What is Nature? We talk about ‘nature’: but what exactly is it? What do we mean when we call something ‘natural’? We sometimes distinguish it from what is ‘human’, as though there is something about humans that is different from the rest of nature. What could that mean? What does it mean to be ‘human’? Humans are acutely self-aware, especially of those aspects of ourselves that make us distinctively different from the rest of the natural world. But do we really stand apart from Nature? Or are we just one amongst an infinite variety of natural phenomena?
We have a tendency to think of ourselves as ‘better’ in some way than the rest of Nature. We sometimes believe that Nature is a mess, dangerous, chaotic, and that it needs humans to improve it, and make it work better. We create ‘artificial’ environments and technologies in order for us to be able to do this. This belief that we are in some way superior to the rest of nature is extraordinary, considering how little we have learned about the nature of the Universe, or even about ourselves. We have indeed learned a great deal over the course of the millennia, but what we know diminishes infinitesimally in comparison with how much more there is to know. Paradoxically, the more we learn about the world, the more we realize how little it is.
How we behave is influenced by how we view ourselves and our relationship to nature. We have an ‘ontology’ about what it means to exist. Are all existing things separate entities? Or are they inseparably interconnected and interdependent? Do only material things exist? Or are there aspects of existence that cannot be captured in purely physical terms? How we see the world, our worldview, influences how we act and how we treat each other, our fellow creatures, and the world in which we live. Environmental philosophers have identified two basic worldviews, shaped by two fundamental ontologies: individualism and holism:
Individualism: A very common and influential ontology says that the world is composed of many independent entities. Each human being is an independent entity, striving to preserve its own existence at all costs. In its efforts to maintain its own existence and well-being, each human strives to accumulate the private possession of as many material entities as possible.