1.2.1 Human-nature relationship

Helpful prior knowledge and learning objectives

Helpful prior learning:

Learning objectives:

Nature does not exist.

This is what many indigenous communities around the world would tell you. How is it that some of the most sustainable communities do not recognise nature? Consider the Achuar.

Who are the Achuar?

The Achuar community lives in the Amazon Rainforest between Ecuador and Peru. They believe that all organisms have souls and communicate with them. They treat all beings as relatives.  For the Achuar, all living and nonliving entities have intrinsic value, value in-and-of themselves like human beings, and should be protected.

While the Achuar hunt animals and cultivate plants, they only take what is essential for their survival and never more than ecosystems can regenerate. The Achuar see themselves as part of the living world, deeply connected with nature with a responsibility to respect, care for and defend other entities. Nature is not separate from the Achuar. The human community is woven into the fabric of ecosystems like all other living organisms. 

Hands holding a leaf wrapped package

Figure 1. The Achuar treat all natural entities with respect and nourishing care (Credit: Dan Loir,  used with permission)

What is animism?

The Achuar worldview is known as  animism. Many indigenous communities like the Achuar hold this worldview, which was the dominant way of thinking for most of human history. This worldview sees no separation between humans and the rest of the living and nonliving world. The worldview acknowledges that we are deeply connected to Earth’s ecosystems, even recognising that human beings are related to other living and nonliving entities. In this worldview, exploiting living and nonliving entities is wrong.

What is human-nature dualism?

Most people today do not share the Achuar’s worldview. Generally, human beings consider themselves superior to and separate from the rest of the living and nonliving world. This worldview is called human-nature dualism.

Most humans value the rest of nature only for its short-term usefulness or instrumental value  for energy or material resources like fuels, food, and water.  When we mentally separate ourselves from the rest of nature, we treat all non-human entities as objects for human use or exploitation. This way of thinking has made humans the dominant negative influence on Earth’s life-support systems, a period that some scientists call the Anthropocene.

Why does our human-nature worldview matter?

Our economies transfer and transform energy and matter to meet our needs, and are deeply connected to Earth’s ecosystems. Yet, our worldview separates us from nature. 

Our worldview shapes human behaviour and affects our ability to see the world as it is. If we view ourselves as dominant over nature, we risk overexploiting it. This worldview also blinds us to how our economic activities cause ecological damage: farming, mining, burning, clearing, and polluting. We do not recognise that ecological destruction threatens all life on Earth, including ours.

Scientists have been sounding the alarm about these threats for decades, for example on biodiversity loss. Since 1970, we have lost about 69% of the Earth’s biodiversity due to our use of land for human settlement, farming and industrial production (Figure 2). Losing biodiversity makes Earth’s life-support systems ecosystems more fragile.

Changing our worldview to recognise our connection to and dependence on nature is an important first step to live in balance with Earth’s ecosystems. We must recognise the impact our economies have on ecosystems, and start caring for Earth as the Achuar do.

Graph showing 69% decline in biodiversity since 1970

Figure 2. Global biodiversity loss since 1970

(Credit: Living Planet Index database)

Why are indigenous communities so important for planetary health?

In the last 500 years, as human-nature dualism spread, powerful governments and businesses have overexploited nature and conquered people who hold a more balanced human-nature relationship. During the period of colonisation, European countries conquered other societies, stole land and enslaved millions of people. While legal slavery has largely ended, economic exploitation of nature and vulnerable people continues today. 

The remaining indigenous communities like the Achuar fight to protect the ecosystems on which we all depend. Indigenous communities steward about 80% of the remaining global biodiversity. These communities and their animistic worldviews protect and regenerate Earth’s ecosystems. Their ancient wisdom can teach us how to live in balance with nature.

This short video explains how human-nature dualism developed and the importance of moving to a worldview in which humans are viewed as being a part of nature rather than separate from it.

Activity 1.2.1

Concept: Systems

Skills: Thinking skills (transfer)

Time: Options 1 and 2 - ca. 30 minutes, Option 3 varies

Type: Individual, pairs or small group with sharing if possible

Option 1 - Energy and matter in your life I

Option 2 - Energy and matter in your life II

Option 3 - Deep-time walk

This mobile app takes listeners on a 4.6 billion year journey through Earth’s history to help people understand deep time, put human existence into perspective, and encourage regenerative action. The app creators suggest that listeners walk 4.6 kilometres while listening, so this is an activity that takes time and a walking opportunity.

Ideas for longer activities, deeper engagement, and projects are listed in Subtopic 1.5 Taking action

Checking for understanding

Further exploration


BBC. (2020). Is it time to reassess our relationship with nature? | BBC Ideas [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/5gWGP34-4tY

Hickel, Jason (2020). Less is more: How degrowth will save the world. London: Willian Heinemann

HM Treasury (2021). The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review Abridged Version. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/957292/Dasgupta_Review_-_Abridged_Version.pdf

Raworth, K. (2017). Doughnut economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist. London: Penguin Random House

Tribal Quest (2020). Myheritage - Tribal quest: The Achuar. www.tribalquest.org/achuar.html.

World Wildlife Fund. Living Planet Index. https://www.livingplanetindex.org/latest_results.

Terminology (in order of appearance)

Link to Quizlet interactive flashcards and terminology games for Section 1.2.1 Human-nature relationship

indigenous community: the original settlers of an area (pre-invasion/colonialism) who have retained their culture apart from colonisers

sustainability: meeting people’s needs within the means of the planet

intrinsic value: when something has value simply for what it is

ecosystem: the interaction of groups of organisms with each other and their physical environment

regenerate: the process of restoring and revitalising something

worldview: an all-inclusive outlook on the world held by an individual or group, and through which they make sense of reality and gain knowledge

animism: the worldview that sees no fundamental divide between human beings and nature

human-nature dualism: the worldview that human society is fundamentally separate from and superior to the rest of the living world

instrumental value: when something has value for its use for human beings

exploitation: making use of and benefiting from resources; the term is often used negatively to imply use of power to take advantage of a situation

Anthropocene: a period in which human influence is the dominant source of change on Earth

economy: all the human-made systems that transfer and transform energy and matter to meet human needs and wants

transfer: to move something from one place to another

transform: a change in the state, energy or chemical nature of something

energy: the ability to do work or cause change

matter: anything that takes up space and has mass

biodiversity: the variety of living organisms on Earth

colonisation: a process of establishing foreign control over a land area and/or peoples for the purpose of resource use and extraction

steward: to manage or look after something

upstream: something that happens earlier in a process or series of events