La « nature », une idée qui évolue au fil des civilisations

“Nature”, an idea that evolves over civilizations

Fabrice Flipo , Institut Mines-Télécom Business School and Frédéric Ducarme , National Museum of Natural History (MNHN)

There is often a tendency to oppose the diversity of cultures, the fruit of the inexhaustible creative imagination of humanity, to “the” nature, which would be a univocal and objective reality.

However, the very idea of ​​nature varies in time and space, and these variations condition our relationship to the world.

Let's first say that different cultures do not consider nature in the same way : if we translate the European word of Latin origin "nature" into other languages ​​of the world, its so-called equivalents - zì rán in Chinese, tabî'a in Arabic, prakṛti in Hindi… – all carry an etymological, semantic, cultural and philosophical baggage which makes them very distinct concepts.

Thus, the translation gives the illusion of a correspondence where there is in fact only a more or less vague analogy.

Within the same culture, concepts evolve over time and schools of thought; what we call “nature” today, relying on Aristotle, Descartes or Darwin, no longer really has anything to do with what these authors meant by this word .

There are therefore many ways of apprehending nature. What are the political implications of this plurality?

Humans on one side, nature on the other

In this diversity, a particular representation of nature is today often criticized – and sometimes caricatured – by a whole generation of thinkers, in the wake of Philippe Descola and Bruno Latour , passing through the deep ecology of Arne Naess .

It is about nature seen as opposed to the human (and therefore to the spirit, to politics, to history), a material nature, passive and radically external to us.

How do civilizations distinguish between humans and non-humans? Meeting with Philippe Descola (Collège de France/Youtube, 2014).

This nature is called "naturalistic" or "modern" by these authors, because it seems typically Western: it is seen as a simple reservoir of raw materials, which we come to exploit or contemplate, but always with the idea that humans and their societies are not part of it, developing on their side, in urban or agricultural spaces that would be exclusively a matter of “culture”.

But is this vision as hegemonic as we think?

A creative process that embraces us

In fact, the overwhelming majority of definitions of nature, whether we seek them in Western history or in other cultures, tend rather to include humans in nature, and to see in it a creative process that embraces us rather than an inert material whole.

This was also the case in ancient Greece , where phusis is a creative principle of development, of which humanity is an integral part.

We find a similar idea in the etymology of its equivalents in many languages, such as Hindi prakṛti (meaning "proliferation"), Slavic priroda ("generation"), Hungarian természet ("plant growth"), or the Finnish luonto (“occult power”).

Finally, only the Semitic term tabî'a (“printed mark”) explicitly expresses a fixist and passive vision of nature, which seems closely linked to monotheism. A very minority vision, therefore, but which has experienced extraordinary expansion through the Abrahamic religions.

Preserving the natural “heritage”

This definition of nature as an external and fixed whole has historically been used in the context of nature protection , modeled in the 19th century on the protection of heritage; we often spoke of the protection of “natural monuments”, ancestor of the concept of “natural heritage”.

With this in mind, the protection of nature had to adopt the techniques and goals of the conservation of the historical heritage: to maintain an object in a determined state to prevent its degradation (any evolution being perceived as such), whether a cathedral or a mountain.

John Muir in 1907. Francis M. Fritz/Wikimedia

We find this vision among the first American conservationists of the generation of John Muir (1838-1914), and up to Aldo Leopold (1887-1948); the objective is to limit the excesses of industrial society, forcing it to leave some spaces in their initial aspect while exploitation is unleashed elsewhere.

The speed with which the great spaces of the America of the pioneers then disappeared under the tooth of the promoters motivated these militants to preserve here and there, on the margins of galloping exploitation, the "ruins" of this bygone era of America. wild, vestiges of a mythical period soon glorified in literature – by James Fenimore Cooper in particular – then later in cinema. The logic is overtly the same as with the ancient remains of old Europe.

But it's also a vision that makes little sense except in America, where colonization brought about brutal conquest, accompanied by a creationist ideology that suggests that the wild landscapes thus consumed had remained untouched since the origin of the world. .

Preservationism vs Conservationism

This conception of a nature "put under glass" largely triumphed for a large part of the 20th century: this current is called "preservationism", which seeks to maintain areas preserved from all human activity, in a state that we would like to believe "virgin".

He opposed “conservationism”, understood as the rational and sustainable use of biological resources, in particular wood, which remained a strategic resource until the Second World War. Gifford Pinchot , creator of the US Forestry Service, was its symbol in the United States.

There are therefore already two conceptions of nature, and of its protection, which clash: one which thinks of nature for human beings, and another which thinks of humanity and nature as two separate worlds.

In Europe, the analysis that Martin Heidegger proposes of a dam on the Rhine, in the Question of technique (1954), also confronts two conceptions of nature which in part embrace this dichotomy.

Nature – here, the river – is conceived on the one hand as a wild process endowed with its own agency, and on the other hand, from the angle of the dam, as a “stock” making it possible to extract water. energy.

From labs to industrial agriculture

“Nature” as a stock of resources capable of being rearranged and reorganized for its exploitation finds philosophical justification in Descartes, for whom nature existed partes extra partes : in parts foreign to each other, and inanimate. Descartes also defended the idea that animals are analogous to machines: nature is for the Cartesians a great mechanism.

It is still in this way that the engineering sciences – and from there, industry – see the world . In fact, it is on the basis of this paradigm that they have transformed our living environment.

This "extractive" or "productivist" conception of nature, seen as a set of inert resources to be "valued", is regularly taken to task by ecologism , which for its part seeks to replace the human in a nature considered as a complex and dynamic system, the balance of which is threatened by an exploitation blind to its subtle functioning.

If socialism has set itself the goal of combating the ravages of the industrial paradigm which treats humans like machines, environmentalism does the same with nature.

For while the productivist view of nature applies superficially well to inanimate resources, which form the bulk of our daily contact with nature, in transformed form – plastics (petroleum), concrete (sand, limestone), metals (minerals ), etc. – it applies less well to the living, insofar as it is animated and included in a network of interactions, and cannot be easily manipulated without causing chain consequences that often go beyond their instigator.

Infographic of the NGO Global Footprint Network presenting for different countries the day of the overshoot. In other words, the date on which the natural resources produced by the planet were exhausted in one year. NGO Global Footprint Network , CC BY-NC-ND

However, the reductionist approach (where life is considered only as a physico-chemical phenomenon), which is often that of laboratory sciences, also remains that of industrial agriculture, which struggles to think of the indirect consequences of its practices in time and space.

This approach is also at the origin of the limits of this model: an agriculture that exterminates biodiversity and destroys the soil; soils which, despite ever-increasing inputs, end up mineralizing and losing their fertility...

A new synthesis

Some social actors, like the network of peasant agriculture (FADEAR), arecarriers of another vision , in which the living (human or not) coexist, coevolve.

In terms of ideas, it is a question of developing an ecology of reconciliation , which, like non-European cultures, places humanity at the heart of a nature traversed by dynamics, rather than facing an inert stock like the he West has pictured it for too long.

Far from a backward step, ecology rather offers a new synthesis.

Serge Moscovici, one of the founders of French ecology, already affirmed in the 1960s that it was the productivist vision of nature that gave birth to scientific ecology, and not the reverse.

Scientific ecology proceeds by seeking to put nature into equations, to think of it no longer as a set of stocks, but as a system of dynamic flows in permanent interconnection.

He considers that all civilizations determine differentiated “states of nature” , which explains why what they call “nature” is never identical; in the industrial society, the chicken becomes the most widespread bird on Earth ...

When will the mechanistic vision end?

These various conceptions of nature coexist or exclude each other depending on the case, and are inscribed in a succession that follows the evolution of society and the challenges that oppose it – from the ontological point of view, the living is at the times life, chemistry and mechanism.

The reasons for putting one or the other forward are epistemic, but also ethical: from the moment humanity is an intimate part of it, should nature be treated simply as a means, or also as an end? in itself, to use Kant's famous phrase?

It is easy to see, however, why the mechanistic definition dominates: it reflects most of our daily interactions with nature, and it is the one that benefits the industrial economy.

But, as we see daily, limiting our view of the world to short-term economic rationality benefits no one and, ultimately, not even the economy... The Conversation

Fabrice Flipo , Professor of Social and Political Philosophy, Epistemology and History of Science and Technology, Institut Mines-Télécom Business School and Frédéric Ducarme , Doctor of Ecology, National Museum of Natural History (MNHN)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article .

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