What I talk about when I talk about Nature

My title is spun off from a fascinating book, What I Talk about when I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami. He modelled his title on a collection of short stories, What We Talk about when We talk about Love by Raymond Carver.

Most of us can agree that ecopsychology is about the human-nature relationship. Using this phrase, we mostly know what humans are, but what is “nature”? And what do we mean when we talk about the separation from nature? Is nature something out there in a National Park? Something outside ourselves? Can we achieve some clarity about the concept of nature as it might be used in ecopsychology?

Nothing is unnatural, and I doubt if anything is supernatural. So nature is everything, from distant galaxies to Yosemite to you and me to the cat to my computer. Everything. Nature is studied by “natural” science, or as it was once called, Natural Philosophy. Social sciences are mostly about human beings, but if nature is everything, then they aren’t different sciences, they are specialties within “natural science”. The humanities become the natural history of human beings.

It seems straightforward enough — nature is a synonym for everything and the human-nature relationship is a part-whole relationship. But then what can we ecopsychologists mean when we talk about our separation from nature? How can we be separate when we are immersed in nature, when nature includes us? Can we distinguish between “human nature” and “more-than-human nature”? Perhaps clarity can be found in the the psychological concept of affordances from the ecological psychology of James Gibson.

Psychologists (and Buddhists) have known for a long time that we have a vast number of sensory experiences at every moment but that we can only attend to a few of them at any given moment. How do we choose what we will notice? Gibson suggested that, at any given moment, animals only attend to things which can potentially influence action. He called these things affordances. Thus, from the point-of-view of psychology, our ecology does not include everything in the environment, but only those aspects that are affordances at the moment.

For most wild animals, affordances involve finding food, shelter, and safety, and this requires close attention to cues from other species and from non-organic aspects of the environment. An exception to this arises with sexual reproduction, which often involves affordances arising from other members of the same species.

Some animals are social animals whose survival, as well as reproduction, depends on affordances provided by other individuals of the same species. Humans are very social animals, where many of the affordances for both survival and reproduction come from other humans. Living in cooperative groups is deep in our evolutionary past and some human qualities, such as the slow development of infants, make social affordances essential for survival.

Humans have gone beyond most other social animals, however, in creating a vast array of artifacts that have modified all aspects of human ecology. Technology provides an array of affordances while affordances from the rest of the natural world are attenuated by other technology. To a great extent, both survival and reproduction have come to depend almost entirely on attending to affordances provided by these artifacts rather than to “natural” affordances, those which weren’t created by humans.

So when ecopsychologists talk about the human-nature relationship or the separation from nature, are we talking about the salience of human-created affordances at the expense of affordances from other people or from the more-than-human world? Ecopsychology is perhaps an effort to remind ourselves that there are affordances in other people and in the more-than-human world that we should be noticing, both for our own health and for the ecological integrity of the systems that support all life.

This post previously appeared at http://www.ecopsychology.org/blog/

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