Nature Culture Dichotomy: The culture of exploitation

Nature/Culture dualism is a well-known theoretical framework that anthropologists have exercised in their study of age-old questions such as, “What is a human”, “What is Nature”, and “What are the responsibilities of humans in the world”? Nature is all that is natural, or without human influence, and culture is all that humans have influenced in some way, shape, or form. Initially, anthropologists saw nature and culture as mutually exclusive. As human societies have sprawled across the land, culture has become more prominent, leaving little of the earth’s surface unaffected by human influence. Some argue that the importance given to culture has caused the anthropocentric domination of nature, which in turn has led to the global environmental challenges that concern many today – such as climate change. Some anthropologists point towards indigenous societies – with their often non-existence of Nature/Culture dualism – as holding solutions to environmental problems. Others have made a strong case for the idea that nature and culture are inseparable; with culture simply being an aspect of nature. This nondual view is hoped to invite a new paradigm moving forward. One that allows human societies to thrive with all their cultural aspects, but not at the expense of the environment. In this article, drawing from the history of industrialization, as well as indigenous cultures from around the world, I discuss the Nature/Culture dichotomy, I discuss whether these concepts are useful and argue that regardless of whether we use these concepts or the more paganistic monisms also discussed-exploitation is the cause of environmental problems.

When first researching this topic, I was led to believe that the idea of the Nature/Culture dichotomy was developed by modern Western anthropologists. When in fact this dualism has been around for thousands of years. The ancient Vedic thinkers described reality in two parts, for example, Purusha and Prakriti. Purusha refers to Cosmic Consciousness, which is present in all living beings and is sometimes referred to as “The Self” – and Prakriti is the energy and materials that make up the world around us (Bernard, 2013). Similarly, we can see that the modern Western anthropological line drawn between nature and culture was mostly a result of the Abrahamic religious idea of the human soul. This God-given soul separates humans from the earthy clay or the soulless mechanisms of nature. One way to understand it might be that we have the unconscious machines that are governed by natural laws – our physical body and the world around us, made from some kind of substance sometimes referred to as “atoms” – and then we have the machine user – the mind, the consciousness, or the soul – which is the catalyst for culture. Regardless of the origins of this thinking, the Nature/Culture dichotomy has become a prominent paradigm for understanding and operating within our shared reality. The reason that this paradigm has become so prominent since the Enlightenment period is that it has given humans power over nature. This dualism between culture and nature has driven advancements in science, technology, engineering, medicine, architecture, and food production. The nature of the dualism is that humans have become the masters of nature.

The dominant spread of culture across the earth throughout human history has raised concerns for the health of this planet and our future if we continue to live by this paradigm. The global exponential population growth, rocket-boosted with the trend for increased consumption, together have supercharged the demand for earth’s resources. On top of that, our technologically, hyper-connected global society severely imbalanced wealth and responsibilities because developed regions exploited underdeveloped regions that cannot rejuvenate their natural resources sustainably. These factors have dramatically affected our environment, some places and species are damaged already beyond repair and others are being forced into small protected corners of this planet.

Some anthropologists point towards exotic societies, without a nature/culture dualism, as the model paradigm for a solution to our current environmental problems. Anthropological fieldwork has found many indigenous societies do not have words or concepts that could represent the Nature/Culture dichotomy (Descola, 2009). Aboriginal Australians for example, largely accepted as the world’s oldest continuous culture, see themselves as one part of a greater network of Beings, including animals, plants, landforms, water courses, planets, and universe bodies, and they know the law for their role in this interconnected network to be one of responsible caretakers (Grieves, 2009). Furthermore, the law that guides them is codified in the land, in Nature, and is passed down the generations through art, dance, and storytelling. To follow the law of the land is crucial. When someone breaks this law or even witnesses the effects of this law being broken, they can physically and mentally feel pain in themselves (Glaskin, 2012). It is interesting to note that for Indigenous Australians, to see oneself as separate from nature is to become an observer in an observed world (Graham, 1999) – which I interpret to mean that one cancels their meaning in their world if they separate themselves from it. This would have implications for a nature/culture dualism. To study the world, at least in the sense of the philosophical view of positivism, would be to separate oneself from the world. Human/world dualisms are, in this sense, self-defeating practices. Whether that be a useful practice or not, there are radically different Nature/Culture paradigms being developed and implemented successfully for periods longer than Western civilization has been active.

In the northern hemisphere, the Siberian Yukaghirs use this non-separation of man and nature as a hunting technique. For the perfect kill, the Yukaghir hunters utilize a technique of becoming the species they are hunting (Willerslev, 2007). Instead of the more common surprise-and-kill technique of hunting, the Yukaghirs catch their prey by alluring them into a relationship, which requires that the animals believe their “impersonation”. This performance takes days to prepare for, with the Yukaghirs abstaining from sex and being careful not to acquire smells that may deter their prey, and a kind of romantic courting takes place before a successful kill. If the courting phase is disrupted, the hunter cannot imprint on their prey and the target is lost.

On the opposite side of the globe, the Amazonian Arawaté see themselves as transitional between nature and the gods (Castro and Howard, 1992). For the Arawaté, the human is the final stage of hierarchical evolution before they are “eaten” by the gods, or divine spirits of nature. Upon being eaten by the gods, the Arawaté become the gods and continue their role in this all-encompassing transformational existence.
This nonexistence of a clear line between humans and nature found in indigenous societies has perplexed anthropologists due to its logical inconsistencies. A widely accepted explanation for this worldview is that humans anthropomorphize their surroundings to better cope with their complexity (Descola, 2009). This approach of minimizing the factuality of indigenous ways of knowing and being – that of seeing nature as living and equal to the human – jeopardizes attempts to protect the environment in say the way the Ecuadorians have done, for example, with their ‘natural contract’. In 1998, the Ecuadorian Constituent Assembly became the first government to give the same rights that humans have to nature (Fitz-Henry, 2012). By establishing Pachamama (Mother Nature) as a person, they were able to better protect the environment from exploitation. This was achievable due to the rich indigenous ontology still lived by the Ecuadorian people.

Clearly, indigenous ontologies show promise, although, turning towards traditions from ancient societies may not always improve environmental problems. In 2008-2009 Georgina Drew travelled down the Ganges River in India, interviewing different communities residing on her banks about their understanding and responses to the glacial melts from upstream affecting the river. She found that in some cases religious tradition bred contempt and inaction in the stewardship of nature. In the ancient Vedic texts it is predicted that the Ganges River will gradually disappear in this age – the Kali Yuga, or the age of degradation. Due to this prediction, some Hindus choose the path of inaction regarding restoration efforts, seeing them to be futile (Drew, 2012). Instead, they tend to cherish in their hearts and minds the eternal, metaphysical reality of the divine river. It is important to note that this attitude was not the only one that Drew met with. She also learned that some Hindus see environmental degradation as a result of impurities developing in the consciousness of the human race and that the only solution to the world’s environmental problems is the purification and elevation of human consciousness through yogic practices.
Over the past several decades, through scientific progress in the areas of cognitive ethology and evolutionary biology, naturalist ontology has evolved beyond the preexisting Nature/Culture dichotomy. Instead, it is being replaced with a kind of continuation, or difference in the degree of interiority between humans and animals (Descola, 2009). For example, Zoologist Donald Griffith (1978) attributes reflexive and conscious thought to animals based on observations that reveal their gaol-oriented behaviour. Furthermore, Griffin argues that human language is not different from the systems of languages used by some apes and birds, and he, therefore, endorses a kind of continuity of mental faculties between humans and animals rather than discrete separations (Descola, 2009). This new scientific understanding replaces the idea previously held by anthropologists that it is the anthropomorphizing of nature that generates the appearance of similarities and equality between human and non-human animals. This idea is acceptable because humans are fundamentally nondifferent from all other entities in nature; at least in terms of being made of the same physical stuff, albeit in more complex forms that seem to contemplate their situation more than other species. Humans may be thinking animals but they are still embedded in nature.

This idea of continuity seems promising, but that is until we account for the seemingly innate propensity for exploitation residing within us. What this continuity interpretation of Nature/Culture has opened up, is the realization that we have a living evolutionary continuation of species, which increases in sophistication, from simply living organisms to elite humans. But not all humans sit at the same table. The confirmation of “primitive” humans being closer to nature shows that indigenous societies are placed in the intermediate level of sophistication, between animals and the modern cosmopolitan human. And here is where the fear of regression creeps in for anthropologists. Not all are on board with this interpretation because they fear that if we live by this, we are admitting a kind of racial hierarchy and this can lead to the exploitation of “primitive” people (Descola, 2009). Positioning people who live closer to nature lower on the consciousness continuum is a form of racial discrimination and demonstrates a lack of understanding. This discrimination can encourage forms of exploitation, such as displacement to manage natural resources contained in their land or complicated social welfare obligations. These obvious concerns lead me to my final argument attacking the heart of this dilemma – the human’s relationship with its environment.

Regardless of which paradigm we decide to use to interpret our environment, if we do not curb the propensity to exploit others, we will never reach the ideal balance of environmental sustainability. Particularly during the colonial era and the Industrial Revolution, the development of modern civilization has blood on its hands, when it comes to the exploitation of nature and people. As this historical stain has become more clear to anthropologists, they have been increasingly turning towards indigenous societies for solutions but have also become perplexed when they found gradations of personhood, or unclear lines between Nature and Culture, and these gradations contradict the Western logical way of categorizing the world. Through the study of these gradations, we have learned that so-called “primitive” ontologies are indeed more accurate than their logical systems because there are no clear lines separating species from each other nor the living from the non-living world. Again, with this new scientific discovery, we risk returning to old ways of racial minimization and cosmopolitan elitism, due to the sophistication degree described above.

This article has shown that the constant problem, regardless of paradigm, is exploitation. When I use the term “exploitation”, I mean when one entity or group uses knowledge and technology to dominate others, including the environment, accumulating more than what is needed for a good life, at the cost of others missing out now, or in the future. So prominent is the propensity to exploit, that environmental issues, even though they are introduced in campaigns to improve the world for all its inhabitants, often turn into political weaponry to attract funds or win campaigns, and many dubious tactics, such as the misrepresentation of data and fear-mongering, are exercised to do so. This shows that in all cases, the issue of ontological well-being is exploitation and not particular Nature/Culture paradigms.

This article has addressed whether or not the modern dichotomy of Nature/Culture dualism has, in part, caused an ecological crisis. To some degree it has, but some factors prevent it from being a strong argument. The first is that the Nature/Culture dichotomy, taken for granted by Western thinkers for hundreds of years, is false. The second is that there is no obvious solution attached to the argument. Humans do culture to nature but humans are from nature. Therefore nature does nature and swapping for a different paradigm does not guarantee a sustainable future. I have shown in this article that the propensity to exploit reveals itself regardless of the ontological Nature/Culture paradigm. We need to address the world’s environmental problems at the psychological level – at the level of intention and desire. What drives a living being to exploit others? This makes it a difficult problem to solve scientifically because these aspects of being are difficult to identify and define, often including metaphysical ideas. Maybe the Hindus on the banks of the Ganges are correct in saying that the solution is the purification of the psyche through yogic practices or some other locally relevant ontological framework that assists the living being in making a healthy connection with others and Nature. If we cannot curb the propensity to grasp more than we require, no ontological paradigm will maintain us.

Bernard, T. (2013). Hindu philosophy. New York, New York: Philosophical Library, pp.69-72.

Castro, E. and Howard, C. (1992). From the enemy’s point of view. Chicago, Ill.: The University of Chicago Press.

Descola, P. (2009). Human natures. Social Anthropology, 17(2), pp.145-157.

Drew, G. (2012). A Retreating Goddess? Conflicting Perceptions of Ecological Change near the Gangotri-Gaumukh Glacier. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 6(3).

Fitz-Henry, E. (2012). The Natural Contract: From Lévi-Strauss to the Ecuadorian Constitutional Court. Oceania, 82(3), pp.264-277.

Glaskin, K. (2012). Anatomies of Relatedness: Considering Personhood in Aboriginal Australia. American Anthropologist, 114(2), pp.297-308.

Graham, M. (1999). Some Thoughts about the Philosophical Underpinnings of Aboriginal Worldviews. Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology, 3(2), pp.105-118.

Griffin, D. R. (1978). Prospects for a cognitive ethology. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 4, 527–38.

Willerslev, R. (2007). Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood Among the Siberian Yukaghirs. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp.89-118.

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Australian bhakti yogi anthropologist, researching culture, health and medicine—currently based in India and Latin America.