What does it mean to be human? This is a question that has baffled mankind over the centuries. From our laws to philosophies, it is a question embedded in the root of our relationship with the world. As astrophysicists have expanded what we know of the universe, many also turn to our little earth asking: can nature tell us what it means to be human?
As industrialism transformed nature, an idea of progress dominated Western thinking. A division between Nature and Culture separated mankind from its counterpart. Modern research describes this phenomenon as the Anthropocene. For geologists and scientists, the Anthropocene marked a period in earth's history where human activity had become the dominant influence on the planet's climate and ecosystem.
For the social sciences, the Anthropocene told a story of capitalistic development where humans were no longer part of nature, but masters of it. Today many recognise the need to address this unsettling trend. In economics, many corporations started to re-evaluate how we make use of natural capital. Blackrock, an investor in almost every major company, began 2022 by addressing how future investment decisions would focus on the sustainability of their clients. Others even criticised this significant turn as not being enough to address the seriousness of the problems we face. A conglomerate of NGO campaigners called Blackrock’s big problem openly pointed out how many Blackrock companies continue to invest in oil and gas. Both forms of assets are reportedly fuelling climate change.
Suffice to say, it is becoming morally and legally difficult to support anthropogenic projects that harm our planet. In the UK and among other countries joining in recent environmental conferences, such as the COP26, many have already set goals for zero-carbon emissions. Natural capital, the assets we gain from nature, are being reconfigured to ensure future generations have access to the same natural amenities that we have today. From forests to water, sustainable technologies are being employed to conserve nature.
But where exactly does this leave us as humans?
If we are no longer masters of our domain, isn't it time to address the divide between humans and nature? In fact, much work has already begun on this topic. But what I bring to you today is just a humble segment of my own research on human-nature relationships. The purpose of my research reflects on what a nature-centered future might look like for us as humans.
I went into the field in 2020 just as the worst of the pandemic was starting. I decided to focus on plants as human research was difficult for obvious reasons. I worked as a horticulturist at a small farm hoping to find some insight into human and plant relationships. As a gardener tending fields of crops, I got an up-close view of the way our food is grown, cared for, and sold. I wondered like humans if plants and nature had their own futures. And what it meant for humans to become entangled with these futures.
Unlike animals, our ethical considerations for plants are usually found in their role throughout the greater ecosystem. If plants or crops die, then we have no sustenance. Yet, where we look into the eyes of a dog or cat, we cannot do so for plants. And perhaps this is where the moral dilemma lies. We see little of ourselves in plants, yet they constitute much of what we call nature as a whole. Without any features with which we can identify, nor senses we can share, there can be little insight into plant worlds and futures. The term 'vegetative' implies an absence of consciousness. This apparent lack of self-awareness or 'self' makes it hard to relate to the essence of a plant.
Moreover, it confounds any means of communication. Speaking, for instance, suggests a listener. But through a lack of a means, communication is the greatest barrier between human and plant relationships. But why does it matter whether we understand plants or not?
To understand this question, we have to think more broadly about what it means to humans. If we are to overcome the nature-culture divide, we need to understand our own position within nature. Not as superior beings, but as part of a wider ecosystem. To gain perspective on the effect of our presence and how we can become more in tune with the earth as a whole. Humans, then, are simply one species among many. It is an opportunity to readdress our priorities, not only for the well-being of the world but for ourselves too.
While communication in the human sense may be impossible at present. That does not mean “representing, and perhaps knowing, even thinking, are not exclusively human affairs” (excerpt from How Forests think). If we look closely at the idea of communication, we may find a way to bridge this divide. Language, in essence, is the exchange of signs. When I say the word 'red', it signifies to a reader the form of a colour. But in the same way, if I simply pointed to the rose and said red, an English speaker would still understand my meaning. In this sense, words are not the only signs that create meaning.
Animals react to forest fires because it has a meaning that signals danger. In the same way, various studies point to how plants can interpret and respond to signals in a similar way to humans. If we look at Tulving's work on plant memory systems, he demonstrated that plants possess a type of procedural memory. Procedural memory is the ability to recall how to do things based on a given stimulus. This, geneticist Fatima Cvrčková argues, is an indicator of consciousness. Even at a low level, plants show an awareness of their external environment. If so and plants react to the world, by definition they must be agents within it. Agents, in sociological terms, are any individuals who have the power to affect the world and use resources to fulfill their own potential.
Working with plants all day, I would sometimes have a moment, when I felt certain the plants were alive. Of course, they were always alive. But not alive as in static, not alive as in surviving and perpetuating- but dominating. On windy days, in particular, there was something animated and bewitching about their sound and movement. I felt their presence. Not any single plant, rather it was as if nature itself would stare back sometimes.
(Excerpt from fieldwork notes).
If we recognise the conscious agency of plants, we then must consider how nature has the ability to change our future, just as much as we affect theirs. Becoming So, what do we become like humans in a future-oriented toward nature? As discussed, both national and international governments and businesses are moving to more sustainable approaches to nature management. And a nature-based economy has much to offer.
At the heart of such investments, natural capital is a crucial factor behind an environmentally sustainable economics. Within natural capital, assets such as trees, rivers and plants must be preserved in the same quantities as we find them. It is designed to give future generations the same freedom of action and potential that we have today. While this offers enticing benefits, it also begs the question of the future for whom? By extending human agency into the future, we must give nature the same capacity. Cutting down on fossil fuels, our carbon footprints, and limiting production to the capacity of the earth, are all routes which not only affect us but nature at large.
As we become more sensitive to nature's limits, we change the fundamental values that have driven human development for centuries. Primarily, that we are not the only agents of change. Becoming is a popular term in anthropology to describe how worlds, plants, and humans, collide to create new futures. Working with plants directly, these futures seemed apparent in the way human lives unintentionally coordinate around plants. From growing to production and consumption, perhaps the point of a natural capital model is to recognise how much we truly rely on nature. Where we see merely plants, there are entire worlds, futures, and freedoms at stake.
In truth, maybe humans never had any power over plants, to begin with. Yes, we cut and maimed entire forests, but in the end, we have continued to be regulated and even constrained by nature. The microbiological facilities of our very body and our ability to survive on this planet have been a process of becoming between humans and nature.
As we have attempted to organise the natural world to facilitate our own desire, it too has responded in kind - drought, decay, and sterility have been the answer to our short-sightedness.
So it is perhaps time to acknowledge our own limitations as a species and look for answers in the origins of our very being. From the food that clothes us to the wood that shelters us, what are we without nature?