of this drama. After all, don't we hear environmentalists often speak of our connection with nature in a quite Carsonesque way? What is fascinating about contemporary connection-talk, however, is that it can lead in such differing directions: the environmentalist asserts our connection with nature in order to bring the environment back as a dominant feature of the human equation, whereas many of those derided as anti-environmentalists assert our connection with nature in order to bring people back as a dominant feature of the environmental equation!11 Both of these efforts invoke a rhetoric of connection to assert not connection but reduction, championing biophysical or human reality in environmental controversies, and thus adopting one of the two poles implied in the evolution of the concept of environment.

The dual authorities: science and religion

The problem with our concept of environment is not restricted to environmental issues; indeed, it did not arise there. To get a broader sense of how environment came to be understood as (threatened) biophysical stuff, we need to reconsider our ways of understanding science and religion as well. Why science and religion? One important reason is that they play a major role as domains of epistemic, moral, cultural, indeed even political authority. How do we decide what is true? what (or who) is right? The contribution of science and religion to these questions is immense. How many times have you read some pronouncement on the global environment, or for that matter war, or stem cell research, or consumerism, or sexual behavior that cited a major scientist or religious organization? Though not all pronouncements of true and right are founded immediately in science and religion, their authoritative role in many sectors of society is inarguable, and the environment is certainly no exception.

There has been considerable recent interest in the relationship between science and religion. Though many of us wish to maintain a respect and openness to both science and religion, we often suspect that they are supporting rather different pronouncements on current issues, and none of us enjoys cognitive dissonance, so the inevitable question arises: can science and religion somehow be harmonized? Are they inevitably in conflict? How could we possibly live our lives in accordance with some version of both?

Recently, I had the pleasure of organizing a research and lecture series on the topic, culminating in the volume Science, Religion, and the Human Experience12. What I learned in examining popular and scholarly beliefs about science and religion is that they are generally assumed to fall into either one or two domains. If science and religion fall in one domain, they can be understood as either in conflict or in harmony; if two domains, they are understood as essentially independent, thus without conflict (nor much harmony). It is common to hear of conflict accounts: think, for instance, of struggles in the United States over incorporating evolutionary theory in school science curricula. Here, science and religion are understood as vying for the same turf (the truth about the origin of human life), hence conflict.

An Age Old Conflict In this 19th century engraving of Daniel Huntington's painting Philosophy and Christian Art the youthful girl demonstrates religion's virtue while the aging man points unrelentingly to his book. Here, nature is on the side of religion, not science, as depicted by the landscape scene behind the girl.

One common way to avoid these conflicts between science and religion is to separate them, hence the popularity of independence accounts, pronouncements that science and religion are two entirely different things mapping onto two entirely separate domains. A typical approach is that championed by the late scientist Stephen Jay Gould in his book Rocks of Ages.13 Gould's NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) account relegates science to the realm of facts and religion to that of values: both are essential in understanding the human condition, but science does a bad job when it gets mixed with values, and religion has little business making pronouncements of fact.14

Yet many people desire more than this separatist account of science and religion. Surely facts and values, hence science and religion, are not as distinct as the independence account would have it? Following this inclination, we find many current attempts to harmonize science and religion, to bring them into one domain. What is especially significant here is that this shared domain is often the environment. Consider this opening paragraph to a statement signed in 1992 by nearly 90 major American scientists and religious leaders15:

We are people of faith and of science who, for centuries, often have traveled different roads. In a time of environmental crisis, we find these roads converging....Our two ancient, sometimes antagonistic, traditions now reach out to one another in a common endeavor to preserve the home we share.

The statement continues:

We believe that science and religion, working together, have an essential contribution to make toward any significant mitigation and resolution of the world environmental crisis. What good are the most fervent moral imperatives if we do not understand the dangers and how to avoid them? What good is all the data in the world without a steadfast moral compass?

We hear in this statement shades of Gould's magisteria: science provides understanding and data, religion provides a moral compass. But, though they have their distinct identities, they have now come together in a common agenda of environmental protection.

This statement is not unique: it echoes a broad sentiment to harmonize science and religion in building coalitions to save the environment. A more recent version, titled "Earth's Climate Embraces Us All,"15 was signed by a large number of prominent religious leaders and scientists to support the Climate Stewardship Act then under consideration by the US Senate. This statement similarly acknowledges the differences between science and religion, for instance in stating that "We do not have to agree on how and why the world was created in order to work together to preserve it for posterity." Yet it posits the global environment, specifically climate, to be a unifying domain of concern.

"America's Evolutionist Laureate" Given this title by a begrudging critic, Gould's belief that the morality delineated by religion could inform the utilization of scientifc knowledge diffuses the conflict between science and religion in theory. In reality, Gould fought to defend science from religion, specifically evolutionary theory from Creationism.

What sort of notion of environment is implied in these accounts of the relationship between science and religion? Do we detect a sense of environment as connection with that which surrounds? as our physical surroundings? as the biophysical realm itself, without necessary connection to us? Here the distinctions become more subtle. It would seem that the recent regathering of science and religion over environmental concern suggests the very sense of connection I stressed above. But science and religion themselves continue to be relegated to Gould's magisteria, retaining their dual-frequency heartbeat even in the harmony accounts. And I have not told the full story: for every publication bringing science and religion together over the environment, there is another expressing alarm that bringing religion in will compromise scientific rationality in environmental decisionmaking.17

No, we have not yet dug deep enough to understand how environment became a thing, became stuff. Science and religion have been subjected to the same forge that cast environment in its new shape, a forge in which the binary of nature and culture has served as a two-compartment hammering mold. Evidence comes from the mind of Gould himself, the multisyllabic NOMA echoing a simple dichotomy between fact and value that pervades even the harmony accounts of science and religion. What is a fact? What is a value? How are they different? The simplest way to understand their difference is to say that facts cling to nature, and values to culture: facts are true by virtue of their correspondence to reality, i.e. biophysical nature, and values are meaningful by virtue of their connection to the valuer, i.e. culture.

To the extent that environment is understood as nature, and to the extent that nature is understood as revealed by science, environment inevitably carries an objectivist tinge, a sense of environment as stuff, and a separation is assumed between us and environment that must presumably be overcome. We may be connected to the environment, we are concerned about it, we and it are perhaps even one, but we and it started as two, and this assumed binary point of origin inevitably weakens any sense of connection implied in environment. Environment becomes a schizophrenic term when hard, cold scientific rationality is paired up with soft, warm spiritual impulse, not because science and religion are necessarily so distinct, but because they too have been progressively defined over time in relation to this sacred binary of nature and culture. In many ways, environment-as-connection was doomed, because relation is a fragile thing in an age ruled by the dichotomous key of nature vs. culture. Environment was faced with two choices: become the whim, the desire, the imagination of people, or become a hard reality as separate from people as quarks. Environment, under the guiding authority of science and religion, has in some contexts become both, and though this looks like connection it maintains the very seed of alienation it attempts to overcome....

Proctor, James D. 2009. Environment after nature: Time for a new vision. In Envisioning nature, science, and religion, edited by J. D. Proctor, 293-311. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.

1. I acknowledge the helpful input of New Visions contributors at our May 2006 workshop, plus that of Jennifer Bernstein, Evan Berry, and Brendon Larson. It is always dangerous to attempt such a grand argument in such a small space, so I accept responsibility for all remaining lapses.

2. This neologism has recently been promoted by American Honda Motor Co. to suggest their commitment to environmental leadership. See http://environmentology.honda.com.

3. As but one of a host of related arguments, Tim Ingold has noted how the now-ubiquitous notion of a global environment represents the culmination of the process of separation I allude to in this essay, where our environment has become the environment writ large. See Tim Ingold, "Globes and Spheres: The Topology of Environmentalism," in Environmentalism: The View from Anthropology, ed. Kay Milton (London: Routledge, 1993), 31-42. A very clear and straightforward discussion of the epistemological path I recommend here is provided by Katherine Hayles; see N. Katherine Hayles, "Searching for Common Ground," in Reinventing Nature? Responses to Postmodern Deconstruction, ed. Michael E. Soulé and Gary Lease (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1995), 47-63.

4. Neil Evernden, The Social Creation of Nature (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1993), xi.

5. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, "The Death of Environmentalism: Global
Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World," Grist magazine (2005), http://grist.
org/news/maindish/2005/01/13/doe-reprint (accessed January 18, 2005).

6. There is an important story I am not fully recounting here as to how nature, itself a polyvalent concept, became generally understood as a unified biophysical reality; for some background, see e.g. Raymond Williams, "Ideas of Nature," in Problems in Materialism and Culture (London: Verso Press, 1980), 67-85. In one provocative argument, geographer Kenneth Olwig has maintained that our prevalent understanding of nature changed from generative process to biophysical reality in large part via the politicized European notion of landscape; see Kenneth Robert Olwig, Landscape, Nature, and the Body Politic: From Britain's Renaissance to America's New World (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002).

7. Entry from second edition, 1989. Accessed via http://dictionary.oed.com.

8. Entry from third edition, 2002. Accessed via http://mwu.eb.com.

9. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962).

10. For recent commentaries on Carson that extend this notion of environment-as-connection, see Finis Dunaway, "The Ecological Sublime," Raritan 25, no. 2 (2005)., 78-97; Philip Cafaro, "Rachel Carson's Environmental Ethics," Worldviews: Environment Culture Religion 6, no. 1 (2002), 58-80.

11. For one recent environmental issue featuring both of these groups, see James D. Proctor, "Whose Nature? The Contested Moral Terrain of Ancient Forests," in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995), 269-297.

12. For greater discussion of this one/two-domain theory, see James D. Proctor, "Introduction: Rethinking Science and Religion," in Science, Religion, and the Human Experience, ed. James D. Proctor (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 3-23.

13. Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine Pub. Group, 1999).

14. In an address to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, John Brooke, a contributor to this volume, has challenged the ready distinction between fact/value and science/religion as recommended by Gould; see John Hedley Brooke, "Shaping the Content of Science: Have Religious Beliefs Played a Role?," in AAAS Symposium: Non-overlapping magisteria? (Washington, D.C.: 2005).

15. Mission to Washington, "Declaration of the Mission to Washington," in This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment, ed. Roger S. Gottlieb (New York: Routledge, 1996).

16. National Religious Partnership for the Environment, Earth's Climate Embraces Us All: A Plea from Religion and Science for Action on Global Climate Change (2004 [cited 9/12/04]; available from www.nrpe.org.

17. As one example, see Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich, Betrayal of Science and Reason: How Anti-Environmental Rhetoric Threatens Our Future (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1996).