The philosophical question at the heart of environmental change
Karl Marx once wrote that: “All production is appropriation of nature on the part of the individual.” Marx believed that production was the basis of human nature—in fact, he believed that production was the very thing that made us human beings. If we think about this from an environmental perspective, it becomes deeply troubling. For what Marx suggests is that the very definition of a human being, living within a society, is an individual that appropriates nature. As he goes on to say: “man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material reactions between himself and nature…in order to appropriate nature’s productions in a form adapted to his wants…It requires productive activity to give life to man.” Thus, according to Marx, dominating and manipulating nature to satisfy our own wants is what makes us human beings. Unlike all other forms of life in the world, we are not vulnerable to our environment, for we have manipulated nature in such a way that we are able to control our environment.
Through appropriating basic materials (wood, iron, carbon) we have built houses so that we can protect ourselves from the elements and manage our environment (in effect, we build houses using nature’s materials in order to separate and protect ourselves from nature). Through appropriating fossil fuels we have produced vehicles that transport us from one environment to another in a short amount of time. Through appropriating water and naturally-occuring flora, we have seized control of the amount of food that we produce, and also the kinds of food that we produce. Through appropriating and controlling animals, we have produced transport, food, money and entertainment. These are just a few examples of how our lives as human beings are defined/created by our appropriation of nature.
Many people, including Marx, consider the way we interact with nature to be an unchangeable fact. For these people, controlling and manipulating nature is the very basis of being human—otherwise we would be vulnerable like wild animals. What separates us from the animals is the fact that we have the capacity to control nature; whereas animals are controlled by nature.
This is the reason why many environmentalists focus upon making the way we live more sustainable—rather than changing the way we live. Our reluctance to give up or criticise our way of life can be tied to a reluctance to be vulnerable or connected, once again, to the environment. For example, we focus upon improving the efficiency of our cars, rather than making it unnecessary to use cars. We focus upon recycling packaging, rather than making packaging unnecessary. We focus upon lessening the impact of farming cattle, rather than eating kangaroo. We focus upon building more sustainable family-houses and office-buildings, rather than creating more modest and communal living arrangements. In effect, we focus upon improving our environmentally-detrimental practices; rather than questioning and changing those practices. Why do we insist on doing this? Because the prospect of being reliant upon nature’s cycles—that is, no longer having complete control over what we eat, when we eat it, what we do, where we go, and how fast we get there—is not compatible with western capitalist lifestyle. Being connected and vulnerable to nature would completely revolutionize human consciousness and being.
What most people don’t realise (or are too scared to confront) is that environmental change will not be the result of scientific advancements in efficiency. What is really required, first and foremost, is a philosophical revolution. Environmental change is not a call for human beings to ‘greenify’ their mastery over nature; it is a call for them to relinquish their mastery and reconnect, physically and emotionally, with their environment. Instead of denying our place in nature, instead of using nature to separate ourselves from nature, we must be with nature, we must benefit with her rather than benefitting from her. Instead of improving the ways in which we appropriate nature, we must give up the very concept of appropriation.
And if human beings are defined by their appropriation of nature, then perhaps we will have to stop being human beings.