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A Crisis of Imagination: Why We Need to Rethink Our Relationship with Nature

For the vast majority of humanity, nature is understood as something separate from ourselves. The natural world is seen as something to conquer, a resource to exploit. Most Western belief systems hinge on the idea that human culture has sovereignty over nature, and we rely on a supply of infinite resources that the planet simply does not have.

The ecological crisis is fundamentally a crisis of imagination, and the enormous issues we face cannot be solved without first changing the way we think about the environment. We are now paying the price for a superiority complex that has been held for thousands of years. This worldview has become institutionalised, embedded in our vocabulary (e.g., ‘natural resources’, ‘fish stocks’) and our politics. It is no coincidence that social groups associated with the natural world – the working class, indigenous people, even women - have been exploited in a similar way.

Fortunately, not everyone subscribes to this worldview. Re-Alliance's members are regeneration practitioners and prescribe to the belief that nature is living. For some, this could have spiritual undertones like animism: the belief that all things – including rocks, plants, and rivers – possess a spiritual essence. Others look to science and ecology to prove that nature is not an inanimate object for humans to exploit, but a complex web of interrelated and interdependent life forms. In their community-led humanitarian responses, Re-Alliance's members embed this belief in their work - designing their responses not only around the health of humans, human systems and infrastructure, but also the health of non-humans. This idea that the non-human possesses agency and vitality could be pivotal in transforming popular attitudes towards the natural world. Communities in La Libertad in Northern Peru, for instance, believe that nature has the ability not only to feel but to act upon these feelings. Importantly, they believe that the relationship between humans and nature is reciprocal, and that natural disasters are punishment for us not treating nature with the respect it deserves. For them, the level of violence enacted by nature correlates to the level of violence enacted by humanity. In this way, nature is not only a reflection of ourselves but also an agent of justice.

This alternative way of thinking is already beginning to manifest itself in law and policy. Some governments have recognised the legal personhood of nature, which allows polluters to be prosecuted under personal injury laws. India, Australia, and New Zealand, for instance, recognise the legal personhood of rivers, while Columbia recognises the legal personhood of the Amazon rainforest. Another country leading by example is Bhutan, which uses a ‘gross national happiness’ index to measure progress rather than GDP. Importantly, this index regards the wellbeing of people and the wellbeing of nature.

We don’t all need to subscribe to the idea that nature is a sentient being. But perhaps viewing nature as something we are a part of rather than something to fight against could be the key to solving the ecological crisis. Regeneration, for instance, promotes the idea that humanity should evolve in harmony with ecological systems. The emphasis is on collaboration with nature; building a relationship without problematic power dynamics, and ultimately resulting in long-term flourishing for everyone involved.

This reimagining of our relationship with nature has profound implications for the humanitarian and development sectors. Solutions that go beyond sustainability could mean that refugee camps no longer have to be places where nature is damaged and subordinated. Instead, regenerative design could enable ecosystems in disaster settings to thrive – creating an environment that is self-healing and far more beneficial to both people and planet. One of Re-Alliance's members, Green Releaf in the Philippines, is doing incredible work on restoring humanity’s connection to the earth by using nature-based solutions in times of crisis.

Humanity and nature are deeply intertwined, yet many of us are struggling to break free from this entanglement using increasingly violent methods. These attempts at separation are brutal and futile – most people do not realise that if we are destroying nature, we are destroying ourselves. If we do not shift our way of thinking about nature, we will continue to wreak havoc until we eventually look down and realise that the blood on our hands has always been our own.


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