Among the most common phrases used in outdoor learning, recreation and therapeutic practice are “connecting to nature”, “reconnecting with nature” and “nature connection”.
A quick online search reveals an entire industry based on nature connection. Those who are disconnected can reconnect through a dazzling range of courses, workshops and practices. That reconnecting with nature is good for you is now widely accepted by governments, academia, outdoor recreators, educators and healthcare providers across the planet.
So what’s the problem?
Well ... imagine that you have become disconnected from your liver. How long would you survive?
Like our liver, our ecosystems are part of the complex web of relationships without which we wouldn’t be alive. How long would you survive without food or water or, to add a bit of urgency, air? These are all produced by the ecosystems in which we live. To such an entangled degree in fact, that it is accurate to say that we are our ecosystems. And they, in turn, are us.
Where is nature?
Nature is a complex term. If you want to find nature, where do you look? In a forest? Up a mountain? If you want to go out into nature, where are you when you set off? In your house? In the city?
But at what point in any of these places are you able to exist without food, water or air? At what point are you actually separate from nature at all?
Well I’ll tell you: you are never separate from nature. You are part of it. I would even go as far as saying that you are nature. You can no sooner exist without it as you can without yourself.
Clearly something doesn’t add up with this idea of nature connection. We cannot connect to nature because we are already connected. Just like with our livers - if we disconnect, we're dead.
The difference is between being connected to nature ecologically and feeling connected to it psychologically.
It’s quite easy to see that the various nature connection programmes on offer are actually about working with people who feel disconnected - by helping them reap the enormous benefits of feeling reconnected. A valuable process, even though it’s ecological nonsense.
So why does any of this matter? Why is this semantic ‘Narcissism of Minor Differences’ even worth a second thought? 1
The words “connection” and “reconnection” logically imply some previous state of “disconnection”. We cannot connect, or reconnect, if we were not disconnected in the first place.
This language, although subtle, reinforces what George Lakoff calls a 'deep truth frame’ 2. It perniciously establishes a ‘truth’ that humans are not part of nature, which is clearly not true at all (try living without air). This makes it a kind of lethal grammar. A clumsy lexicon of separation that is leading us to catastrophically destroy our own habitat - threatening the survival of ourselves and countless other species.
The irony is of course, that many people offering ’nature connection’ are more deeply embedding the story that they are actually trying to change. If this is you, please think more carefully about the language you use to describe your work.
- Freud, Sigmund (1917). ‘The Taboo of Virginity’, Standard Edition, Hogarth Press, London 1953. p.199
- Lakoff, G. (2010) “Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment,” Environmental Communication, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 70–81