Etymology: Greek misanthrōpos hating humankind, from misein to hate + anthrōpos human being
: a person who hates or distrusts humankind
Would you consider yourself a misanthrope? I suspect that most, if asked if they hated or distrusted humanity, would say no. Take ethical consideration, for example. We, who are interested in the more-than-human, often argue that it is the human that sits at the zenith of consideration. And this isn’t strictly an intellectual argument. One has to look at how our culture has chosen to treat, a proxy for consideration, the non-human for confirmation. I have a hypothesis, though. I think that we’re suffering, culturally, from an undiagnosed case of misanthropy.
I turn to a few examples, that together, have pointed me in this direction. First, from my research with children at summer camp about their concepts of nature [pdf alert]. When describing what nature was to them, a category emerged where the attributes related directly to the degree of human manipulation of nature. I wrote:
While most participants believed that humans were a part of nature, whenever humans were physically involved with the natural world, the natural world was negatively impacted and changed. When asked if a cabin was part of nature, this twelve year old (IM3) male said that: “I think … humans build things, say this nature lodge, it’s made of cut-up trees and doesn’t really look like trees anymore it just looks like slice of wood and it’s, it’s been turned into not nature.”For some reason, human manipulation of what is seen as “nature,” makes that object or thing “not nature.” (p. 42)
Now, in my dissertation work, I’ve been thinking about people’s reactions to the urban. Here’s why one birder likes to bird at Rondeau:
It is just good to get away from the rat race. Hustle and bustle and I say about on a day like today. You do not hear the sounds of cars going up and down the road and you do not have factories, do not have pollution right next to you.
You get away from the rat race and the stress and you get to a place like this and walk along the fresh air, sounds of birds, sights of birds and not even just birds, you might even see a raccoon, a snake, or whatever it may be and it just take your mind away from the hustle and bustle.
Birding (in provincial parks and other “natural spaces”) becomes an antidote to the city. Why? Because the city is not nature. And why is the city not nature? Because our presence is obvious. We change tempo. At Rondeau, there are traces of our culture—beyond it being a forested peninsula, it is not a pristine space in any special way. Yet, it appears to many visitors as such. In part because those forested spaces appear to be less contaminated by our presence.
This is what I mean by saying we’re misanthropic. The city, with its urban matrix of organisms, from native to non-native, is still a part of nature. Yet, in our eyes our presence often taints the natural world. We hate ourselves.
Common environmental narratives are full of similar examples: The Nature of Things’ documentaries are often centred on how our bodily presence is at risk of irrevocably de-naturing the world. When not condemning actions or making arguments to change, the documentaries work to reinforce how true nature is devoid of humans. Here are excerpts from the blurb of a recent documentary on Peruvian Red Monkeys:
Scientist Mark Bowler is on a mission to find the rare and elusive red-faced Uakari monkey. His search takes audiences deep into the remote rainforests of Peru – a dangerous journey of many days.
Journeying from the bustling city of Iquitos into largely forgotten worlds, we join Dr. Bowler for an exotic riverboat cruise down the Amazon and up the Yavari river to the Lago Preto black water preserve.
Unfortunately, as logging moves into the area forest ecosystems are being threatened, and hunting could potentially wipe out the entire species.
Only in leaving the city, traces of us, behind do we find (a threatened) nature1.
Yes, these are important stories to tell. But the narratives often deployed work to reinforce our separation from some kind of true, pristine nature, when, in fact, we need to start thinking about how we can recognize and connect with the kind of nature that our presence shapes.
Because, as I began, we are not really ready to re-think our position as being on the top when it comes to ethical consideration. More, not less, spaces, as humanity’s population increases, will become visibly “touched” by human hands. And we need different ways to think about ourselves and tell our stories.
- And as a side note, as someone who has visited Iquitos, it, and the surrounding forest is not a “largely forgotten world” [↩]