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URPP Global Change and Biodiversity

People’s place in nature

Research Team

Anna Deplazes Zemp

Mollie Chapman

Anna Wienhues

Norman Backhaus

Peter Schaber

Owen Petchey

Pascal Niklaus

People’s Place in Nature

In today’s political and societal discourse, the question: “Why should we protect nature?” is usually answered by highlighting nature’s importance for humanity due to natural resources and ecosystem services. But speaking of nature in terms of it’s benefits to people can create a dichotomy between nature and humans. In addition, a focus on human benefits seems to reduce nature to a resource. An alternative argumentation for the importance of nature protection refers to intrinsic values in nature. However, these arguments have also been widely criticized because the existence of such intrinsic values is a contested metaphysical assumption. Even amongst those philosophers who reason with intrinsic values, there is disagreement on who or what in nature has such value (can only humans have intrinsic value or also animals, plants, ecosystems?)  

In this project we explore an alternative approach to develop reasons for a considerate and responsible interaction with nature. Our approach neither reduces nature to a resource nor relies on the assumption of intrinsic values. In order to have argumentative force and also be applicable in environmental policy, this approach takes up societal values and at the same time is supported by ethical arguments. The project focuses on the relations that people have in and with nature. We hypothesise that these relationships are so diverse, numerous, and strong, that reduction to that of service provider and beneficiaries, or carer and patient, is both absurd and destructive. The project will explore and reflect on people’s place within nature as an alternative to the predominant understanding of people as antagonists to or stewards of nature.

We work as an interdisciplinary team of philosophical ethicists and social scientists. The concept of ‘relational values,’ i.e. values associated with relationships in and with the natural environment, will provide one important juncture between the two disciplines. On the one hand, a social scientist conducts interviews to understand relational values of people, on the other hand the philosophers will give the concept more theoretical underpinning, which in return will be used for the interview analysis. The project will further profit from our close collaboration with environmental scientists, ecologists and biologists from the URPP GCB. Their input not only supports us in understanding the scientific aspects of the human-nature relationship but we also collaborate in the effort to develop answers to the question: “Why should we protect nature?”

The project is financially supported by the NOMIS foundation:

People and subprojects

Dr. Anna Deplazes Zemp (project leader)

Dr. Mollie Chapman (postdoc in human geography, responsible for the empirical part of the project)

Dr. Anna Wienhues (postdoc in environmental philosophy)



1. Human­- nature relations as a source of environmental responsibilities (Anna Deplazes Zemp)

People’s relationship to nature will be the central element of Anna Deplazes Zemp’s philosophical analysis on people’s role in nature, the concept of nature more generally and responsibilities that people have in and for nature. This work will feed into a theoretical analysis of the concept of ‘relational values’, which plays a central role in the second subproject.


2. Empirical analysis of relational values in interactions of people in and with nature

(Mollie Chapman)

Mollie Chapman conducts semi-structured interviews in order to examine relational values held by farmers living in the vicinity of the Swiss National Park. The data generated will provide a deeper understanding of how these farmers perceive their place and role in nature. These results will feed into the philosophical analyses of the other subprojects.


3. Relational aspects of the ecological justice theory

(Anna Wienhues)

Anna Wienhues further develops a theory of ecological justice (justice to nature), according to which all living beings form a ‘community of fate’. She will introduce the relational approach to environmental philosophy into this position and contribute her particular biocentric perspective to the other two subprojects.