Humans and their Environment: A ‘Natural’ Partnership?

  • The role of partnership in international development is clear in human-centric initiatives, but it is less obvious for environmental interventions.
  • Water policy is at the intersection of people and nature and there are exciting developments for the discipline drawing on the work in the philosophy of science.
  • Nature and man are so interlaced, not because they belong to the same natural world, but because they belong to the same human imagination.
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A rice field, grown by a local community in Morogoro, Tanzania. © Marcos Barcley

The concept of ‘partnership’ has long been a watchword for development practitioners. While the applications are clear in social and economic contexts, the relevance is less obvious for environmental interventions. New trends in the social sciences are however suggesting ways in which the language of ‘partnership’ may nonetheless be useful. Water policy is at the intersection of people and nature and so these are exciting developments for the discipline. Nevertheless, this short reflection will argue that in the context of development work, the intricacies of post-development thought, highlight potential pitfalls with this new approach.

The role of partnership in international development is clear in human-centric initiatives. If you launch a skills development program, it is clear that including community stakeholders will be key. But when we talk about natural interventions, does it make sense to ‘form a partnership’ in the same way? Can you for example hold a dialogue with a river before building a dam?

Drawing on the work of Bruno Latour in the philosophy of science, the social science paradigm of Actor Network Work Theory (ANT) has laid the ground for thinking in this direction. These approaches aim to render humans and the natural world on a single continuum of social, biological and discursive interactions. This deconstructs the traditional division between humans and nature rooted in the philosophical division between subject and object. It is this philosophical foundation that gives rise to an understanding of humans as privileged agents (subjects) able to act unilaterally on the world around them (objects).

This drift towards an integrated view of humans and their surroundings expands our understanding of reciprocity. No longer confined to relations between people, this new framework gives us a language for the mutuality between people and their environment. The concept of ‘partnership’ from the development paradigm thus seems complementary to this approach. Both offer a check against unilateralism by emphasising a relationality that might limit the destructive consequences of the one-sided agency.

So far, ANT has not been extensively deployed in development studies, but one can see how the two fruitfully coincide. Already proposals following the ANT drift have found ways of treating nature as a kind of rehabilitated partner to human activity. One idea is to grant legal personhood to the natural environment. For example, in New Zealand, the Whanganui River became the first river in the world to be recognized as a legal person in 2017. In Maori culture, humans and water are believed to be intrinsically intertwined. “I am the river, the river is me”, cites a traditional saying. Since the river received legal rights and is recognized as a legal person, harming the river means harming the tribe.  Going the other way, one study looks at the agency of the natural environment such as kiwi crops to draw lessons about human resilience.

While this is clearly an exciting and interesting development, I would argue that the particularities of development theory mean ANT’s anthropomorphic metaphors carry some baggage.

The interpretation of ‘nature’ has always been a political issue with societies projecting onto ‘nature’ ideas that naturalised their underlying pathologies. For example, 19th-century ethnography sought to provide a ‘scientific’ basis for colonialism by claiming a ‘natural’ hierarchy between so-called ‘natural/savage’ and ‘civilised’ peoples. The politics of distinguishing the human and the ‘natural’ thus pertains uncannily to the complicated historical context in which development operates. This holds doubly for a practice like water policy in which human and natural factors are so inextricably bound.

Indeed from a post-developmental point of view, we might say that bringing nature into the fold of human discourse could be a backdoor for once again bringing humans into the fold of ‘natural’ discourse. Whereas the naturalisation of man gave credence to ideas like the ‘white man’s burden’ with colonists charged with bringing ‘civilisation’ to ‘natural peoples’, now a humanised nature offers a mandate for the scientific administration of both people and environment as part of the same ‘natural’ world. In both cases, this assimilation of man and nature loses sight of what makes humans human and thereby opens the way for an inhuman unilateralism by one group over another.

Perhaps the lesson we can draw is that the distinction between humans and nature is not so important as the distinctions humans draw between themselves. In this deadly, ‘nature’ can become a pawn in a larger game concerning the implicit or explicit definition of what it is to be human, The consequences that follow from such games are always political and always merit the closest attention.

In keeping our vigilance, perhaps the other lesson is that we are less ‘human’ than we think, paradoxically because what we class as nature is also less ‘natural’ than we think. Nature and man are so interlaced, not because they belong to the same natural world, but because they belong to the same human imagination. It is a human predicament to be unable to escape our discursive bubble such that we cannot distinguish ‘nature’ from our projected images of nature. ANT can thus be read as a healthy corrective that ideas of ‘nature’ and’ man’ are always already human constructs and with all the baggage this implies; hence the limits we draw with nature can be more about the boundaries we unknowingly (or knowingly) draw between each other.

In order to protect the planet amidst a complex (human) geography of racial, economic and national borders, we must find a way for everyone to one day unite behind the same boundaries. Building partnerships with nature could be a handy technocratic excuse for glossing over the very human difficulties of building partnerships between people. Instead of drawing and re-drawing more lines in the sand, perhaps we, therefore, should better understand what already lies either side of them. To build a ‘partnership’ with nature, ironically, we should better understand our relationships with each other first.

Marcos is an intramuros project manager at the European Commission and previously a Blue Book trainee in the Cabinet of the European Commissioner for International Partnerships. While studying philosophy at Oxford he worked for the Financial Times and The Economist Group. At the Commission, he assisted on the EU’s ‘Strategy with Africa’ and is currently working on communication strategy for the EU’s coronavirus response package.

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