Every human being is part of nature. He can only preserve and develop his species if he lives in harmony with nature and does not place himself above it. Every single human being takes responsibility for this and contributes to giving all living creatures space to develop in a manner appropriate to their species.
It is the great merit of the German explorer and polymath Alexander von Humboldt to have proven that nature is in a continuous dynamic change. As he explains in the first volume of his major work Kosmos from 1845, nature does not strive for a stable order or equilibrium, but is an unfinished process characterized by permanent renewal. In a certain sense, Humboldt thus already anticipated the essential insights of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. In the second volume of Kosmos, which describes human history from a cultural studies perspective, Humboldt deals with the poetry and painting of ancient cultures up to modern times. He writes, completely new for scientific publications, about discoveries and expeditions, about garden architecture and agriculture, but above all about sensations and feelings. He is concerned with the question in which way the sensory impressions of the outside world are transferred “to the feeling”. For Humboldt, in the spirit of his friend and mentor Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the inner and outer worlds represent a unity. This allows him to combine poetry and the natural sciences and thus to emphasize the unbreakable sensual unity of man and nature.
In various regions of the world, it is above all the so-called indigenous peoples who have dealt intensively with man’s responsibility for nature. The Ayni of the Andean peoples, which goes back to the culture of the Incas, is based on the idea of mutual give and take. The concept of the Seventh Generation of the North American Iroquois states that man should consider in every action how his actions will affect the seventh generation in the future. The idea of Ubuntu among sub-Saharan peoples emphasizes the importance of community to the individual. The principle of Taboo in Polynesian cultures declares certain fishing areas in the Pacific as a sanctuary, thus placing them under protection. The concept of the Kaitiakitanga of the Maori living in New Zealand is based on a spiritual tradition that advocates the protection of natural resources and a sustainable, careful treatment of all living beings. These traditions of thought are united by the idea that the human individual does not act alone in this world, but is integrated in a network of relationships with nature. None of these cultures assumes that the material world is dead and that man exists as the only higher life form in the world. For Alexander von Humboldt, who researched the world views of indigenous peoples, it was also an important concern to stand up for the protection of their livelihoods and ways of life. He must have been pleased that in 2017 the New Zealand government became the first country in the world to grant legal status to a river, the Wanganui River. The basis for this was the Maori concept of “Te Oranga o te Taiao”, which sees the health of the natural environment as a prerequisite for the current and future well-being of humankind.
For many centuries, Christian Europe instead followed the biblical commandment to subdue the earth. This idea of domination of nature was, as the German historian Philipp Blom has pointed out, a “mythological atom bomb. Instead of portraying the natural world as animate and full of actors with whom it was necessary to come to terms, the Bible of the one and only God knew only a dead earth, a world of dust, unconquered, without will or power of its own, just waiting to be subjugated, plowed, possessed, penetrated and fertilized, bought and sold.” In particular, Augustine, one of the most important theologians of antiquity, interpreted the Bible to mean that man “by his omnipotence dominates the whole creation”. Descartes, too, held that man occupied an exceptional position in relation to all other living beings. Hardly any philosopher has spoken more disparagingly of animals than he. Animals were “not only stupid, they have no mind, no soul, nothing that can be regarded as a sentient self”. Quite unlike Descartes, Montaigne is a sensitive observer of the animal world. From him comes the famous question: “Who knows, when I play with my cat, whether she does not pass the time with me more than I pass the same with her?” The playful curiosity that characterizes his thinking leaves him room for astute conclusions. And so it is only consistent that in his essays Montaigne condemns the self-aggrandizement of man and concludes that human beings are neither higher nor lower than any other living creature.
In his 2010 essay, The Animal I Am, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida states that previous philosophy had merely treated animals with an “interested ignorance”. This has meant that it has not really dealt with the reality of animals’ lives. The Belgian psychologist and philosopher Vinciane Despret has researched the fact that animals do have a wider range of social and cognitive abilities than is commonly assumed: “I had the opportunity to observe the Arabian booby (Argya squamiceps), a bird that lives in the desert. When one of them — male or female — decides to mate with another, the group must not know about it, because usually only the alpha male and female reproduce. To accomplish this, the babbler must use a very sophisticated strategy, which consists of taking a small piece of straw and holding it very slightly in the direction of the potential mate so that a dialogue can take place between the two.” Despret adds that such observations probably would not have been possible if this form of communication had been thought to be impossible in birds.
Dutch biologist Leen Gorissen refers to the “natural intelligence” of plants and animals, pointing to research that proves they make a significant contribution to establishing ecological balances and regenerating habitats. She uses the example of whales to explain how this happens. Whales excrete important nutrients such as iron and nitrogen with their feces, which are used in particular to feed microorganisms such as phytoplankton, which filter large amounts of climate-damaging CO2 from the atmosphere and bind it to the ocean floor. In addition, phytoplankton contributes to the production of about 50% of the Earth’s oxygen through photosynthesis. According to new findings, whales in the ocean could even have a comparable importance for climate protection as trees on land, provided that the population of large whales, which is threatened with extinction, would be brought back to the level it had before extensive whaling. To achieve this, the decision of the UN Conference on Biodiversity in Montreal in February 2023 is groundbreaking. According to this, 30% of the land and sea area is to be placed under protection. While until now the protection of species such as whales or polar bears has received attention primarily for moral reasons, it is becoming increasingly clear that certain living creatures contribute significantly to the preservation of the Earth’s physical, geological and biological system and thus to our survival. Wolves promote the regeneration of neglected ecosystems. Termites play an important role in the greening of deserts. Fungi are an important catalyst for rain. For Gorissen, it follows that “We don’t live on the earth. We are the earth. Therefore, we have a responsibility to support and promote the vitality and vibrancy of our home.”
The basic idea of human dominance over nature also shaped the economy from the 17th century onwards and led to the ruthless exploitation of natural resources. Nature was merely a factor of production, “an external resource indifferent to our actions”, as the French sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour noted. Although the German political economist Karl Marx was not an ecological mastermind, he recognized that nature’s resources are finite and that we have a responsibility to leave the earth better than we found it. Thus, in the third volume of his major work Das Kapital, he formulates his categorical imperative: “Even a whole society, a nation, indeed all simultaneous societies taken together, are not owners of the earth. They are only its owners, its beneficiaries, and have to leave it improved as boni patres familias to succeeding generations.” In his late work, the German philosopher and historian Friedrich Engels also follows the “ecological turn” of his friend Karl Marx and emphasizes that man is not externally opposed to nature, but “belongs to it with flesh and blood and brain”.
In his Terrestrial Manifesto of 2017, Bruno Latour pleads for an overcoming of the dichotomy of man and nature and orients on the fact that all earthbound actors have to learn to recognize their interdependencies in order to derive consequences for political action. He consciously emphasizes that this is a kind of open-ended research journey and asks the question “Where will we end up?” — as the French title of his book is called. No one can know for sure today, but like Alexander von Humboldt, Latour relies on feeling and passion for the living beings of this one world we all share.
This essay is written complementary to Thesis #6 of our paper 48 Theses — How we can live together better, that you can find at https://48thesen.de/en/. This series will be continued. Further information about the author on my LinkedIn profile https://www.linkedin.com/in/dr-udo-g%C3%B6%C3%9Fwald-077a711a7/.