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When the planet is "cognitively trapped" as "the environment"

"'Environment' is not something around and about human activities in an external sense; it is their medium," John Dewey wrote in 1949, and the "narrowing of the medium is the direct source of all unnecessary impoverishment in human living." Similarly, Vaclav Havel complained that the word "environment" suggests "that whatever is not human merely 'environs' or surrounds us and is therefore inferior to us, something we need care for only if it is in our interest to do so." He challenged us to reconsider that "the world is not divided into two types of Being, one superior and the other merely surrounding it."

"Sadly, in recent decades," Calvin Luther Martin wrote in 1992, "both the earth and the concept of wildness have become cognitively trapped as "the environment" — yet another thing for Homo to conserve and preserve."

“People who now and then think of 'the environment' look up to find UN web pages wedged between other tabs of greater and lesser urgency,” Laurence Scott wrote in 2016.

One problem — call it a "spiritual" version of the problem — is that there is hubris in such a conceptual narrowing of our understanding that attempts to minimize the entire planet within the single word "environment" and to place ourselves at the center. This leads to another peril: attempting to control the planet before we understand it.

Rollo May wrote in 1969:

"The idea of 'mastering' nature or reality would have horrified the Greeks and would promptly have been labelled hubris, or inordinate pride which is an affront to the gods and a sure invitation for a man's doom. The Greeks always showed a respect which amounted to a reverence for the objective, given world. They delighted in their world--its beauty, its form, its endless challenges to their curiosity, its mysteries to be explored; and they were everlastingly attracted by this world....You can't outwit death anyway by 'progress' or accumulating wealth; so why not...let yourself delight and believe in the being you are and the Being you are part of?"

Even without that version of the problem, there is another problem. The simple idea of an "environment" makes the planet seem very boring, as if it is merely the air we breathe, the water in which we swim, the ground on which we walk. This makes it hard to attract interest in its scientific details and in the technical complexity of managing its potential "resources" for humanity.

And why should we have to use words to attract interest in something that is inherently valuable? Why should our concern for the maintenance of the building blocks of life turn itself into a rhetorical exercise or a marketing game? Are we trying to earn good grades in school? Are we trying to make money? What's the end, here, other than being able to to live in places that are clean, beautiful, and biologically productive, in some kind of harmony with other living beings, human and non-human? Why does that need require an elaborate story to justify it? Whose approval or permission are we seeking? Derrick Jensen argued in 2006:

"If I hit your thumb, you won't decide cognitively that getting hit by a hammer hurts. Not getting hit by a hammer has inherent value, no matter what you decide about it. * * * Drinkable quantities of clean water are unqualifiedly a good thing, no matter the stories we tell ourselves.”

Yet another version of the problem is that, even and especially when we understand the importance of the natural world, we do not have a grasp on how "to conserve and preserve" it (to use Calvin Luther Martin's phrase). How can we change our behavior? What would a right relationship to nature look like, and how can we better align ourselves with who we are supposed to be in that relationship? What would an ideal outcome be? If the task is too big and the results are not measurable, caught — as they are — in a necessarily tangled web of ecology, we are left with a discourse of problems instead of solutions, political conflict rather than collaboration, and fear instead of hope, as Jonathan Foley put it in 2017.


John Dewey, Knowing and the Known (1949). Quoted by Tom Hayden in The Lost Gospel of the Earth: A Call for Renewing Nature, Spirit, and Politics. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996. p. 40.

Vaclav Havel. Quoted in Tom Hayden, The Lost Gospel of the Earth: A Call for Renewing Nature, Spirit, and Politics. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996. p. 227.

Calvin Luther Martin, In the Spirit of the Earth: Rethinking History and Time. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. p 71.

Rollo May, Love and Will, New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1969. p 80.

Derrick Jensen. Endgame. Volume 1: The Problem of Civilization. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006. p. 31.

"What's Limiting Us?" Jonathan Foley. GlobalEcoGuy blog (Medium). Oct. 10, 2017.

Laurence Scott. The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. “Chapter 7: The Blank Screen.”


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