What politics flow from getting rid of the nature-culture divide?

Jesse Callahan Bryant
4 min readJul 13, 2022

Toward the end of art critic John Berger’s Why Look at Animals? is a somewhat bizarre few sentences —

“The marginalization of animals is today being followed by the marginalization and disposal of the only class who, throughout history, has remained familiar with animals and maintained the wisdom that accompanies that familiarity: the middle and small peasant. The basis of this wisdom is an acceptance of this dualism at the very origin of the relation between man and animal. The rejection of this dualism is probably an important factor in opening a way to modern totalitarianism.

For those of us today who have come to see the distinction between humans and nature as arbitrary, the final sentence above should hang heavy. And to be honest, when I read it a while ago I neither really understood what he meant, nor did I really want to. But after a few months of philosophical side-questing into 20th-century eco-politics I think I’ve landed in both an understanding of what Berger was getting at and a conviction that it matters a lot.

First, it is an historical fact that in the case of Nazi Germany the dissolution of the nature-culture dualism did, in fact, open a political path to a widely supported totalitarian state — which Berger, having lived in Europe through World War II, is reacting to. For instance, many Nazi officials believed that “striving toward connectedness with the totality of life, with nature itself, a nature into which we are born, this is the deepest meaning and the true essence of National Socialist thought.”

And yet, to point to Nazi Germany as a concrete case of what happens when the nature-culture dualism is dissolved would be to mistake the political mechanics at play. Dissolving the dualism does not lead to any concrete political structure (totalitarianism), but instead a shifting in political logic (humanism to naturalism).

Dissolving the dualism shifts how politics is talked about from modern conversations around what is efficient and effective and equitable to what is natural. Which means when the dualism dissolves facts and measurements give way to convictions about how nature works as the primary guidance for good policy. When the dualism dissolves ecological and social theory become one all encompassing theory and the most important political question shifts from “who gets what, when, and how?” to “what model of nature should we follow?” and “how should that nature guide politics?”

When the dualism dissolved in Nazi Germany, politics took collapsed into defining what was natural and building policy to shape society toward that naturalist utopia. In contrast to the unnatural nations — the “constructed societies” of the French and Americans — Germans needed a natural nation, one that flowed primarily from concrete biological reality. Aryans were the native species in their eco-ancestral homelands, and thus re-naturalization required the extermination of the rootless, invasive, homeless Jews and Gypsies.

At the time Social Darwinism was an enormously intoxicating theory of nature for many conservatives, yet it manifest differently in the United States and Britain when compared to Germany. For Germans, the nature of nations was that they were internally cooperative-homogenous and externally competitive-diverse. We can contrast this to Americanist Social Darwinism which sees individuals as internally cooperative (organs) and externally competitive. From the French-American perspective Darwin’s units are individuals, for the Germans Darwin’s units are nations. These different natures imply vastly different social policy.

Going back to Berger, what I think is important is the observation that when the dualism between humans and nature dissolves so does a particular way of thinking about what society is and should be. In the case of the Germans, when the biological and social collapsed into one, the model of nature that those in power were operating on led logically to totalitarianism in the form of the Third Reich. This was a Social Darwinism applied to the new and emerging natural science called ecology, recently articulated by Ernst Haeckel.

Nature was a web of interconnecting and competing creatures distinguished by ecosystem. Invasives who were not historically part of a given web had to be eradicated. Hierarchy was natural and good, as it defined specific roles within society and made life legible to any given individual. Sex and gender were synonymous because like, look at the lions. Hitler should be worshipped like a queen because like, look at the bumblebees.

Berger was right that the rejection of the nature-culture dualism is an important factor in the politics of the 20th-century. He just got it wrong a bit. What the rejection of the dualism ultimately does is put the power in the hand of the natural scientists, the naturalists, the nature experts, the ecologists, et al. to define a normatively good society. Philosophically some refer to this as naturalism — the modeling of society off of nature. Two questions then arise:

Which nature? The nature of prokaryotes that pass DNA horizontally and recreate themselves genetically over a single life? The nature of trees who do not move? The nature of the Earth and its geochemistries? The nature of clownfish who change sexes?

Is nature always right? Not just our interpretation, but to ascribe so much unerring moral power to Nature ultimately takes the same moral shape of an unerring New Testament God.

For what its worth, I think one of the big steps in my lifetime will be the slow dissolution of the Enlightenment’s nature-cultural dualism. The planetary scale exploitation that its justified has been catastrophic, and yet as it lies in hospice we need to take seriously the politics that follow. These are the politics of nature. They have been wielded carelessly and genocidally in the past, but perhaps we can transcend.

--

--

Jesse Callahan Bryant

Jesse is a Ph.D. student at the Yale School of the Environment, creator of the Yonder Lies podcast, and instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School.