Pimpin' Mother Nature
Or, a perspective of rationality, ecofeminism, and biophilia
NSII - Hays Cummins
By means of research and a survey, we attempted to explore some of the various types of relationships that people can have with nature. We wondered, do people value nature as much as they value other humans, or do they consider themselves as having ethical priority over nature? The following is a report on our findings. First, we did substantial research on the subject. That humans esteem themselves as having moral priority over nature we found to be a central aspect of traditional Western philosophy and science. The position of ecofeminism tells us that human domination over nature is a traditionally masculine trait, whereas closeness to nature has been a feminine character trait. The notion referred to as biophilia, however, asserts that humans have a natural affinity to nature.
Using a survey, we attempted to determine whether or not people value nature. In doing so, we looked for correlations between their lifestyles and their views concerning nature. We also compared male responses to female responses in order to find out whether or not men have different relationships with nature than women. We were particularly interested in discovering whether other aspects of mainstream Western culture would have an impact on a person's relationship with nature. Most of our data, however, was statistically insignificant, rejecting our hypotheses concerning the relationship between a person's lifestyle and his/her perception of nature.
In recent years, there has been a significant trend toward conserving biological diversity. The reasoning behind biological conservation has gone in one of two directions. The first is that, in some way or another, biological conservation is good for humans, and if we are to survive, biological diversity is likewise good. The other direction lies in the notion of biophilia. Biophilia is in part the idea that, on top of its purposes for human use, nature has value in and of itself. We propose to study the differences between these two justifications of biological conservation. We then hope to demonstrate if and how these differences are related to certain aspects of a person's life.
The first task at hand is to assess the materialist basis for biological conservation. "According to this view, the only constraints on human behavior toward nature stem from the limits of our technology and the ethical obligation to respect how our exploitation may affect other people" (Kellert 13). Now, where did this idea come from? During the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, western philosophers undertook a radical reconstruction of the concept of knowledge and science. They asked questions concerning the origins of our knowledge, its truth and certainty, its limits, and its functions. Though there were many disagreements concerning these qualities, there were several conditions which they took for granted and did not question. The first is that the self is the focal point around which all life and the world revolve. Part and parcel to this is the second proposition that the world has no intrinsic value or worth at all. Nature has value only in terms of how it can be used by us. And one of the most common tools for learning about nature is none other than science.
In his Discourse on Method, Rene Descartes writes, "For by them [the general notions of physics] I perceived it to be possible to arrive at knowledge highly useful in life... by means of which... we might also apply them in the same way to all the uses to which they are adapted, and thus render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature" (Descartes 84). Similarly, Francis Bacon writes that the most wholesome and noble ambition that a man can have is "to establish and extend the power and the dominion of the human race itself over the universe... Now the empire of man over things depends wholly on the arts and sciences" (Bacon 118). That people like Descartes and Bacon have influenced modern Western thought is without a doubt. The writings of Bacon, for example, are so much a part of scientific thought that a history of philosophy textbook may only briefly mention him and his philosophy, as to write any more would be redundant.
So now we have a basic understanding of where the modern conception of humans as above nature comes from. But it doesn't stop here. While conducting research for this project, we came upon ecofeminism. This is essentially a feminist attempt to combine the forces of the ecological movement with the feminist movement. The basic premise of the argument is that both movements are opposing the same thing - a patriarchal system of oppression. That's a pretty bold statement, but upon further inquiry, it begins to make sense. As one ecofeminist writes,
the sphere associated with femininity and nature is accorded lower value than that associated with masculinity and freedom. In all the senses of rationality, the 'rational' side of the contrasts is more highly regarded and is part of the ideal human character, so that women, to the extent that they are faithful to the divergent ideals of womanhood, emerge as inferior, impoverished or imperfect human beings, lacking or possessing in a reduced form the admired characteristics of courage, control, rationality and freedom which make humans what they are, and which, according to this view, distinctively mark them off from nature and the animal. (Plumwood 276)
So, the same system that defined rationality as the distinctively human process also defined it as a masculine process. Just as women have been dominated by a self-centered, rational, patriarchal system, so has nature.
Perhaps the appropriate question to ask now would be, what are the goals of ecofeminism? It should be noted, that this is not a movement designed to bring down "the man" or subvert science and rationality. Through the combined critiques of masculinity, rationality, and human domination over nature, ecofeminists are attempting to redefine both masculinity and femininity. They want a more accurate description of what it means to be a man or a woman, as well as what it means to be a human in this world. (Plumwood 280)
In just a couple of pages, we've learned a lot about our current relationship with nature. In Western society, it has been the dominant ideology that human rationality not only sets us apart from nature, but also places us over and above nature. Furthermore, the concept of domination over nature is a gendered one, such that domination is both a fully human and a masculine trait whereas closeness to nature is only considered to be a feminine trait. It is the notion of biophilia, however, that all humans have a natural affinity to nature that is rooted in our evolutionary bonds with nature. As the originator of the term biophilia writes, "If the whole process of our life is directed toward preserving our species and personal genes, preparing for future generations is an expression of the highest morality of which human beings are capable. It follows that the destruction of the natural world in which the brain was assembled over millions of years is a risky step" (Wilson 121).
The next question to address, then, is how these conflicting views of nature can be reconciled. Are we a part of nature, or apart from it? Does a person's gender dictate, or even indicate the answer to that question? We took rationalism to be indicative of mainstream values in Western society and adopted the hypothesis that those attitudes which disagree with rationalism could be correlated to increased "biophilia", particularly when such biophilic tendencies directly conflict with human utility. This includes the assertion that, based on the rationalist model, women will have a "close" relationship with nature. Our alternate hypothesis would be that tendencies to diverge from rationalism are not necessarily correlated with biophiliac tendencies.
We distributed the majority of our surveys at Shriver, as well as passing some out in our dorms. Passing them out, we asked people if "they had a few minutes to fill out a survey". If they asked what the survey was on, we would tell them that we were trying to learn about people's "relationship with nature"
We were not immediately present while they filled out the survey, though some would flag me down and ask or comment on a particular question. When we distributed the survey to people in groups, we did not prevent them from discussing it with each other which they sometimes did. From my personal experience, a number of the people taking the survey wanted to discuss it with me after they were done, which I did once the survey had been collected.
Our survey consisted of the following 12 questions, the total of which filled a page of 8 ½ *11 paper
1. What is your sex? Male Female
2. How old are you?
3. What is your religion? (if any)
4. If you're a student, what is your major and what year are you?
If you're not, what is your field of expertise?
5. What is your sexuality? Heterosexual Bisexual Homosexual
6. If you could double your salary by changing from a job that you found satisfying to one that you didn't like, would you do so?
7. Do you believe in; (check any that apply)
__ astral projection
__ psychic energy
8. When is the last time you went hiking or camping? (check one)
___within the past week
___ within the past month
___ within the past six months
___ within the past year
___ over a year or don't remember
9. Are you registered to vote? If so, with which political party?
__ Green Party
__ other __________
10. Please list any wildlife organizations that you belong to, such as Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation ?
11. In the Northwest, the logging industry is threatening the extinction of the Spotted Owl. Without the logging industry, however, many people would be put out of a job. If these were the only options, which would you choose?
__ Continue logging at the expense of the spotted owl
__ Prohibit the logging industry from cutting in areas that endanger the Spotted Owl, eliminating the livelihoods of many families.
12. In Florida, much of the everglades are being destroyed through canals and human water use in order to make way for development.
Should we continue to develop the everglades, destroying the natural ecosystem? Yes No
If someone owns a plot of land in the everglades and wants to develop it, should they be stopped?
1. The first question regarding sex was asked because we wanted to see if a person's sex influenced their relationship to nature, especially since so many people have imparted a 'rational exploitive nature' to men and a nature to women that is 'close to nature and egalitarian'.
2. Age we included in case we got a number of older or younger applicants. It was a variable we wanted to be able to take into account, since those people who grew up before the 'green movement' might responded differently to those who have been inundated with environmentalist notions all their lives.
3. We asked subjects to record their religion since religion is often used to paint humanity's "place in the universe". We expected those with humanocentric religions, which depict nature as existing for the use of human beings to have lower preservation values. We were also curious what effect atheism might have had on a person's relationship to nature- whether an atheist might embrace nature free from humanocentric religion or be apathetic towards its survival seeing it as the result of random variation.
4. We asked for a student's major or field of expertise since we believed that those trained in business would have been trained to see the world in terms of it's value to human beings. We were also curious if some other division could be created i.e. art majors might have higher preservation values than those in the sciences.
5. We asked for a person's sexuality on the belief that those people whose sexuality diverged from the mainstream might also be more biophilic in other ways.
6. The question regarding whether a person would double their salary to go from a job that the liked to one that they didn't was a fairly straightforward question. If the subject said 'yes' it would be because they were willing to tolerate a less pleasant environment for the sake of more money. In short, they would be demonstrating the belief that money could buy happiness rather than seeing happiness as something that is produced through an enjoyable relationship with one's work.
7. The question regarding whether a person believed in ghosts, astral projection or psychic energy is to try and test their non-empirical, or non-rational value. That is, this questions tests whether or not a person believes in something that science does not measure or accept as real.
8. By asking a person when the last time they went camping was, we wanted to see how much time a person spent actually experiencing nature.
9. Asking a person their political affiliation was intended to see whether a more capitalist (republican), socialistic (democratic) or nature centered (green party) person would be more predisposed to biophilia
10. Listing any wildlife associations that a person belonged to was just another way of measuring political involvement since all parties can participate in eco-politics.
11.&12 These questions were intended to explore a person's beliefs in the rights of nature when those rights come into conflict with the 'rights' of human beings. We also wanted to be able to account for the disparity between people's answers to general value questions and their answer to more specific ones; i.e.
Should 'we' develop the everglades vs. Should a person who owns property in the everglades be prevented from developing it. A 'point' was given for each time a person favored non-humanocentric values. This number was used as our "preservation value."
Data; We had two sets of self identifiers which we found to be significantly different in relation to the preservation values created by questions 11 and 12. The first significant correlation between self identifiers was the relation between the amount of time since the a person last went hiking and their expressed
Preservation value. We compared those who had hiked within the last six months vs. those who hadn't and came up with DF=1 F-value=4.5 and P-value=.039
We also found significant results between the preservation values of bisexuals as compared to homosexuals with DF=2 F-value=4.472 and a p-value of .0175 It's a little strange, though, that this is the only one of our two correlations which proved significant and we only have 8 people between the two groups (5 bisexuals and 3 homosexuals)
Two categories were almost significant; Materialist Need and Non-rationality both were nearly significant with p<.065 for both.
Materialist Need exhibited DF=2 F-Value=2.904 P-value=.0647
Non Rationality exhibited a p-value of .0608
Perhaps just as significant as the correlations that we found were the correlations which we didn't find.
To begin with, only two of the self-identifiers had a statistically significant relationship with the "Biophilia rating". Neither supported our hypothesis. This demonstrates that many of the aspects of a person's life that we believed would indicate his/her relationship with nature proved to be non-predictive. As for the data that is statistically significant, bisexuals were significantly more likely than homosexuals to support the "rights" of the environment (p=.0175) over the utility of humans. And those who went hiking in the past 6 months were also significantly more likely to support the preservation of the environment over those who hadn't gone hiking within the past six months. To see graphic representation of these responses, turn to Appendix A. The fact that rationalism did not correlate significantly with biophilia was, in itself significant, although with a p-value of.06 further testing is warranted.
Particularly enlightening was the fact that women did not turn out to be significantly 'closer to nature' as many of the modern philosophers and ecofeminists have suggested (Women do not equal men p=.2359). If it is true that neither men nor women have a higher affinity towards nature, this would fly in the face of much of the stereotyping that has occurred in Modernistic thought ever since Francis Bacon suggested that rationality was a distinctively male characteristic. If men and women's relationships with nature are actually the same, ecofeminists are warranted in the claim that we must endeavor to redefine male, female, and perhaps even human identity. It is quite possible, however, that men and women react differently towards nature in ways which our survey was not able to detect. It is also worth considering that the idea of rationality as a male characteristic is simply a justification for oppression much like the idea that African Americans (another marginalized group) were emotional rather than rational (and therefore childlike and unable to govern themselves).
Sources of error;
First of all, we didn't take precautions to insure that people didn't discuss their answers with one another. When surveys were distributed to a group of people they would often confer among themselves. A particularly difficult 'source of error' involves the question of whether or not our questions measure what we hoped they would. Do questions 11 and 12 really measure "biophilia" or even a person's commitment to conserving the environment? In addition, it's possible that people would realize that if they said that they were 'against the environment' this would be making a rather pejorative statement about themselves. Since we also asked people to include their religion, they might have been nervous that their particular faith would be associated with "being against nature". In other words, even though our survey was anonymous, by asking people to include their religion, political affiliation and major they may still have felt that their "identity" could be tarnished by their response.
Our survey was also rather limited in diversity of respondents. Most, if not all of them were students at Miami, and none were over thirty years old. We must take special care that we do not assume these responses to be indicative of people in general. Just the fact that the respondents were college students could have skewed the results in favor of "biophilia", as "studies in the United States, Germany, and Japan found that college-educated persons expressed the greatest interest, appreciation, and concern for nature and wildlife of any demographic group examined" (Kellert 167).
Future surveys could consist of attempts to determine how various groups justify the preservation of nature. While not a formal part of our survey, my conversations with some of the survey takers seemed to indicate a wide range of justifications. Despite the variety of justification, there was no significant difference in preservation value. The fact that we measured biophilia as a 'positive value' may very well indicate some bias on the part of the authors, though we tried not to let this value impact our surveys. So both a better way of measuring biophilia and an attempt to explore the justifications for biophilia employed by different groups could be useful. *note; does the quantification of biophilia indicate an inherent empiricist bias?*
1. Bacon, Francis. The New Organon. Prentice Hall, Edgewood Cliffs, NJ: 1960
2. Descartes, Rene. Discourse on Method. Pub. In The Rationalists. Doubleday, New York: 1990.
3. Kane, Stanley. Lecture notes and class handouts for PHL 301 and 302. Miami University: Fall, 1997 and Spring, 1998.
4. Kellert, Stephen R. Kinship to Mastery: Biophilia in Human Evolution and Development. Island Press, Washington, D.C.: 1997.
5. Plumwood, Val. "Women, Humanity and Nature." Pub. In The Ethics of the Environment. Ed. Andrew Brennan. Dartmouth Publishing Company, Ltd.: Brookfield, USA, 1995.
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