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Different cultures, different natures

Chris Baraniuk
Chris Baraniuk
7 min read
Different cultures, different natures
A 45,000 year-old painting of a pig (colour adjusted). Credit: AA Oktaviana.

The oldest representational artwork that we know about is a painting of a pig. Daubed in shades of red on the walls of an Indonesian cave nearly 45,000 years ago by a person or persons whose lives we can barely imagine, it’s difficult to know how to interpret this ancient masterpiece.

It was described in detail in a journal paper published earlier this year but no-one can say for sure what it is. A record of a particularly hefty hog apprehended by prehistoric hunters? An instruction explaining what sort of pig – in this case, a warty pig – to hunt? Or art for art’s sake, tens of thousands of years ago?

Whatever its meaning or purpose to those who created it, there’s something magical about that painting. It shows that people have attempted to know and make something of nature for a very long time indeed. And all through human history, that knowing and representation has changed as our relationship with nature itself has evolved.

Pigs, for instance, once only existed as wild, enigmatic creatures. Eventually, they became livestock. We painted those ones, too.

Two pigs in a barn or sty painted in shades of yellow, brown and white by a 19th Century artist.
Study of Pigs by Alexandre Gabriel Decamps, 1850s. Credit: The Art Institute Chicago.

Where would our culture be without nature? It's impossible for us to fathom. And yet, nature feels very distant to many people these days.

Outside, out there

It's common to talk about taking a trip “to” nature. Of making concerted efforts to spend time “in” nature – which, apparently, is a thing over the horizon somewhere. It's true that, in many ways, we have located ourselves somewhere else. In 2015, the International Organization for Migration estimated that 3 million people move to cities every week.

There’s no doubt that city life removes us from much of the natural world – though not entirely, as I hope to explore in the coming months. Plus, in many places, urban planners are increasingly thinking about how to inject wildlife back in to city spaces.

Contrast all this with the cultures around the world that have a very different sense of what nature is, and their proximity to it.

A group of about 20 people using a zebra crossing in a city.
More humans, and a greater proportion of humans, live in cities than ever before. Credit: Kaique Rocha from Pexels.

In his wonderful book Beyond Nature and Culture, the anthropologist Philippe Descola writes about the many indigenous peoples around the globe for whom wildlife is not Other or something foreign. Rather, for them, the animals of the forest have spirits just like humans do and they are all part of the same cosmology.

Yes, they look different – but the bird’s crest is simply its version of a crown, its beak is its spear. When an animal is hunted, a social transaction takes place, rather than the exploitation of a natural object.

Not all indigenous cultures share this idea. But those that do are widely scattered. Descola puts it like this:

From the luxuriant forests of Amazonia to the glacial spaces of the Canadian Arctic, certain peoples thus envisage their insertion into the environment in a manner altogether different from our own. They regard themselves, not as social collectives managing their relations with the ecosystem, but rather as simple components of a vaster whole within which no real discrimination is really established between humans and nonhumans.

This is eye-opening. But not, I would argue, as a suggestion for how we in westernised cultures “ought” to be. I think we are too wedded to our own preconceptions. Even if we could change our whole worldview, and begin thinking like a forest-dwelling indigenous person of the Amazon, nature might not benefit enough as a consequence.

I’m not convinced that that would equip all 7.7 billion of us with the things we need to properly protect nature and biodiversity in the 21stCentury. That challenge requires so much new thinking and intervention.

What Descola’s observations reveal, though, is just how much our ways of seeing and knowing nature are fundamentally shaped by the people we happen to be.

Nature worship

Now compare those indigenous cultures with the thinkers of the Enlightenment, for whom nature and humanity were starkly opposed. Think of all the poets who wrote about the purity of nature, the inspiration and stimulation it yields. If only we paid better attention to it! As Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote:

“Nature made me happy and good, and if I am otherwise, it is society's fault.”

There’s an excellent episode of the classic BBC documentary series Civilisation in which the presenter, art historian Kenneth Clark, frames this movement of the 18th Century as “nature worship” – a time when people started to think that nature was the site of moral purity, a thing better than them, from which we ought to take far more of our cues.

Fields and trees are bathed in rays of sunshine from above while the silhouette of a mountain is visible on the horizon.
A 19th Century view of the Catskill Mountains in New York State, 1870, by George Inness. Credit: The Art Institute of Chicago.

Clark, wry as ever, points out that the Marquis de Sade, a French nobleman, protested against this, exclaiming in a reply to Rousseau:

“Nature averse to crime? I tell you, nature lives and breathes by it! Hungers at all her pores for bloodshed, aches in all her nerves for the help of sin, yearns with all her heart for the furtherance of cruelty.”

You might be beginning to wonder, as these varying views about nature pile up, which one of them is right?

The truth is that they all have their wisdom as well as their limitations. In the future, though, perhaps our attitudes towards nature should be less about judging ourselves, or it, and more about our potential to do something in aid of it.

That’s not an entirely new idea, either. Far from it. Many different religious groups promote concepts of stewardship, and some believers insist that humans have a responsibility to defend the natural world, the world that they say God made.

I think there can be new versions of this, and ones that appeal to people quite broadly, regardless of religious inclinations.

I would go even further and say that a culture of nature appreciation is not just a nice-to-have, something that helps a few conservationists out. It might turn out to be a really important part of any future movement to push back the tide of climate change and divert us from our current course towards biodiversity collapse.

In short, we probably need to stop seeing ourselves as completely separate from nature. We are inarguably part of an ecological whole, however, there's no denying that our effects on that whole are gigantic. We have placed ourselves, to a degree, in opposition to the rest of it, to the things we now call "nature". But in an attempt to redress the balance, I believe our culture can help. It's not all bad.

After all, any measures we adopt to cherish and protect nature are surely going to have to be culturally sustainable. Things that people want to do or can get into the habit of doing. Things that bring people together. Things that become traditions to be passed down.

Before the deluge

There’s an awful lot you can – and must – do with laws, enforcement, and top-down action. But I think we miss a trick if we forget about culture and how drawing on that can galvanise the fight for nature.

Why not use every tool in the box? Art, music, history, folklore, philosophy – all of these things offer potential avenues towards better understanding of ecology and biodiversity.

For instance, in the song often called "Now Westlin' Winds", Robert Burns has made some field notes about bird life that he'd be happy to share with you, if you'll listen:

The partridge loves the fruitful fells,
The plover loves the mountains,
The woodcock haunts the lonely dells,
The soaring heron the fountains.

Just noticing this, and the millions of cultural artefacts like it, can open our eyes to how we are still, just about, intertwined with our ecological context.

There’s enough preaching to the converted, too. Think, rather, about the people poised to become nature lovers who just don’t know they love nature – yet. I’ve got a hunch they’re ready to hear some new, hopeful, stories about how their culture links them to their environment; and how it's important that they protect that environment, since doing so benefits their culture (as well as nature).

A field full of dandelions with a person, blurred, visible in the background.
Rejecting the idea that dandelions are 'weeds' but rather a great resource for pollinators could be a 21st Century kind of flower power. Credit: Photo by from Pexels.

Whatever we do next ought not to be an attempt to return to some fabled origin, a prior era when people injured nature far less. Undoubtedly that era existed – but going backwards is impossible. There’s even a sort of prophecy against it in the song "Before the Deluge" by Jackson Browne. Imagining the apocalypse, Browne opens:

Some of them were dreamers
And some of them were fools
Who were making plans and thinking of the future
With the energy of the innocent
They were gathering the tools
They would need to make their journey back to nature

There’s a lot going on in that song and I won’t try to unpack it all here but it’s safe to say that one of the big themes of Browne’s work is how the idealism of the 60s ended up dashed and diluted. In "Before the Deluge", he's really singing about human ignorance and futility, and the inevitability of collapse. Though pessimistic, I can hardly blame him.

Ultimately, I don’t know if we are too late to rescue biodiversity. Or whether idealism will scupper the well-intentioned yet again. But do I think that, if we still have a chance to save the natural world, we must make a pan-human effort. We are going to have to be able to identify the good and bad things in our cultures, so that we can differentiate between what helps nature and what stifles it.

And many of us are going to have to modify our cultures so that they place greater value on biodiversity. That is today's treasure – not gold, not oil, not even a prize pig.

In this newsletter, I’m hoping to find out more about how we can do all this and I plan to share it with you.

So let’s see, shall we? Let’s see to what extent, and with what means, we can keep gathering nature in.


Chris Baraniuk

I'm a freelance science journalist and nature-lover who wants to find new, hopeful ways to bring people and nature together.