HSV Lecture 2017 – The new naturalists

The new naturalists: What we can learn from them

Photo of Jacques Boulet

HSV Public Lecture by Jacques Boulet, Borderlands Co-operative, at Hawthorn Community Precinct on 12 October 2017

For the last twenty years Borderlands has laid strong emphasis on the idea of community. Harking back to its Latin root, the word ‘community’ refers to an exchange of gifts, the essence of co-operation and the key to the survival of humanity.

In recent decades the social sciences have focused on the well-being of the individual and psychological issues. A theory of relating and relatedness, to link the personal to the political or broader framework has been lacking.

Jacques fervently believes that we need to relearn and develop our capacity to relate. He also advocates that the relational perspective ties in with humanism and its goals, for example, the pursuit of individual human rights and the need for governments to address these.

Civilisation over thousands of years has centred on the use and subjection of the world around us. And this to such an extent that life on Earth is now in serious jeopardy. Jacques conceives of our world-view as akin to a set of Russian babushka dolls. The smallest one in the centre is our personal world, an egocentric reality, and the next largest is our relationship to others species, our anthropomorphic system. Beyond that is an ethnocentric perspective, that is, the way we view nationhood or race. And finally, the very largest doll represents our mondo-centric view of things: in our imagination our planet is the centre of the cosmos, as if Copernicus had never told us otherwise.

Jacques’ journey to delve into this predicament began in the 1970s with Liberation theology and writers such as Wendell and Thomas Berry and Matthew Fox. Later he discovered David Abram, whose deep ecology and concept of sensuous knowing was a reminder that our hearing, looking, tasting, smelling, touching and intuiting are essential for communication with the non-human world, and for sustainability, if not our survival.  This was in step with the earlier work of Arne Naess, who poignantly asked what is it that makes us believe that our future is more important than that of other species.

Stuart Hill, social ecologist at the University of Western Sydney, by contrast, directs privileges to our human presence, although at the same time, advocating more co-operative and co-existential relationships between ourselves and non-humans.  He advocates experiential learning and proposes that the differences and chaos, which may eventuate, could foster creativity, development and co-evolution.

George Monbiot, in Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea and Human Life, wrote that he could envision a future world where humans and nature are no longer separate and antagonistic, but are together, proximate, and part of a single, healing world.  The rediscovery of the ‘wild’ has proponents who take a utilitarian approach; that is, it can benefit our psychological health as well as contribute towards our survival.  Others take a more radical stance, seeing an opportunity to question the nature of our relationship with the non-human, in the tradition of Arne Naess.

Related to this, there have been several pieces of legislation during the past forty years that have given rights to wilderness sites, for example, the Wanganui River in New Zealand and others in Ecuador, Bolivia and India.  Could this kind of activism be linked with the ‘native title’ claims of indigenous people?  There is a strong network of lawyers and activists, the Australian Earth Laws Alliance, whose next conference in November this year will address the subject, Inspiring Earth Ethics: Linking values and action. Jonathon Burdon’s book Exploring Wild Law: The Philosophy of Earth Jurisprudence (2011) refers to some of their work.

Other writers whom Jacques recommended included Karan Barad, who wrote in Meeting the Universe Halfway,

. . . existence is not an individual affair. Individuals do not pre-exist their interaction; rather, individuals emerge through and as part of their entangled inter-relating … which is not to deny my own agency (as it were), but to call into question the nature of agency and its presumed localization within individuals (whether human or non-human).

Donna Haraway bemoans our enslavement to the lure of progress and modernization in her book, Staying with the Trouble. Anna Tsing, in The Mushroom at the End of the World, reminds us to look around rather than just ahead; she explores the case study of matsutake mushroom foragers in the USA, whose bounty is often found after forest clearance.  She asks what would capitalism look like without assuming progress?

While reflecting on the work of the new naturalists it is also worth reconsidering the work of earlier scientists and thinkers. Goethe, for example, wrote and talked a great deal about human relationship with nature and ways of understanding this.  He proposed a ‘proper’ process of perception to aid an appropriate understanding of all phenomena, natural and human.  This phenomenological approach to ‘understanding’, of integrating sensory perception and comprehension with cognitive processes, suggests that real understanding requires us to encompass fully the object of our perception, to identify with it relationally and as part of the ongoing flow of reality.  While it is difficult to translate Goethe’s late eighteenth century German into modern-day English, there is a degree of similarity with Niels Bohr’s language about quantum mechanics in the late twentieth century.

Finally Jacques strongly believes that humanism and humanists must be involved in multi-species survival and that this will involve relearning about relationships that can nurture sustainability.


Abram, D., The Spell of the Sensuous Perception and Language in a More-than-human World, Vintage, New York, 1995.

Barad, K., Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning Durham, Duke University Press, 2007.

Burdon, P., Exploring Wild Law: The Philosophy of Earth Jurisprudence, Adelaide, Wakefield Press, 2011.

Haraway, D., Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham, Duke University Press, 2016.

Monbiot, G., Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea and Human Life, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Tsing, A and Lowenhaupt, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2015.

Tsing, A., Swanson, H., Gan, E., Bubandt, N. (eds), Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Report by Jennie Stuart