Illustration by Ioana Șopov
Is Nature Found Within or Outside of Humans? Discussions from Anthropology and Other Disciplines
There is increasing public awareness and debate surrounding the relationship between the environment and human society, specifically focusing on the human-nature dichotomy. The essay draws on various fields such as environmental anthropology, social ecology, environmental humanities, and other social sciences to explore the idea of natural and social interdependence. The text also presents arguments from the author’s doctoral research to reveal how the natural and social are interconnected and argues that a new direction in socio-ecological research is crucial in today’s context. During the industrialization period, nature was viewed as separate and disconnected from human life. However, traditional societies have a valuable perspective on how to sustainably use natural resources. As we move forward, it is uncertain how humans’ relationship with the natural environment will change. Are we moving towards a post-traditional approach? And will we incorporate traditional practices in our relationship with nature? It is yet to be determined how humanity’s approach to the natural environment will evolve in the future, but the current debates are promising.
Ioana Savin Bursan earned her PhD in Human Geography from Babeș-Bolyai University. Her research focused on socio-ecological resilience in the Danube Delta, examining the relationship between a human community and the neighboring territory. Her research highlighted how the ecological state of the land directly impacts the evolution of the community. She is interested in studying the history and evolution of the human-nature relationship, particularly in rural areas, and currently seeking funding for new research projects.
Ioana is an illustrator & animator currently working in game development from Bucharest, Romania. She likens her work as an artist to an ever-shifting reflection of her broad area of interests, ranging from anthropology and history to technology and music production. You can see more of her portfolio here: ioanasopov.com
Katia Pascariu is an actress and a cultural activist. She studied Drama & Performing Arts at UNATC, obtaining her BA in 2006, and got her master’s degree in Anthropology in 2016 at the University of Bucharest, where she currently works and resides. She is part of several independent theatre collectives that do political and educational projects – Macaz Cooperative, 4th Age Community Arts Center and Replika Center, with special focus on multi- and inter – disciplinarity. She develops, together with her colleagues, artistic and social programs, in support of vulnerable and marginal communities, while promoting socially engaged art, accesibility to culture, with a main focus on: education, social justice, recent local history. She has been part of the casts of Beyond the Hills (C. Mungiu, 2012) and Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (R. Jude, 2021), among others. She is working also within the artistic ensemble of the Jewish State Theatre in Bucharest. She performs in Romanian, English, French and Yiddish.
The text takes inspiration from two books by Romanian author Alexandru Stermin, the first suggestively entitled Căzuți din junglă (Fallen from the jungle)—a title evoking the idea of falling from a state of harmony with nature and God—and the second, Călătorie în jurul omului (A journey around man), which evokes a journey exploring the interrelation between humanity and the world. Stermin, a biologist, embarks on a journey that delves into what it means to be human, despite his scientific background. Traveling and researching natural worlds around the globe ultimately reveals to him different faces of humanity. After reading his books, I was particularly struck by Alexandru Stermin’s “Science needs humanism now” message in an online event in September 2022. The message highlights the urgency of incorporating humanistic values into scientific research especially in the context of different fields of science increasingly working together to understand the world.
My own anthropological research has centered on the connection between the social and the natural world. And Stermin’s books provide valuable insights into this relationship, both in terms of our human nature and the nature of the plants and animals that surround us—a natural environment which is full of life in the true sense of the word, if I may say so. By reviewing discussions on the concept of nature and its derivatives, anthropology and environmental history can offer valuable complementary perspectives. I believe that the key word “relationship” can serve as a bridge towards the integration of humanistic values into sciences and eliminating the modern dichotomy of nature.
But what is the perception of nature? And how did it become a current global issue?
The concepts of nature, wilderness, biodiversity, natural environment, ecosystem, protected area are related but each term has its own meaning and context. They also differ according to the historical period in which they were (or are) used. Some of these terms, e.g., nature and wilderness, have been used for centuries, while others like biodiversity, ecosystem, protected area are more recent. Different fields, human geography, anthropology, and environmental sciences, approach these concepts differently, and the choice of term can help us understand the perspective from which nature is being viewed. Nature is an umbrella term, and under it each concept has its own definition and is the subject of debates and analyses. These concepts reveal the relationship between humanity and nature and also reflect the tensions within humanity regarding the way it relates to and uses nature.
The Oxford Dictionary defines the term ”nature” as the collective physical world, including plants, animals, landscapes or other elements and products of the earth that exist independently of human beings, and not made by them. What is specific to nature is that it exists independently of humans. The term refers to something not made by man. Moreover, in common parlance, nature is often opposed to human society. The way we understand nature is important because it will guide society’s decisions on how to manage the natural environment. The idea of nature is surrounded by cultural and societal perceptions that shape and conform to current social and economic realities.
Social constructivists like William Cronon and James Proctor argue that our scientific understanding of nature is not a neutral reflection of reality but rather a reflection of the cultural and societal perspectives that we have inherited. They argue that nature is a human creation shaped by specific cultural and historical contexts. The constructivist perspective does not claim that nature does not exist independently of human society but instead asserts that wild nature is already infused with certain cultural values and that there is no place on Earth left untouched by human-made theoretical and political imprints.
In his article “The Social Construction of Nature,” Proctor highlights two key ideas: that the “wilderness” has been replaced by “biological diversity,” which is seen as a more scientific concept than wilderness, and that “biological diversity invokes sacred values,” making this concept more appealing than the problematic concept of “wilderness” and further separating the idea of biodiversity from human society. Biodiversity thus becomes a much more operational concept than “wilderness,” but both concepts denote places where human habitation is not possible or allowed. This creates a perception that humans are separated from nature and the natural world, leading to an objectification of nature and a divisive perception of people’s relationship with the environment they live in.
A way to resolve the constant tension between prioritizing human over natural values or the other way around, i.e., the idealization of either the biological or the social structure, is to find a balance between the two and develop an “ethics of responsible use” based on the relationship between them.
Alf Hornborg, a contemporary anthropologist, emphasizes the relationship between humans and the environment, claiming that ecological relationships are fundamentally based on meaning. He argues that the destruction of an ecosystem’s meaning leads to the destruction of the ecosystem itself. Hornborg suggests that we tend to destroy ecosystems because we fail to understand them, and thus efforts of ecological movements are geared towards making us understand why an ecosystem is important. He explains that the perceptions and cultural meanings that we attribute to any part of the natural environment will influence the way we act on it. As long as we do not see the importance and value of a forest, its fate is indifferent to us. In other words, if a forest is only viewed in terms of its economic value, such as the use of wood for profit or heating, without any consideration of its interconnectedness with other elements of the environment, the forest may likely be cut down without being replaced.
The schism between human and nature—or the falling from the jungle, as Stermin would suggest—is a result of the disconnection of knowledge from its context, which is characteristic of modern society. In contrast, traditional societies have a contextualized understanding of their natural environment. According to traditional views, the ecosystem is not descriptive but performative, and actions within the ecosystem shape it and maintain it. This raises more questions about how to live sustainably as pre-industrial societies did, and how they were able to manage the ecosystem in a more sustainable way than we do. There might be a model we can learn from, such as the one of pre-industrial societies, but modern society needs individuals who remind us of the importance of re-establishing the relationship between humanity and the natural environment.
What are the implications of these views and discussions of nature and of the human-nature relationship?
I have come across numerous studies and documentaries detailing the failures of biodiversity conservation efforts around the world. Specifically, my own research in the Danube Delta, conducted between 2011 and 2019, highlighted the ineffectiveness of a biodiversity conservation project through ecological restoration of a former communist fishing facility, ineffectiveness which was largely due to the failure of organizations and institutions to understand and consider the context in which nature exists. Additionally, my research also demonstrated how the direct and immediate relationship between a local community and the surrounding natural area, established as early as the formation of both the community and the territory, played a key role in the conservation of biodiversity. Practically, that local community had a strong sense of responsibility towards their territory and its resources, which was reflected in their traditional methods. During the period when the local community was in charge of the territory, their traditional methods of managing and utilizing the resources resulted in optimal preservation of the area’s biodiversity. However, when the community lost their autonomy over the area, both the community and biodiversity went into decline. From a community of almost 800 inhabitants at the beginning of the century, there are less than twenty inhabitants left in 2022, and the area is an abandoned ”no man’s land,” with no more fish resources or fertile soil. The territory that has once provided the livelihood and economic opportunities for the community is now abandoned even by the remaining locals, while scientists consider it a failed Romanian ecological restoration project.
In an unpublished article about property relationships in the Danube Delta, Vintilă Mihăilescu uses Tim Ingold’s approach to look at the human-nature relationship. According to Ingold, the core subject of ecology is the relationship between the environment and its organisms, and not just the “environment” taken out of this relational context. He argues that only through this relationship we can truly understand ecology. Ingold criticizes the separation of nature and culture, suggesting that a true ecological approach is one that looks at the environment and its organisms together as an interrelated system. Therefore, in ecology, the terms “organism” and “environment” should not be used to describe separate entities. Building on this theory, Ingold employs the concept of “embodied relation” to refer to individuals who possess a deep knowledge of their environment. The knowledge implied by “embodied relations” differs from formal, articulated, scientific knowledge, nor is it a type of authority-based knowledge, instead it is non-transmissible in contexts external to those in which it can be practically applied. It is a type of knowledge that consists of feelings and skills that have developed through long-term experience of the specific environment. Mihăilescu emphasizes the notion of “feeling” the environment in a “natural” way, which is defined by both rights and responsibilities when it comes to people’s access to the territory. He refers to this as “territorial connection,” a way of being of the organism-environment defined by a feeling of owning and being part of that territory at the same time.
I believe that both the current pro-environmental movement and the call for humanism in science are aimed at re-establishing meaning—of our own life and existence, by placing nature at the center of human existence. This is how I understand the idea of subjectivity in the construction of an ecosystem and a perception of the environment as described by Ingold, i.e., as a “lived” environment. This means that we must actively engage with and “live” the environment, rather than simply exist within it. Only then will we become one with it and cease to perceive the environment as a separate entity.
I interpret Alexandru Stermin’s call for humanism in science as a call for the integration of anthropology into the sciences. This idea has been widely discussed in debates about post-humanist anthropology and the broader post-humanist perspective. This new approach in anthropology goes beyond the study of humans, claiming that the focus of research should be the interplay between what is human and what is non-human. Alan Smart writes that the connection between organisms and their environment can be better understood by recognizing the interpenetration of the two, rather than seeing them as separate, bounded entities. The environment is not a distinct entity on its own, but rather a “zone of entanglement” in which beings exist in relationship to each other. Post-humanist anthropology has acknowledged that nature and the human are not separate but interwoven, while the concept of Anthropocene has shifted the focus from solely examining human societies and their impact on the environment to also studying the non-human world and how it is affected by human activity. This includes a more holistic approach to understanding the cultural and social dimensions of environmental issues. Is it possible that this new direction in anthropology will contribute to a deeper understanding of the theoretical concepts discussed here? Can we hope that future research will reveal a true reconnection between humanity and nature? Given the increase in environmental activism and media coverage of environmental issues and the growing trend of “ruralism”—which implies a connection to working the land and living in a natural environment—it might be that we’re moving towards a post-traditional way of thinking about our relationship with the natural environment.
We would like to thank Ioana Miruna Voiculescu for her useful proofreading and suggestions to ensure style consistency and improve readability across the texts published in English.
 Alexandru Stermin, Călătorie în jurul omului, (Bucharest: Humanitas, 2021); Alexandru Stermin, Căzuți din junglă. Poveștile unui explorator, (Bucharest: Humanitas, 2022).
 Cristian Presură, Omul major. De la răspunsurile științei la întrebările filosofiei, episode 1, “Știința și nevoia ei de umanism (cu Sandu Stermin)” (video), accessed March 13, 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EugkkX8hENw.
 William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” in Uncommon Ground: Re-thinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon, (New-York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995), 69–90.
 James Proctor , “The Social Construction of Nature: Relativist Accusation and Critical Realist Responses,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 88(3) (1998): 352–376.
 Alf Hornborg Ecology as semiotics: outlines of a contextualist paradigm for human ecology in Nature and Society. Anthropological Perspectives, Phlippe Descola and Gisli Pálson, eds., (London-New York: Routledge, 1996).
 Ioana Savin Bursan and Veronica Mitroi-Tisseyre, “La restauration écologique dans un «No man’s land», Une histoire socio-écologique récente du polder Popina dans la Réserve de Biosphère du Delta du Danube, Romania.” Cinq Continents 6 (14) (2016): 235–267.
 Vintilă Mihăilescu and R. Nahorniac, “Waves of Change. Property Relations and Economic Culture in the Danube Delta,” (Bucharest: SNSPA, 2003). (Unpublished manuscript).
 Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment. Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, (New York: Routledge, 2000).