On Ecological Disconnect, Climate Despair, and Our Changing Relation to "Nature"
It seems there is no getting around it anymore, every day we are bombarded with the same news: the oceans are rising. The weather is extremer than ever. Every year is hotter than the one before. The glaciers are disappearing, rivers are flowing over. Thousands of species are going extinct. We have passed the thresholds, pushed nature out of balance. We are living in the midst of a global ecological crisis. And so last summer I set out on a journey into the wild, went back to the basics, the essentials of life, to reconnect with nature, to see if I could re-establish a seemingly lost connection to the world that has become so disturbed by our activities, that no longer seems content with our presence, that is increasingly leaving us in despair and wondering: do we still belong on this planet? Did we ever? Where did it all go so wrong? And perhaps most importantly: is there still something that we can do? Can we still change our ways, can we find better ways to relate to nature, new philosophies to guide us? That’s what I wanted to know… I may have gone a bit too far. This was a bad idea.
This video is sponsored by Curiositystream and Nebula Part 1: The Outsider I love going out into nature, and I’m fortunate to live in a place that has a pretty good variety of it. There are forests and fields, wetlands, riverlands and heathlands, all within walking distance of my house. It should be enough for anyone to develop a close connection to nature, right? And yet, as I am sure you have experienced too on some level, whenever I’m out in these natural places, unlike all the other animals that live there, I always feel like I’m more of a visitor. This is especially true here in the Netherlands.
Being such a small country, most of our space is completely planned out, including nature. Inside these designated natural areas, walking routes are meticulously laid out, to the point where it feels like you’re trespassing whenever you step outside them. This can literally be the case in areas marked by signs like "do not go here, this is a resting place for animals", or "this is a quiet zone", or "vulnerable plants are growing here", all of which seem to say; be careful, you are an intruder here. And when you look even more closely, you’ll see some of these places are not even true nature at all; they are carefully managed by us, like these heathlands where trees are cut down to ensure the landscape stays the way that it is. And by aligning just a little too neatly, the trees in this forest reveal that they did not grow here naturally. Of course, many of these measures stem from the well-intended effort to protect the natural world, but still, it does make nature feel more like a domesticated park rather than a true wilderness, or some kind of museum where you get a glimpse of nature as the majestic, raw experience it once was, while you take your leisurely stroll over the conveniently laid out paths, try not to disturb anything, and try not to drag too much dirt back to the house.
Experiencing nature like this, at least for me, invokes the feeling that nature is not something that we are a part of, but that it is something that exists outside of us. And this is an idea that I also often see in the more general way we talk about it. Nature is always this external thing, this realm of the explicitly non-human, a realm that we, on a geological timescale, entered only a brief while ago, a realm that we interact with, that we exploit, protect, or affect in some other way as some outside stimulus. And vice versa, we talk about nature as that which occasionally affects us, that intrudes in our spaces. Whether it quietly invades as weeds between our stones, as foxes in our fields, or makes it presence known in more disruptive ways, through storms or floods, all that which we generally refer to as natural disasters.
Either way, there is always this barrier, this divide between the natural and the human world. It’s kind of silly when you really think about it, for are we too not a part of nature? Do we not belong here just as much as any other living thing? And yet, I’ve noticed that this is a feeling I have nevertheless grown to internalize, and that it has affected how I look at and experience nature: not as an inhabitant that is intrinsically a part of it, but as an outside observer. I’ve thought a lot about where this separation came from. The obvious answer, or so it seems in many of our stories, is that our modern society and all its technological advancements increasingly removed us from nature; increasingly took us out of the forests and placed us into concrete cities, increasingly detached us from all that is green and grounded to become lost in digital spaces and contraptions of our own mind, increasingly made us forget the essentials of real nourishment and doomed us to lives of empty calories and existential discontent, turned us hungry, destructive.
The bad humans who are ruining their own home, and who are mindlessly heading towards the bleak, natureless future that is unfolding before them. Whenever I look at old pastoral paintings, which tend to depict a harmony between nature and society that seems almost idyllic now, I indeed find it hard not to feel a vague sense of grief, to feel that despite all of our progression, something important has been lost. The American author Henry David Thoreau already observed this back in the 19th century. In his famous book Walden, he wrote: “The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxuries and heedless expense.” Thoreau wrote his reflections while living in a cabin far removed from civilization.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” – he explained – “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what they have to teach.” I wondered, could I do the same? Could I do away with all that is superfluous and reconnect with nature, could I too uncover the essential facts of life, find new wisdoms to help me make sense of our ecological crisis and alleviate my climate despair? And so, a few weeks ago, I left behind the comforts of my house, of my civilized existence, and returned to the wild… Part 2: Into the Woods The interesting thing about being in nature is that even though it feels so quiet and calming, it is actually tremendously stimulating. Having been here for a while, I was reminded of how rich of an environment it truly is, one that is filled with countless different sensory experiences; from the textures of different trees and rocks, the sights of all kinds of other animals, to the sounds of rustling branches, of quietly flowing water, of the wind blowing through grass, and that particular noise of fallen leaves cracking underneath your feet. And no matter how close you get, it never seems to get any less complex. In fact, zooming in on any particular element only reveals more layers, new worlds filled with more life and intricate natural processes and activities.
It really takes you out of your own head, encourages you to be more present in your physical surroundings, which I guess is why the experience is such a calming one for so many people. But as pleasant as this was, it wasn’t quite successful in truly connecting me to nature. When Thoreau retreated into his cabin in the woods, he was physically detached from civilization, but spiritually he still remained very much connected to it. He spend his time doing what it takes to survive, but he was also writing his book, and so he was in nature, but he was also reflecting on the civilization he came from, and would eventually return to. And this is kind of what I am doing now.
I’m in nature, I’m enjoying the quietness, the lack of distractions, and I do very much feel more grounded, but I am also doing this, I’m making this video. I’m experiencing all this while at the same time also reflecting on it, I’m engaged in an act of stylization, of transformation, of turning this into more than what it directly offers. And I find that a lot of my sense of purpose stems from this creative endeavor. Again, I love just being here, I love having breakfast with a view like this, I love living by the candlelight and fireplace in the evening, but I find that this is what really drives me, this is what occupies my mind, what fuels my enthusiasm and I’m not sure if I would enjoy all this as much without it. I have often wondered if I were to fully return to the wild, live in a cabin like this for the rest of my life, let go of all the pressures and worries of the modern world, and just spend all my time surviving and relaxing, would that be enough, would I be happy? Putting aside the reality of survival, and ignoring the likely chance that I would be dead within a month without the comforts I’ve gotten used to, let’s say I found a way to stay fed, stay healthy, stay safe, find some kind of harmony, would a life like this truly fulfill me? Would I not want more? And if so, would that be because that is just how I have been conditioned by the society I live in, or is that something that exists deeper within our human nature? Not far from where I was staying in the woods, filmmaker Werner Herzog once made a documentary called Cave of Forgotten Dreams, in which he captured the oldest known cave paintings of humanity.
I still vividly remember the images. Made over 30.000 years ago, these creations seemed far too elaborate and precise for mindless doodles, and too artistic and beautiful to function as a mere tool for survival. What was their purpose? Could it be that these reflections of what they observed outside of the cave are no different by those made by Thoreau in his book, or for that matter, by me in this video? In other words; has there always been a part of us that has been looking at the world from the outside in, that has been transforming reality through a subjective lens? It is certainly true that as human beings, we are not only concerned not with living our life as a purely sensory and reflexive experience, but also with reflecting on it, with attaching meanings to our experiences and ordering them into symbols and stories, both to communicate them to others, as well as to use them for ourselves, to give structure to a coherent sense of self, to give ourselves an identity that, at least in our perception, lifts us out of nature, though we are never fully released from its constraints.
“The essence of man is really his paradoxical nature,” – author Ernest Becker once wrote – “the fact that he is half animal and half symbolic.” Today, this is more obvious than ever as we have increasingly been given access to various tools to symbolically articulate our experiences, and various platforms, in particular online platforms, to present them on and see those of others. It emphasized, and perhaps even widened, the gap between being and representing, between nature and humanity. Just before Covid happened, I visited Norway.
I saw a few of these beautifully produced travel videos and I wanted to go there and experience and capture it for myself. The experience was indeed beautiful, however, all I had with me was this old GoPro, I think it’s one of the earliest models. It doesn’t have a screen which meant I couldn’t see what I was filming and so I would just point it somewhere and hope for the best.
When I got home and looked at the footage, I was pretty disappointed at first. By today’s standards, the quality was quite poor; the image was often overexposed or the white balance was way off. And especially after getting this camera a few weeks back, I remember I had this silly thought where I... wished I could go back in time, not so much to revisit Norway, but more so to shoot better images. I wanted it to look like those high-quality travel videos that I thought succeeded so well in capturing the beauty of Norway, not only to show people at home how amazing my trip had been, but more so for myself to remember the trip clearly and authentically, and not let it exist only in my head as a slowly fading memory.
I thought I had wasted that opportunity. But funnily enough, when I revisited the footage a while back, after not having looked at it for about a year, to my surprise, I suddenly found it to be quite affecting. Looking at it now, the low quality and the off colors for me invoke a certain dreamlike quality that while not exactly capturing what this place looked like, it did capture what it felt like.
It made me relive the stillness of that quiet winter landscape, the long, lonely roads far past the arctic circle and the sun that would begin to set after barely having risen above the horizon. Somewhat ironically, it made me feel closer to the experience, made me feel like I had succeeded after all in capturing some kind of reality, some kind of truth about what experiencing the natural beauty of Norway is like. But of course the real question is: did I in fact capture my experience more accurately than I thought I did, had I been blinded by preconceived notions of what Norway was like before I went there? Or on the contrary; was it only afterwards that I reconstructed my vision of what Norway was like based on my present day nostalgic feelings about it? In short: do these images really reflect a reality, or just some idea I have about it in my mind? The answer doesn’t really matter. The point of all this is that we live in nature, we live a material reality, but we also live in abstractions. We move through physical spaces, but also through conceptions of what they mean, what they mean in the grand existential sense, and what they mean to us personally. And these meanings can change over time, they can re-shape how we look at the world around us, just as the world around us in turn can affect how we perceive it, can affect the meanings we construct about it.
This sort of continuous interplay between object and symbol, between the human mind, and the world it encounters, is also referred to as social construction. And when we’re talking about nature, especially in our current ecological crisis, this is what we have to take into account. Because today, more than ever it seems, our relation to nature is not only troubled by concrete problems such as global warming, environmental pollution and the destructions of ecosystems, but also by our ideas about what that relation means in the first place. Part 3: An Imagined Reality So, when we’re talking about the social construction of nature, about the subjectivities we attach to it, what does this really mean, and what does it have to do with our current ecological crisis? For Bruno Latour, one of today’s most prominent scholars in the field of political ecology, the real problem is not so much about the content of any particular view of nature, but about the way we construct a separation in the first place. “The difficulty lies in the very expression ‘relation to the world,’” – he writes – “which presupposes two sorts of domains, that of nature and that of culture, domains that are at once distinct and impossible to separate completely.”
He points out that we cannot define nature alone, because humans after all came out of nature, and therefore, so did culture. We cannot define culture alone either, because we are still inherently limited by the constraints of nature, which means, as he continues, “that we are not dealing with domains but rather with one and the same concept divided into two parts, which turn out to be bound together, as it were, by a sturdy rubber band.” In short; Latour argues that we, or at least, we in the west, have constructed nature as an external domain that is separate from human culture. And this is an issue because by being a separate domain, we have also ascribed to nature its own set of laws and values, which Latour described as a blend of Greek politics, French Cartesianism and American parks. In the language of popular stories, this would be something akin to the notions of the circle of life, or of the natural order.
Whether this is depicted as harmonious and supportive or chaotic and indifferent, nature always seems to be a realm of its own, one that is bordered off from that of humanity, and one that characters subsequently venture in and out of. This separation worked fine for a long time. In fact, it was the basis for our perception of modernity, for the feeling that we have finally achieved our victorious transcendence over nature and claimed dominion over the entire Earth. Nature was the savage reality, and now it is domesticated by human civilization, by our ever expanding empire. Now it’s basically a hobby, we venture into nature to experience the aspects of nature that we enjoy, and then we go back to our cities, back to our real lives, back to our domain.
Or at least, so we thought. According to Latour, part of why we are so frustrated with our current ecological crisis is not just because nature is forcing itself back into our human domain where it is increasingly disrupting our society, but also because it’s forcing us to reconsider the very concept of nature as this external reality. In essence, the ecological crisis has challenged us to reconcile the laws and values of the domain of nature with the laws and values of the specifically human domain of culture, and in doing so, exposed the paradox of this whole distinction. It revealed how uniting nature and culture is impossible when culture has been defined as precisely that which distinguished us from nature in the first place. This contradiction is further complicated because the distinguished domains of nature and culture are not constructed equally; one of them is marked while the other one isn’t.
To explain this, Latour refers to the categories of man and woman, and to the way in which, before the rise of feminism, the word “man” was used to mean “everyone,” when I quoted Ernest Becker earlier, we already saw an example of this. He didn’t mean literal men here, but humanity in general, and we all understood that and probably didn’t think twice about it. If he had used the word “woman” instead, however, it would have been different.
Because the word “woman” generally invokes a specific association with gender, which doesn’t necessarily happen with the word “man”. In this sense, it is said that the word “woman” is marked, whereas the word “man” is unmarked. And this we see with the categories of nature and culture too. Culture is marked by its associations with humanity, with our morality, our politics and social values, pretty much everything that, in our perception, makes us human. Nature, on the other hand, is unmarked. Nature is nature, it’s that which is natural, objective, material, physical, indifferent, it’s the domain of the hard sciences, that we observe from the outside, and unlike culture, it is unburdened by the frivolous, moralistic and political cultures of humanity. The natural world is morally indifferent, we say, or nature doesn’t prescribe any ethical guidelines, only the cold, harsh facts of reality.
But here again, as Latour argues, we have constructed a paradox. He points out that whenever anyone invokes the natural world in an argument, or talks about the “nature” of something, the moral dimension is still present, it is just more convoluted. For while we say that nature is objective and morally indifferent, and that we should therefore not project onto it our own human values, this argument actually implies a very powerful moral requirement, that being the demand to abstain completely from all moral judgement.
“Such is in fact the paradox of the invocation of “nature”:” – Latour says – “a formidable prescriptive charge conveyed by what is not supposed to possess any prescriptive dimension.” In other words; by being an unmarked category, nature as a constructed domain is often used, implicitly or explicitly, to impose that which is supposedly free from any consideration of morality, or from the relevance of human values in general. In the context of our ecological crisis this, somewhat ironically, actually became most evident because of climate change deniers. Because it was they who, in the form of lobbyists, industry representatives and other pressure groups, who understood that if the facts about climate change came to be accepted, if they were undisputed, then the mere description of these facts could never be separated from a prescriptive element, from moral implications and the subsequent demand for and development of new policies. In other words: they realized that the facts of nature were inherently tied to the values of culture.
And so what they did was not engage in debates about values and politics, about potential courses for action, no, instead they challenged the underlying facts themselves, and undermined, with considerable success, the reality of climate change. They kept the debate firmly placed in the value-free domain of nature, the domain where, for one, climate change deniers could avoid any discussions about their own values and position themselves as the sceptics, as the rational ones who are only concerned with the facts, and who are definitely not agents with an explicit political agenda. And two, where ecologists who were understandably more eager to ring the warning bell, to invoke moral responsibility and demand environmental action were suddenly restricted to stick to the science, so to say, or else risk being labelled as alarmist or sensational. Because without the supposedly objective facts from the domain of nature, any values coming from the domain of culture, as we have so often seen, could easily be dismissed for politicizing that which should not be political. So to summarize, what Latour argues is that we are not so much in a crisis of ecology as that we are in one of objectivity.
We have been relying on a construction of nature without having properly considered the real meaning and implications of that construction. In reality, he says, we are not dealing with two separate domains that somehow have to be unified, but with one and the same concept from which we merely created the illusion of separateness, which means that the challenge is not to restore some kind of balance, or find a new harmony, no, the challenge that lies ahead is far more significant, one of fundamental reconstruction. In philosophical terms, this means that just as we once killed God, now the time has come for us to kill nature. Part 4: The Death of Nature So far, we’ve been talking about nature in the context of our great ecological crisis, of the global challenges posed by climate change, extreme weather, fires, floods, extinction, and so on.
But the very notion of crisis, again following the work of Bruno Latour, is in itself already a sign of just how much we have pushed nature away into this external construction, and subsequently, of just how badly we have been able to manage the environmental issues we are presented with. A crisis suggests the momentary disruption of a period of stability, it suggests that all this will soon pass, that not before long, we can return to the way things were. But when we’re talking about the death of nature, this is exactly the idea that we have to let go off. As Latour puts it: “[Our ecological crisis is not about] the irruption of nature into the public space but the end of “nature” as a concept that would allow us to sum up our relations to the world and pacify them.”
So what does this look like in practical terms, what is the end of nature? And what happens after? We’ve talked about those who avoid any ecological issues by simply denying the material reality, but on the side of those who do recognize the documented environmental changes and wish for something to be done about it, which I’m guessing is most people, things also don’t seem to be going well. I see a lot of confusion, a lot of panic, and anger, and lately also, a lot of despair, and I think this is largely because we too have been holding on to nature as this separate domain, as that which was once steady and dependable, like a still frame in one of those pastoral paintings, and that we now have to fix so we can put it back in its place and go on with our lives. We for example see this sentiment with those who believe we can geo-engineer our way out of this, use even more modernity to fix the crisis by essentially conquering the natural world once and for all in some kind of absolute purification between nature and culture. And we see it in those who are still optimistic that all the environmental changes observed right now can still be reversed, that we can put the genie back in the bottle by simply resetting the balance between nature and culture to an earlier point. But this, as Latour explains, is most likely not what’s going to happen. He points out that while we tend to believe that the introduction of ecological issues into our politics is something new and unprecedented, and therefore, as some seem to hope, a temporary matter, there actually has never been a time in our history in which we weren’t engaged with ecology in some way or another.
If anything, the only thing that could really classify us as modern is that momentary disconnect from ecology that we are now recovering from. And so the first aspect of the death of nature is the recognition and acceptance that we are not really in an ecological crisis that must be resolved so that we can return to normal, but that we are in a transition period towards a new regime where ecological issues will once again have a prominent and permanent place on the agenda. Secondly, because we are holding on to nature as a separate domain and as a problem to be solved, we have also greatly frustrated our ability to tackle the variety of ecological issues we are faced with. Because again, with two separate domains; nature and culture, we find ourselves, as Latour put it, with two forms of having-to-be, with two moralities instead of one. This always seem to be the fundamental message of our ecology-themed stories, this conflict between two worlds followed by the eternally renewed discovery that we belong to nature after all, that we have gone astray and need to submit ourselves yet again to its rules, do away with the evils of culture and go back to the woods, as it were. The reason this is such a frustrating message is because we all know that this too is not going to happen.
In fact, we don’t even really want it to happen. Personally, I enjoyed my time in the woods, but I must admit that, at the end of the day, I much prefer the comforts of civilization. And hence the great despair: by imagining two incompatible domains, we can’t envision a way to reconcile them without sacrificing completely one or the other. No wonder it is so often said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, the end of our culture. It is interesting that many of these stories include premodern peoples and native cultures as the sort of noble savages to show the right path, to remind us of the wisdom of old, of a way of life that respects the natural world and its inhabitants, of the lost era of harmony between humanity and nature.
I'm trying to understand this deep connection the people have to the forest. In reality however, this is little more than a modern projection based on our own distinction of separate domains, and an annoyingly shame-inducing one at that. For aside from the multiple recorded instances of ecological destruction, severe disharmony and even hatred towards the environment in these premodern cultures, it was found that they generally did not consider nature at all as separate domain. They were simply unaware of the distinction, which, as Latour emphasizes, is not the same as having combined the two domains into a harmonious whole.
A similar point can be made for plants and animals, which we tend to see as being completely free from culture, and inhabiting nature as its sort of animated objects. Here too there is not really a sense of an integrated whole, of a balanced circle of life as we so often like to see it. Animals can ruin their environments, sometimes to their own eventual determinant, just as significantly and thoughtlessly as we do. And plants also act without any real regard for our idea of natural harmony. Take for example how grass once changed the entire face of the planet. And how, as scientists recently discovered, one of the great mass extinctions that killed of 3 quarters of all marine life was caused by one tiny algae.
And so the second aspect of the death of nature is letting go of the idea that we ever lived in such a thing as nature in the first place, and recognizing that there is no harmonious whole, no lost natural paradise to return to or reconnect with. But what is the alternative? What happens after the death of nature? Well, Latour proposes a construction of nature, or rather, of reality as a whole, as a sort of hybrid network of colliding forces and countless different agents continuously acting, affecting and rearranging the structure of the web. Note that this is not a fatalistic, everything is chaos, nothing that we do matters kind of perspective.
On the contrary, it is not really a state of chaos, rather it is one of continuous negotiation, one that can breed conflict, but also one that can result in cooperation. With hybrid network, Latour suggests an integration of nature and culture, of facts and values. What this means is that we can no longer fall back on a externalized domain of nature with a built-in natural order, and subsequent pre-determined values that are inherently exempt from human concern, which in turn means that the playing field is now wide open, that we can no longer lay claim to value-free objectivity, and that everything becomes a potential moral agent. What does this look like in practice? Well, let’s take another trip.
Right now I am in a nature reserve called the Oostvaardersplassen, which is this big protected wetland that houses, among other animals, some bigger herbivores like wild horses, European bison, and red deer. The reserve has been the subject of some heated discussions for multiple years now because during the winters, there isn’t enough food for all these bigger animals, and so each year a significant amount of them die due to starvation. In response, the reserve’s management tried to lower the populations by preemptively shooting a large amount of animals, but this policy has been largely criticized and protested by activist groups, who believed that we carry a greater moral responsibility to these animals. It even went as far that people broke into the reserve illegally to feed the animals themselves. Now, what I thought was so interesting about this whole discussion is that, from the beginning, no one seemed to consider the option of just letting nature run its course, to let nature be this external domain. Somehow it seemed obvious that this place was intrinsically tied to human values and politics, and therefore that we had to do something, that we had to interfere in some way, but why was this? Well, I think this is because from the beginning, everyone knew there was no such thing as nature here, that nothing about all this was natural, and that is because a little over 50 years ago, none of this existed. And I mean that literally.
The Oostvaardersplassen are located in a Dutch province called Flevoland, which during the 1950s and 60s, was completely reclaimed from the sea. The area initially had other purposes, but the ground turned out to be too wet and infertile and so it remained unused until biologists noticed the in part spontaneous emergence of wetlands vegetation, which was soon followed by a variety of bird species that settled in the area. It was decided that this newly emerging ecosystem was worth preserving, which about 4 years later, when the wetlands were at risk of drying out, led to the creation of a sort of barrier to prevent water from leaking away. Additional efforts were also made to provide extra water in dry periods, which allowed the wetlands to stay alive and develop. Over the years that followed, this kind of management over what is now an official nature reserve would continue; new types of vegetation, landscapes and animals would be introduced, all the while understanding and accepting that this piece of “nature” is inherently tied to culture, that we are not dealing with two separate domains, but again, with one and the same concept.
As such, I think it is a good example of how the death of nature actually engaged everyone involved in a deliberate and inclusive form of ecological management, one that is constructive and rooted in both facts and values. Of course, it is far from perfect, much of the governance is still oriented towards creating a self-sustaining ecosystem, a piece of nature that is free from humanity, which is probably precisely the belief they have to let go off for the project to truly succeed, and to truly embrace a new paradigm. But still, it feels like some kind of awareness has been awakened, and perhaps, in time, it might signify the first tiny steps towards a new geopolitical era. Part 5: A New Era While the death of nature does allow us to let go of the illusion that we can only reconcile ourselves with nature through extreme regression, by erasing our ecological footprint altogether and pretty much taking all the fun out of life, so to say, this does not mean that we are free to do whatever we want. Again, it’s quite the opposite. The death of nature means a permanent re-integration of ecological matters into our lives, it means there is no more pretense of separateness, no more watching it all unfold from the sidelines.
And yes, this includes considering our emissions when we plan on travelling somewhere. It includes considering the environmental impact of the products we consume, and of the system that produces them. It means the recognition of global ripple effects, of climate refugees, and... the engagement in discussions about environmental justice, about animal rights and future generations.
The death of nature does not mean things will get easier, they won’t. There are many problems heading our way, from an ecological point of view: we’ve set things in motion that cannot be undone, we have passed certain thresholds. The physical world is changing and it will continue to change. As Latour stated: “we’re going to have to get used to it. It’s definitive.” And from a socio-political point of view: we now have to navigate not only the infinitely complex matters of international politics between peoples and nations, but also figure out a way to meaningfully include that which was once the value-free domain of nature. What does it look like to include animals, plants, trees and entire ecosystems into a democracy? How do we, especially from a more legal perspective, give a voice to the literally voiceless? And going even further, down to a more philosophical point of view, we might have to give entirely different answers to the basic questions that define our place in the world.
Latour for example wonders what would happen if we referred to ourselves as Earthbound rather than human. If we were to change something so fundamental about how we perceive ourselves, how we position ourselves in the world, then… Who would we be? Where would we be? It has been said that we now live in the Anthropocene, which suggests that we have entered a new geological era in which human activities are the defining impact on the planet. This impact is in part defined by what we will leave behind for future archeologists, which doesn’t just include waste but also the countless of new materials and chemicals that, up until this point, had never before existed. But it is also defined by geological acceleration, by a rapid change in the Earth’s biosphere, which is a notion that, as Latour remarks, we still can’t quite wrap our heads around. He points out how the acceleration of history is easily understood and accepted when it comes to our technological progress for example, but when applied to the vastness of geological history, we are somehow left stupefied.
The term Anthropocene has not yet been accepted as an official geological epoch however. Some critics for example have pointed out how it suggests that it's humanity in general that is responsible for impacting the Earth when it is still only a small portion of humanity, mainly the rich, that are leaving the biggest ecological footprint. In response, they suggested that a term like Capitalocene would be more appropriate to take these systemic inequalities into account. But either way, the notion of including humanity into geological history is an interesting one, because it breaks yet another barrier between ourselves and the world around us. No longer are we the tiny dot on a timescale too big for our comprehension. No longer can we pretend we are but a spectator, or a brief visitor outside of it all.
For better or worse, our presence will be felt for centuries, probably even millennia to come. For better or worse, we have firmly cemented ourselves into the Earth’s vast history. At the beginning of all this, I thought there was a nature to return to, that there was some lost wilderness to reconnect with and that my subjective mind stood in the way of doing so, that it created a fundamental barrier between my conscious self and a true experience of nature. But now I think I may have been wrong.
Maybe it was not so much that my mind itself formed a barrier as much as that it imagined one, that it merely constructed this external domain based on what is essentially a collective misunderstanding. But if we can imagine separation, and this, I think, is what the death of nature truly means, then perhaps we can also imagine connection. A while back, I downloaded this non-profit app called the deep time walk, which lets you listen to a dramatized dialogue about the entire history of the Earth, 4.6 billion years, as you walk 4.6 kilometers. Besides adding a helpful element of physicality to the otherwise hard to imagine concepts of deep time and geological history, there was this brief moment that really stuck with me where they talked about the emergence and meaning of consciousness. I’m paraphrasing here but they suggested that we can see because the world is visible, that we can touch because the world is touchable and therefore, that we can think because the world is thinkable.
And I thought this was such a nice way to articulate all this: maybe we attach meanings to the world simply because the world allows for itself to be meaningful. Maybe our subjective mind is not a sign of our detachment, but in fact demonstrates our connection, something that engages us in just another aspect of the world’s being. It may sound a little cheesy, but I do believe that these changes in perspective, even the small ones, can have significant consequences for how we shape our relation with the world over time. At least, it did so for me. I now walk through the same forests and other natural areas as I did when I started making this video, but the experience has changed. The change is subtle but still I feel like I am no longer looking for nature as some kind of elusive realm.
Instead I just look for what is. I see trees, grass. I see a myriad of creatures. I see agreements. I see consideration and carelessness, conflict and cooperation. I see co-existence. I see a world that’s ever changing. I see challenges, and opportunities.
And above all, I’m seeing it all from the inside. As Latour wrote: “There is no cure for the condition of belonging to the world. But, by taking care, we can cure ourselves of believing that we do not belong to it.” He suggests that, despite our outspoken longing for structural changes, for radical action in our global ecological crisis, we have failed to see that the great ecological and socio-political transformation has already happened, that it is not a fate that awaits us in the future, but an event in the past that we are still struggling to make sense of, that most of us, in some way or another, are still trying to resist. It was us who set it in motion, but now, all the natural forces around us haven taken it up, and will continue their transformative efforts, as Latour put it, “without us, against us, and at the same time, through us”.
In other words: the revolution is already here, and we are all part of it. Be sure to stay tuned for more behind-the-scenes footage, but first, let me talk about another minor revolution that you definitely do want to be a part of. Because for a while now I have been working together with some amazing creators like Lindsay Ellis, Philosophy Tube, Hbomberguy, Thomas Flight and many more, to build our own streaming service called Nebula. Partnered with CuriosityStream, Nebula is offering a new home to your favorite creators, a place where we are free to be creative, where we receive fair compensation, and where we can rely on the support of a strong community.
For you, it is a place where you can watch our videos without any ads or sponsors, and enjoy some exclusive content. And the best part is, you can get Nebula for free if you sign up for CuriosityStream. CuriosityStream is a streaming service with thousands of documentaries and nonfiction titles. In preparation for this video, I watched Deep Time History, a history of human civilization that deliberately includes geological and ecological developments, and explores how they relate to the evolution of humanity. Whereas CuriosityStream is all about big-budget non-fiction productions like these, they also love independent creators which is why they are helping us to grow our platform, and which is why I’m excited to share that, for a limited time only, you can now get a 26% discount on their annual plan.
That is less than 15 dollars for a whole year of both CuriosityStream and Nebula. So if you’d rather be watching extra content instead of this ad, enjoy some fantastic documentaries, and help out my channel and that of many of the other creators you know and love, be sure to head on over to curiositystream.com/likestoriesofold, to get the best deal in streaming, today.