Nature and ecophilosophy

Emil Urhammer

At first glance, the word nature may not seem very complicated. Nature; it is the forests, mountains, rivers, animals and plants. However, if you think about it more deeply, it may not be so easy to define nature. Is a corn field that has been grown by humans, or a forest that has been planted by humans, or a stream whose meanders have been restored by humans, nature? There is probably no unequivocal answer to this question. Some would say yes because they think everything is nature. According to this understanding, human culture, cities, and technology are also considered to be part of nature. Such a view is also called deep ecology or ecophilosophy. According to the late Norwegian ecophilosopher, Arne Næss, human beings are an integral part of nature, and the moral basis for humanity is to achieve a situation where people are living in ecological balance with their surroundings. Næss believed that humans are the first species on Earth who are able to consciously relate to their own role in nature. For example, humans can assess whether the total number of people is too large for us to live in balance with the rest of life on Earth. This imposes a moral responsibility on humanity, which other species do not have. However, given the current situation, one may ask how worthy we are of this obligation.

In addition, some assert that human society and nature have become separated. For example, the biologist, Rasmus Ejrnæs, says: ‘The separation between nature and humans now demands that we either file for a permanent divorce because living together has become too difficult, or that we prepare ourselves for peaceful coexistence and focus on biodiversity’ (in the book Natur, Tænkepauser – viden til hverdagen, Århus Universitetsforlag 2013). Ejrnæs is a biologist who works with species diversity, which is also called biodiversity. The philosophical question of whether humans are part of nature is probably not his most important consideration. He just observes that the way people are currently living is in violent conflict with most of the other species on the planet, which is why he encourages us to recognise that we need to find a way of living in peaceful coexistence if we want to preserve biodiversity. In this way, Ejrnæs’s interpretation is perhaps not so far from Næss’s dream of people living in ecological balance with their surroundings.

In terms of achieving balance and peaceful coexistence between humans and other species, the question of population plays a central role. Some think that the fact that there will soon be 10-11 billion individuals on the planet is not a problem, while others believe that the current population of approximately 7 billion is already far beyond what is beneficial to both humans and other species. This discussion is extremely complicated and involves both moral and more technical aspects. If you always think ‘humans first’, the fact that we are so many may be interpreted as a sign of humanity’s strength and superiority. If you have this opinion, you may not think it is a problem that a lot of species are dying to provide space for human activities. On the other hand, if you think that all other species, in principle, also have the right to live, you will probably think that it is extremely problematic.

The more technical side of the issue is that we humans could probably learn to take up a lot less space and fewer resources if we just gave it some thought and organised ourselves differently. For example, several environmentalists believe that if we stopped eating meat, it would allow other species to thrive. The reason for this is that meat production takes up a lot of land because the animals that we eat need very large amounts of water and feed. In this way, we use a huge area of land to feed the animals we eat. If we did not eat animal products, this area would be reduced and could instead be used by other species.

Not only biological life
In the discussion of humans’ place in nature, people often talk about humans in relation to other biological life, but the question is more comprehensive than that. In principle, these considerations also concern, for example, mountains, rivers and the oceans. What is the significance of blowing up mountain peaks to find coal? Or damming rivers? Or filling the ocean with plastic waste? Among indigenous tribes, it is not uncommon to consider mountains or rivers as living things which also have rights. If you understand the world in this way, how we treat the mountains, rivers, oceans and the air is very important as they are often perceived as conscious and sacred beings. According to such a perspective, not only humans have rights as mountains and rivers are also considered to be living creatures with special rights. For example, in South America, attempts have been made to include the rights of nature in the constitution of certain countries.


View on Nature

The philosopher, Hans Fink, has worked extensively with the concept of nature and has identified seven different widespread interpretations, which can be seen as different ways of perceiving nature. Here is a brief description of each.

  1. Nature as ‘unspoiled’ is the idea of nature as being that which is completely untouched by humans. Therefore, nature is that which is still in its original state; untouched by human influence. According to this perspective, a remote desert or untouched virgin forest is nature.

  2. Nature as ‘wilderness’ is the idea that nature as that which has not been cultivated by humans. This idea is connected to the difference between cultivated and non-cultivated land. According to this view, nature is: virgin forest, mountains, deserts, marshes, tundra and wilderness which is inaccessible to humans, although forests, heaths and beaches that people frequent and exploit for hunting, fishing and the gathering of wood, are also considered nature. The antithesis of nature, in this perspective, is the cultural landscape, which is the subject of human cultivation and planning.

  3. Nature as ‘rural’ is the idea that nature encompasses everything in the countryside outside towns. In this view, it does not matter whether the land has been cultivated or is untouched. What is important is that it is not a town. The border of nature thus extends to the outskirts of the town.

  4. Nature as ‘green’ is the notion of nature as living and organic. Therefore, the dividing line between nature and culture cuts across towns and countryside and concerns the difference between organic and synthetic. In this perspective, a wooden spoon is more natural than a computer or an artificial chemical, and the city’s gardens, parks and potted plants are also considered nature, whereas concrete buildings, asphalt roads and plastic bottles are not.

  5. Nature as ‘physical’ is the idea of nature as that which science is concerned with. Therefore, nature is phenomena such as gravity, electromagnetism, atoms, black holes and energy. According to this view, nature is objective as opposed to subjective, social and cultural.

  6. Nature as ‘earthly’ is the view of nature as that which has been created by a divine being. In this perspective, nature comprises the material world we live in, which is in contrast to the heavenly or spiritual kingdom where God resides.

  7. Nature as ’everything’ is the idea that nature comprises everything: the world, the universe, the cosmos, etc. In this view, everything from deserts and cultivated fields to electronics and smart ideas are nature. Thus, in a way, all the other ideas are combined together into one: Everything is nature.

Listen to Hans Fink talking about the seven view of nature here:



Next: Nature – in the service of humans