Why Do We Think Humans Aren't a Part of Nature?

Whenever I write an essay or think about conservation, I always seem to end up using the phrase ‘in the natural world’ or ‘nature’ to describe any living thing or community - but, I would never consider humans to be a part of the natural world I’m describing. I automatically isolate humans from ‘nature’ and I’ve never considered why I have an intrinsic tendency to do so.

The results of a study by Vining et al (2008) found that 76.9% of participants would consider themselves a part of nature. Natural environments, however, were largely described as places absent from human interference; somewhere that hasn’t been altered by human inhabitancy. But, I can’t help but ask why that is. After all, we’re not the only species on Earth that are altering the environment they live in. For example, "ecosystem engineers" such as elephants tear down forests and create barren areas of land, and beavers ‘cut’ down trees and create dams. I think most people would still describe these environments as natural, even though in the absence of certain species these environments would be vastly different. Even in big cities where humans have created built-up concrete jungles that epitomise ‘unnatural’ environments, we still co-exist with wildlife; if nature exists in these environments then why do we describe them as unnatural?

If we create this division between us and nature, then we’re bound to end up having a negative impact on the natural world because we isolate ourselves from it. Humans developed language, and one dictionary definition of nature is "the phenomenon of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations". No-one but us have made the decision that humans and human creations are not included in nature.

If you think about social media, it allows humans from all nations to engage with each-other and be connected to what others are affected by. If you switch on the T.V. and see that there has been an earthquake in another country, most of us would agree that we feel a strong degree of empathy for those affected and the more generous of us might even donate to organisations such as the Red Cross. If we didn’t have the connections that social media gives us, we often wouldn’t be aware of the personal impacts these events have - if you’re not aware of something then you can’t do something about it. If this connection didn't exist then it is less likely that money would be donated as the public would not see the emotional side of these events. This would mean that any recovery efforts would take a lot longer, or not match the scale of the event in terms of the funds required.

This can be applied to the idea of humans and nature. If we define nature as excluding humans and their environment then it’s the same as people not having the connection afforded by social media. We are less likely to be aware of problems in the natural world, for example issues such as species or habitat loss. We are certainly less likely to do something about it; biodiversity loss will continue to occur and may never be restored.

Perhaps conservation and protection of threatened species and environments starts in an unexpected place. Maybe we need to look at our language, the way we define things, why we decided to isolate humans from nature and, ultimately, consider how that isolation is fuelling an attitude towards nature that is most definitely detrimental.