Metaphors & Models: How Do We See the Natural World?

Photo by Michael Benz at

How many flowers have I yanked to puppet
as if it was easy for the world to make flowers.
—Ada Limón, The Hurting Kind

The truth is, living your life entails the death of many organisms. This is unavoidable: we eat plants and animals, live in homes built atop ant colonies, clear land for crops, and use fuel made from dead things to transport these crops. Life and death are all around us, but in modern life, we are often isolated from the latter. Without recognizing the sacrifices the natural world makes to support us, it’s no wonder we struggle with over-consumption, waste, and environmental exploitation. On this three-year anniversary of the Mapping the Green Transition series, let’s look at how our perceptions about the natural world affect how we interact with it.

With over half of the world now living in cities (1) and only 23 percent of unmodified land-based wilderness left (2), we are less exposed than ever to the processes of nature. The exposure we do get is mostly in controlled and convenient settings. Some examples are buying unblemished veggies at the grocery store, spending time in clear-cut parks or on weedless lawns, or using water for swimming pools and on demand from faucets. We enjoy many conveniences from the planet without ever seeing the ecological sacrifices that make it all possible.

These conveniences are often presented to us in standardized, ubiquitous packages, appearing largely unrecognizable from their original forms (think hamburgers), and can be purchased almost anywhere for money. This phenomenon is referred to as “the commodification of nature,” and it imposes an economic framework on human-nature relationships.

It’s concerning, partly because research has shown that people behave in more self-serving ways when an economic perspective is introduced (3).  Such is the power of metaphor: by seeing the natural world through a transactional lens, we adopt a set of expectations that encourage exploitation. Increasingly, we are replacing moral relationships to the sources of what we consume with economic relationships to end products. If viewing nature this way leads to exploitative behaviors, what perspectives can help us form healthy relationships to our environment?

Of the tools we possess for shaping our concepts of the world, few are as influential as language. Language influences both what we see and how we see it. Unfortunately, many of us are unable to name species of common plants and animals that we encounter (a phenomenon sometimes called “nature blindness”). Even referring to an organism as an “it” reduces a living subject into a nonliving object. Consider these words from the ecologist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer (4): “Using ‘it’ absolves us of moral responsibility and opens the door to exploitation. When Sugar Maple is an ‘it,’ we give ourselves permission to pick up the saw. ‘It’ means it doesn’t matter.” In her other writings, Kimmerer suggests we consider whom, rather than what, we are relating to in nature.

When we neglect to recognize other organisms as living beings, and reduce them to objects or commodities, we forget our moral obligation to protect them because we don’t see them as unique beings deserving of care. In order to form a healthy relationship with our environment, each of us must unlearn the myths of consumer culture. We can start to see nature’s intrinsic value instead of just economic or human-derived value. We can remember the source of conveniences and products when we enjoy them. And we can learn the names of the organisms that share our planet.

By paying attention to our language and metaphors, we pave the way for a future in which responsible consumption and ethical stewardship are intertwined. As a result, we not only protect our environment, but also nurture a more fulfilling relationship with the natural world—one built on respect, mutualism, and reverence for nature.

  1. Ritchie H. & Roser M. (2018), Urbanization, Our World In Data
  2. James E. M. Watson, et al. (2018), “Protect the last of the wild,” Nature
  3. Gino, F., & Mogilner, C. (2014), “Time, Money, and Morality,” Psychological Science
  4. Kimmerer R. (2015) “Nature Needs a New Pronoun,” YES! Magazine

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