On “Nature” and “Society”

by C.S. Lammer-Heindel

​In his encyclical Laudato Si’ Francis proposes an “integral ecology,” which conceives of our relationships to God, nature, and each other as equally fundamental, thereby affirming that the human and the natural are inescapably integrated. 

I suspect that this approach is too intimately wedded to our existing, technocratically inflected ways of speaking and thinking. In particular, I worry that it makes use of a faulty society-nature dichotomy, since it seems to assume that society and nature are two different things.

If, indeed, Francis’s integral ecology is premised on such a supposition, the objects that it integrates are chimeras. Outside of our imagination, there is no thing that is “Nature” or is “Society.” There are, I grant, non-artificial beings (i.e., beings not produced by human artifice), and there are societies and individuals, but there is not some monolithic thing outside of our minds that is Nature or is Society. If by “integral ecology,” we mean an ecological framework in which Nature and Society are to be integrated, we are operating at the level of fantasy. 

I propose that we treat “Nature” and “Society” in a way that is analogous to how Bruno Latour treats the term “Science.” He argues, persuasively, that there is no such thing as Science. When we use that term as if it denotes an entity, we speak sloppily. There are, to be sure, scientists, scientific hypotheses, scientific theories, scientific practices, and so forth. But there is no such thing as Science. In like manner, there are societies, social practices, etc., and there are humans and non-humans (just as there are squirrels and non-squirrels), but we speak sloppily when we speak of Society and Nature as denoting two distinct, massively large entities in relation.

Particular—nay, singular—beings or objects are the things that are integrated, that are in relation with each other, even as they remain withdrawn from those relations. And various objects can be (are!) parts of other objects. But the objects of the world do not give rise to or constitute two massive objects—Nature and Society—that may be (or may fail to be) integrated.