What is the environment, really?

Whenever I’ve been asked what I study, I generally say that I study interactions between people and the environment. But far too often, people have in mind only two ideas of what the environment means: either expansive nature reserves one might see in nature documentaries or climate change. The ‘environment’, however, encompasses far more than these two aspects.

Oxford Dictionary defines the environment as:

“The surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates” and “the natural world, as a whole or in a particular geographical area, especially as affected by human activity”.

There are overlaps between these, but they are not the same. Let’s, however, probe the underlying assumptions of these definitions a bit further.

In the second definition, there is a juxtaposition of the ‘natural world’ and ‘human activity’. This is an example of what is known as a nature-society dualism, where the world is divided into two categories: the ‘human’ and the ‘natural’.

Anthropologists, philosophers and academics specialising in science and technology studies have noted that much of modern thought is underpinned by assumptions grounded in what are known as Cartesian dualisms. These include divisions between nature and society, mind and body, subject and object, masculine and feminine, representation and reality, and influence much of our popular understanding of the world. These dualisms have also been widely criticised as not really corresponding to lived experience. In the case of the environment, the environment is not something ‘out there’ – a distant other that needs saving. It is all around us and central to the conditions that allow us to exist.

There is a simple and somewhat banal example of this. Nature invades human spaces in places and ways we do not want them: weeds, pigeons, and stray cats occupy urban landscapes. This is ’nature’, but a very different nature from the one in nature documentaries. These are sometimes called ‘unintentional natures’, because it is not a nature we seek for pleasure. This raises a lot of difficult questions. If we want to protect ‘nature’, should we really look to remove all ‘weeds’, get rid of pigeons, or remove strays from our streets? Are they all really weeds? And what about the animals we mistreat, kill and then eat? Aren’t they part of ‘nature’ too?

More fundamentally though, separating people and nature into different categories obscures complex interdependencies between us and the rest of the living world. We cannot breathe polluted air, eat poisoned food or drink polluted water without facing repercussions to our health. Yet this is exactly what our policymakers seem keen on doing.

Current transport policies are increasing the number of cars on our roads, which means increasing air pollution in a country where 576 people die prematurely due to air pollution each year. Farmers are neglected, unable to make ends meet, and given no support and incentives to switch to agroecological practices. Construction and noise continue to go unregulated, negatively affecting both our physical and mental wellbeing. These are partially consequences of an understanding of the environment where people are considered separate from the rest of nature.

However, human health and environmental health go together. The more we learn about the environment and the ways we respond to it, the more evidence we find that the two are interlinked. Harming and destroying the environment means we also harm and destroy ourselves. We continue to ignore these complex interdependencies at our own peril.

This has led to a very different understanding of the environment – one where humans and nature are interconnected and interdependent. Under this framework, movements that fall under the umbrella of the ‘environmentalism of the poor’ – where poor and marginalised peoples protest against environmental injustices because of a threat to their livelihoods – make more sense, as the environment is no longer something to be enjoyed for aesthetic pleasure. Rather, it is part of people’s livelihoods and a precondition for the existence of life itself.

Fundamentally, environmental problems are class issues. The richest have contributed the most – both in terms of carbon and material footprints – and have a system that is rigged in their favour while the poorest have been left to suffer the consequences. Understood in this way, the environment becomes a political and contested space. Environmental policy-making – like all types of policy-making – always privileges some actors over others. In Malta, environmental policies are often designed to benefit developers and other vested interests. On the other side of the coin, residents, farmers, and marginalised groups are left to deal with the consequences.

We see this in repeated campaigns, by groups like Moviment Graffitti, to reclaim public spaces – whether that is Manoel Island or Comino’s Blue Lagoon, these are all part of the ‘environment’. We see this too in objections by farmers against road projects on agricultural land as well as objections by Rota, who note that new road projects often fail to create a more democratic use of public space (new road projects only serve to entrench the dominance of private vehicles!). These instances of resistance provide another way of understanding the environment and ‘nature’ by looking at the ways people and the environment are interdependent and intertwined.

If we ever want to learn how to live as part of nature, we need to adopt a different way of thinking that places our interconnections and interdependencies with the rest of nature and each other at its centre. This is something that Indigenous peoples – who represent less than 5% of the world’s population but safeguard 80% of its biodiversity – understand. For many Indigenous peoples, there is no concept of ‘nature’ or ‘the environment’ that is analogous to ours.

As we find ourselves at a perilous juncture with the basis of all life threatened by an onslaught of capitalist exploitation, domination, and extraction, and inequality reaching levels unprecedented in human history, some self-reflection is sorely needed. We would be wise to listen to those who understand the world differently and recognise that our civilisation, and the way we often think about our relationships with each other and the rest of the living world, are deeply flawed. To correct our current trajectory, we need to change everything – starting from ourselves and the ways we think and understand the world around us. Only then can we expect politicians to end their destructive policies.




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