Are humans separate from nature?

Are we exempt from ecology? Sarah Dalrymple explores how our anthrocentric behaviour has permeated ecological science.

To answer the question posed in the title: no, of course we’re not separate from nature and we are certainly not exempt from ecological processes. And that would be the answer that most ecologists would give – we are obviously dependent on the planet and its non-human inhabitants for our survival. And yet, how we describe, interact and apparently perceive the planet, suggests that we do consider ourselves separate from nature. A worldview described as ‘exemptionalism’ by E.O. Wilson is the overriding mindset for people in the long-industrialised world, aka the Global North, even for those that understand ecological processes such as ourselves as BES members.

Evidence for exemptionalism in ecology

You can clearly hear exemptionalist rhetoric from politicians: nature is a resource to be extracted for people’s use – exploited, traded, guarded and fought over in order to attain economic growth. It is also evident in the prevailing agricultural practices that James Rebanks insightfully critiques where economic cycles of purchasing seeds, pesticides and fertilisers to achieve yields have completely overridden the ecological cycles which did the same job for millennia. Tragically, the predictions of Rachel Carson in Silent Spring have not been heeded by governments subject to lobbying by agricultural corporations. The recent estimate of the proportion of the global farming community being poisoned by the chemicals they use is a horrifying 44% (Boedeker et al 2020). This is reported to be worst in Asia but is also felt close to home in the calls from UK farming communities for a ban of Paraquat which is linked to high incidences of Parkinson’s Disease. The hubris that comes from assuming that we can tame and conquer nature comes at a high cost.

But even ecologists fall into the trap of exemptionalism. In many situations this manifests as the implicit assumption that to study natural processes means excluding anything that is modified by humans. At a past BES Annual Meeting, I’ve had conversations with potential collaborators that rejected the idea of research in upland ecosystems in northern England and Wales because atmospheric pollution had ruined them. People thought they were not worth studying because they weren’t ‘natural’ enough and there was nothing useful to be gleaned from trying to understand the mechanisms within such altered landscapes. When you think that recent work has shown that only 3% of the planet’s terrestrial regions is ecologically intact (Plumptre et al 2021), this makes me wonder what it is that people think they are studying?

The tendency to prioritise pristine habitats as subjects for ecological investigation has also been noted with respect to secondary tropical forests (Chazdon et al 2009) and this is still apparent in the lack of understanding on succession and landscape processes such as seed dispersal. In his reflections on research on temperate forests, Mark Vellend (2021) has written that “we have good reason to be concerned that as ecologists, we make decisions about what to study, how to study it, what to report, and how to interpret the findings, that seem likely to emphasize some conclusions more than others”. In his research area, this has meant that the choice to look at ground flora associated with old growth forests automatically badges secondary forests as somehow ecologically inferior. Mark makes the excellent point that our shared values implicitly direct us towards biased research which fail to represent ecological AND societal reality.

I think of this viewpoint as being ‘exemptionalism-lite’, in other words, no one is denying the impact or connections of humans with nature but by devaluing and marginalising ecosystems that are highly modified by us there is a logical tendency to assume that all human influence is unnatural and usually this equates to humans being a ‘bad thing’. Over the 16 years since starting my teaching career I have lost count of how many times I’ve corrected undergrad assignments that assume humans are ‘bad’ and nature is ‘good’. I generally ask the student to avoid assigning value so simplistically and instead use more ‘scientific’ and neutral language that articulates ecological process and impact. Whilst I will continue to give out the same feedback in the future, I might also add that if they do insist on assigning judgements, then they could at least acknowledge that humans can be ‘good’ for nature, and indeed are part of nature.

Evidence for exemptionalism in conservation

Unfortunately, exemptionalism-lite is not just restricted to scholarly ecology. It is pervasive in the application of ecological science, a prime example being the reticence to confer reintroduced populations of threatened species with the same value as naturally occurring populations.

In the October 2020 issue of British Wildlife, Ian Carter wrote an article that critiqued the use of reintroductions and underpinned this with a number of philosophical arguments. He stated that “wildlife derives much of its appeal… because it exists largely on its own terms” and quotes Peter Marren’s description of the “apartness” that separates wildlife from human activity. Apparently for many people, the human world is perceived as separate to the natural world and whilst Carter acknowledges that very little of the planet is now unaffected by human activity, the distinction between nature and people constitutes a major theme in his article, and a principal reason for questioning the value of reintroductions.

‘Othering’ of nature is still a commonly-held standpoint and means that people categorize human action as unnatural

I continue to be amazed that people still maintain this view of nature as a separate entity (a “welcome distraction” according to Carter) to human-modified environments. However, this ‘othering’ of nature is still a commonly-held standpoint and means that people categorize human action as unnatural and by extrapolation, interventions such as reintroductions constitute events whereby natural processes are, in Carter’s words, “unduly compromised”. By many people’s thinking, reintroduced animals and plants are less valuable as a result of their presence resulting from human intervention rather than “natural processes”.

This ecological snobbery expands even to the wild-born offspring of released individuals. Take the example of the bearded vulture which graced the Peak District National Park for several weeks in 2020 – it was the progeny of released parents in the Swiss Alps and for this origin received the dubious status of a ‘category E’ bird. Category E species are deemed to have arrived in Britain through human agency and have not achieved a self-sustaining population in the wild. This status means species do not feature in the British birds list and are often under-reported, as evidenced by local ornithological bulletins which urged observers of the lone bearded vulture to ignore their instinct to treat the bird as different to other wild birds and recommended that they should “still submit their sightings to the BBRC even though this is a category E bird”. In short, species that are present without – or despite – human intervention are seen as better than released individuals.

The hypocrisy that undermines conservation action

The inconsistency with how reintroduced individuals are viewed compared to their wild(er) counterparts is a hypocrisy that is potentially damaging to conservation. Carter expressed a “sense of sadness” that species may be “deprived of the … opportunity” to return autonomously if someone is so inconsiderate as to reintroduce it. This situation is analogous to witnessing someone falling overboard from a ship and not throwing them the lifebuoy because it would result in a better outcome if they managed to save themselves. This is of course ludicrous – when witnessing an event with a potential consequence as tragic as someone’s death (or in the original case, the extinction of a species), it is unethical to stand by and hope that things will end well. Even worse is to deliberately not act because intervention would somehow lessen the value of a good outcome – would we celebrate less if the drowning person had been pulled ashore by the lifeboat crew, than if they’d managed to swim to safety of their own accord? I would hope not.

To develop the analogy further, now imagine that upon seeing someone struggling in the water, you realise that it was you that unintentionally knocked that unfortunate person into the sea, or its equivalent, you had inadvertently caused a species extirpation. People might scoff at this idea but this gets to the heart of the matter – that we are not exempt from ecological influence and consequently we are all implicated as contributors to species loss – and those of us who consume more resources whether it be through flying regularly, driving a large car, heating a big house or just generally consuming a greater-than-average share of the planet’s resources, have more of the burden of responsibility.

Even if you subscribe to the view that the natural world is separate to the human world (a false premise, but let’s just go with it), then it is hypocritical to shun reintroductions as unnatural, because human agency was involved, whilst still accepting that it is fine for us all to go round destroying the planet. The fact that the same people causing species extinctions are then being precious about what constitutes a natural process (and consequently devaluing reintroduced animals and plants), is a hypocrisy that people across the conservation sector seem to easily overlook.

Why does the contradiction matter?

It might be argued that people are complicated beings and contradictions between the talk-we-talk and the walk-we-walk are just part of being human. However, we (and I’m speaking as a white person brought up in an industrialised country) need to remember that our exemptionalist viewpoint, whether consciously or unconsciously expressed, is an aberration – it doesn’t represent all humans now and it certainly doesn’t represent the human viewpoint over time since our species came into being. But even though exemptionalism might optimistically be seen as a blip in human thinking, the implications for ‘othering’ nature go much beyond the failings of a utilitarian approach to conservation.

In Amitav Ghosh’s fantastic recent work, The Nutmeg’s Curse (2021), the opening chapter describes the horrifically violent expression of an exemptionalist approach in the colonising of the Banda Islands on which the nutmeg-bearing tree Myristica fragrans was known to grow. The subsequent vicious displacement of people from their homeland makes for upsetting reading – as Ghosh deftly demonstrates, an exemptionalist view of nature isn’t consistently inclusive of all people and the indigenous people that live and have lived amongst the ecosystems that are the target for exploitation become bundled in with the exploitable resources. The ‘othering’ of nature is extended to the ‘othering’ of societies that are not descended from Europeans, many of which have decidedly un-exemptionalist beliefs and practices. To my understanding, there is a direct link between policy tools that adopt the mechanistic view of an ‘inert’ Earth and only prioritise ecosystem services, with imperialist land-grabs that also brought organised violence, racism and maintained global hierarchies of power that still persist today.

Today, exploitable resources are made into commodities by creating markets for trade, and systems such as Biodiversity Net Gain and REDD are ways of controlling commodification and exploitation of natural assets. To follow this argument to its logical endpoint might be a bit far-fetched – is Biodiversity Net Gain really the most recent permutation of colonialism? However, such policy tools are undeniably mechanistic in its treatment of nature and consequently they do represent the same thinking that makes trading of natural resources conscionable: nature is ‘inert’ and available for humans to exploit.

Personally, I cannot shake the sense that commodifying nature for international trade is basically colonialism brought to the 21st century

Personally, I cannot shake the sense that commodifying nature for international trade is basically colonialism brought to the 21st century. But even if I could be convinced that tradeable nature is a way to negotiate value and protection for ecosystems, these approaches still leave much to be desired for this key reason: they ignore the vitalist viewpoint, that is that Earth and all its components, both living and non-living, can be recognised as part of a living whole. For some, they understand this to be described by James Lovelock’s theory of Gaia whereby Earth is a self-correcting system that maintains homeostasis within the biosphere. For others, there is a spiritual understanding that assumes any feature of the planet, whether it is a plant, animal, hill or river, is part of what Arne Naess describes as the “ultimate unity of all life”. For either or both of these outlooks to prevail (and indeed many interpretations of Gaia theory do not exclude spiritual or animist beliefs), humans would have to come to an understanding that we are part of nature and accept a decidedly more humble role in the way we describe and interact with the rest of the planet.

Evidence for change

For those of you looking for an induction into the ways of rejecting exemptionalism, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work is highly recommended. As a Professor of Environmental Biology at SUNY and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she has a unique insight into exactly how damaging exemptionalism is, and has been. As an ecologist she speaks our language but luckily for us, she also speaks many other languages – both literally and figuratively – as an Indigenous American, a parent, a concerned citizen and someone who lives the realities of a family history ripped apart by displacement and assimilation at the hands of European colonisers. Her writing conveys her sense of responsibility and humility when moving through the ecosystems she studies, and frustration at the way fellow scientists reduce nature to physical process and deny the emotional connections we find with land and everything in it.

For me, her writing resonates most when she describes planting sweet grass on the banks of the Mohawk River and surreptitiously moving plants over the wall that marks the boundary of her local woods in upstate New York. These are plant translocations – my research interest and a huge area of activity for conservationists, foresters and horticulturalists across the world – and often a source of controversy when reintroductions and conservation introductions are viewed from an exemptionalist mindset. But for Professor Kimmerer, they are a much simpler act that conveys respect for the land and evidences the awareness of human reciprocity with nature. The idea that plant and animal translocations might be ‘meddling’ with nature reveals exemptionalism and an ‘apartness’ from nature even in people that might prioritise its conservation.

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work and thinking has become more widely known since Braiding Sweetgrass published in 2013, and there are other signs that the Western-influenced dogma of exemptionalism might be showing signs of erosion. The Whanganui River, New Zealand, was the first water body to be granted legal personhood rights in 2017, and has since been followed by numerous examples including the Klamath River in US and Magpie River in Canada – all three as a result of lobbying by the Indigenous people of the local region. Many other features such as national parks, mountains and caves now have protection too. In Ecuador and Bolivia, all of nature is assigned legislative standing, through the country’s constitution in the case of Ecuador, and through the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia. This is not to say that harm does not come to these entities – just like people, the rivers, landscapes and mountains are subject to processes that threaten their health and wellbeing. However, the defence of a river in the court of law becomes much more serious when the river is assumed to be a person compared to when the river is simply a resource.

Any rational ecologist and most people beyond our academic discipline would recognise that humans rely on nature for our survival but as I hope this essay demonstrates, we don’t have to look hard to find evidence that suggests that our actions are not consistent with this view. The exploitation of our environment and aspiration to live in a way that is demonstrably and completely unsustainable evidences our disregard for our interdependence with nature. We can point to neoliberalism and the importance we place on the markets as the root cause of our current predicament. And as ecologists, we can passively wish our political and economic systems were different whilst we go about understanding and addressing the ecological impacts of environmental destruction. However, if we fail to acknowledge our place on the planet even as we busy ourselves with the pursuit of ecological understanding, I argue that we’re guilty of hypocrisy – the way we study ecosystems, investigate environmental management and apply conservation measures continue to perpetuate the apart-ness of humans from nature – we need to do something about this, and soon. The naming of the Anthropocene – the era of humans as the dominant force in planetary change – risks aggrandising the role of human action even further, but I hope that with it comes some responsibility and humility to recognise the reciprocal relationship of humans with everything else on Earth.

I want to end with a simple instruction from another influential environmental thinker, Masanobu Fukuoka, who recognised that the distinction of nature as an ‘outside world’ and separate to the human world is as damaging to people as it is to the biosphere. He claims that the “only work for people to do … is to gather the seeds and microorganisms nature needs and sow them.” I’m not sure if it is quite so simple but I intend to follow his advice.

Sarah Dalrymple is a Reader in Conservation Ecology and Programme Leader for BSc Wildlife Conservation at Liverpool John Moores University, UK. She has worked extensively on conservation translocations including co-authoring the IUCN’s Guidelines for Reintroductions and Other Conservation Translocations (2013). She is an Associate Editor for Ecological Solutions and Evidence and a member of the Applied Ecology Resources Advisory Board.



Incorporating the ideas from:

Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2013
The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parable’s for a Planet in Crisis, Amitav Ghosh, 2021
The Dragonfly Will Be the Messiah, Masanobu Fukuoka, 2021
This feature was first published in the Summer 2022 issue of our membership magazine The Niche.