When confronted with crisis, one must ask what it is that is in crisis. When it comes to what has been termed the environmental—or ecological—crisis, this question of what is in crisis immediately complexifies. The crisis itself may be that we cannot simply apply a homogenous label to what is unfolding everywhere around, before, and even inside of us. If there is a crisis of nature, and humans are causing it, then knowing what nature and humanity are, what their relationship is, and if they can even be distinguished or differentiated from each other, is crucial to the survival of countless species, including our own, and the ecosystems which these species constitute.
Certain contemporary ecological thinkers have challenged the barrier—constructed by dominant aspects of Western civilization—between the concepts of nature and humanity with a variety of different approaches. These challenges come in the form of Val Plumwood’s ecofeminism, Timothy Morton’s dark ecology, Slavoj Zizek’s ideas of interdependence and the barrier of Included and Excluded, Neil Evernden’s concepts of ecological interrelatedness, and Holmes Rolston’s response to the deconstruction of ecological terminology, among many others. Each of these approaches seeks to address and break down the dualism held between subject and object, primarily as maintained in the separation of humanity from nature.
Val Plumwood’s ecofeminist approach, as encapsulated in her book Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason, uses methods of analogy to read one system of thought into another to think through enculturated dualisms between male/female, rational/emotional, Self/Other, subject/object, and of course, human/nature. She addresses the problems of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism, systemic remoteness, and hegemonic centrism at multiple levels as embodied not only by dominant rationalistic approaches but also by a variety of ecological perspectives, from animal rights advocacy to deep ecology. Plumwood sees humanity as being faced with “two historic tasks that arise from the rationalist hyper-separation of human identity from nature: they can be summed up as the tasks of (re)situating humans in ecological terms and non-humans in ethical terms.” Her primary prescriptive approach is to shift from an attitude of identity with that which is termed Other, to an attitude of solidarity. She also emphasizes the need to recognize the agency of the Other, instead of only the intrinsic value of the Other.
Holmes Rolston addresses the idea of agency in relationship to value as well when he writes, “The world is full of eyes, legs, wings, antennae, mouths, webs and eggs, all being used in the defence of life. Is it consistent to say that animals defend lives they do not value?” He goes on to say,
The organism is an axiological, though not a moral, system. So the tree grows, reproduces, repairs its wounds and resists death. A life is defended for what it is in itself, without necessary further contributory reference. Every organism has a good-of-its-kind, it defends its own kind as a good kind.
Both Rolston and Plumwood are focusing on the issue of ‘resituating. . . non-humans in ethical terms,’ with an understanding that agency indicates the rights of the Other while also affirming their inherent differences from humanity. Rights need not arise from similarity to the human, as this is a form of anthropocentrism that merely pushes the boundary of duality further from the sphere of the human species.
A tension exists between affirming difference while challenging duality in the various approaches of these five ecological thinkers. As Neil Evernden points out, “Ecology begins as a normal, reductionist science, but to its own surprise it winds up denying the subject-object relationship upon which science rests.” Timothy Morton affirms this when he writes, “‘Nature’ dissolves when we look directly at it, into assemblages of behaviours, congeries of organs without bodies.” Both Morton and Slavoj Zizek argue that the ecological crisis ought to be addressed by abolishing the concept of “Nature” as an external environment radically other to the human. One must, in Zizek’s words, “ the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded,” rather than simply “fight for the environment.” Rolston, on the other hand, accepts the use of the term “nature” but only after addressing the difference of nature as concept or framework and nature as real beings: “‘Nature,’ if a category we have constructed, has real members, that is, things that got there on their own in this world-container, and remain there independently of our vocabulary.”
For Evernden the solution lies in art, aesthetics, and the humanities. He quotes Northrop Frye in saying “the goal of art is to ‘recapture, in full consciousness, that original lost sense of identity with our surroundings, where there is nothing outside the mind of man, or something identical with the mind of man.’” For Plumwood, aspects of this approach might be problematic, primarily the idea of ‘identity with our surroundings’ rather than solidarity and communication with those beings outside the human species. Yet Plumwood also accepts the ambiguity and imperfection inherent to developing effective models of communication with non-humans. She writes,
The problems of representing another culture’s or another species communication however pale before the enormity of failing to represent them at all, or of representing them as non-communicative and non-intentional beings. This is an incomparably greater failing.
This acceptance of the ambiguity and even the mess of ecological engagement are also present in Morton and Zizek’s thought. Morton writes, “Ecological thinking—what I call the ecological thought—is precisely this ‘humiliating’ descent, towards what is rather abstractly called ‘the Earth.’” Zizek, who draws significantly from Morton, looks to the necessarily externalized slums produced by the capitalist system to highlight the dualism of Included and Excluded, and at the overlap of nature and industrial civilization in a state of “common decay” to break down the conception of an insolated humanity and an “impenetrable inhuman nature.” These ideas are at the core of Morton’s “dark ecology,” which “realizes that we are hopelessly entangled in the mesh.”
To say that Plumwood, Morton, Zizek, Evernden, and Rolston agree with one another would be a severe misinterpretation of each of their projects. However, they do stand on some common ground with one another as they pose challenges to current systems of dualistic, anthropocentric, hegemonic thinking. While there may not be a common identity between these ecological thinkers, there does appear to be, in Plumwood’s terms, a solidarity between their challenges to ecological philosophy and the concept of nature.
Evernden, Neil. “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy.” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978).
Morton, Timothy. “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul.” Collapse 6 (2010): 265-293.
Rolston, Holmes. “Nature for Real: Is Nature a Social Construct?” in The Philosophy of the Environment, edited by T.D.J. Chappell, 38-63. Edinburgh, UK: University of Edinburgh Press, 1997.
Plumwood, Val. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002.
Zizek, Slavoj. “Nature and Its Discontents.” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 37-72.
 Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (New York, NY: Routledge, 2002), 8-9.
 Holmes Rolston, “Nature for Real: Is Nature a Social Construct?” in The Philosophy of the Environment, ed. T.D.J. Chappell (Edinburgh, UK: University of Edinburgh Press, 1997), 60.
 Rolston, “Nature for Real: Is Nature a Social Construct?” 61.
 Neil Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978): 93.
 Timothy Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” Collapse 6 (2010): 285.
 Slavoj Zizek, “Nature and Its Discontents,” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 45.
 Rolston, “Nature for Real: Is Nature a Social Construct?” 43.
 Northrop Frye, qtd. in Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” 99.
 Plumwood, Environmental Culture, 60-61.
 Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 265.
 Zizek, “Nature and Its Discontents,” 63.
 Ibid, 50.
 Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 293.