Who owns nature? International policies for the protection of the Environment rest on a very specific conception of nature, which appeared in Europe during the Enlightenment. This conception is far from being shared by all the peoples of the earth, who value different cosmological principles. According to Philippe Descola, the preservation of biodiversity can only become fully effective if it takes into account this plurality in the understanding of nature.

Here is a lengthy quote from Philippe Descola’s “Who owns nature?” (2008):

[M]odern universalism flows directly from naturalist ontology, based as it is on the principle that beyond the muddle of particularisms endlessly churned out by humans, there exists a field of truths reassuringly regular, knowable via tried and trusted methods, and reducible to immanent laws the exactness of which is beyond blight from their discovery process. In short, cultural relativism is only tolerable, indeed interesting to study, in that it stands against the overwhelming background of a natural universalism where truth seekers can seek refuge and solace. Mores, customs, ethos vary but the mechanisms of carbon chemistry, gravitation and DNA are identical for all. The universalism of international institutions implementing nature protection policies springs from extending these general principles, originally applied to the physical world alone, to the realm of human values. It relies in particular on the idea that the Moderns alone would have availed themselves of a privileged access to a true intelligence of nature whilst other cultures would have arrived at mere representations – crude but worthy of interest, according to those charitably inclined, false and pernicious by their contaminating capacity for the positivists. This epistemological model, which Bruno Latour has called ‘particular universalism’ [7], entails therefore inevitably that nature protection principles be imposed to all the non-moderns who were not in a position to acquire a clear grasp of their necessity for want of adopting a thinking pattern like ours, and more particularly for having failed to imagine that nature existed as a sphere independent from humanity. You lived once in symbiosis with nature, Amazonian Indians are told, but now, you have chain saws and we must teach you to leave alone your forests become world heritage on grounds of their high rate of biodiversity.  

How are we to make that universalism a bit less imperial without renouncing in the process the biodiversity which enables us to preserve the world’s dazzling splendour? One possible avenue, the twists and turns of which I have begun exploring elsewhere would be what could be called a relative universalism, with relative as in “relative pronoun”, that is making a connection. Relative universalism does not stem from nature and cultures, substances and spirits, discrimination between prime and second essences, but relationships of continuity and discontinuity, of identity and differences, of likeness and unlikeness which humans establish everywhere between existing beings by means of tools inherited from phylogenesis: one body, one intentionality, one aptitude to discern distinctive gaps, the ability to establish with any other relations of closeness or enmity, of domination or dependence, exchange or appropriation, subjectivation or objectivation. Relative universalism does not demand prior equal materiality for all, and contingent meanings, it is content to recognize the irruption of discontinuity, in things like in the mechanisms to grasp them and to admit that there are only a restricted number of formulae suited to their best use, either by endorsing a phenomenal discontinuity or by invalidating it within a continuity.  

However, if relative universalism is to lead to an ethos, that is to rules for world use to which everyone could subscribe without denying anyone the values of their upbringing, this ethos has yet to be built stone after stone, indeed connection after connection. The task is not beyond us. It supposes a grand stock taking of inter-human connections and of those between humans and non-humans and an agreement to banish those which give rise to general opprobrium. It is more than conceivable that the most extreme forms of inequality would come under this heading, such as the gratuitous taking of life, the objectification of beings endowed with sensible faculties or the standardization of lifestyles and behaviours. And as, because of the consensus needed to arrive at the selection of the connections retained, none of them could be deemed superior to another, the values attached to practices, knowledge and wisdoms or singular sites could rest on the connections they bring out in the specific context of their use, without slipping into contingent justifications or narrow interest calculations in the process. For instance, resuming the protection of nature argument: where humans consider it normal and desirable to engage in intersubjective relationships with non-humans, it would be conceivable to legitimate the preservation of a particular environment not in virtue of its inherent ecosystemic features but of the fact that animals there are treated as persons by the local populations – truth to say, usually hunted, but subject to ritual precautions. This would give a category of protected zones broadly operating on an ‘animist model’ – in the Amazon basin, Canada, Siberia or the malaysian forest. This would not preclude the adjunction of justifications based on the naturalist type of connection – e.g. biodiversity optimisation or carbon capture – in so far as the second type of connections, those favoured by remote actors did not excessively undermine the conditions in which the local actors exercise the type of connection they have set up. It is pretty clear that the connections presiding over the registration of Mont Saint Michel of the Banaue rice terraces as World heritage sites would be quite different: no longer the presence of non-humans seen as subjects, but the materialisation of a project connecting macrocosm and microcosm, the traces of which can only be found in analogic civilisations wherever they flourished. One might say that this is in the realm of Utopia: undoubtedly, if Utopia is understood in its better sense of a multiplicity of virtual futures opening the possibility for solutions not hitherto considered.

All this considered, this is exactly the kind of approach we need when navigating the problem sets established by the tensions between ontography as praxis and pluralism as politics..

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