Above photo: John White/Alamy.
As climate change intensifies and human activity impacts every corner of the planet, repairing our world increasingly means realizing that our fate is intertwined with that of other animal and plant species — not separate from theirs — and that we must think and act accordingly.
If it wasn’t already clear, the Covid-19 pandemic has made it painfully obvious that our lives are entwined with the lives of other animals. Our health depends on theirs, not only because viruses from their bodies can enter ours, but because we survive thanks to the soil they fertilize and the plants they pollinate. And as climate disruption escalates, it’s evident that many animals are buffering us from its worst effects, maintaining ecosystems that absorb carbon and help mitigate the effects of sea-level rise.
Conservationists have long cared deeply about the survival of other plants and animals, often for reasons that go well beyond self-interest. But sociologist Carrie Friese, a researcher at the London School of Economics, speculates that in this era of intersecting crises, conservationists and others will be more and more motivated by a sense of multispecies solidarity — a profound understanding that, as Rachel Carson warned in 1963, humans are “affected by the same environmental influences that control the lives of all the many thousands of other species.”
To anticipate such a shift is optimistic, to say the least. But our modern habit of distancing ourselves from other forms of life isn’t as deeply-rooted as it often seems. Over the course of human history, plenty of societies have maintained reciprocal relationships with other species, and many still do. It’s not impossible for those of us in industrialized societies to rediscover that sense of connection — call it solidarity — and one way to start doing so is to drop “nature” from our vocabularies.
In recent decades, many scientists and writers have argued persuasively that if there ever was such a thing as the “natural world,” it’s long gone. The collective human footprint is now so large and deep, they say, that it affects the entire planet, even places humans don’t inhabit. While that’s all too true, the word “nature” is more than just inaccurate. The vagueness of the concept allows us to believe that humans exist outside it. And if we can imagine that nature is over there, far away, we can also imagine that the damage we are doing to it is sad but not dangerous.
The word “nature” as it’s used today has a relatively short history. In an analysis published last fall, French ecologist Frédéric Ducarme and his colleagues traced the origins of the word and its equivalents in 76 languages. The linguistic patterns they found suggest that the concept of “nature” as a more or less passive set of objects, separate from humans, followed the Roman and Islamic empires as they expanded in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, and was adopted by many cultures whose existing sense of nature was more dynamic. For much of human history, the notion of nature as a collection of things apart was a peculiar idea — not a dominant one.
Philosophers and naturalists from various traditions have long wrestled with the alleged division between humans and nature, well aware that their species is not really separate from the rest of life. Ducarme, in a related paper, points out that Aristotle struggled to define “nature,” and that mathematician Jean d’Alembert and philosopher Denis Diderot, in their 18th-century Encyclopédie, described it as “this rather vague word, often used but hardly defined, that philosophers tend to use too much.” Today, ecologists and conservation biologists tend to avoid it, often substituting the word “biodiversity” (which has its own definitional uncertainties). The meanings of “wild” and “wilderness,” beyond the legal definition of wilderness that exists in the United States, are similarly elusive, and further obscured by cultural differences.
When I started writing my book Beloved Beasts, a history of the modern conservation movement, I challenged myself to avoid the words “nature,” “wild,” and “wilderness,” unless I was quoting someone or could clearly define the term. After using these words for decades as an environmental journalist, I thought they would be difficult to set aside, but they weren’t. Banning them from my vocabulary simply forced me to think a little harder about what I wanted to say. When I reached for “nature,” did I mean all species, including humans, or certain kinds of species — vertebrates, say? Did I mean species and their habitats? Was I describing categories instead of emphasizing the relationships among them? When I wanted to use “wild,” or “wilderness,” did I mean places where people didn’t currently live, or places where people had never lived? Was I talking about animals that had never been domesticated, or free-ranging animals that weren’t currently confined by humans?
While I often had to use an extra word or two, and some of my replacement terms had to be defined, too — “species,” for one, is notoriously slippery — I rarely had trouble finding more precise alternatives to “nature” or “wild,” and the practice sharpened both my thinking and my prose. Over the years I worked on the book, I found that the habit also shifted my own perspective: I now find it easier to remember that my human household is part of an ecosystem — one populated with, and supported by, a variety of species living in relationship with one another.
Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution began to close the imagined gap between humans and nature, hinted at the possibility of multispecies solidarity in his 1871 book The Descent of Man. Over generations, he observed, the “sympathies” of Homo sapiens had become “more tender and widely diffused, so as to extend to the men of all races, to the imbecile, the maimed, and other useless members of society, and finally to the lower animals.” (Darwin might have been drawing on the work of his contemporary William Lecky, an Irish historian who conceived of moral evolution as an expanding circle of duties.)
The sympathies of different societies have changed in different ways and at different speeds, and they can contract as quickly as they expand. Yet for many groups of humans — women, children, people of color, people with disabilities, people without property — rights now widely considered inalienable in industrialized societies were, not so long ago, seen as ridiculously out of reach. Now, other species and their habitats are beginning to gain legal rights. In some cases, these innovations draw on Indigenous traditions that view “nature” as a web of relationships —relationships that include people.
The most meaningful way to express multispecies solidarity, of course, would be to stop destabilizing our shared climate and stop destroying our shared habitats. But achieving those systemic changes begins with the recognition that these support systems are indeed shared. As Friese points out, the young climate activists who filled city streets around the world in 2019 and continue to press for change are fighting both for their own future and the future of other species. They know, better than most of us, that we’re all in this together.
Michelle Nijhuis is the author of the book Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction. She is a project editor for The Atlantic and a longtime contributing editor for High Country News, and her reporting has appeared in publications including National Geographic and the New York Times Magazine. After 15 years off the electrical grid in rural Colorado, she and her family now live in southwestern Washington state.