BMCR 2024.04.11

Humans and their environment: beyond the nature/culture opposition

, Humans and their environment: beyond the nature/culture opposition. Environmental humanities series, 1. London: Transnational Press, 2023. Pp. ii, 91. ISBN 9781801351843.



Even though Claude Calame’s contributions to the study of ancient Greek society have been seminal for a generation or more, there is no apparent reference to that subject in the title of this very short book, originally appearing in French (in various forms, it seems, from 2015 to 2020) and already translated into Italian (by Franco Giorgianni, 2021) and now, English (by Sam Ferguson). The book does turn to the subject of Greek thought for a chapter, but, before doing so, it opens with a preface referencing a decade’s worth of United Nations Climate Change Conferences and their Sisyphean attempts to mitigate a changing climate which causes the most damage to those poorer nations who have contributed the least to it. This opens the possibility of doing Classics in a manner that is global, current, engaged, and sensitive to privilege. Calame’s work here sets out to address directly the dominance of neoliberal capitalism and its treatment of our relationship to the environment as a market of natural and human resources. For these reasons alone, I recommend it to everyone.

Calame approaches his subject, he says, “as both a Hellenist-citizen and a mountaineer shocked by the melting of Alpine glaciers”. He admits to being influenced by several other scholars in the short time between editions, leading to updated thinking in the current volume.[1] His basic purpose is:

“…to examine from a distance, as an anthropologist, some of the conceptions that the Greek sophoi had of the relations of mortal humans with their milieu, in particular by means of the idea of phusis, which cannot be reduced to the modern concept of ‘nature’” (3)

A very brief introductory overview chapter starts with the observation that ‘nature’ is a construct of seventeenth-century European thinking which traces its roots back to Greek ‘phusis’. An investigation of the connection between these two concepts is for Calame a political critique of the ideological and practical causes, and social and environmental consequences, of changes in the biosphere not limited to climate change alone. At the root of the issue are the tekhnai—such as those laid out in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound and Sophocles’ ‘Ode to Man’ in the Antigone—that we use to control and manage, exploit and destroy the environment. Putting phusis and tekhnai into dialog allows us to transcend a picture of human culture manipulating a passive environmental object and instead to re-examine the modern concept of ‘nature’ itself as a living biosphere and the milieu for humanity’s complex interactions with it, what Calame calls an ‘altermondialist ecosocialism’. “Nature,” he adds enigmatically, “can only ever be culture.”

A second short introductory chapter on intellectual history situates the nature-culture duality of 1970s French thinking as a product of Descartes’ recognition that knowledge of the physical world will lead to power over its uses and the Enlightenment’s objectification of nature as an object knowable to, and therefore actable-on by, humans. Nature in this view is nevertheless a quasi-Spinozan account of laws “formulated by Newton, but still created by God.” Anthropology’s dual focus on the physical and the cultural allows a certain duality for humans in which nature represents our animal and biological side, and this framework flourished under Structuralist analysis. It is then claimed that starting the discussion with the Greek concept of phusis “will allow us to adopt an indirect and critical perspective on the modern opposition canonised by structuralism,” and that the anthropological study of the preconceptions embedded in ancient culture will help throw off the chains of Anglo-American neoliberalist capitalism’s exploitation and commodification of nature. Replacing this, an ecosocialist stance will instead value “the anthropopoietic potential of a milieu that is implicated, inextricably and indispensably, in the cultural shaping of the human being in society.” Reconfiguring these adjacent concepts is a lofty goal.

These calls set the stage for the five short chapters that follow, which cover a range of responses. The first of these is the foretold exploration of phusis in Greek thought. In no particular order, Homer and the Presocratics, nomos and Plato, Herodotus’ Indians and Hippocrates are made to yield their flashes of insight, such as the fact that, insofar as modern humans typically constrain our diet to what can be produced through agricultural cultivation, our natures are only realized through cultural practice; or that Plato sees nomos as tyrannical; or that Hippocratic environmental determinism is more about the interpermeability of human nature and nature of place than it is about the dichotomy of human custom and nature of place; or that the universality implied by the phusis of diseases makes diagnosis possible; or that for Aristotle the hand is the marker of human intelligence by which tekhnai are carried out. Those tekhnai, the Promethean arts of the craftsman, nevertheless rely primarily on the semiotics of sign and pattern recognition. Decipherment leads to survival, and once again our nature depends on culture.

The second chapter leads us “from the Enlightenment philosophers to modern anthropologists,” digging deeper into Descartes and Buffon’s distinctions of humans from animals along the lines of rational thought and language, which gave to the former a power over both nature and the latter. This confounded the colonial experience of culture contact for Europeans steeped in the Classical tradition, and the role of Herder’s Bildung and Kultur and of Tylor’s ‘culture’ in the unity of humanity became the question of the era. The limitations of this approach—its tendency to think in binary and evolutionary patterns—are highlighted in Durkheim and Mauss whereas Malinowski’s functionalist anthropology is given credit for understanding culture as arising from differing institutional responses to our universal biological needs. And here, once again, our nature is not fully realized without culture.

The third chapter investigates these “permeabilities”, where indigenous and non-Western anthropologies can help to break down rigid distinctions between categories. Human nature both constitutes and is constituted by culture. At both the species and individual levels humans as animals are not found unstamped by culture, nor is culture realized outside the human animal. Rather than understanding culture as suffusing an incomplete animal to create a human, we should see anthropopoetic and ecopoetic plasticity resonating with the neural and genetic bases of individual and collective human identity. The mutually influential, ever-changing relationships between individuals and their environments lend a porosity to bounded cultures, a syncretic dialectic which offers to break down the self-other distinction at the core of Eurocentric religious and nationalist identities.

The interactive relationships between thinking subjects and their milieux are the topic of the fourth chapter, taking on the question of whether we relate to nature as an external reality or as an inner construct. Umgebung and Umwelt, shizen kankyo and fudo, Vorstellung and Darstellung, médiance and trajection are briefly mentioned only to suggest that these binaries are unproductive. There is a payoff, however, as the argument returns to the role of Promethean tekhnai in mediating the porous, permeable, non-linear, non-deterministic interactions between humans and their environments, allowing the former to perceive, decipher, and activate meaning through the latter. This is particularly compelling in the case of the human genome, particularly destructive in the case of industrialization, and particularly sad in the case of social media. Neither financial crises nor pandemics have reduced the force with which capitalism appropriates these relationships.

The fifth and final chapter describes the ecosocialist outlook required to transcend capitalism’s exploitation of the nature-culture dichotomy. Several paragraphs in this chapter end with an ellipsis, indicating their open-ended hemeneutics. One way to avoid further patriarchal reinscription of the binary as we move through the Anthropocene is by recourse to Lovelock’s ‘Gaia hypothesis’ and its extension into a Leopoldian framework of ethical and even legal status given to the environment, as already in Ecuador (in 2008) and Bolivia (in 2010). This extension, however, remains in conflict with the marriage of life sciences and agribusiness as capitalist forces in the “green economy”. “Ecopoesis”, by contrast, situates humans in non-dominant, complex webs of political interaction with their natural milieux, while “anthropopoesis” reciprocally complements this with a new conception of the human, for which capitalism itself needs to be reconfigured away from profit-minded “exchange value” and towards socially utilitarian “use value” instead. Towards the end of the chapter, solutions are proposed: a break from capitalism, a break from profit-seeking, a break from unlimited growth, a break from neocolonialism and neoliberalism, a break from globalism and commodification. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its corollary, the Human Development Index, are invoked as instruments which reflect not persons or individuals, but “members of society”. Meeting everyone’s basic needs is the only way to assure that dignity and autonomy become universal. Growth and production should be strictly regulated by democratic forces. In this ideal, the reciprocal modification of self, society, and environment are necessary but not destructive. In a refrain that echoes across the book, the chapter ends again with the statement that “nature is culture”.

Calame has produced a book which is as dense and theoretical as it is short, and more rhythmic and repetitive than linear in its argument. It rarely finds space to flesh out its ideas into anything much more complex than assertions of principle. It does not advance any particularly new thesis, although it does express our problematic relationship to nature in new and clever ways. As well as being a history, it is also part diatribe, part credo, and part manifesto. Readers who approach it will probably already agree with its fundamental opposition to capitalist exploitation of the environment enabled by constructs like nature and culture, inner and outer, subject and object. On the other hand, a brief engagement with this book, allowing its points to wash over the reader, can go a long way towards illuminating more sophisticated vocabularies and cognitive frameworks for assessing humans and their environment beyond the nature/culture opposition, as promised in its title. It is less a traditional work of Classical scholarship and more a work of modern environmental philosophy and politics informed by Classical thinking. It would not be a shame to see more scholars of antiquity turn their efforts to addressing these modern and future issues. As Calame has demonstrated here, we have much to contribute.



[1] Specifically, Andrea Cozzo “Dimensioni umane della questione ecologica nella Grecia antica” and Franco Giorgianni “Uomini e technai nell’ambiente”, both in a volume edited by Calame himself: L’uomo e il suo ambiente. Al di là dell’opposizione natura/cultura (Palermo, 2021).