- The Self as Inseparable SeparationDeepening the Starting Position for Our Relation with the Environment
Introduction and Perspective
Within environmental ethics, the dualist and anthropocentric vision of the self as detached from the world has been depreciated for causing unwelcome outlooks and, at points, catastrophic conduct toward the environment.1 There have been bold attempts by deep ecologists to alter this detached mindset, describing personhood as profoundly linked to the environment. Some have tried to ground humans’ inherent interconnectedness with the earth2 by showing that humankind is not very different in kind from all other animals, while others have intended to secure wild nature’s ontological independence. As Elizabeth Skakoon nicely points out, to deep ecologists “nature’s value depends on nature’s ontological independence,” and it is from the latter that a primary human identity is deduced that is biological and thus natural.3 After this, cultural constructs such as language, art, and rituals are then established. According to these ecologists, the focus should be on [End Page 203] the biological self, for the biological needs will indicate the cultural traits that are necessary for the human to subsist.
In order to question this image of personhood, Skakoon criticizes this statement on similar biological grounds. She believes the relation with artefacts to be wrongly understood. Humans are indeed determined by genes, but brains are like plastic; in order to organize, the synaptic connections have to be in contact with the local, external environment. Hence, in our brains culture is inscribed, not wild nature. Our cultural nature, as interaction, is such that we want to construct, to perform, and to act.4
Skakoon then adds that even if it is our cultural nature to interact and perform, we do not have full control of what we make. History is one long narrative of performances yielding to undesirable outcomes that were not predicted. Yet, unlike many of those who want to eliminate uncertainty — including deep ecologists — Skakoon considers these unintended consequences to be an “evolving environment”5 with environmental problems being an elementary part of the reality people inhabit. To say so, however, is not to accept them. It is our nature to be in this ongoing struggle, and we cannot escape this position. Our responsibility encompasses both what we make and its consequences, including those we do not intend to bring about.
Skakoon’s entangled vision on the self and the world that nevertheless escapes us is supported by another study on an entirely different subject. Martin Drenthen, taking as a case study the Dutch dike policy and river management, analyzes the discourses and implied views of personhood held by the relevant stakeholders that go with them.6 In Europe, with the wilderness having ceased to exist, discourses and conceptions of personhood in relation to the natural environment are related to place and place attachment. Drenthen discerns four types of viewpoints. The dominant management view holds that the meaning of place is a subjective extra; hence the corresponding view on the self is that of a detached person, free to choose the kind of relation with place that is the most adequate at [End Page 204] any particular time. Against this view, he suggests three alternatives, which seek to establish a more intrinsic relation between person-hood and place. The first is the traditionalist perspective, in which a person is seen as a dweller on the land, rooted in place through collective and individual narratives. In this account, identity of the self is derived from a sense of belonging to a certain place. Such narratives should, however, not be seen as impeding a person from moving on to make his or her own mark on history, but rather as offering guidance in finding the self ’s appropriate ways of being.
A second alternative draws on the same vision of personhood and aims to deepen our sense of place by gathering scientific information on life as it was before human habitation. The goal is for people to understand what nature looked like prior to the advent of the human. This can serve as a baseline to place our history into a broader framework. Drenthen’s...