Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Subjectification of Nature

Several weeks ago while hammering away on the computer, struggling to improve the same paragraph for the umpteenth time, I heard it again—the cry of a red-tailed hawk. This was not the beautiful, haunting, and justifiably famous red-tail “kree-eee-ar” that seems to pierce the core of your being. No, this was more of a repetitive, high-pitched wailing that brought to mind a demented sea-gull. Over the previous days and weeks, this incessant noise had driven me to the ragged edge of distraction. What’s the problem with that bird?, I kept asking myself (but in much less kind language).

The following day, while ascending the stairs after a long walk, I heard that same wailing, but this time it was directly overhead. Craning my neck and raising a hand to block the sun, I saw a young hawk wobble unsteadily on unskilled wings, barely navigating its way to a nearby tree. Suddenly the chaos of my thoughts was shattered by the realization that those incessant shrieks were the desperate cries of a fledgling red-tail calling out to parents for food and comfort. Immediately my frustration over the clamor vanished, replaced by a sense of compassion for this awkward youngster attempting to master a talent about which I could only dream. The animal that had seconds before been little more than an object of annoyance was transformed into a marvelous, freshly volant subject—a living, breathing creature that filled me with wonder. (I also reminded myself of this animal's dinosaurian status, making the connection back into deep time.)

Today, we in Western societies are in desperate need of a large-scale transformation in consciousness that parallels my attitude shift toward the hawk. Much of our unsustainable behavior can be traced to a broken relationship with nature, a worldview that treats the nonhuman world as a realm of mindless objects all but incapable of feeling. The road to sustainability must be built upon a radically new perspective (or at least a re-invention of an old one) that reanimates the living world and views other creatures as relatives to be respected rather than resources to be exploited. What we require is no less than the subjectification of nature. In the insightful words of “geologian” Thomas Berry, we must transform the world “from a collection of objects to a communion of subjects.”

To subjectify is to interiorize, such that the exterior world interpenetrates one’s interior world. Whereas the relationships we share with subjects often tap into our hearts, objects are dead to our emotions. Finding ourselves in relationship, boundaries of self can actually become permeable and blurred. Many of us have experienced such feelings with lovers, family, friends, and even pets. For indigenous peoples around the world, the notion of being embedded in a landscape of relatives is not alien at all; we have much to learn from this ancient wisdom.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the subjectification of nature is science, a cultural practice founded on the notion of objectivity. Scientists seek to objectify nature so that they can measure, test, and study it. In order to undertake such studies, we biologists tend to think animals in terms of fragments—from genes and bones to reproductive strategies and dietary preferences. Yet it is my contention that this pervasive, centuries-old trend toward fragmentation and objectification need not preclude us from treating nature as subjects. In other words, the subjectification of nature would not require that we abandon objectivity. After all, scientists have managed (at least most of the time) to treat their fellow humans as both subjects and objects. Why can’t we extend this same duality to nonhuman nature?

What would nature look like if we truly regarded it as a communion of subjects? Perhaps more to the point, what would it feel like? As evidenced by my initial attitude toward the fledgling red-tail, I am hardly an authority on the matter, and have a long way to go in my own personal growth. Like most of us in the industrialized West, I must battle a lifetime of practice in objectification, augmented in my case by training as a scientist. Nevertheless, while I can attest only to brief glimpses of such a fundamentally different perspective, I have found these fleeting insights both profound and inspiring. Such experiences have left me deeply convinced that widespread subjectification will be an essential element in sustainability.

But how might we undertake the “subjectification transformation?” Worldviews are deeply ingrained in adult minds, so much so that they become like the air we breathe—essential but ignored. As I’ve argued previously on this blog, much of the answer is going to be found in education. We must gain the wisdom to shift our views and raise our children so that they can see the world with new eyes. It may sound heretical, but science education in particular could be re-invented with subjectification in mind. Certainly the practice of science—the actual doing of scientific research—must be done as objectively as possible. But the communicating of science could include both objective and subjective components. Imagine if the bulk of science education took place outdoors, in direct contact with the natural world. And imagine if parents and educators emphasized not only the identification and functioning of parts (say, of flowers or insects), but the notion of organisms as sensate beings. What if students were asked more to spend more time learning about how a particular plant or animal experienced its world?

A tool with amazing potential is the “soap bubble technique,” attributed to biologist Jakob von Uexküll [1]. Take a group of children outside and ask them to imagine each and every organism to be surrounded by a transparent bubble, within which they can experience only the perceptual world of that organism. Then ask the children to select a particular organism (perhaps from a sample considered earlier in the classroom) and try to imagine what it might be like to actually be that creature. Take earthworms for example. These soil denizens detect light but not color, so the rainbow of hues with which we construct our world suddenly disappears. Earthworms have a keen sense of taste, but no ability to smell. In lieu of vision, their dominant senses are taste and touch, and they are particularly sensitive to ground vibrations.

The soap bubble technique is powerful because it helps to transport us beyond our everyday world and foster a sense of relationship with nonhuman organisms. Done repeatedly over a period of years, it is easy to envision how practices like this might encourage children to see their native places as communities of subjects worthy of care and respect. Conversely, I cannot imagine any community becoming sustainable if people do not care about their native places.

As I type the final paragraph of this post, I can still hear that fledgling red-tail calling out. Although far from melodious, the sound now generates within me feelings of compassion rather than frustration. I have hopes that Western societies will embrace a similar transition; that we will realize the promise and potential of subjectification and begin a dialogue on how we might inject this much-needed perspective into schooling for sustainability.

1. Evernden, N. 1993. The Natural Alien: Humankind and Environment, Second Edition. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 172 pp.

Image Credits
Top: Red-tail hawk:
Middle images: National Geographic: Bottom image:


  1. Scott: Thanks for the brilliant essay. While scientists are inclined to believe that they operate on the far left end of the objectivity-subjectivity scale. Simple examples illustrate the opposite, subjective values have always driven basic science: medicine's fascination with white males, physics' fascination with tools of war, the evolution of chemistry's view of the environment over the past couple of decades (from "what's that?" to the burgeoning field of environmental chemistry). Finishing off with my specialty, ecology. This field has evolved from having contempt for environmental questions in the 1960s into a present state in which the majority of grad students are primarily interested in environmental issues. Basic-science ecology with no environmental application has utility only as it is useful in solving applied, environmental problems, to young ecologists. Nowadays, a very large fraction of basic science in ecology is undertaken and rationalized only as it could be applied in research programs concerning pollution, biodiversity loss, or other forms of environmental degradation. Most research in ecology nowadays must show a social science side. And, as we know, social science is where the subjective is combined with the objective.

  2. I've skimmed this twice; now I want to read it twice. Very thoughtful & I want to think about how to apply it to my own life. Thanks for this post.

  3. Thank you all for your comments. I complete agree with the comments offered by "Fixed Carbon." The science of ecology has undergone a major evolution. To give just one example, ecology had a major influence on environmentalism from the 1970s through the 1990s, moving the field from an overt humanist bias (think Rachel Carson's Silent Spring) to a strongly rationalist bias, with environmentalists focusing solely on "objective" science, and little to no weight whatsoever given to nonquantifiable elements such as beauty and goodness. Now, as Fixed Carbon points out, it seems that the pendulum has swung the other way; environmentalism is influencing ecology, encouraging the upcoming generation of ecologists not only to tackle sustainability issues, but also to take into account subjective elements such as ethics, vaules, and feelings for a particular place.

  4. Hello Scott! As a parent and recently certified teacher I appreciate your perspective. I feel that education, as it is now, is mostly objective and focused on standards based assessments. I have given much thought on my own personal philosophy of education and I feel that in addition to having a strong scientific tool-box that we need a subjective view of our natural world. I agree with you that we can change our view of the environment if we start guiding our students and children at a young age to think subjectively about our natural world. I will try the "soap bubble" technique with my children. We are lucky enough to live in the redwood forest up here in the Santa Cruz mountains. I believe the outdoors is the best classroom for our children.

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