June 13, 2024

The Value Of Nature – A Critical Account Of Anthropocentrism In Politics, Part 1 (Anne Fremaux)

The following is part one of a two-part article by Anne Fermaux.

If we want to be at home on this earth, even at the price of being at home in this century, we must try to take part in the interminable dialogue with its essence.

–Hannah Arendt, “Understanding and Politics”

Asking “what is the value of nature?” is in itself a problematic philosophical proposition insofar as it already supposes a break between the evaluator and the valued. Indeed, to ask “what is the value of…” always implies a reification or objectification. The formulation of the question implies a pre-conceived position: a separation between the object and subject of evaluation.

This is the dualistic conception we aim to question. The metaphysical and scientific conception of nature as an object, in contrast to human beings, who deserve higher consideration, can be viewed as the root of the current ecological crisis. The question “what is the value of nature” would probably not take place in so-called “primitive” or “pre-industrialized” civilizations. In these societies, personified nature is considered the source of life, the mother of all beings, or, in other words, the absolute goodness according to which any value can be granted.

Nature constitutes therefore the normative frame, the punctus Archimedis (the external objective view) that frames any evaluation. Being the absolute benchmark (metaphysical absolute), nature cannot be evaluated.

This is the way that Spinoza, in his opposition to Cartesian’s dualistic ontology, defines nature: Deus sive Nature (God or nature). Spinoza offers a monist (or pantheist) view that is sometimes associated with deep ecology: both indeed support the idea that humans are part of nature. In that sense, as Wissenburg says, “nature is the interconnected system of all that exists and for its existence depends on everything else – in the vicinity of the planet. The difference from Spinoza is the restriction to the earth, which simply meant to focus attention on ecology rather than on metaphysics” (6).

In Beyond Nature and Culture, anthropologist Philippe Descola shows the extent to which the division between nature and culture that characterizes modernity does not universally govern all cultures. On the contrary, our modern dualistic conception appears as a singularity in humanity’s history. It can be attributed, after the progressive desacralisation and “disenchantment” of nature entailed by judaeo-christian religion that elevated nature as closer to God and therefore superior to the rest of “God’s creation” and after the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries that led to the Enlightenment, to the division that occurred in the 19th century in the West between sciences of nature and sciences of culture, between naturalists and humanists in opposition to primitive cultures that do not separate humans and non-humans. Therefore, the question can only be posed in the frame of post-Enlightenment Western civilization. As participants in this society, we must note, as a first challenge, that we cannot untangle ourselves from this conception, though we may criticize it.

Ecocentrism versus Antropocentrism

The term “value” means the worth of something. It defines what guides our behaviour, what good should be defended or followed. The ancient Greek term for “value,” Axios, means “worthy,” from which comes the word “Axiology,” the Theory of Value or philosophical study of goodness. There are two kinds of values: intrinsic and extrinsic. The extrinsic (or instrumental) value is the value that something has as a means for something else; it is always conditional and derivative. For instance, ecosystems and species should be preserved because of their worth for humans:  their economic, recreational, spiritual, medicinal or aesthetic interest.

But do ecosystems and species have a non-instrumental (intrinsic) value? Can they be ends in themselves, independent of their utility for humans? This is a view defended by Rolston (1986), Callicott (1989), and also by the United Nations (1992) and the Earth Charter (1992).

Only intrinsic values are traditionally considered as belonging to the field of ethics. Traditionally, ethics deals with the ends that should govern human conduct towards other humans, although there has also been the inclusion of ethical treatment of the non-human world. For example, if an animal or part of nature is someone’s “property” this leads to certain types of ethically appropriate treatment. To behave in a “moral” way means that the goal of the action is not outcome but duty itself: “I must because I must” (as Kant’s categorical versus hypothetical imperative). For those who believe that politics is not bound to ethics, extrinsic value is the only value relevant to this field, a pragmatic assertion that will be challenged.

Intrinsic value is the value that a thing has “in itself,” “for its own sake,” independently of any utility for humankind (or nonhumanity). The intrinsic goodness is the goodness that does not derive itself from something else (sometimes called “non-derivative value”). The paradigm for this intrinsic value is given in Kant’s deontological, or duty-based ethics, which evaluate morality according to the nature of actions and the will of agents rather than goals achieved. We find therefore a very good model of intrinsic value in Kant’s categorical imperative (namely the “formula of humanity”):  “So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” (429, emphasis added).

This moral principle emphasises the intrinsic value of human life:  humans must be considered as ends in themselves and not only as means in the name of their rationality and therefore of their moral status (as “persons”) insofar as rationality is for Kant the seat of morality. It also illustrates the anthropocentric ethics on which our societies are based, and according to which only that which is useful for humans’ ends can be defended–for instance, if animals should not be treated badly, it is not for their own sake, but for the consequences on humans’ morality and the pedagogic value of treating animals with care.

The ethics of nature adds a new dimension to traditional ethics as it questions the values or ends which should govern human behaviour towards nature, i.e., how we can determine legitimate “use” from “abuse” of the nonhuman world. In a determined attempt to refute anthropocentric environmental ethics, some philosophers defend the fact that values exist in nature apart from and independent of humanity’s attitudes or judgments (“objective intrinsic value”). It means that values are not created by humans but discovered by them. I will defend an ecocentric outlook that does not exclude some natural beings from its consideration on the account of some questionable features (language, reason, and so on) but considers nature as a whole as being entitled to moral consideration and therefore to rights (non-anthropocentric theories).

Nature versus “Nature” (Reality vs Concept)

The concept of nature is very complex and comprises numerous definitions. It has varied throughout history, according to epistemological, moral, political and philosophical positions, and attempts to define what is human in opposition to what is not (nature). As Raymond Williams says, “the idea of nature contains, though often unnoticed, an extraordinary amount of human history” (67).

The goal of this paper is not to examine all these meanings but to find one that is relevant to the practical issue of nature conservation in which we are interested. To do so, we need, first, to challenge the radical constructivist conception according to which nature simply does not exist as an objective reality, as a reality in-itself, but only for us, as a social construction. Soper describes this position as being the “‘nature-sceptical’ impulse of the constructivist critique” (312).

Indeed, as Escobar puts it, “at the end of the 20th century, the question of nature remains unsolved in any modern or epistemological order […] The fact is that we (who and why?) seem compelled to raise the question of nature in a new way” (1). In this way, we live in a “crisis of nature” not only from the biological and ecosystemic point of view but also from the conceptual one.

The meaning of nature is “plastic,” malleable and has shifted throughout history according to political, historical, scientific/knowledge/epistemological and ideological factors. Used as a normative concept, the word “nature” has indeed often been mediated by anthropological or social claims. As Williams says, “the idea of nature is the idea of man […] the idea of man in society, indeed, the idea of kinds of societies,” (71) and thus highly culturally informed.

In Hobbes’ or Rousseau’s antithetical anthropologies, the concept of nature is used in opposite ways to show either the necessity of society and politics to overcome the shortcomings of nature (Hobbes), whether the corruption of the social life and the loss that occurred upon leaving the positive “natural” state (Rousseau).

The concept of nature has also been used in a normative way to define some universal and therefore “essential” qualities of categories of people (women or “races” or heterosexuality as the “norm” and therefore any deviation from it as “unnatural”) providing a foundation for reactionary conservative claims that can be criticised from many sides. To that extent, the concept of nature can be considered as a discursive reality where everyone finds what s/he wants.

Constructivist theories correctly show the constructedness of nature when criticising the ideological assumptions hidden in this concept. As Biro says, “radical social theory was working to unmask the ways in which nature, in all its guises and all its forms, was an ideological construct” (6).

However, the term becomes more complex when coming to environmental issues and to the problem of nature “conceived as a domain of independent reality and intrinsic value” (31). We are talking, here, about nature as a biophysical pre-discursive and pre-social reality.

To fight for the defence of nature requires, indeed, the acceptance of a minimal naturalism (understood as the theory that posits a reality outside humans), the acceptance of an ontology according to which things (also) exist outside of us. The fact that knowledge about nature is used in normative debates to claim undue authority does not mean that the idea of nature as an objective reality should be rejected (29). As Escobar puts it:

It is necessary to strive for a more balanced position that acknowledges both the constructedness of nature in human contexts […] and nature in realist sense, that is, the existence of independent order of nature, including a biological body […] It is thus that we can navigate between ‘nature-endorsing’ and ‘nature-sceptical’ perspectives.’ (2)

Capitalism and the Virtualization of the World

Critiquing the reign of commodity brought by capitalism and techno-sciences that is driving current ecological crisis requires arguing against the “virtualisation processes” implied by these practices. As I have mentioned previously (27-42), the idealists are not necessarily the ones we imagine: the ideology of growth, defended by production-driven systems (capitalism as much as communism) is widely considered as the realist and pragmatic ideology (Real-Politik) par excellence although it is based on an unrealistic conception of nature as an unlimited resource and a science fiction view of naive technological optimism and utopianism.

Real realism takes into account the material realities and the laws of entropy, whereby the transformation of natural resources into goods produces by-products such as carbon dioxide and therefore global warming. As Dobson says, “no amount of social constructionism can alter the Second Law of Thermodynamics.” In this way, the ecological crisis can be renamed “the crisis of objectivity” (22).

This is why post-growth (or de-growth) economics that takes into account earth’s limitations is more realistic than any economic expansionist claim. As Kenneth Boulding, author of The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth puts famously:  “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

Indeed, we have already entered the era of physical limits of the planet, but the capitalist economy, obsessed with the maximisation of profits and capital, cannot conceive of anything else than the search for growth and the exploitation of physical resources. Using Georgescu-Roegen’s image, we can say that humanity is gambling in a “casino” economy and squandering the biological and material heritage of future generations. As Biro argues:

Things [critiques of the concept of nature] look rather different when we are confronted with, for example, business lobby groups’ claims that economic growth should not be curtailed to protect the natural environment – that in other words, there are no natural limits [emphasis added] that might act as a brake on economic expansion. In other words, when we leave the terrain of, say, gender or ‘race’ for that of environmental issues, progressive politics seems to demand that we take precisely the opposite track […] Contemporary progressive politics thus seems to demand both a defence of nature and a thorough-going critique of nature. (3)

Indeed, capitalism allied with techno-sciences constitutes the “constructivist deconstructionism” par excellence (10), that is, a process that deconstructs the idea of nature and constructs an artificial, even virtual, order of things completely cut from natural operations (ibid.: 6). This dissociation and distantiation from nature in our consumer societies is shown well, for example, in the futuristic dystopia depicted in The Hunger Games, where the residents of the Capitol (an exacerbation of the ‘society of spectacle’ described by Guy Debord) need to attend “Hunger Games” to feel, through a proxy, the struggle with nature that has disappeared from their world.

Indeed, capitalism allows nature to exist only through cyphers and proxies – or as Heidegger puts it in his essay “The Question Concerning Technology” – technology under capitalism reduces nature to a “standing reserve”. The over-mediatised consumer society of The Hunger Games is cynical and lacks moral judgement, as the residents take pleasure in observing children and teenagers in the artificially-created “natural” environment murder each other. This fictional situation brings to mind Günther Anders’ analysis of the society of images, which he describes as a source of delusions and illusions that creates not only a loss of reality but also a loss of judgement. Images become a surrogate for truth and genuine critical judgements.

Through television and social media, people have the illusion to participate in all the events of the world, but are actually reduced to passive spectators unable to ask questions, to take position or to reply. But, more than that, the constant distraction of our mind through images saturates the imagination and entails its destruction, which is the first step in the destruction of judgement. Therefore, the ecological crisis can be seen also as a crisis of judgement, that is, a tragic symptom of the impossibility for man to imagine and assess the scope of his action due to his remoteness from natural reality and the concrete consequences of his actions. This remoteness is organised by an economic system that favours the production of virtual realities over reality itself in order to replace the ‘flesh of the world’ (Merleau-Ponty) by an aseptic and constructed image of itself.

On the other hand, in the totalitarian nation of Panem (the imaginary empire of The Hunger Games), the people living in the subordinated districts exist in a kind of pre-civilized society where, because their products are exported to support the Capitol, the main concern is the fight for subsistence in nature. This simplistic description of the future illustrates the dilemma in which postmodernity (wrongly) thinks it is caught: the choice between either a return to a pre-modern type of civilisation where nature is an ambiguous component (negative but also carrier, in the story, of positive values such as authenticity, morality and simplicity), or the move towards a completely artificialised society, where relations are mediated through screens and where selfishness and indifference to injustice and morality reign.

It is worth noticing that within the deconstructivist process of capitalism itself, an ideological concept of nature is abundant. In the virtual world of consumer societies, objective nature is destroyed in order to leave room for a purely normative and commercial concept of nature – for example, in how plastic bottles of water are sold with images of green mountain springs.

The Meanings of Constructivism

[The] essentialist conception of nature has frequently come under attack, the last wave emerging out of intellectual movements such as postmodernism, social constructionism, and postconstructionism (Harraway, 1991; Cronon, 1995; Macnaghten and Urry, 1998; Braun and Castree, 1998; Castree and Braun, 2001; Latour, 1987, 1993, 1999). As a result, nonsocial nature is increasingly absent from the scope of inquiry of the social sciences. It is replaced by new concepts such as social nature, second nature, produced nature or hybrid nature. (Pollini, 2013: 26)

According to their degree of radicalism, constructivists proclaim with more or less strength that there is, for us at least, no nature or external reality, but only a socially/culturally constructed “nature.” By doing so, they contradict essentialist and realistic ecological (pre-discursive) conceptions of nature held by political ecology.

As Biro notices, the emergence of modern environmentalism, with Carlson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and the first “Earth day” held on 22 April 1970, coincided with the emergence of French postmodern theory (Foucault, Barthes, Derrida, Baudrillard). As a consequence, two contradictory conceptions of nature, one appealing to the defence of nature conceived as an objective entity and one denunciating nature as being a cultural, ideological and therefore relativist concept, uneasily coexist. This is what Biro calls “the original dilemma”: “Can we claim that appeals to nature are always in fact appeals to culturally-specific ideas of nature, and yet still maintain an ecologically grounded defence of nature?” (6).

Let us first try to examine what constructivism can mean from a philosophical point of view. A strict (constitutive or objectivist) constructivist view concerning nature appears difficult to maintain as lands, mountains and rivers cannot be viewed as “pure discursive entities” if what is suggested here is that lands, mountains and rivers are created by discourses (which sounds absurd). Even constructivists might accept that things are not created, whatever Genesis contends, through performative speeches.

Radical constructivism could also be interpreted as a radical subjectivism, whose consequences are close to the process of “derealisation” (loss of material reality) encountered in Berkeley’s immaterialism: reality exists only in our mind (and in God’s). To bring nuance to such extreme positions (constitutive or subjectivist), some constructivists may say that they do not deny that the world exists previously and externally to humans, but that this world has no meaning outside of us. However, that things do not exist for humans external to senses has been postulated since Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781 and 1787) fairly relativized the extent of human knowledge by distinguishing the thing-in-itself (das Ding an sich) and the phenomenon, its appearance, (Erscheinung), the latter being the only accessible “reality” for humans.

Adding a sociological perspective to this transcendental idealism leads to the idea that the way people experience nature as well as the way they consider environmental manufactured risks (formally considered as natural hazards, that is, risks associated with nature) is culturally and socially informed. As Barbara Bender notes, the experience people have of nature “is based in large measure on the particularity of the social, political and economic relations within which they live out their lives” (quoted in Escobar, 1999: I). We may take a step further and claim that nature, including its risks, are “manufactured” or, in other words, are the, both in their existence and meaning, constructs of culture.

Part two of this three-part article and be found by clicking here.


Dr. Anne Fremaux received her PhD ‘Towards a Critical Theory of the Anthropocene and a Life-affirming Politics’ from the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen’s University in Belfast to which she is still associated as a visiting research fellow. Her doctoral thesis has been published under the title: After the Anthropocene: Green Republicanism in a Post-Capitalist World (Palgrave, 2019). She has also published a science-fiction novel on transhumanism, posthumanism and ecological crisis entitled L’ère du Levant and a philosophical essay about ecology and politics, “La nécessité d’une écologie radicale.” She is currently looking for a postdoc or assistant position in the fields of political ecology, environmental philosophy, critical ecology, environmental studies and in general continental and Western philosophy.

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