Close-up of a leaf, revealing its texture and veins

Nature — A problematic concept for many reasons

Rethinking the dualistic distinction between nature and culture

In the Anthropocene, the Earth has been “modified by human action” (George Perkins Marsh) to an extent that some have proclaimed “the end of nature” (Bill McKibben), or a complete transformation of nature into culture. About 250 years ago, many Enlightenment philosophers and naturalists contemplated the idea of transforming “first nature” into an improved “second nature” which also became part of the colonial experiment. Some even saw it as history’s final destination. One may wonder in what way the current state of the Earth relates to those ideas, but viewed in this light the Anthropocene looks like an experiment coming close to failure.

However, the continuity suggested by this long view may be illusionary — and the concept of “nature” itself the cause of misguidance in this case. What Enlightenment philosophers called “nature” was a combination of physical laws beyond human control, a few resources that could be accessed through mining, and the biosphere. The latter was the sphere of human influence that 18th-century philosophers, naturalists, or colonialists considered transformable. Transforming the biosphere was what creating an improved “second nature” by the means of human effort meant. The environmental changes of the Anthropocene lie far beyond Enlightenment imaginaries of nature’s transformation, mainly because material extractions from the Earth’s crust have vastly expanded the sphere of human influence beyond the biosphere.

“Nature” is a problematic concept for other reasons as well. The nature-culture dualism has been questioned by philosophers and anthropologists alike, such as Bruno Latour and Philippe Descola, among others. This dualism has been reproduced in European traditions of separating the humanities and social sciences from the natural sciences. Some have claimed that dualistic thinking of this kind has its share in causing the environmental disasters we are facing today. That said, it is perhaps equally relevant that the unity suggested by the term “nature” ceased to exist when natural science split up into multiple disciplines. Moreover, if we look at the universe as it is seen by modern astrophysics, the part that is exposed to human transformation is actually so minute that it ridicules holistic claims that humans have transformed “nature.” Therefore, references to nature are at least blurry if not seriously misleading. What we are talking about in the Anthropocene is the Earth (or the Earth System) — that tiny part of the universe that humans are capable of transforming. The problem is that this is the part our own existence depends on.

Franz Mauelshagen


Researchers: Eva Horn, Stephanie Langer, Ronald Pöppl, Olga Smith, Peter Schweitzer, Alice Vadrot

Further Reading