People’s Place in Nature

NOMIS Research Project

Human activities have had a lasting effect on the Earth by, for example, triggering undesired developments such as climate change and a dramatic loss of biodiversity. Developing scientific insights and tools, learning how people value their natural environment and establishing a coherent argument for protecting nature are important for responding to and counteracting anthropogenic environmental change.

In today’s political and societal discourse, the question “Why should we protect nature?” is often answered by highlighting the importance of natural resources and ecosystem services for humanity. Environmental ethicists in particular have criticized this reduction of nature to a resource, arguing that humans have an obligation to protect nature based on its intrinsic value. However, even within the ethics community, these arguments are controversial, and they are even more contested outside of academic discourse.

People’s Place in Nature explores an alternative approach to reason for a considerate and responsible interaction with nature, which neither reduces nature to a resource nor relies on the assumption of intrinsic values. Environmental ethics and social sciences researchers are collaborating to develop a better understanding of people’s relationships in and with nature, enabling the development of arguments for a respectful interaction with the natural environment that can be applied in environmental policy.

The project’s researchers hypothesize that the relationships people have in and with nature are so diverse, numerous and strong, that reduction to that of service provider and beneficiary, or caregiver and patient, is both absurd and destructive — in other words, people are themselves nature and shape nature in their surroundings. Drawing on biological and ecological findings and on literature in environmental ethics, this project will investigate and reflect on people’s place in nature as an alternative to the predominant understanding of people as antagonists to or stewards of nature.

Anna Deplazes Zemp is leading the People’s Place in Nature project at the University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland. The project is being supported by the NOMIS Foundation, the University Research Priority Programme on Global Change and Biodiversity, and the UZH Foundation.