Imagining a new relationship between humanity and the wild
Philosopher Nathan Kowalsky details his philosophy of “the bush” and asks why we value the natural environment
Politicians preach agendas for a greener future. Corporations advertise newer, more sustainable products, now in compostable packaging. Parents and teachers tell kids not to litter, not to leave the power on or the water running.
It seems most of us believe that environmental stewardship is a good thing. But why is it good for us to care about the natural environment? The most obvious reason is that we need its resources to survive — but is a view that places humans and our needs at the centre of Earth’s ecosystems a good thing? Is there a higher reason for us to care, one that transcends human necessity?
Some philosophers spend their time reaching into this tangle of thorny questions. Nathan Kowalsky is one such philosopher, currently researching environmental philosophy and ethics at St. Joseph’s College.
His work focuses on the relationships between humans and the natural environment. He also writes a lot about hunting, trying to decipher how the activity embodies an important interface between human beings, wild animals and wild landscapes.
I asked Kowalsky about his research as well as his take on the role philosophers — and all ethical thinkers — play in solving Earth’s ecological crises.
What would you say is the job of an environmental philosopher?
I think the use of an environmental philosopher is to cultivate high-level awareness of the implications of our culture’s impact on the environment, and also the way the environment has an impact on our culture. We often aren’t deeply aware of why things are the way they are environmentally, or how they got this way, or why we do the things we do.
A lot of the time, I think, when we recognize a problem in our relationship to the environment, we look for solutions. Many of them are symptomatic solutions that don’t recognize, perhaps, the deeper, underlying causes. I think philosophy is one of the places we can go to understand those deeper causes and root issues, and maybe even solve the causes of these problems instead of just mitigating the symptoms.
Which philosophical questions are you investigating?
I’m working on understanding the relationship between the kind of civilization we currently have in the modern world and what remains of what we call “the wilderness,” which is its own, fraught term.
It seems like the culture I happen to be in currently, which is my ancestral culture, likes to think of that land as “out there” and not “in here.” So we are somehow separate and distinct from it. Often there has been a conquest narrative connected to that distinction. So the wilderness is conquered, frontiers pushed back.
But I worry that that cultural model is toxic, variously problematic, and wrong. There are harmful relations with the Indigenous people of Canada that are implied in the settler attitude. There are harmful relations with the native plants and animals. Settler Canada thinks “humans” have to plow the prairie, break the sod, replace it with grain from Europe, replace the bison with cattle, build cities.
It’s a genocidal project, where the sphere of so-called culture, which in this case is Euro-American, Western Canadian culture, is supposed to replace what is associated with so-called nature.
I’m looking towards ways of replacing that model with something that’s better.
What alternatives are there to this model?
I recently wrote a paper that used some First Nations scholarship in an attempt to articulate what “the bush” is in Canada. In the bush, I hope we find something better than what settler culture thought it had to offer.
Very often the settler model assumes that what is outside the cultural bubble is empty and desolate. That’s what the wilderness is assumed to mean: “there’s no people in the wilderness.” But the bush isn’t the wilderness in that sense, because the bush is full of people, it’s full of meaning, it’s full of lives. Many of the lives are non-human too.
In your writing you suggest that there is potential for Canadians to develop a more enlightened attitude towards the “the bush.” How is Canada’s relationship with the natural environment unique?
The project of conquering the wilderness doesn’t go very far in Canada in comparison to other countries.
In the United States, or in Germany, for example, there’s almost no frontier left. Interestingly, Canada has put a bit of a break on that project, not because the Canadians think we should pull back, but because the settlers kept trying and failing to conquer the bush.
Canada didn’t turn out to be that great for colonizing every square inch of it, partially because it’s a far north country. It’s hard for European models of agriculture to get much further north than Grande Prairie. So the bush is this looming shadow that pushes back on the settler cultural model and says, “Hey, you can’t really go here, you can’t really do this here.”
I think this allows settler Canadians like myself to try articulating a different way of being Canadian that is better in tune with, or in love with, the bush as a place of dwelling and belonging.
What do you think is our role, as creatures capable of ethical thinking, in dealing with the many ecological crises we have created?
Beyond individual action, it is perhaps our job to engage in discourse about these issues, when perhaps too often we don’t. There’s not enough consciousness about these bigger ethical questions about ecological crises that we just take for granted. We assume; we think we have answers, but don’t know why.
I would think that in a democratic, literate society we ought to be more aware and engaged with these kinds of questions going forward, rather than stumbling along blindly thinking we already have the answers, or not knowing that there were questions in the first place