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Humans Defeat Nature—As Prescribed. Now What?

What to do personally to support ecosystems and species

Along with other Western scholars, Sigmund Freud encouraged aggression against Nature. We’ve now attained “biological annihilation” of species all over the earth. The comprehensive report notes: "In the last few decades, habitat loss, overexploitation, invasive organisms, pollution, toxification, and more recently climate disruption, as well as the interactions among these factors, have led to the catastrophic declines in both the numbers and sizes of populations of both common and rare vertebrate species."

Two reactions are common:

So what? The planet is a set of resources for human beings.

OR Great! More room for us humans!

These reactions contrast with the worldview in earth-centric societies, representative of 99% of human history. There, humans are cooperative partners with the rest of the biocommunity. They are grieving.

How did we get to a belief that human purpose is to control and destroy other-than-humans and natural ecological systems?

We are caught in a worldview that separates humans from the natural context. Dominant Western culture and scholarship have long argued for an attack on and conquest of Nature (Turner, 1994).

Sigmund Freud argued that the progress of civilization required “taking up the attack on nature, thus forcing it to obey human will, under the guidance of science” (1949, p. 13). “Nature” here meant both ‘human nature’ –-the wild impulses he assumed were innate in the id*-- and the natural world. Nature was to be controlled and even conquered. Others have noted the Western obsession with conquest and control (e.g., Merchant, 2003; Turner, 1994).

It is easy to believe that the violence occurring in the natural world is “out there” and that we civilized humans are safe nevertheless. But, as David W. Kidner points out:

“The violence that industrialism does to nature, in other words, is not just a matter of the violence that separately inflicts on nature “out there” or to nature “within” it is primarily the violence that separates these two natures in the first place, destroying that resonance between the psychic and material worlds that constitutes the cultural realm. (p. 16)

Ah, but you say, the West has conquered the world and well it should have (your intellect speaks). How did you come to understand this? Industrialized culture emphasizes intellect over every other kind of knowing. As David W. Kidner notes:

“The disembodied intellect is inadequate as a starting point for environmental theory: however clever our theories, they exist within a space that is already separate from the natural order, and the “nature” they refer to is, all too often, the cultural artifact they theorize about rather than the natural order whose existence they are oblivious to.” (Kidner, 2001, p. 9)

“The danger here is that “understanding” becomes a rationalization of current practices, and a substitute for and an alternative to change, since this understanding presumes the split between self and world. It conceals rather than illuminates the way environmental problems are mute expressions of an incompatibility between the social phantasy systems that we inhabit and those characteristics of the natural world that we are not only unaware of, but are unaware that we are unaware of…Forms taken by our own pondering are themselves partly determined by centuries of co-evolution with industrialist and pre-industrialist structures.” (Kidner, 2001, p. 13)

Industrialized culture has reconfigured your mind away from your species-typical human nature. Western education and scholarship are swimming in that soup.

“Wholeness and integration are not just qualities that we ascribe to nonhuman nature: they are also qualities that prescribe our place within the natural order, implying a reconfiguration of self hood. (Kidner, 2001, p. 9)

Individualism, shaped in early life by child undercare, haunts the life of the industrialized individual. A sense of disconnection and soloism pervades our everyday experience. And we think individualism pervades the natural world too.

“What is being lost is not merely these quantifiable and often reified aspects of the natural world, but more basically, the system of relations of which they are a part. [ecosystems derive from the interrelatedness of components with each other] Our attempts to quantify environmental destruction in such terms is therefore itself symptomatic of our colonization by industrialism. The natural order cannot be protected simply by preserving its component parts, as if in an ecological museum. …Rather, our starting point must be a tenaciously defended relation to the natural order itself, experienced not as a “nature” external to ourselves, which we conceptually or geographically visit from time to time, but as a felt resonance that is basic to our identities as human animals.” (Kidner, p. 15)

Modern life emphasizes separation of self from others and those others are felt as objects with which we optionally relate. Lacking is the sense of sentience in all, that every action has an influence on the whole, much like walking around on a trampoline or spider’s web. The whole thing vibrates. Without the development of one’s right hemispheric sensibilities of connection (in early life with the evolved nest; in later life with meditation practices), the sense of connection is rare or missing. When we break the continuum of development between child and nature, we undermine capacities for resonance with others and with Nature.

If we understand that the natural world is a system of relationships through and through, then each time some part is damaged we understand that a whole set of relationships are also damaged. Just like when a thread is pulled from a cloth, the whole cloth is damaged, so too when a species goes extinct, even within a particular local landscape, the whole is weakened, altered, damaged. Focusing on humanity’s place in the whole, when a part of the ecosystem is harmed, humanity’s resonance with that part is damaged—human fittedness in nature is altered, threads cut. Lots of people deride dualism, yet act according to it, likely in part due to the alteration of their own missing experience in the natural world. They have little sense of wholeness and so still behave as if the human world was separate, as if being concerned about the distant rainforests is enough, as if their actions have no real bearing on the local biocommunity.

Unfortunately, children's natural affinity for animals and the natural world can be overcome with systematic authoritarianism with the opposite message. This is occurring in New Zealand as children are being encouraged to kill predators (which will put ecosystems out of balance). Marc Bekoff has written a PT blog post about this diabolical use of psychology in "Imprinting Kids with Violence Towards Animals."

What is the alternative worldview? What worldview represents 99% of human genus history?

If we understand that nature predates human beings, then we won’t be so hubristic to think that humans impose order on nature. There is an order billions of years in the making.

“Nature is prior to human existence or activity—historically, ontologically, and materially---and a condition of social life rather than a consequence of it….Nature predates and ground us” (Kidner, pp. 20-21)

The indigenous worldview holds the earth to be sacred and sentience to be distributed among all natural entities. This view is normal among children but is crushed by industrialized culture.


Now that the sixth extinction is underway, what can we do? We need to change our perceptions which will change behavior.

First step: Get connected to place.

We may be individually powerless over disappearing whales and decimation of bonobo habitat. But we can get involved in our ow communities and get actively involved in groups that focus on a particular local cause, like restoring a creek or a river’s health, creating city parks with native species, keeping a local forest intact, or even planting gardens on empty suburban lots.

Second step: Support the natives.

We can support biodiversity where we live. I’ll tell you what we are doing.

We are making the land we oversee (“our yard”) one that is supportive of native fauna by plantings of native flora and removal of invasive species (which crowd out native plants and do not properly feed native species). Purchasing native plants from native nurseries may be important since they are not treated with insecticides as seeds or young plants. More on invasives here.

Third step: Expand connection with Nature.

Each landscape has its own language or song. Can we perceive it? Traditional sustainable societies were in tune and perceptive to the natural environs. They knew they were grounded there. There was no sense of separation.

We are developing sensibilities to the needs of our local landscape, getting to know this ecosystem. We are attending to the needs of the individuals while trying to encourage the balance of the whole. We maintain relationship (Kimmerer, 2013). I listen to and take up the sounds of the place. The songs that the place brings forth in me I sing back.

Eve Saulitis, writer and marine biologist who spent decades at Prince William Sound, noted that the language of the native people there, the Eyak, is now extinct. But the Eyak were confident that the language would return—because it was embedded in the place. As long as the place remained, the language, in some form, could be recreated by people who come to know the place in the future. The earth is the center of knowing.

Fourth step: If you have children or students, help them build affection for the land.

Industrialized people are suffering from ‘nature deficit disorder’ (Louv, 2005). Wendell Berry, poet and activist, contends that intellectual awareness is not enough for changed behavior--we must feel affection for the land.

We have forgotten how to connect with all our relations in the natural world. So we need to practice reconnecting.

Parents can let their children freely play in natural, biodiverse settings, which will help them develop intuitions and skills for interacting with the plants, animals, and creeks. Richard Louv’s book, Vitamin N, is a great resource for outdoor activities.

With my undergraduate students, I try to help them feel comfortable in the natural world, and develop affection for it. We sit outside, visualize connection, remember childhood connections. We visit a nature preserve and this coming year will plant native plants on our campus.

Finally, if you are a psychologist of any stripe:

I would urge you to read David W. Kidner’s book, Nature and Psyche. In it he reviews how the field of psychology has succumbed to and supports industrialization of the earth, which has led to the environmental crises we are in today. He also helps the reader step outside the box into which Western education has placed him. It’s a first move to escape that box.

*a mistaken attribution as he studied individuals raised outside the evolved nest; see here.

Conference and links to videos: Sustainable Wisdom: Integrating Indigenous Knowhow for Global Flourishing


Changing the human psyche

Earth Home Economics

Good Life: Embodied, Earth-Centric versus Controlled-Detached

Living Virtuously with the Land

Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Babies

Five Things NOT to Do to Babies

How Modern Societies Violate Human Development


Four Arrows, & Narvaez, D. (2016). Reclaiming our indigenous worldview: A more authentic baseline for social/ecological justice work in education. In N. McCrary & W. Ross (Eds.), Working for social justice inside and outside the classroom: A community of teachers, researchers, and activists (pp. 93-112). In series, Social justice across contexts in education (S.J. Miller & L.D. Burns, Eds.). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Freud, S. (1949). Civilization and its discontents. London: Hogarth

Kidner, D.W. (2001). Nature and psyche: Radical environmentalism and the politics of subjectivity. Albany: State University of New York.

Kimmerer, R.W. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, MN.

Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from Nature Deficit Disorder. New York: Workman.

Louv, R. (2016). Vitamin N: The essential guide to a nature-rich life. Algonquin Books,, Chapel Hill, NC.

Merchant, C. (2003). Reinventing Eden: The fate of nature in Western culture. New York, NY: Routledge.

Narvaez, D. (2013). Our 99%--Development and socialization within an evolutionary context: Growing up to become “A good and useful human being.” In D. Fry (Ed.), War, Peace and Human Nature: The convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (pp. 643-672). New York: Oxford University Press.

Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Narvaez, D. (2016). Kohlberg Memorial Lecture 2015: Revitalizing human virtue by restoring organic morality. Journal of Moral Education, 45(3), 223-238.

Narvaez, D. (2016). Reply: Returning to humanity’s moral heritages. Journal of Moral Education, 45(3), 256-260.

Turner, F. (1994). Beyond geography: The Western spirit against the wilderness. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

More from Darcia F. Narvaez Ph.D.
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