Being in Relationship, with Nature?

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What does it mean to be in relationship? One comes across this phrase, “being in relationship,” quite frequently in environmental—and other—discussions. The phrase sounds catchy. And it seems important. But, what worldview or big idea does it express? Does it simply refer to the how and why of our connection with our mothers, relatives, friends, and neighbors? What does this term truly communicate when it comes to understanding connections with, and protection of, Nature?

Google defines the term “relationship” as follows:

  • “The way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected, or the state of being connected”
  • “The way in which two or more people or organizations regard and behave toward each other”

According to Google then, being in relationship refers to how something or someone is connected with the “other,” whether this “other” be conceptual (ideas), animate (animal or plant), or inanimate (iPhone). This connection can be a physical link or a more conceptual link, such as through emotions (love) or social ritual (sitting around the Thanksgiving table). Relationship also speaks to a specific type of conceptual connection—a connection made through the actual process of how one understands and behaves toward the other.

This elementary definition provides some insight, but is simultaneously vague. It leaves wide open what it means to be connected and how these many ways of being connected could take shape—between two iPhones, between two individuals, or between a person and a concept. Connections among individuals could encompass many qualities of association, from love and wonder to hatred and harm. Also, particularly important and notably absent from Google’s definition is the reference to connections with non-human others and the places that they and we inhabit. These others and these places aren’t mere concepts or objects with which we arbitrarily connect. All the places in which we find ourselves, along with the living and non-living entities within these places, are connected—as we all travel through space (planet Earth) and time (evolution of Earth). By definition, then, we are in relationship with much more than Google indicates.

The famous debate during the 1980s between psychologists Carol Gilligan and Lawrence Kohlberg, highlighted by Gilligan’s book In a Different Voice, reveals more subtle and complicated understandings of the notion of relationship.[1] The importance of this debate is that it brought the concept of relationality to the fore as a key element in the development of our ethical maturity—our development of criteria used to judge and interact with others. Kohlberg understood our moral compass to be based in impartial formal rationality. He posited that our ethical development is marked by a series of pre-programmed developmental stages, and the time we reach ethical maturity is marked by our ability to apply abstract rules and principles to our moral challenges. According to this theory, our highest level of ethical reasoning must transcend and disregard immediate and particular experiences and circumstances. The immediacy of our experiences with others in time and place do not matter for morality. Relationality, for Kohlberg, was merely incidental in the developmental process of becoming ourselves.

Gilligan rejected Kohlberg’s systematization of our ethical behavior, arguing that his theory valued detachment and separation, ideas commonly associated with the dominant masculine order. She saw his theory as a tool for avoiding the messy contextual realities of day-to-day life, stemming from the infinite variety of situations where no two ethical dilemmas are alike.

“The sleep of reason produces monsters”

In contrast to Kohlberg, Gilligan argued that our moral development has very little to do with the unfolding of set, logically progressive steps that follow the same course for all. Instead, she insisted that particular, contextual relationality is the key to moral development. Gilligan’s approach recognized that each dilemma has its own spatial, historical, and situational context. Our identities, including our moral selves, develop through the daily interactions we have with others. Gilligan emphasized that we develop our ethical maturity through closeness and attachments to others. This perspective regards self-identity not as a self that is reducible to merely subjective self-interest, and not as an identity that accepts the perfunctory reproduction of external social laws.

Kohlberg’s theory gives us rules that are not malleable, unable to respond to the subtleties of particular contexts. On the other hand, the ethical maturity Gilligan speaks of requires something else of us. It stresses that we tap into another kind of knowing, packed into our evolutionary toolbox, namely our heartfelt feelings. Emotion, rather than reason, facilitates closeness, attachment, intimacy with the other.

Other academics also note that care, concern, and compassion are in conflict with the modern theory of rational instrumentalism—focused on using hard science as the way of knowing the world. According to the German philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, intimate connections might best be understood as a way of honoring the particularity of the other.[2] For Gadamer, this is understood as a “feeling for life” that embraces emotional connection with the other. Modernist discourse however, which favors rational, analytical language, is unable to articulate these powerful feelings for the non-human world, including our desire to protect Nature. These feelings are instead pulled apart, analyzed, and shunted by such discourse.

Geographer Barry Lopez recognizes that being vulnerable to place is a process of opening yourself up to intimacy with the other by leaving your rational senses behind and tapping into emotional states of being.[3] The nascent field of conservation psychology offers compelling research supporting Lopez’s approach. Conservation psychologists Susan Clayton and Gene Meyers offer insight into a new discipline that seeks to understand how humans relate to, and care for, Nature.[4] They reiterate the importance of the Humean approach: that emotion drives actual moral behavior and that rational thought is secondary. Understanding others, both human and non-human, is therefore not the domain of rationality alone. Deeper understanding requires a feeling for the other.

As we embrace our emotional faculties in getting to know ourselves and the other, there is another component essential to relationality—and that is place. Whether outside in Nature or within built structures, places are not to be understood as merely empty containers in which the world proceeds.[5] We must increasingly recognize that place is an essential ingredient in the development of ourselves and our relationships. Geographer Nigel Thrift maintains that place facilitates certain interactions versus others in large part because they cue certain memories and behavior and not others.[6] Here the self is understood as emerging through our relational interplay with both the other and our surroundings. We are who and what we interact with. And vice versa. This results in a continual evolution of who we are as we travel through space and time. Place itself is produced through these continual interactions—between things encountering each other in the circulation of events. Thus, through these recurring exchanges, place is process as well.

What does all this reveal to us about being in relationship? It tells us that we are made of place and of others, including non-human others. It tells us that the ethical self is relational and requires a continual development of a deep understanding of others. And genuine understanding requires an individual to cultivate sensitivity to particular situations, to know his or her place and to have a deep sense of the places of others. It tells us that our heartfelt feelings are an essential part of coming to know all these others in the world we share. Thus, being in relationship could be understood as the process of all such physical and conceptual interchanges with others in context. That is, relationship is an intricate, metaphorical dance, between the “I” and everything else.

This revelation is also significant because it has implications for those of us who are passionate for the wildness in nature. Protecting and cultivating this wildness is an ongoing process that requires us to cultivate our relationships. The quality of our relationships with others and our places will determine how successful we will be in protecting the wildness we value. How do we promote the kinds of relationships that foster our love for Nature? Here both our emotional and rational faculties can work in tandem. We must begin to imagine places that allow us to experience intimate connections with others, where our emotions lead us to develop sensitivities for expressing wonder and respect for these others. Then we must design, craft, and build these imaginative places.

“Being in relationship” with Nature is also a political matter. How we think and feel about our environment, including the more-than-human-others, will influence the actions we take as a society. For example, what kind of planning strategies will we enact if our policies are not enmeshed in core ideas that reflect our intimate connections with and our passions for the more-than-human other? Without incorporating these core ideas our policies will only continue articulating the messages of an outdated modernist agenda, focused primarily on economic return. Hence, our ideas about how we relate to others when it comes to our personal and political decision-making processes lead us either toward a path of disrespect and selfishness or a path of wonder and intimacy. Our ideas direct our actions. The exploration of our ideas, therefore, really does matter.

[1]. C. Gilligan, In a Different Voice:Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

[2]. H.G. Gadamer, Truth and Method, New York: Continuum, 1998.

[3]. B. Lopez, “A Literature of Place,” Portland: The University of Portland Magazine, Summer 1997, 22-25.

[4]. S. Clayton and  G. Myers, Conservation Psychology: Understanding and Promoting Human Care for Nature, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

[5]. D. Massey, “Geographies of Responsibilities,” Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography, 86, no. 1 (2004): 5-18.

[6]. N. Thrift, “Space: The Fundamental Stuff of Human Geography,” in S.L. Holloway, S.P. Rice, and G. Valentine, eds., Key Concepts in Geography, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc., 2005, pp. 95-107.


  • Anja Claus

    As Senior Editor, Anja guides the development of Humans and Nature Press Digital as well as co-edits submissions to this publication.  She spearheads the Questions For a Resilient Future's Cosmos series—a series focused on reimagining our inter-connections with off-Earth environments.
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