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The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report issued in April 2005
shows how severely our civilisation is degrading and overstressing the
natural systems that support human life and all other lives on earth. An
important critical challenge, especially for the eco-humanities, is to help
us understand the conceptual frameworks and systems that disappear
the crucial support provided by natural systems and prevent us from see-
ing nature as a field of agency. This paper considers the currently
popular concept of a cultural landscape as an example of a concept that
downplays natural agency, and discusses the epistemology of nature
scepticism and nature cynicism that often accompanies its vogue in the
humanities. Can some philosophical disentangling of senses of nature
(often considered the most complex term in the language) allow sceptics
their main points without placing them on such a strong collision course
with the requirements of commonsense and survival?

ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 11(2) 2006 ISSN: 1085-6633

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The Second Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report issued in April
2005 shows how severely our civilization is degrading and overstressing
the natural systems that support human life and all other lives on earth.
The report has shown that the environmental systems that sustain our
lives are declining around us, and that a key cultural challenge for sur-
vival is to recognize, represent, and value the health and services these
systems, collectively designated nature,1 provide for us. A high priority
issue for theorists interested in changing the situation is: How we should
recognize the agency of these disregarded service-providers, and how
should we recognize and represent the environmental services these sys-
tems provide for us? Both aspects of this cultural change project raise big
issues for concepts at the base of our critical discourses.
First, theres an important argument to be had here about how all
these concepts, especially that of environmental services, should be inter-
preted. I would argue that genuinely sustainable relationships with service
providers cannot be systems that allocate merely minimum resources for
providers well-being or survival. This rules out instrumental, servant or
slave-like relations as well as competitive market relations, to name a few
of those that define rationality so as to encourage cost-cutting at the
providers expense. An ecological rationality must be one where ecologi-
cal providers are, at a minimum, reliably sustained and strengthened, and
not subject to the forms of minimization, denial and forgetting of creativ-
ity, agency and contributions characteristic of hegemonic relationships
and monological rationality. Monological relationships are thus ecologi-
cally irrational, because they lead to distorting, hegemonic forms of
recognition of agency that eventually weaken the provider. That require-
ments of sustainability rule out monological slave-like relationships and
select for relationships of mutual adaptation and dialogue between mutu-
ally recognizing and supporting agents was argued in Environmental
Culure: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (Plumwood 2002).
The second question, of how we distribute agency, is a question with
very big implications for environmental accounting, among other things;
but it is much bigger than that, for it also raises further problems that are
especially appropriate for humanities analysishow and why is it that we
have been unable to recognize the services and agency of the natural sys-

116 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 11(2) 2006

tems that support us? An account of how and why certain human forms
of agency are disappeared or suppressed may be able to cast some light
on these questions. An associated critical challenge is to understand the
conceptual frameworks and systems that disappear the crucial support
provided by natural systems and prevent us from seeing nature as a field
of agency. To build an ecological consciousness, we do not need to roll all
these agencies into a single one, perhaps humanized as Gaia or Goddess.
But we do need to question systems of thought that confine agency to a
human or human-like consciousness and refuse to acknowledge the cre-
ativity of earth others, whether organized into a single system or not. It is
eminently rational, in our present circumstances, to follow critical
methodologies foregrounding multiple agencies in the more-than-human
world, both in our immediate lives and more generally in the universe.
The third problem of understanding the role of our multiple concepts
of nature in disappearing agency definitely needs more of our critical
attention in the humanities, but at the present time the mood of
antipodean intellectual life is generally one of nature cynicism, the belief
that the term nature is some kind of fraud or confidence trick. Of course
if we cant use the term our cultural history has traditionally designated
for these unnoticed service providers, these natural systems in their speci-
ficity and collectivitythe term naturewe are pretty seriously
disadvantaged in discussion of how best to react to our predicament. So
an important preliminary question, which I try to address here, is the
legitimacy, especially the political legitimacy, of the concept of nature, as
well as the political epistemology of backgrounding and agency denial.
Such a methodology of critical scrutiny reveals that many of our con-
cepts and traditions of knowledge harbor hegemonic concepts of agency
in the land and natural systems. Hegemonic theories or representations of
agency legitimize hegemonic appropriations, to the degree that these call
upon some idea of just deserts, a just distribution that corresponds to (or
is proportional to) credit for an actbeing seen as its creator, or genera-
tor, as agent to act, producer to product, bearer of responsibility or
rewards. In human-centered frameworks, hegemonic forms give rise to an
exaggerated sense of the human sides contributions and just deserts, and
an underestimation of those of nonhumans. They promote slave-like
models, and distort our understanding of both agency and co-agency. I
examine below the politics of this kind of forgetting, and try to untangle


this hegemonic skein of thought behind the nature-sceptical inclination
from those deriving from indigenous anti-colonial critiques or from post-
modern idealist epistemologies.
According to a typical hegemonic pattern, the most general form of
mind/body dualism, matter itself (chaos) is not creative, but is silent and
formless. Being is split into an uncreative, featureless material part and a
hyperseparate, externalized, and often dematerialized director or driver,
usually identified as intelligence, mind, or reason. The driver is the
author of change (the outcome or issue), as a separate mechanism or
intelligence driving the materially-reduced organism from outside, and it
is to this external driver that true agency is attributed. Plato plays this out
in the Timaeus with a cast of cosmos (rational principle) as driver of
chaosprior, formless, empty, and inchoate matter. Aristotle does the
same with the distinction between active form and passive matter. This
family of dualized mind/body concepts is highly gendered, as feminists
including myself have argued,2 and carry other connected social meanings
that naturalize the control of a plurality of privileged groups who benefit
from unjust distributions justified by hegemonic understandings of
agency.3 External driver conceptual frameworks are especially suited to
express the normative instrumental identities of master and slave, where
the good slave is a passive instrument or tool that exhibits the least
agency of her own and minimum resistance to executing the drivers will.
Such dualizing frameworks are good for naturalizing power and inequal-
ity, but are not good for encouraging the dialogue or other feedback
essential to rational decision-making in certain contexts. The problems of
remoteness from consequences and knowledge they generate can
adversely affect their political and especially their ecological rationality.
This is one (partial) explanation of why societies evolve conceptual struc-
tures, such as those forgetting essential services, that have negative
survival value.
We can see these same hegemonic splitting processes at work in many
places in our contemporary world, for example in current moves to place
patented natural organisms under the aegis of intellectual property rights
as the creations of reason, where reason as research and knowledge is
seen as created by corporations in the neo-liberal political economy.
Smart managers or investors create wealth as external, mind-associated
drivers of enterprise, and creativity is denied to the non-agentic, body-

118 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 11(2) 2006

associated employees, who are mere hired hands. DNA drives organis-
mic being, reduced to matter, from outside. Software is separate from and
drives hardware. Human intention operates on a passive, inert land,
which undergoes change as a patient undergoes surgery. If we frame
our concepts in terms of this master-slave splitting pattern, in due course
we make a slave world which serves to model, confirm and exemplify it,
and are unable to conceive anything beyond it.
For our own time, the power relations involved in this model of cre-
ativity are perhaps best illustrated by the patriarchy, as in the monological
reproduction theory of Aristotle. The father is the sole agent and creator,
contributing the superior element of mind or form to the generative act.
The mother, on the Aristotelean-Platonic account, contributes only the
inferior element of matter, and is merely a nurse (medium) for the child
which the father alone created in his image.4 Woman is matter-associated,
so only the mind-associated father can be credited with the creative role.
It is the father who rightfully owns the child, on this view, which corre-
sponded to the Greek system of patriarchya system which recognized
as creator only one parent, only one agency, the male.
Hegemonic distortions of agency attribution support inequality and
unjust forms of appropriation. This pattern of attributing agency not to
the material sphere itself but to a separate, dematerialized, and mind-
identified driver provides a template for patriarchy and its distribution of
goods, but also for many of the other hegemonic distributions of credit
and wealth that structure our lives. In these institutions, the contributions
and deserts of nonhuman systems and agencies are as completely ignored
and devalued as are those of the mother in Aristotles schema, and by the
same logical ruse of denying and backgrounding the creativity of the
unnoticed and silenced element or medium. As far as recognizing the eco-
logical embedding of the dominant culture in the larger system of nature
is concerned, contemporary global capitalism is at the same stage of cul-
ture as Aristotles time was in its recognition of womens role in human


The concept of a cultural landscape currently so popular in the
humanities is an example of a concept that invites us to downplay or hide
nonhuman agency and to present humans as having a monopoly of cre-


ativity and agency in the generation of what are called landscapes. Cul-
tural landscape or human artefact terminology for the land and the
nature-sceptical claims often associated with them exemplify the poten-
tial for concepts and terminology to hide or nullify what we cant seem to
recognize even to save ourselvesthe way the systems of nature support
our lives. The concept of a cultural landscape has become a key part of
an agenda in the humanities of human-centered and eurocentered reduc-
tions to culture that is the equal and opposite to the natural sciences
reduction of explanation to nature. This two-cultures division of the
field of knowledge into a culture-reductionist humanities versus a nature-
reductionist science is a direct contemporary expression of the polarized
and dualized choice of nature versus culture characteristic of western cul-
ture since classical times. As we will see, the concept of a cultural
landscape is crucially linked to this reductionist agenda.
An important initial motivation for the popularity of cultural land-
scape concepts in the humanities has been the wish to recognize the prior
presence of indigenous people, and so to reject colonial representations of
the land as lacking all trace of prior human agency. The concept of tar-
geted land as pure wilderness removes constraints on colonial
appropriation, so such a concept of virgin land as an absence of agency,
a realm of chaos, has often been stressed in colonial systems of appropri-
ation5 as a way of denying indigenous human agencies. I discuss this case
in more detail below. The concept of land as wilderness or pure nature
certainly carries some nasty historical baggage,6 and the idea of nonhu-
man agency has been tainted by association. The idea of the land as the
product of human culture has been stressed as a correctivehence, the
cultural landscape vogue. But is it only indigenous human agency that is
overlooked or hidden in discourse about terra nullius, wilderness and
However, an unfortunate and unnecessary side-effect of the long
overdue recognition of the creativity of indigenous humans has been a
denial of creativity to nonhuman species and ecosystemsnature scepti-
cism. This latter denial is unhelpful as well as unnecessary because there
is no necessary incompatibility between recognizing indigenous (cultural)
agency and recognizing nonhuman (natural) agency. A related conse-
quence of the denial of nonhuman agency in the land is the subtle
imposition of a land creation story that is not at all culturally neutral but

120 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 11(2) 2006

instead follows the standard western pattern of human agency acting on
a passive land that I identify below. This cultural bias is disappointing
even paradoxical given that part of the motivation behind the adoption
of the term cultural landscape is to disrupt dualistic concepts of the
human as set apart from the natural world as well as to acknowledge
indigenous ecological agency in the land. I think it is important to seek
out alternative ways to realize these admirable ideals that do not require
rejecting natural agency.
Looking back to the roots of the concept of a cultural landscape, we
can see the same pattern of an external mind-identified driver (culture)
acting on a passive medium that I identified in Section 1 above. For exam-
ple, the German geographer, Carl Sauer, defined the concept of the
cultural landscape in its locus classicus, his 1925 work, The Morphology
of Landscape, in these terms: Culture is the agent, the natural area is the
medium, the cultural landscape is the result. Under the influence of a
given culture, itself changing through time, the landscape undergoes
development, passing through phases.7 There is no room here for natu-
ral forces as significant creators of or elements in the land. All landscapes
that come within the imaginary of a human actor thus get to count as cul-
tural, part of his sphere of influence, claimed as human cultural property.
Where the possibility of some element in the land uncreated by humans
is admitted, it is allowed little importance, generative force, or powers of
resistance; human will radiates outwards, and imprints itself as easily
upon the contours of the natural landscape as it does upon wax.8 Is there
no conflict, no lack of fit, between human designs and the character of the
This is a story of the reproduction or genesis of landscape which par-
allels our stories of human reproduction, and their genderized
distributions of power. With the fatherculture counted as sole agent,
and the mother as the mere medium or nurse, the result, the cultural
landscape, is naturalized as the child of this Aristotelean father as sole
creator. Similarly on Sauers model, humans are the sole agents or genuine
actors in generating cultural landscape. Nature, like the mother for Aris-
totle, is relegated to the role of medium, rather than treated as a further
creative agent in this theory of landscape production and reproduction.9
A similar erasure or denial inhabits the heart of the colonial project, in
which the colonized other is seen as empty of potential for independent


creativity, agency, or desire. This appears in an extreme form in the colo-
nial construction of the Australian continent as terra nullius, an empty,
available landin contemporary capitalist terms, as vacant space or
development potential.


Both elements of the phrase the cultural landscape, both the term
cultural and the term landscape, raise problems and difficulties of sev-
eral kinds. Cultural is usually used here as a synonym for human, or, to
be more expansive, human-created, human-influenced, humanized
(strong), or bearing traces of the human (weaker). Although the term
culture is clearly intended as a surrogate for human, it is simply invalid
to identify culture with the human. As animal studies are increasingly
showing, culture as learned forms of adaptation and forms of life, is also
found in other species, animals particularly, and is not exclusive to the
human. If the term culture is used more broadly, in the fashion of
anthropology, as meaning the sum total of a groups knowledge and prac-
tice in all spheres, there is even less case for confining it to the human.
In the stronger of the meanings of cultural landscape, human-cre-
ated, the phrase conforms to Sauers model, attributing agency
exclusively to the human element, and treating the land as a space or
medium, perhaps itself a human product, a landscape. If all real, non-vir-
tual landscapes are the work of nonhuman, including some pre-human,
agencies, combined with some influence or work on the part of humans,
then all involve collaboration between multiple agenciesalthough, as
Ill argue later, the claim that human agency must ALWAYS be involved is
too strong a claim, one that betrays an underlying resort to idealism. So
this way of construing cultural landscape represents agency in a way
that significantly understates the creativity of nonhuman elements.
In the weaker sense of human involvement, we can say that many,
now perhaps most, lands show human influence, or bear some traces of
the human, although these may be recent and not the major creative
forces involved in their development. These mixed landscapes combine
human and nonhuman influences, only the first being posited as cultural.
But if the human forces are singled out for agency, we have to ask: why
does the concept of a cultural landscape privilege human agency over the

122 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 11(2) 2006

other agencies involved and credit this force exclusively with creation of
the land we view? Why are no other, nonhuman influences recognized or
mentioned? Why is the human cultural narrative assumed to silence or
take precedence over the other, nonhuman, narratives of creation and
reproduction in the land? Such a model seems to reinforce the western
tradition of treating humans as superior and apart, outside of and hyper-
separated from nature, rather than integrating the human narrative with
other narratives of the land.
The landscape terminology itself plays a role in writing passivity,
visuality, and human-centeredness into the framework. In a typical colo-
nial landscape painting, we have reached a peak, and the land is framed
as laid out below us. In the 1846 painting by Samuel Thomas Gill enti-
tled Country NW of tableland Aug 22, for example, that introduced the
HRCs 2005 series on the cultural landscape, two armed, male figures
occupy an elevation, surveying a land spread out before them, open to
their gaze.10 This is a colonizing gaze, coming from outside, calculating its
own advantage, detached from what lies before it, a gaze that seeks no
consent. Landscape so framed draws on a colonial as well as androcen-
tric model which frames the land as passive, visually captured, something
to distance from, survey and subdue.
This aspect of the cultural landscape terminology invokes a meta-
elevator intended to hoist us cultured ones up a rung or two above the
common run of things, including the land, as uniquely conscious and
reflective beings. The lift in level indicated by the landscape concept does
allow us to reflect on our interactions with the land, but pictures this
knowledge to itself primarily through the metaphor of sight. Sight is also
the metaphor of choice for scientific knowledge as the penetration by the
light of reason of a dark and formless chaos. To describe the land as a
landscape is to privilege the visual over other, more rounded and embod-
ied ways of knowing the land, for example, by walking over it, or by
smelling and tasting its life, from the perspective of predator or prey.
Landscape concepts put a frame between the viewer and the land, dis-
tance from the land, and invite virtual and idealist approaches to the land.
(Can you talk or sing to the landscape, for example, as you can to the
land?) As many have pointed out, visuality has been privileged in western
culture and closely linked with sado-dispassionate rationality because,
unlike other senses, sight requires little in the way of symmetry (one can


see without being seen), reciprocity, or consent, and allows the seer to be
set sharply apart from what is seen. Sight has been interpreted and struc-
tured through an account in which the object of attention is passive and
othered as object by a sado-dispassionate gaze.11
I dont, of course, want to banish the faculty of sight or the term
landscape, but I think we should try to be aware of the baggage of visu-
ality and try to balance it with other senses, metaphors and narratives
where we can. The meta-level of reflection the concept of landscape
invites can be useful, indeed often crucial. But we should be aware of the
penalties of overuse and the dangers of virtualization implicit in the meta-
level hoister. We can imagine that this bit of philosophical technology, the
meta-level hoist, has a serious design fault: it has a tendency to get stuck
on return journeys to the ground floor, and the resulting monopolization
of attention by the meta-level is one of the secret tricks that makes ideal-
ism seem plausible. We must be careful not allow meta-terminology to
dominate, and so I believe we should try, wherever possible, to talk about
and to the land, rather than the landscape.
Of course another way of getting the meta-hoist stuck above ground
level is through the concept of agency. Many philosophers try to impose
consciousness as a condition of agency (and indeed any mentalistic con-
cept)thus confining agency to the human, as well as imposing
unnecessarily high meta-level requirements and demanding unnecessarily
consciousness-based language, a strategy I have identified as over-intellec-
tualizing.12 Over-intellectualizing is linked with an analysis of agency that
splits the act into a separate, conscious decision process followed by a
material action, the whole making up agency. We can see here another
example of the splitting model I referred to earlier, which posits passive
matter and a separate, mentalistic agentic driver. I think we can follow
Wittgenstein towards a more behaviorist and less dualistic and over-intel-
lectualized analysis of agency. Agency is legitimated through permission
to use agentic, intentional vocabulary and to occupy active rather than
passive constructions, for it is this that has been denied the reduced and
passified field of matter. Important also is resistance to splitting the field
into dead and alive, machine and external driver components, for it is
through this splitting that agency is isolated and hived off to the mental-
ized side. On this account of agency as active intentionality, agency need
not and should not be limited to the human or the human-like.

124 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 11(2) 2006

Although recognition of cultural diversity is an important motivation
for talk about cultural landscapes, concepts of the cultural landscape
involve a subtle imposition of the dominant western model that posits a
hegemonic, creative agent conceived as acting on an inert, passive field
treated as instrument (or medium in Sauers terms). Like Aristotles nar-
rative, the cultural landscape narrative recognizes the agency of only one
creative actor, or just one of the parents. We can see the erasure of the
other parent more clearly if we look at a contrasting framework to cul-
ture-reductionism. The monological kind of creation story can be
contrasted with a dialogical kind of story that sees the land as a field of
(product, outcome child/offspring of) multiple interacting and collaborat-
ing agencies which can include humans but is never exhausted by them.
The concept of cultural landscape, despite some ambiguities, slides
more easily into the first monological rather than the second dialogical set
of stories. Focusing exclusively on the human element as creative, as in
stressing the human-surrogate cultural, has the effect of disappearing the
other, frequently much older and more important, form of agency or cre-
ativity, the work of the earth, of the natural world, of nature, in forming
the land, also the agency of the earth itself, the biosphere, the other
species present in and formative of the land. Some critics of culture-reduc-
tionism have suggested the term biocultural landscape, which names na-
ture as well as culture as responsible agents, but the term bio still seems
to restrict agents to living beings rather than including other nonhuman
elements less often seen as alive. So I suggest the terms collaborative or
interactive landscapes, which seem clearer and more open to register-
ing cultural difference and specificity.13
Looking at the land in ecological and geological, as well as human-cul-
tural terms, we must surely see it as the product of multiple, mixed agen-
cies. For any given piece of the earths surface, we can, indeed must, tell a
story of landforms created by motions of the earth, by volcanoes, tsunamis,
earthquakes, meteorites, geological depositions, and weatherings, for ex-
ample. This is only the beginning, for, from an ecological perspective, all
the species belonging to the land influence and maintain the land. The
human is just one species among many here. This means that the outcome
of any given landscape is at a minimum biocultural, a collaborative prod-
uct that its multiple species and creative elements must be credited for.


But it is not even simply a question of recognizing multiple distinct
agencies of equal priority, for in many respects the nonhuman elements
rendered invisible by culture reductionism have priority as enabling,
foundational conditions which make the overlay of cultural elements
possible. There are certainly cases of mutual dependency, where arrays of
flora and fauna depend on culturally-evolved human skills and interven-
tion (for example, regular burning) to survive.14 But there are also many
important cases and respects in which nature is not symmetrically
dependent, is prior to and enables culture rather than vice versa. An
interesting illustration of this dependency and the failure to recognize it
is the recent attempt by Victorian mountain cattlemen to argue, in
response to pressure to remove their ecologically-damaging grazing from
the Alpine National Park, that grazing represents cultural heritage,
which is just as important as natural heritage, if not more important.
This form of culture reductionism suggests that cultural and natural
heritage are largely separate and independent systems existing side by
side, and that we can simply decide to favor the first over the second. The
response from the ecological side has been to point out that this form of
culture is not compatible with the natural systems that support it. Graz-
ing is severely degrading important water producing areas such as alpine
bogs and wetlands, which are too fragile to survive the pressure of graz-
ing and are, in terms of water production and other ecological services,
far more valuable than grazing.15 Ecologically rational behavior must rec-
ognize such priority. The assumption that the environment is a further
commodity we can decide to pay for after we have become richer simi-
larly assumes ecological passivity and the independence (and even
intersubstitutability) of cultural and environmental goods, ignoring the
foundational and enabling character of environmental goods, the way
culture depends on and is supported by nature.

Which collaborators?
There are many culturally variable ways to cut and identify these
multiple collaborative agencies to fit different cultural narratives. The cast
of actors the model of multiple interactive agencies makes available for
the drama of shaping the land can include disputatious or collaborative
humans, divinities and elements, and what some cultures identify as
ancestral creator beings. And the land itself may be conceived as an active

126 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 11(2) 2006

and far from passive element in the creation drama. For the indigenous
cultures discussed by Deborah Rose and Bill Neidjie, for example, the
land is not a passive background but an active presence; it grows you up,
teaches you, misses you, and calls to you.16 Country is a realm of pow-
erful and intentional beings, the creator beings who shaped the land or
who are the land. According to Vandana Shiva,17 such collaborative
models represent the way most non-western cultures have framed human
relationships with the land.
Collaborative models may also include, for suitable contexts, models
of human agents collaborating with what we in the west call nature,
meaning natural systems, other species and elements, envisaged as nonhu-
man agents. A collaborative framework opens the way to seeing all
species as part of an earth family,18 and for indigenous accounts in which
all the species living in and from the land co-create the landand perhaps
all in some sense inherit or own it. This is consistent with a worldview
in which the earth is to be shared between species, and is not exclusively
human property.
A collaborative model allows for many different kinds of agents and
narratives about their creative expression in the land. So there is nothing
conceptually absolute, for this kind of collaborative model, about cutting
the cast of agents into humans and nature. Doing so will be appropriate
in some natural and cultural contexts and inappropriate in others. I think
that over the longer term we should aim to decenter the human as a con-
trast class and draw our distinctions in ways that do not constantly refer
back to the human as central.19 Nevertheless in our present context, the
human/nonhuman contrast remains the site of a crucial drama and dis-
coursethat of the decline of natural systems with which this paper
began and the need for human attention and action to reverse this situa-
tion. I would claim that the human/nature interplay remains crucial in
this context, but not that it has some absolute and eternal status as a way
to divide up the world, or that it is free of problematic nuances and diffi-
culties. Nature sceptics sometimes suggest we have moved past the time
when the concept of nature is needful or useful.20 Elsewhere Ive com-
pared post-naturism to post-feminism, which invokes the retort: it will
be time for post-feminism when we have post-patriarchy. So the corre-
sponding retort for post-naturism is: it will be time for post-naturism
when weve learnt to stop erasing nature and to recognize and nourish the


natural systems that support us. The Millennium Ecosystem Report
shows that we are still far from this goal, and moving still further away.


We can map the monological creation account of land onto the alter-
native model acknowledging multiple agents by treating it as the special
case of erasure, and developing an account of how and why some agents
are foregrounded and others backgrounded or disappeared in collabora-
tive or multiple agencies. For the human/nature case, we can best
understand this by seeing the human/nature division as parallel to other
similar divisions that give rise to backgrounding and hiding agency.
The pattern involved in hegemonic accounts of agency can be seen
most clearly in the context of colonizing relationships. Both Eurocentric
and anthropocentric erasures of agency are suported by larger dualistic
conceptual structures that mark emphatic divisions or hyperseparations
between us and them, superior colonizers and inferior colonized. In
both cases relationships of dualism or binary opposition are created
around the identities of the One and the Other, civilized and primitive
peoples, or human and nonhuman, and the Other is treated as something
to distance from and subdue. Hyperseparation is an emphatic form of
separation that involves much more than just recognizing difference.
Hyper-separation means defining the dominant identity emphatically
against or in opposition to the subordinated identity, by exclusion of their
real or supposed qualities. The function of hyper-separation is to mark
out the Other for separate and inferior treatment through a radical exclu-
sion. Thus colonizers may exaggerate differences, and deny relationship,
conceiving the subordinated party as less than human. The colonized may
be described as stone-age, primitive, as beasts of the forest, and
contrasted with the civilization and reason attributed to the colonizer.21
Hyperseparation between the sphere of the human and that of nature
leads humans to see themselves as outside nature, and correspondingly
to ignore or deny their reliance on biospheric services. Countering hyper-
separation of humans from nature implies recognizing continuity and
hybridity between the human and the natural, and also dependency of
humans on nature. It does not require us to deny natures otherness or
separateness, or to deny or submerge human distinctness from other

128 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 11(2) 2006

species, for example, by the claim that humans are just part of nature.
Humans are part of nature, in the sense that they are subject to ecologi-
cal principles and have the same requirements for a healthy biosphere as
other animals, but they, like all other species, also have their own distinc-
tive species identities and relationships to nature. To counter
hyperseparation, we need a de-polarizing reconception of nonhuman
nature which recognizes the denied space of our hybridity, continuity, and
kinship, and is also able to recognize, in suitable contexts, the difference
of the nonhuman in a non-hierarchical way. We should be suspicious of
hyperseparated senses of human and nature, since to be other (or sep-
arate, distinct) is not the same as to be purely other (or hyperseparated).
A number of paradoxical and sceptical arguments trade on this ambigu-
ity to make it seem that, because of the pervasiveness of human presence
and influence, nature as the purely other, and therefore nature as such,
does not exist. I discuss some of these arguments below.
Another very important feature of hegemonic frameworks is back-
grounding, a form of simultaneous reliance on but disavowal of the
agency of subordinated Others. When the dominating party comes to
believe that they are radically different and superior to the subordinated
party, they are also likely to devalue or deny the Others agency and their
own dependency on this devalued Other, treating it as either inessential
and substitutable or as the unimportant background to their own fore-
ground. Thus womens traditional tasks in house labor and childraising
are treated as inessential, as the background services that make real
work (the work of the male) and achievement possible, rather than as
achievement or as work themselves. In the case of nature, both natures
agency and dependency on nature is denied, systematically, so that
natures order, resistance, and survival requirements are not perceived as
imposing a limit on human goals or enterprises. For example, crucial
biospheric and other services provided by nature and the limits they
might impose on human projects are not considered in accounting or
decision-making. The conceptual means by which this simultaneous
reliance and disavowal is accomplished is through the hegemonic con-
struction of agency
Contemporary hegemonic constructions of agency are the other side
of and are encouraged by hyperbolized conceptions of autonomy con-
joined with individualistic conceptions of subjectivity and agency.22 The


self-made achiever is an hyperseparated and hyperbolized autonomous
self whose illusion of self-containment is built on denying or background-
ing the contributions of subordinated others and re-presenting the joint
product in terms of a hyperbolized individualistic agency.
When the others agency is treated as background or denied, we give
the other less credit than is due to them, we can come to take for granted
what they provide for us, and to starve them of the resources they need
to survive. This is of course the main point of hegemonic construals of
agency and laborthey provide the basis for appropriation of the Others
contribution by the One or center. The profound forgetting of nature
which ensues from the hegemonic construction of agency, the failure to
see otherized nature as a collaborative partner or to understand relations
of dependency on it, is the basis of the now global economic system of
self-maximizing economic rationality in which the maximum is extracted
and not enough is left to sustain the other on which the rational system
is dependent.
Hegemonic constructions of agency that justify appropriation are
especially encouraged in western thinking because its systems of appro-
priation are based on the idea of applying labor to pure nature, as in
Lockes argument.23 The process opens the way for enrichment, but its
other side is that the blinkered vision involved is a problem for prudence
as well as for justice in the case where the One is in fact dependent on this
Other, for the One can gain an illusory sense of their own ontological
independence and ecological autonomy. It is just such a sense that seems
to pervade the dominant cultures contemporary disastrous mispercep-
tions of its ecological relationships. As backgrounding is perhaps the most
hazardous and distorting effect of Othering from a human prudential
point of view, so the reconception of nature in agentic terms as a co-actor
and co-participant in the world is perhaps the most important aspect of
moving to an alternative ethical framework.


How to attribute credit for mixed forms of labor is always a complex
matterthink of the problems that can arise in recognizing the contribu-
tions of others to an academic paper, for example. But when the
hegemonic patterns of backgrounding and denial of agency I have out-
lined are operative, recognizing contributions and apportioning credit

130 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 11(2) 2006

between nature and culture, human and nonhuman, can be especially
complex and involve multiple and cross-cutting denials that overempha-
size or underemphasize the various elements. The sort of pattern of
domination of nature I have outlined has a major bearing on how far and
where agency and labor are recognized, as well as on how the structures
of denial of agency human and nonhumanwork and what they are
designed to achieve. Generally the agency of nature is under-recognized,
but there is an important class of cases that seem to present exceptions to
this rule. In anthropocentric culture, attributions tend to overemphasize
the human (especially the privileged human) and underemphasize or deny
the agency of nature. But they may also underemphasize or hide the social
and overemphasize the natural, for example in the interests of making
outcomes appear less open to change than they really are, or from some
other motive
Numerous examples spring to mind of hegemonic constructions of
agency involving nature. Thus Kate Soper points to the failure to recog-
nize the labor of otherized human groups (the laboring people) and the
human social relations that have gone into places now presented as
nature, for example, the countryside of England.24 As Vandana Shiva
points out, corporations involved in genetic engineering patent as
nature seed varieties the represent the labor of hundreds of generations
of indigenous farmers.25 In Australia, the colonizers denied the possibility
that the indigenous inhabitants could have ecological agency, and land-
scapes that often had substantial indigenous inputs and management
were taken to be in the pure state of nature, including no element of
indigenous human labor in their formation. Nature can be used to hide
human contributions, especially those of non-privileged groups.
Nature can also be used to hide possibilities for social change.
Intelligence and other human characteristics that have a substantial rela-
tionship to nurture, are written down by conservative social forces as
hereditary, as nature, in order to give the inequalities in society they are
associated with an air of inevitability. Certain sorts of focus on eco-catas-
trophe as phenomena of nature, for example of population growth,
preclude any adequate examination of their social aspects and causes.26
Cosmetic strips of unlogged forest along highways in logging areas are
often used to hide destructive logging activities, and give the impression
that there is much more nature around than there actually is so that


destruction of the remainder can continue without objection or hin-
In the case of deceptive naturalness, describing something as nature
tends to be not so much a way to overacknowledge the contributions and
workings of nature as a way to underacknowledge the human social rela-
tions involved and the extent of prior ownership or human construction.
In these contexts we may need to denaturalize, to demote or supple-
ment the emphasis on nature and note the presence of human influences
which have been hidden, although this will rarely involve a complete
denial of the influence of nature. Although these cases seem to be an
exception to our general claim that in dominant anthropocentric culture
natures influence has been denied in favor of overcrediting the human, it
in fact it involves a more complex, multiple set of denials registering mul-
tiple forms of oppression and colonization. We need a complex,
case-sensitive response to these complex denials, involving both natural-
izing and denaturalizing strategies in combination.
We can sum up some of the complex classes of cases and strategies
required as follows:
Type 1: Naturalizing 1: (deceptive naturalness 1)
Counting something as nature in the sense of pure nature when it
in fact has a human contribution (not merely a human influence) hides or
denies the human social relations (culture) that have gone into that con-
struction, often in the interests of making it seem unchangeable, (gender
oppression, womans nature), of appropriating it (the labor of indige-
nous people), or for some other deceptive purpose such as suggesting
there is more of it than there is (the logging case). For these cases, we need
strategies of denaturalizing, that is, of recognizing the denied form of
human agency or work. Note that, although there may be some need for
rebalancing, this rarely if ever requires any complete denial of the nonhu-
man contribution.
Type 2: Over-Humanizing: (deceptive humanness)
Counting something (e.g., a place) as purely human (or cultural)
when it involves the labor of nature jointly with human labor hides or
denies the work of ecological systems and human dependency relations
on it. This is the dominant position, because as we have seen, natures
operations and contributions to our joint human-nature undertakings are
overwhelmingly denied or backgrounded in the dominant culture. To

132 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 11(2) 2006

counter this, we need strategies of naturalizing in the sense of recogniz-
ing natures agency, for example, as in acknowledging and providing for
the continuation of ecosystem services.
Type 3: Naturalizing 2: (deceptive naturalness 2)
Given the structure of type 2, one common way to hide certain
human social relations and contributions (e.g., to a place) is to count the
human groups involved themselves as nature. Then their contributions
will not need to be credited or noticed. So in this case too we need to
respond by to denaturalizing, in the sense of foregrounding and distin-
guishing the human groups concerned themselves and showing how their
role has not been credited. But at the same time we need to naturalize, to
credit the nonhuman agency that has not been credited, and to under-
stand the many ways in which we are all, from the margin or the center,
part of nature, reliant on natures well-being and services.
Some groups historically identified with the body and the animal,
such as indigenous people, women, and those who do manual work are
especially likely to have the outcome of their labor represented as
nature rather than as mutual constructions between humans and
nature. This hegemonic construction of agency seems to be what lies
behind the case of patenting seeds, the case of indigenous people in Aus-
tralia, and the case of the agricultural workers whose bodily labors over
generations helped form the countryside now seen as nature. The basic
motivations for such denials of their contribution is clearit opens the
way ethically for appropriation by the more powerful or prestigious of
what the Others have helped create. Thus Australia was seen as terra
nullius, the land of no one, open to appropriation because indigenous
people were counted as semi-animal nomads, and their ecological
agency in and attachment to the land discounted.
It is important to note that this strategy relies on discounting the
agency of the nonhuman sphere, that is, nature itself. It has been possible
to discount the agency of subordinated groups of humans by counting
them or their agency as nature only because natures agency is itself nor-
mally denied and backgrounded in western culture. Now Soper
problematizes cases of type 1, but not any of the remainder, and gives us
an inadequate sense of our embeddedness in nature by failing to prob-
lematize cases of type 2 and 3. Cases of type 3 make up an important class
of cases where the agency of certain groups of humans in the land is hid-


den, but we cannot understand type 2 cases without understanding type 3
cases. We can be grateful to Soper for clarifying cases of type 1. But we
still need to take account of the other two types, and this means under-
standing and countering the dominant traditions denial of recognition to
nature and natures agency. As deception can move in either the direction
of culture or that of nature, so our countering of cases of deceptive natu-
ralness needs to be balanced and supplemented by countering cases of
deceptive humanness.

Indigeneity and Wilderness Scepticism

A major idea behind contemporary uses of the concept of cultural
landscape is to assert the ecological and cultural agency of indigenous
people and their alteration of the land that is clearly denied in the colo-
nial concept of terra nullius and thought to be denied in concepts of
nature and wilderness. This is also often a motivation for nature scepti-
cism. The idea that the Australian continent, or even substantial parts of
it, are pure nature, is insensitive to the claims of indigenous peoples and
denies their record as ecological agents who have left their mark upon the
land. Indigenous critics such as Marcia Langton have rightly objected that
such a strategy colludes with the colonial concept of Australia as terra
nullius and with the colonial representation of Aboriginal people as
merely animal and as parasites on nature.27
Nature scepticism based on the association of nature with terra nul-
lius has important points at its hearta perception of the way certain
exclusionary and puritybased concepts of nature have been used as
genocidal conceptsbut these points are mixed up with some much
more confused and problematic assumptions. It is important to note that
certain wilderness claims have been (and are still being) used in certain
contexts to justify the annexation of new worlds, by hiding some kinds of
human agency. Concepts of wilderness as an absence of agency lay the
foundations for private property by erasing all other claimants (both
indigenous human and nonhuman) as presences that might constrain
annexation.28 As we have seen, this cannot only be conceded but
explained and elaborated in the larger context of an account of agency
and its hegemonic development in situations of appropriation and colo-
Once we have grasped the bigger picture of hegemonic systems for

134 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 11(2) 2006

disappearing agency, we can begin to appreciate the potential for nonhu-
man agencies to suffer the same fate of disappearance as indigenous
agency. To recognize that both nature and indigenous peoples are subject
to colonization, both sides need to rethink, relocate, and redefine their
concepts of wilderness and nature within a larger anticolonial critique. A
generalized nature scepticism then appears as a very indiscriminate and
human-centered way to rectify the denial of indigenous agency, one which
replaces one victim of denial by another and carries the heavy cost of con-
firming the dangerous backgrounding of nature. These costs resulting
from nature scepticism are unnecessary, for there is no necessary incom-
patibility between recognizing denied forms of human agency and of
natural agency, provided we make some simple but important distinctions
between different senses and concepts of wilderness and nature. To rec-
ognize that both nature and indigenous peoples have been colonized, we
need to rethink, relocate, and redefine our protective concepts for nature
within a larger anti-colonial critique.
It is crucial for understanding this issue to make certain distinctions
between wilderness and nature, which in set-theory terms turn on the dif-
ference between intersection and exclusion. Wilderness, in its colonial
meaning, is a polarized dualistic category that makes a claim to total
human exclusion, while nature as a category only makes a claim to a
measure of independence of the human. The difference between making a
claim to some independent agency and insisting on full independence of
the human is very great indeedas great as the difference between some
and all. To put it simply, wilderness requires complete independence,
while nature only requires some independence. One makes a claim to
exclude all human influence, the other makes a claim to elements of inde-
pendence from the human. The first claim is much stronger than the
second. It may be reasonable, in the present context, to doubt that there
is any part of the earth has not felt human influence, but to doubt that
the world itself has elements of independence is an indication of the need
for therapy, philosophical (Wittgenstein) or personal, depending on the
kind of doubt it is.29
The distinction I am making here between nature and wilderness is a
simple one and draws on several sets of logical distinctions, for example,
in set theorybetween intersection and exclusion senses of nature, and of
negation accordingly in the term nonhuman, between an all and a


some claim as the distinction between complete and partial independ-
ence. It draws too on the related distinction between hyperseparation
(emphatic separation of exclusion) and simple separation or difference.
Where the term nonhuman indicates a positive presence of other-than-
human agents, there is an implication of independence, but no
implication of human absence. Thus there is no incompatibility between
recognizing the presence of nature or the nonhuman, as the claim that
there are elements of independent agency in the land, and recognizing a
human presence, indigenous or otherwise. The only incompatibility is
between recognizing indigenous agency or influence in the land and the
claim that the land was wildernessin the purist, virgin sense in which
wilderness means the land has evolved in complete exclusion of human
influence. In short, indigenous objections to the strong, colonial concept
of wilderness cannot validly be extended to the much weaker concept of
nature. Thus the indigenous case for wilderness scepticism does not jus-
tify or lend force to a generalized nature scepticism.
But given the apparent importance of wilderness to conservationists,
the implication that wilderness is implicated in colonial annexation and
genocide is surely bad enough. The importance of the virgin concept of
wilderness for conservation practice is contested. Some have argued that
there is an independent case for moving to less oppositional and dualized
concepts, since the virgin concept creates many difficulties for environ-
mental understandings and activism.30 The purity of virgin nature is
highly suspect, and the dualistic reading yields a concept of nature which
is incompatible with and unhelpful for many everyday usages, as when
we speak of nature in our daily lives, on the farm, or in the suburbs. It is
certainly understandable that indigenous advocates would strongly reject
the pristine concept defined in terms of nature/culture dualism, because it
is the one under which indigenous people were denied full humanity for
failing to evidence European-style culture. It is not so clear why anyone
would take this to be the only concept of nature available. The virgin
usage is only one reading of the highly variable concept of nature, one
that was dominant mainly in the colonial past.
The case for treating colonial virgin wilderness concepts as genoci-
dal concepts does not extend convincingly either to concepts of nature
or to the main contemporary concepts of wilderness. The role the latter
play in contemporary conservation strategies, in national park formation,

136 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 11(2) 2006

for example, is now rarely that of making a general claim to past purity
or to complete exclusion of human influence, but more often is that of
prioritizing nonhumans in the event of conflict with human interests. In
the current situation where nature is hard-pressed, allocating some areas
for nonhuman priority is justifiable if we are to begin sharing the earth
fairly between species. Many conflicts between different species can be
negotiated, to be sure, and land can be shared between humans and other
species. Certainly we can, and should, do far more of this sharing and
negotiation in human living areas than we do today. But it is a feature of
species difference, as opposed perhaps to social difference, that not all
such conflicts can be negotiated. For example, the conflict between pred-
ators (whether humans or nonhumans) and prey cannot be negotiated by
predators agreeing to eat someone else, but often requires effecting some
degree of separation, having special, identifiable areas where the interests
of the politically weaker, nonhuman party do not always have to take a
back seat, and where humans go at their own risk. This function of pro-
viding some pieces of the earth where the nonhuman has ethical priority,
whether or not it is called wilderness (and given the disreputable or mixed
history of the concept I think another term than wilderness would be
preferable here), is essential if we hope to carry biodiversity into the
future. This sense of wilderness recognizes as precious a nonhuman pres-
ence (or set of presences), which is not at all the same as claiming absence
of human influence in the land.


The idea that all nature is a human creation because it now shows
some human influence rests on prioritizing the human or cultural element
in mixtures of nature and culture; a comparable argument in the human
case would license the claim that someone was our creation and lacked
all independence (was patentable) because they had taken some sort of
influence from us. But such cultural reduction, which is often associated
with certain forms of postmodernism, would abolish conceptual condi-
tions for sensitivity to natures limits, and to the variations and
interweavings of the human and nonhuman narratives an ecological con-
sciousness aims to foster. These arguments and stretched senses that
systematically overstate the human contribution and understate natures
contribution testify to the growing extent of human insulation and self-


enclosure. Those postmodernists who employ them may think of them-
selves as in opposition to the dominant tradition,31 but are in fact at one
with its dualizing approach in continuing to represent the Other, nature,
as an absence or void, and to demote its agency.
A major Australian advocate of this hyperbolized account of the
human contribution to forming the land is Tim Flannery. In several places
Flannery has described Australia as a vast, 47, 000 year old human arte-
fact. For example, in his recent essay Beautiful Lies (2003, 41),
Flannery writes: If we look back on the fossil record, its not an exagger-
ation to say that Aboriginal fire and hunting literally made the Australian
environment that Europeans first encountered. It was a vast, 47,000 year
old human artefact, designed to provide maximal food and comfort to its
inhabitants in the most sustainable manner.
The OED defines artefact as the product of human art and work-
manship . . . as distinct from a similar object naturally produced. The
picture of Australia as a human product presents creativity as the prerog-
ative of the human and denies the role of forces much older and more
powerful than the human in shaping the continent. The artefact terminol-
ogy is a strong restatement of Sauers concept of the human as the only
truly creative agent and the land as a passive, instrumentalized medium
or tool shaped to human design. This terminology is presented as the way
to recognize indigenous contributions that were previously denied, (the
main beautiful lie in Flannerys title) but, as we have seen, it is neither
the only or the best way to think about our continent and the combina-
tion of human and nonhuman forces that have shaped it.
The systematic overestimation of human agency and underestimation
of nonhuman agency is fed by the tool imagery and its human-centered-
ness. The implications of over-estimating human control and agency
include not only the failure we have noted to observe and value natures
creativity and services, but also exaggerating the potential for control of
natural systems and processes, denying the need for negotiation with
nature, and reinforcing settler traditions of forcing the land to adapt to us
rather than vice versa. An assumed polarity of pure nature vs. pure cul-
ture governs our choices, disappearing mixtures and collaborative
outcomes, including the biocultural. This form of polarization plays a role
in Flannerys artefact claim, as the move from (a) Australias ecology has
elements of human influence to (b) Australian ecology exhibits only
human agency, is a cultural artefact.

138 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 11(2) 2006

Flannerys human-centered framework leads to a failure to acknowl-
edge natures agency and to a systematic overestimation of the extent and
effectiveness of human agency which has appeared in arguments about
the role of human-induced burning and climate change in the bioforma-
tion of the Australian continent. The main scientific basis for Flannerys
claim that Australia is a human artefact is the idea that indigenous burn-
ing was responsible for transforming the continent from rainforest with
megafauna to the largely sclerophyll form we see today, so that human
alteration of the land by burning is responsible for the current array of
flora and fauna. But recent ecological work has pointed strongly to non-
human agency, for example, climate change, as a major, and possibly the
main, reason for megafauna extinction, creating the woodland conditions
that favored humans and reduced the megafauna. Even the dominance of
eucalypts so characteristic of Australian landscapes, a feature usually
attributed to indigenous intervention, should be seen as an example of
mixed human and nonhuman agency rather than purely human agency;
a recent article by Tim Low envisages eucalypts themselves as ecological
agents in this context, because they selected for their own dominance over
mesophyll flora by developing growth habits that promote fire.32
Flannerys thoughts on sustainability draw strongly on dualistic tra-
ditions of naturalizing gender through placing rationality in opposition to
emotionality, (or reason/emotion dualism),33 and on the associated divi-
sion of environmental concerns into hard and soft, both implicitly and
explicitly gendered. Concern with the sustainability of systems that obvi-
ously impact human welfare such as salination and river system
deterioration, is portrayed as hard and tough, whereas concern for ani-
mal welfare and whales is portrayed as soft, emotional, feminine, and
irrational. Indeed, Flannery often seems to identify the main enemy as the
feminized environment movement, which is convicted of emotionality in
its concern with other species, and of irrationality in failing to pay enough
attention to the hard projects Flannery presents as scientific, rational
and sound.34
This results in much unnecessary polarization, and a simplistic polit-
ical model in which society consists of a zero sum game in which more
attention and concern for koalas and whales, to nonhumans loved for
their diversity and wonder rather than what they can contribute to our
coffers, must be entirely at the expense of hard human sustainability
issues of soil and water conservation, salination, and land clearance. The


difficulties environmentalists have in getting attention for crucial land
management issues are portrayed as a conspiracy on the part of soft con-
servationists to take public sympathy and attention away from the real
issues, those of hard conservationists. A sustainability agenda of casti-
gating as an irrational diversion the direction of environmental concern
to anything that is not an issue of immediate human survival or self-inter-
est underlies Flannerys advocacy of whaling and castigation of greenies.35
Sustainability is the concept invoked to justify Flannerys conclusion that
whaling is good for whales, and to support the assumption that anything
less than maximum sustainable exploitation of other species is irrational.
But this is not the only way to understand sustainability. On an alter-
native view of sustainability as involving nourishing what sustains us,
rational sustainability is not at all the same as human self-interest, and
compassion, generosity, and care for other species are far from irrational.
In reality our lack of sensitivity to nonhuman nature is the other side of
our failure to understand our dependency on it, so the presentation of
sympathy for nonhumans as irrational depends on a false choice of non-
human versus human welfare. False choices based on the dualisms of
emotion and reason, nature and culture, as well as a false choice of pure
nature versus pure culture lie behind Flannerys choice of hard ration-
ality and condemnation of soft environmentalism.


The cynicism about the concept of nature that is often associated
with concepts of cultural landscapes is fed by several sources, one of
which, as we have seen, is the indigenous argument, combined with some
rather confused thinking about boundaries that fails to distinguish nature
and wilderness.36 Another major source of nature cynicism and the thrust
to reduce nature to culture is the continuing appeal, especially in the
humanities, of philosophical idealism. The major idealist argument here
is that all land is grasped through a cultural framework, and this premise
leads the nature sceptic to say that all landscapes are cultural and thus
human-produced, even human artefacts perhaps.
It is hard to contest the claim that the land is grasped always through
the prism of culture. But then, so is everything that is grasped conceptu-
ally by any group of cultural beings. We do not usually go on to insist on

140 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 11(2) 2006

putting cultural before everything we speak of, all the objects of thought
and perception this can apply tothe cultural shoe, the cultural sock, the
cultural lake, the cultural sky. Yet these similarly are grasped in and
through a culturally variable framework of thought. So why must we
insist on doing this in relation to the land? If we have to call everything
we can think of cultural, we get the meta-hoist seriously stuck. If we end
up considering the Sun or the planet Uranus cultural landscapes simply
because we cultured ones have thought of them or seen photographs of
them, clearly we have entered the classic territory of philosophical ideal-
ism, in which we remain forever trapped inside ideas, with no exit to the
ground-floor world. This idealizing argument would rob the concept of
cultural construction of any genuine contrast class and weaken it to the
point of triviality or meaninglessness.37
Nature scepticism is often, of course, a reaction, if a mistaken one, to
the difficulties of traditional western dualistic conceptions of nature and
culture, which are conspicuously inadequate for thinking about the land
in our contemporary context. Nature/culture dualism distorts the way we
can represent agency in the land, obliging us to view it as either pure
nature or as a cultural product, not nature at all, thus hyperseparating
nature and culture and representing nature as an absence of the human.
Hyperseparation and homogenization lead us to classify the land as pure
nature or wilderness, in ways that obscure its continuity with and
dependency on culture, and erase the human stories interwoven with it,
especially those of its indigenous people. On the other side, conceiving a
place according to the opposite homogenized pole of culture has the same
distorting result because nonhuman influences and creativities must be
erased or reduced. Neither way can we adequately recognize the unique
interwoven pattern of nature and culture which makes up the story of a
place, and makes each place unique. Recovering the lost ground of conti-
nuity dualistic conception has hidden from us allows us to conceive the
field in more continuous and less regimented ways, recognizing nature in
what has been seen as pure culture and culture in what has been seen as
pure nature.
Similarly, traditions cast in the mold of Nature/Culture dualism tend
to assume that human life takes place in the sphere of culture, while non-
human life is part of the radically different sphere of naturethat is, they
assume separate casts of characters in separate dramas, nature for nonhu-


mans, and culture for humans. The home of the human is the domain of
individual consciousness, of ethics, politics and morality, of social change
and justice. In this tradition of apartness and segregation, the ecological
side of human existence, of human impacts on and inclusion in ecosys-
tems, is routinely ignored or denied.38 Humans stand apart as
irreplaceable and unique individuals, who gain their right to control and
sacrifice other species from their rational superiority. Nonhumans on the
other hand are cast in a very different story, in which they figure as
replaceable members of much more holistic groupings such as popula-
tions and species, as characters in Heraclitean ecological narratives of
energy flows and exchanges in the food web, in nature.
An ecological consciousness strongly challenges these entrenched
misconceptions and segregations, insisting that both casts of characters
are in both dramas. As the discipline of ecology, developed originally from
animal studies, has shown us, humans are indeed in the ecological drama,
not as an audience looking on but as actors on the stage, and the great
task of sustainability is desegregation, to accept our ecological identity
and situate human life and settlement in ways that maintain the long-term
functioning of the ecosystems we participate in. Likewise, the various ani-
mal/nature respect positions and movements have shown us that
nonhumans too are in the culture drama, both as creators of their own
cultures, especially in relation to place, and as crucial stakeholders in ade-
quate human systems of ethics, politics and justice. Ethical and political
considerations are certainly applicable to our relationships with them,
and in varying ways to their own relationships with one another. The
other great task of countering nature-culture dualism becomes that of sit-
uating our relations with the nonhuman world in ethical and political
Critics of traditions of the hyperseparation of nature and culture,39
such as Donna Haraway, have been right to reject the picture of segrega-
tion and stress the ways the dramas are imbricated in each other. They do
not run in separate theaters, as in parallel universes, but have important
relationships to each other it is our task to try to understand. Where these
critics have not been right, however, is to go on from these insights to
embrace the indistinguishability of nature and culture, indicated by the
use of the combined term naturecultures. The assumption that
nature/culture frameworks are segregated and hyperseparate is one of the

142 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 11(2) 2006

foundational illusions of western culture, and the first point of an ecolog-
ical consciousness must be to correct it. But although we should reject the
segregation of casts, it doesnt follow that the dramas themselves are just
the same, are indistinguishable, or that one can be reduced to the other.
Although this is the conclusion often drawn from objections to hypersep-
aration, it is not warranted by the logic of dualism or negation.
Differences between segregated and hyperseparated groups (for example,
men and women, whites and blacks), are often distorted and hyper-
bolized, usually for political purposes, but we cannot conclude from this
that the groups themselves are indistinguishable, that there are no salient
differences between them.
In the case of nature, however, valid objections to hyperseparation
and to the way science naturalizes political constructions of the nonhu-
man sphere40 are taken to validate inseparability and reductions of nature
to culture. This rival, indeed reversal, reduction of nature to culture
appeals as a counter-agenda for the humanities to the naturalizing agenda
of science and its blindness to cultural construction. The seductions of
idealism and social constructionism are again employed to support the
culture-reductionist project. Nature is a product of culture, Cecile Jack-
son asserts baldly. The meaning of nature is dependent on historically
and culturally specific understandings, which reflect gender differences as
well as other social divisions.41 The plausibility of this argument seems
to rest on a simple use/mention confusion. Meanings and concepts may
be cultural products, but it does not follow that what they designate are
also, or we are forced to the extreme idealist conclusion that the entire
universe, including distant stars we know nothing about, is a cultural con-
Donna Haraway employs a more subtle but essentially similar semi-
otic argument to support the conclusion that nature and culture cannot
be separated, arguing for a very strong form of nature/culture fusion that
involves implosions of the discursive realms of nature and culture in the
concept of naturecultures. Natureculture is one word but weve inher-
ited it as a gapped reality. . . .42 Haraways underlying philosophy envis-
ages reality as made up of fused material-semiotic entities and empha-
sizes the absolute simultaneity of materiality and semiosis...the
inextricability of these two elements as well as the deeply historically con-
tingent quality of it all.43 Haraway is not a classical idealist in that she


does not prioritize ideas or meanings as the only or primary reality, but it
is not clear how this natureculture position escapes the well-known dif-
ficulties of idealism. The world of material-semiotic entities still has no in-
dependence of its conception or conceivers. If humans are identified as the
only or primary conceivers or communicators, the position implies a
strong form of human-centeredness. Aspects of the world prior to or un-
known to the human sphere become inconceivable, as in idealism, and the
humanidentified semiotic sphere takes on exaggerated importance as
co-constitutor of the world.
What is lost when we refuse to acknowledge difference between
nature and culture, or when we accept an idealist or social construction-
ist reduction of nature to culture? There may be a range of situations in
which they are hard to separate, but there are are an important range of
others in which recognizing their difference is crucialincluding ecology,
often engaged in discriminating anthropogenic factors that are under
human control. First, as we saw in the case of High Country grazing, we
lose the ability to deal with cases of conflict between nature and culture,
since conflict implies distinguishable elements. Second, we lose something
that is crucially important in the context of the ecological crisis, the idea
of constraints or limits, which as Haraway herself notes, is one of the
meanings carried by the concept of nature. The foil for culture, nature is
the zone of constraints, of the given, and of matter as resource; nature is
the necessary raw material for human action, the field for the imposition
of choice, and the corollary of mind.44
I think we should uncouple the various meanings here, which lump
together the hyperseparated concept of nature as a mindless instrumental
(resource) field oppositional to choice-imposing culture with the further
meaning of nature as a zone of constraint or resistance. There is an impor-
tant ambiguity in the way the foil is imagined, as resource or as
independent agency, and a corresponding difference in the way constraint
is recognized, as obstacle vs. difference, mastery vs. respect. The brute
matter or mindless resource construction Haraway associates with
nature is aligned with a reluctant recognition of limits, as unreasonable
obstacles which issue a challenge to overcome, conquer, and control. In
the warrior mode of heroism this construction helps form the imaginary
of a science preoccupied with the imposition of human choice. Another
way is through envisaging limit as resistance arising from the projects of

144 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 11(2) 2006

independent systems and agencies recognized as legitimate further occu-
pants and constitutors of a fruitfully shared world. This is the friendlier
mode of encounter, respect, negotiation, and (possibly mutual) adjust-
ment. An ecological consciousness would aim to replace the first form of
recognition, by the second, but could continue to think of nature as a
zone of constraint. Distinguishing these forms of recognition of limit
makes it possible to reject the mindless resource aspect of traditional
meaning in favor of respect for independent agency, while retaining what
is important in the idea of constraint, the givenness or thrownness of
nature, its priority, temporal or foundational, to the human sphere, and
thus its role as limit.
Haraway is right that the idea of limit or constraint, whether con-
strued in terms of mastery or respect, is central to concept of nature. As
we saw in section 5, the dialectic of conservative versus radical under-
standings of nature, the tug-of-war over natures extent, turns on this
constraint meaning in which nature demarcates the zone of acceptance
of limits, versus culture as a zone of freedom, choice, and challenge to
apparent limits. The acceptance of limit is what the conservative natural-
ization of unjust distributions is about, what the attempt to discover an
unchangeable human nature or female nature which legitimates them is
about, all of which the radical rejection of nature is designed to chal-
lenge. In this context it has seemed radical to reject both limits and nature
indiscriminately, but this project has often taken the dubiously radical
form of reversal, retaining the mastery interpretation of the limits pre-
sented by nature as unreasonable obstacles to human self-realization
rather than as limits on human self-expansion created by the presence of
nonhuman others, and differing from conservatism only in minimizing
rather than maximizing their extent.
An age of ecological crises, as we press the oceans, the atmosphere, the
ecosystems, the species, to their limits of survival to meet our demands, is
a time to acknowledge limits. We need a new dialectic of nature, culture,
and boundaries that retains the radical objective of denaturalizing and
opening to question existing social power relations and distributions, but
discards the automatic radical tendency to reject nature as limit in reaction
to the conservative naturalizing agenda of modernity. A new dialectic will
foster ecologically-informed dialogue about what we can aim to change or
control and what we cannot, what we must adjust to, and which bound-


aries we should respect. This dialogue on the self/other boundary will
hardly be facilitated if it must start by imploding nature/culture discourses
and refusing conceptual expression to difference. Erasing difference in nar-
rative here means failure to respect important boundaries, between aspects
of the world we humans have constructed (and might have constructed
otherwise), and aspects that register the agency and operation of inde-
pendent systems, processes, and cycles we do not control. Certainly each
sphere of nature and culture may be impure, may have more of the other
in it than we have been wont to admit, but implosion is a poor way to deal
with issues of gradation and purity, one that is complicit with the domi-
nant narrative of control and supports the dangerous illusion that nature
is no less malleable than culture. The recognition of nature as limit is
recognition of the foundational elements of the world that not only sup-
port but literally ground our lives, not as tradeable conveniences but as un-
compromisable primary enablers. An ecological discourse may certainly
prefer alternative terminology to that of nature used here, but the recogni-
tion of limits that is lost in nature denial must be basic to it.

Nature scepticism and idealism are deadends in the quest for a route
to an ecologically-sensitive humanities consciousness. Culture reduction-
ism cannot distinguish between presenting the zone of nature as one of
options and trade-offs, and treating it as foundational enabler whose sur-
vival must constrain our choices. I have tried to suggest ways we might
develop alternative accounts of nature that start from our ecological con-
text, taking account of what is valid in the indigenous, anti-dualist, and
sceptical critique of nature and discarding the idealist and human-cen-
tered elements. Our argument aimed to show that concepts of nature need
not involve the denial of indigenous presence in the land, that we can
reject nature/culture dualism without rejecting difference and limits, and
that an ecological recognition of nature as a zone of limits need not sup-
port a conservative agenda naturalizing social injustice. Perhaps we are
closer to being able to reconcile ecological, indigenous, and radical social
change projects. That has been my aim.

146 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 11(2) 2006

1. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Reports, UNEP, 2005, forthcoming,
Island Press. The Report speaks variously of ecosystems, ecosystem serv-
ices, nature services, and nature, with mounting levels of generality.
2. Genevieve Lloyd, The Man of Reason (London: Methuen, 1984); Elizabeth
Spelman, The Inessential Woman. (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1988); Val Plum-
wood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London: Routledge, 1993).
3. If the master possesses reason, and the slave body, the master is essential to
the slaves welfare, as Aristotle remarks, for the slave would be mindless
and will-less without him. The pattern supplies agency attributions that
justify power relations and the profitable interventions of rational middle-
4. This model is suggested in Platos Timaeus and elaborated in Aristotle.
5. The classic examples are Australia, Rhodesia, and the US. In the latter case,
the idea that the land has no prior human labor underlies models justify-
ing colonial annexation of Native American lands and the formation of
private property.
6. As argued in Val Plumwood, Wilderness Skepticism and Wilderness Dual-
ism, in J. B. Callicott and M. Nelson (eds.) The Great New Wilderness
Debate. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 652690, and Envi-
ronmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. (London: Routledge,
2002); terra nullius is one of these. The term first nature goes back to
classical literature, but is ambiguous between pure nature with no influ-
ence of the human, (human being the privileged source of contrast), and
the idea of what was there before some more specific context of or pro-
posal for (humanized) change: nature has both historical (pure) and
relative (the prior presence) senses.
7. P. 7. We can see similar erasures of nonhuman agencies in such stock
phrases of geography as: Making (empty ?) spaces into places, where the
latter is assumed to be an exclusively human activity. Also in the reduction
of land to culture implicit in Sauers idea of landscape as ideology, the
product of human customs, traditions, and life.
8. For example, Pearce F. Lewis, Axioms for Reading the Landscape Some
Guides to the American Scene, in D. W. Meinig (ed). The Interpretation of
Ordinary Landscapes, Geographical Essays (London: Oxford University
Press, 1979), states that It is both proper and important to think of cul-
tural landscapes as nearly everything we can see when we go outdoors.
This seems a more timid but equally unviable form of culture reduction-
9. Some have argued a similar case that the dominant Christian model, as
exemplified in the Virgin Mary, treats the mother as passive medium. See,
for example, Mary OBrien, The Politics of Reproduction (Boston, MA:
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981).


10. The original is found in the National Library of Australia.
11. See Teresa Brennan, History After Lacan (London: Routledge, 1996).
12. See Plumwood 2002.
13. Perhaps interactive is the more general term of choice here, since not all
human-influenced land can be described as collaborative. Only some cases
of natureculture interaction involve working fruitfully or harmoniously
together, others involve destruction or disruption of the work of one
agency by another. If we mean by collaborative working harmoniously
together for an agreed end, we cant reasonably call a gully of Gondwanic
rainforest disfigured by the removal of tree ferns for sale a collaborative
landscape. But there are broad senses in which a piece of work, a report
for example, may be collaborative even though those involved in it have
limited areas of disagreement.
14. See Deborah Bird Rose, Reports from a Wild Country (Sydney: UNSW
Press, 2004).
15. A similar fallacy appears in many pro-whaling and other arguments that ap-
peal to tradition (alias cultural heritage). Traditions that promote species
extinction or land degradation are prime candidates for replacement.
16. See Bill Ne idjie, Kakadu Man (Canberra: Mybrood: P/L, 1986) and Rose
17. See Vandana Shiva, Democratising Biology: Reinventing Biology from a
Feminist, Ecological and Third World Perspective, in Linda Birke and
Ruth Hubbard (eds.) Reinventing Biolog, (Indianapolis: University of Indi-
anapolis Press, 1995), pp. 5074.
18. Shiva 1995.
19. As I argued in Plumwood 2002.
20. See Donna Haraway, Modest Witness @Second Millennium (New York:
Routledge 1997).
21. For examples see Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979).
22. Lorraine Code, The Perversion of Autonomy and the Subjection of
Women, in Catriona Mackenzie and Natalie Stoljar (eds.) Relational
Autonomy : Feminist Perspectives on Autonomy, Agency and the Social Self
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 181212. 23 For details see
Plumwood 1998.
24. Kate Soper, What is Nature? London: Routledge, 1994).
25. See Shiva 1995.
26. For a critique of this tendency, see Giovanna DiChiro, Nature as Commu-
nity: The Convergence of Environment and Social Justice, in Michael
Goldman (ed). Privatizing Nature : Political Struggles for the Global Com-
mons (London: Pluto, 1998), 120143.
27. Marcia Langton, What Do We Mean by Wilderness? Wilderness and terra
nullius in Australian Art, The Sydney Papers. The Sydney Institute, Vol. 8
no. 1, (1996) pp. 1031.

148 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 11(2) 2006

28. See Plumwood 1998; Mark Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian
Removal and the Making of the National Parks (New York: Oxford, 1999;
John ONeill,Wilderness, Cultivation, and Appropriation, Philosophy
and Geography, Vol. 5 no. 1 (2002), pp. 3550; Andro Linklater, Measur-
ing America: How the United States was Shaped by the Greatest Land Sale
in History (London: HarperCollins, 2002).
29. Wittgenstein in The Investigations famously refers to philosophy as ther-
apyfor ailing concepts.
30. See Arturo Gomez-Pompa and Andrea Kaus, Taming the Wilderness
Myth, BioScience Vol. 42, no. 4, 1992, pp. 271279; William Cronon,
Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England
(New York: Hill and Wang, 1983); The Trouble with Wilderness: or, Get-
ting Back to the Wrong Nature, in William Cronon (ed.} Uncommon
Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995),
pp. 6990; Val Plumwood, Towards a Progressive Naturalism, Capital-
ism, Nature, Socialism, Vo.l 12, no. 4, (December 2001), pp. 332.
31. This tradition, often situated as the dominant culture of the west, is to be
identified historically rather than geographically. See Carolyn Merchant,
The Death of Nature (London: Wildwood House, 1980), and Reinventing
Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture (New York: Routledge, 2003).
32. See Tim Low, The New Nature (Melbourne: Viking, 2002), and Wild
Things: Born to Burn, forthcoming; R. W. Mutch, Wildland Fires and
Ecosystemsa Hypothesis, Ecology Vol. 51, no. 6, (1970) pp. 1046
33. See Plumwood 1993.
34. Tim Flannery, Beautiful Lies: Population and Environment in Australia,
Quarterly Essay Issue 9, 2003, pp. 173. When you get to the discussion of
the real issues (sustainability) it is something of an anti-climax to discover
that after all these have not been neglected because our attention has been
distracted by whales and koalas but because the market values that have
been allocated to ecosysytem maintenance by economic rationalists ignore
environmental services and environmental flows, and for other reasons of
political structure that remain unanalyzed in Flannerys work.
35. As opposed to the generally friendly assessment of kangaroo hunters, for
example, in Tim Flannery, Country (Melbourne: Text, 2004).
36. I discuss other sources in Plumwood 1998.
37. Thus we can no longer make sense of unexpectedly discovering (for exam-
ple ,by finding indigenous artefacts) that a particular landscape thought to
be natural was really cultural, since all conceivable landscapes are auto-
matically cultural ab initio.
38. Or, it is assumed that inclusion in nature is a relic of an earlier, primitive
stage of human existence, we civilized ones having found freedom from


39. Hyperseparation at the conceptual level, the radical rejection of kinship,
and exaggeration of differences, is usually accompanied by strong forms of
segregation at the level of social arrangements.
40. See especially Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature
in the World of Modern Science (new York: Routledge, 1989).
41. Cecile Jackson, Women/Nature or Gender History? A Critique of Ecofem-
inist Development, Journal of Peasant Studies 20 (3): pp. 39697.
42. Donna Haraway, How Like a Leaf (New York: Routledge, 2000) pp. 105
106. Note that there is a crucial ambiguity in the concept of the gap, as the
maximum gap of hyperseparation versus the minimum gap of difference.
43. Haraway 2000, p. 137.
44. Haraway 1997, p. 102.

150 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 11(2) 2006