søndag 9. desember 2007

What´s wrong with nature?

An interdisciplinary seminar investigating human perceptions of nature and environmental change

January 25-26th, 2008, Tartu

Arranged by Jakob von Uexküll Center (Estonian Naturalists Society) in cooperation with Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics (University of Tartu)

From the contemporary perspective of global warming and rapid environmental change, it seems obvious that there is something wrong with nature, for which human activity is to blame. Tracing the origin of the ecological crisis, it appears that this very idea is at the root of the problem – since, all through the ages, we have been „improving“ and taming nature as if there was something wrong with it from the very beginning. One way or another, humans have always had a sense of an urgent need to do something about nature. Does this, perhaps, entitle us to ask whether this attitude to nature is inevitable – a part of what it means to be human?

Perception matters – as does conceptualization. The aim of the seminar is to discuss how our perception of nature is shaped by our cultural traditions, science and the media and how this very perception, in its turn, by way of our actions is shaping nature itself. What is natural in a world of global, human-induced environmental change? What qualifies as an „environmental problem”, and solution? For whom is it a problem? To what extent is it fruitful to understand the ecological crisis in analogy with a natural catastrophe? As wilderness has been cultivated – has civilization gone wild?

„We are human only in contact, and convivality, with what is not human“, the ecophilospher David Abram writes. To realize what it means to be human, we have to actively engage with, and be attentive to, our animate surroundings. This sense of being part of nature – of being nature, does only arise in this process of engaging and being engaged. It only makes sense to actively engage with something that is somehow itself endowed with subjectivity, sensitivity and communicative abilities. If nature is perceived and treated as being passive, mute and machine-like, humanity accordingly finds itself to be alone, left to itself and free to act according to its will or interests only. What we are looking for profoundly influences and structures what we actually see in nature. Coming to terms with nature is only possible by coming to terms with ourselves. From this perspective the ecological crisis has its origin in human immaturity and can only be overcome through refinement of human sensibility. Considering our contemporary culture, what does our dealings with nature, as mirrored in the deep structure of our perceptual categories, tell us about our selfcomprehension? What are we looking for in nature – resources, beauty, peace of mind?

Our culture may be the first in history to think that there is no message to be found in nature. At the same time our culture is perfused with signs, images, ideas and stories of nature. Just as much as it is important to study what is communicated, it is also important to ask who is mediating and how. What stories do science, or popular media, tell about nature? What narratives are politicians, or policies, attempting to impose upon nature? As a mediator between science and politics, how does the media perform its task of filtering selected information, displaying what is scientifically legitimate and politically relevant? What are our children educated in? The practices of sustaining life and negotiating lifestyles with nature have gradually given way to mass communication of more abstract ideas. In an increasingly purely human environment, the living reality which Gabriel Marcel says is „rebellious to characterizations“ might be hard to spot. The question as to what language the book of nature is written in, evidently, remains.

The controversies surrounding any talk of an environmental crisis provoke strong emotional responses. As in popular rhetorics about environmental risks and threats, fear and, consequently, angst have become the dominant emotions that are shaping the attitudes of the more general public towards nature. On the other hand, many environmentalists are accused of propagating naively sentimental and reactionary attitude towards nature. Guilt and shame are coming into play as well, as – perhaps legitimate – tools for world improvement. Either way, the issue is downscaled from the global to the personal level. Relating emotionally to nature seems to be in the muddle. What are the consequences – at the ecological level, and the psychological – of reducing the ecological crisis to a set of personal problems or emotional states? Maybe alienation, lack of emotional engagement with nature, lies at the root of the problem? If appeals to basic emotions such as fear doesn’t wake us up from our pragmatic apathy, what does? How can we legitimately communicate what we feel about nature, and what emotions can we legitimately appeal to? And where did we go wrong with our conception of rationality?

The question of „closing the gap“ between knowledge and action, science and activism only arises in certain political contexts from the intimately related desires, on the one hand, to „put our knowledge into practical use“ and on the other, to „comprehend our actions“. Our technologically oriented and driven culture is often said to be founded on the idea of applied science. In today’s environmental debate there’s often an explicit appeal to reason – simply pointing to ‚the facts‘ is taken as sufficient argument for what should be done. From the scientific side, environmental sciences are now engaged in routinely offering a scientific review of the ecological consequences of human activities and policies. How, in our neo-rationalist era, is the dynamic relationship between knowledge and action perceived and treated from the point of view of environmental scientists, activists, and policy makers? What role should scientific experts play in environmental policies? How can environmentalists and politicians ground their activism in a scientific outlook?

All presentations will be in English. The four thematic sessions will each contain three presentations. Timeframe for the keynote talks is 1 hour, for other talks 30 min. (45+15 and 20+10 min. including discussion). The seminar is concluded by a general roundtable. On Friday 25th there is a reception for the participants; on Sunday 27th there will be a field trip for invited guests.


Riin Magnus 5196 7493, riinuvader (Skype),

Morten Tønnessen 5391 9277, morten.tonnessen (Skype),

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