Does nature seem increasingly chaotic? Perhaps, as some scholars have recently suggested, our efforts to impose order and predictability on nature have only unleashed new and more erratic forms of wildness. Even the impulse to regard nature as enacting revenge illustrates a pervasive tendency to look to the natural world as a source of moral norms. “Because nature is so rich in orders,” Lorraine Daston argues, “the analogy between natural and human orders can take many forms.” Reflecting on humans’ habitual turn to nature for normative insights feels especially pertinent in the midst of megafires, heatwaves, hurricanes, shrinking glaciers, and, above all, a rampaging virus. Nature’s present turmoil finds a counterpart in the political tensions, civic unrest, and profound injustices that have marked 2020—as if to demonstrate the ever-deepening entanglement of these orders. Like climate change, the coronavirus pandemic has “divulged a wilderness of human doing,” Jonathon Kahn writes in this forum, “and offered moments to create a new wilderness of human natural relations.”
The books selected for this forum traverse the fields of environmental studies, Islamic studies, and the philosophy of religion. They invite critical inquiry into the forms of nature entailed in contemporary debates over climate science and its denial, religious naturalism, and the environmental humanities. Daston’s commentary on the varieties of natural orders provided some of the initial inspiration for this forum, and thus serves as a reference point—though not an authoritative one—in my own reflections. She offers a threefold typology of human-nature encounters: universal natural laws, specific natures, and local natures.
Universal natural orders are generally understood as uniform and inexorable cosmic features. Their contravention suggests a miracle—a divine exception to general rules. Science is often understood to consist of reliable knowledge of these regularities. Echoes of universal natural order can also be heard in pronouncements regarding universal human rights. Daston writes that universal order, in the form of natural laws, achieved the status of a secular metaphysics during the Enlightenment and—I would argue—continues to function as such among scientists, and science enthusiasts, who look to complete the Enlightenment project. Specific natures speak to the characteristic form or essence of a thing; how it looks or behaves. This order is expressed in categories and classifications often seen to flow from divine edict or design. Their disruption or transgression unleashes something monstrous. Finally, local natures are all about “power of place.” The product of distinctive landscapes and species, local natures also emerge from the interweaving of local customs with particular places. Threats to local natures appear not as monsters but as disequilibrium—disruption of a delicate balance. Human-caused natural disasters, on this account, become “sagas of crime and punishment.”
Each of these three orders has been marshalled in opposition to phenomena deemed unnatural, and their violation evokes strong passions. Daston proposes that the human propensity to wrest normativity from nature—despite perennial and strenuous objections to deriving an ought from an is—suggests a philosophical anthropology of homo depictor: Humans are representers whose stock-in-trade is images and symbols, diagrams and models.
While it is difficult to pin down a precise definition of nature in Black Lives and Sacred Humanity, Carol Wayne White gestures toward the universal—nature as cosmic order, narratable as a coherent story—while strongly resisting legacies of Enlightenment natural order that provided justification for slavery and racism. White maintains that truths about life and its meaning are revealed through the natural order. This is not the immutable order of specific natures, but nature as entangled creatureliness and “becoming.” Bringing religious naturalism and philosophy of religion together with key figures in African American thought, she advances a new conception of sacred humanity to counter the dehumanization of Blacks in the culture and history of the United States.
Humans are both relational, natural organisms and sacred centers of value, creatures predisposed to locate meaning and purpose in the world. We are a symbol-making species whose highly complex brain is “part of the cosmos and a product of the cosmos” (White). Animals among other animals, we are nevertheless singular in our ability to reinterpret and transform our biology through language and symbolic systems.
Mary Keller discerns in White’s natural order a kind of guiding (if nontheistic) force nudging the cosmos toward higher complexity: humans are nature made aware of itself. White takes some cues from a science-inflected cosmology and overarching narrative enshrined in the Epic of Evolution and endorsed by religious naturalists like Loyal Rue and Ursula Goodenough. White is affiliated with the Religious Naturalist Association, or RNA (“pun intended,” their website explains). Religious naturalists’ inquiry into “What is?” and “What matters” entails a turn to “natural (rather than supernatural) sources.” Disavowing the supernatural, religious naturalists variously identify as “atheists, agnostics, non-theists, or humanists,” and some eschew all labels. White’s sacred humanism echoes these claims in denying that religious naturalism posits “any ontologically distinct and superior realm (God, soul, heaven) to ground, explain or give meaning to this world.” Similarly, in Black Lives, she confesses perplexity at sacredness defined as “a wholly different, transcendent order,” and she rejects metaphysical commitments in favor of “scientific” renderings of nature.
Such claims and categories—language circumscribing theism vs. nontheism and that which is “wholly” beyond nature—raise questions regarding what counts as natural vs. supernatural, and whether science abjures metaphysics. For example, are Indigenous and animistic traditions naturalistic or supernaturalistic? Do they posit “wholly distinct” realms? On some accounts, animism is invested more in nonhumans as persons than in categories of the supernatural. Appellations of “person” to nonhumans are “not intended to replace words like spirit or deity” or to signal belief in something “greater than human” or “supernatural.” Moreover, quasi-teleological and emergentist elements of White’s natural order (“an emergent dynamic logic . . . gives life its meaning”) might well signify a secular metaphysics, to invoke Daston’s intriguing term.
Robin Globus Veldman’s historical and ethnographic analysis of traditionalist evangelical Christians in the United States calls to mind additional categories of natural order. In The Gospel of Climate Skepticism, Veldman effectively undermines the widespread assumption among scholars of “religion and nature” that end-times apathy—even a desire to behold the planet spectacularly destroyed—accounts for evangelical Christians’ climate denial. More generally, Veldman casts doubt on an oft-cherished (or disparaged) notion among these scholars that theological prescriptions determine environmental attitudes and practice. On the contrary, as Evan Berry notes, theologies of nature are highly mediated by particular communities in which they emerge. “Environmental” values may spring from experiences of racism and social/ecological precarity, over and above theological sources and confessional stances. Veldman’s careful deconstruction of common caricatures of evangelicals reveals as much about the stubborn biases of (ostensibly) secular environmentalists—including scholars of religion and nature—as it does about evangelicalism.
As Veldman argues, evangelicals’ abiding sense of embattlement with the secular world drives climate skepticism, and often manifests as anxiety about divine omnipotence: If humans are capable of altering something as consequential as Earth’s climate, is this not tantamount to usurping godlike power? As one informant explains, God retains control: “If He doesn’t want [climate change] to happen, it’s not going to happen.” Questioning God’s guiding agency in this matter is an act of extreme hubris. Climate change gets branded as a liberal secular agenda to replace divine governance with big government. “Belief” in climate change, moreover, commits one to a universe of chance. Evangelical concern for nature is therefore limited to modest acts of tidying up (recycling, not littering)—or, as Susannah Crockford postulates, keeping nature’s wayward (demonic?) tendencies at bay—while God oversees the cosmic realm.
Evangelicals who defend God’s sole authority over natural events seem committed to a universal order of incontrovertible natural laws. But closer scrutiny suggests an investment in “specific” natures, which guarantee that nature and its processes do not meander. This order of nature is routinely mobilized against those who would claim that “the universe is the result of mere chance” (Daston). If not for specific natures, “what a thing is would be no guide to what it was and will be” (Daston). Fear of disrupting these essentializing categories may also explain why the “normative ordering of bodies” is an area of keen evangelical concern, as Crockford notes.
Consider Rush Limbaugh, who famously opines that belief in God and belief in anthropogenic climate change are incompatible. Limbaugh explains that if you believe the world is “some random, haphazard, accidental thing . . . then you can be easily coerced into believing that one or two slight changes could destroy it, if it’s just . . . like, some Big Bang.” Of course, he hastens to add, Christians should tidy up. “We don’t like pollution. Nobody likes a mess.” But climate change is another matter entirely, for it entails the “intellectually obscene” notion that things are “barely being held in place.” Unlike the devotees of “happenstance,” Christians who believe nature was “created and that it exists for specific reasons” will be “much harder sells” on climate change. On Daston’s account, we might note, the passion evoked by transgressing specific natures is horror. (By contrast, violation of universal regularities elicits wonder. Think: miracles.)
Anna M. Gade’s historical, textual, and ethnographic study, Muslim Environmentalisms, directly challenges monolithic, universalizing tendencies of scholarship in “religion and ecology”—and by implication, its vision of a homogenous human “species” and cosmic norms. This approach frequently overlaps with advocacy of the Epic of Evolution or the Universe Story as a science-based, unifying, and common myth for humanity. (I share some of Gade’s concerns.) Gade critiques the casual universalism that characterizes “key word” treatments of Islam and the environment, wherein scholars sift through Quranic texts and Muslim practices to locate Islamic counterparts to Western environmental norms. This method pays scant attention to actual, living people and the details of religious practice in particular places. Indeed, “even regional treatments of Islam and the environment have barely touched the ground in their descriptions” (Gade). As Elizabeth Hennessy notes, the dearth of on-the-ground studies may explain why environmental scholars hear much about massive palm oil plantations that drive deforestation, fires, and labor abuses, while understanding little of what Muslim Indonesians actually think and do about these issues.
Gade attends to Muslim environmentalisms—stressing the plural form of the suffix “ism”—and in doing so, reveals the Western provenance and Eurocentric flavor of natural norms that frequently populate environmental thought (and inflect Daston’s threefold typology.) In place of facile universalism, she foregrounds the complex interweaving of practice and place, in ways suggestive of Daston’s order of “local natures.” But if disequilibrium—local natures thrown out of balance by human activity—is the “problem” or “crisis” that Western environmentalism typically seeks to solve, Gade’s account of Muslim environmentalisms challenges scholars to interrogate how categories of nature and the environment are constructed in the first place. Even innocuous-sounding concepts like nature’s “balance”—an environmental norm at least as old as Rachel Carson’s pioneering Silent Spring (1962)—appear in Gade’s analysis as unwarranted Euro-American impositions on Islamic texts and values. “Islam and the environment” proceeds by mapping “‘the environment’ onto an alternative and limited array of decontextualized scriptural terms” like balance and stewardship “with little consideration for the emphasis they receive in the text of the Qur’an itself” (Gade). To the extent that Muslims perceive natural disasters like tsunamis or earthquakes as divine judgment, or “sagas of crime and punishment,” on Daston’s terms, these perceptions are rooted not in a commitment to norms of balance and crises of imbalance. Rather, they flow from understanding the environment as an inherently ethical category, and environmental practice as synonymous with religious practice. As James Bourk Hoesterey observes, “the very idea of earth is understood as a trusteeship . . . a test for which humans, according to the Quran, will be held to account on Judgment Day.” Gade’s work calls on environmental scholars within and beyond religious studies to reckon with colonial legacies and European frameworks, and the natural normativities those frameworks subsume.
At a time when the academy cannot afford to treat environmental issues as peripheral, these books provide scholars across a variety of disciplines with new tools and insights for understanding human-nature entanglement, and the normative meanings these encounters generate.