restricted access The Problem of Finding a Positive Role for Humans in the Natural World
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Ethics & the Environment 7.1 (2002) 109-123

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The Problem of Finding a Positive Role for Humans in the Natural World

Ned Hettinger

As necessary as it obviously is, the effort of "wilderness preservation" has too often implied that it is enough to save a series of islands of pristine and uninhabited wilderness in an otherwise exploited, damaged, and polluted land. And, further, that the pristine wilderness is the only alternative to exploitation and abuse. So far, the moral landscape of the conservation movement has tended to be a landscape of extremes. . . . On the one hand we have the unspoiled wilderness, and on the other hand we have scenes of utter devastation—strip mines, clear-cuts, industrially polluted wastelands, and so on. We wish, say the conservationists, to have more of the one, and less of the other. To which, of course, one must say amen. But it must be a qualified amen, for the conservationist's program has been embarrassingly incomplete. Its picture of the world as either deserted landscape or desertified landscape has misrepresented both the world and humanity. If we are to have an accurate picture of the world, even in its present diseased condition, we must interpose between the unused landscape and the misused landscape a landscape that humans have used well.

Wendell Berry (1995, 64) [End Page 109]


If one wants to identify what has gone wrong with humans' relationship to the natural world, there is probably no better place to look than in Eric Katz's (1997) fine collection of essays, Nature as Subject: Human Obligation and Natural Community. 1 Many key insights for understanding our disastrous attitudes toward nature can be found in this compilation of twenty years of merciless criticism of anthropocentrism. Katz's articulation of the source of our moral obligations to nature is deeply on target: Nature is a subject owed moral concern fundamentally because of its independence from humanity and its autonomy from human domination and control.

What cannot be found in Nature as Subject is a vision of a positive role for humanity in the natural world. My worry is that Katz's views about the value of nature and our obligations to it leave no room for such an account. I fear that Katz's conceptualization of how humans have wronged nature may entail that all human activity toward nature wrongs nature. This would undermine the possibility of envisioning an environmentally just future in which humans live in the natural world in a morally appropriate way. This is a serious problem, because environmental philosophy needs an ethic for the use of nature, as well as for its nonuse. We need a vision of a constructive human relationship with nature, in addition to a characterization of our past failures of relationship. The question I pose is whether Katz's ideas allow for an account of how humans can be flourishing members who contribute to natural community.

This is a problem not just for Eric Katz, but for all of us who accept a broadly preservationist environmental philosophy. If one believes that natural value is fundamentally a function of nature's autonomy from humanity and that a major goal of environmentalism should be to preserve nature relatively uninfluenced by humans, one will have to work hard to explain what positive role humans might have in nature. The alternatives of either minimizing human influence on nature, or sacrificing natural value for human goods, fail to provide for such a positive role. Katz's conceptualization of these matters brings out this problem poignantly. After a brief characterization of the wealth of ideas in Nature as Subject, I will explore this difficulty in some detail. In explaining why this is a problem for Katz and in exploring ways he can avoid it, I hope to set a path that preservationist environmental philosophers can follow if they are to develop a positive vision of humans' place in nature. [End Page 110]

A Sketch of Katz's Position

Katz defends a nonanthropocentric, holist, and communal environmental philosophy that treats...