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The misery of man appears like childish petulance when we explore the steady and prodigal provision that has been made for his support and delight on this green ball which floats him through the heavens.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (1836)
In sober truth, nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another are nature’s every-day performances. . . . Anarchy and the Reign of Terror are overmatched in injustice, ruin, and death by a hurricane and a pestilence.
John Stuart Mill, On Nature (1874)
Can’t we be good citizens of the biotic community, like the birds and the bees, drawing an honest living from nature and giving back as much or more than we take?
John B. Callicott, The Wilderness Idea Revisited (1991)

1More than the French, British, or German Romantics, the American transcendentalists, like Emerson and Thoreau, were the poets, preachers, and philosophers who marveled the most at the constant gifts of nature. A nature where everything is life and gift, where everything is spread and shared, where nothing is kept secret or hidden, where its abundance is vast and gracious. Emerson paints a similar portrait in the introduction to his famous speech on theology at Harvard in 1838, inviting his listeners to wander through a luxurious and prodigious nature where, from the fragrance of pine trees to the song of the robin and the generosity of the vine, God’s gift to humanity is made visible and manifest. [1]

2A gift from God. Or from a goddess. Dame Nature, Mater Generationis, and Mother Earth are some of the many feminine representations of a generous, loving, and protective nature. In referring to the figures of a mother goddess—Hecate, Eurydome, Demeter, Rhea—hasn’t a tradition of contemporary ecofeminism invited us to rediscover an older “Gaian” vision of the world that was found in some religious practices of the Neolithic era? [2] A world before patriarchy, before the victory of male gods—especially the orotund (and chauvinist) Zeus—over the female goddesses of the Earth that preceded them. As if renewing ties with these ancient goddesses could not only free women from male domination but also free nature from human domination.

3Nevertheless, even identified with divine goodness or the fecundity and kindness of a female or maternal figure, is it certain that nature is naturally and spontaneously generous and giving? As everyone knows, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.” He gives life as he gives death. Moreover, as psychoanalysis has taught us to be wary of a mother’s love, we should remember that Pandora, the first woman, the one who received all of the gifts of the gods (pan-dora), is also the one who opened the famous box, unleashing so many calamities onto the world.

4This fundamental ambivalence is even more apparent in the equally numerous figures—male and profane—of violent nature, the theater of a bloody struggle for existence, a world of general predation much more than a giving world. “Eat and be eaten, live and die:” according to John Baird Callicott, the contemporary inheritor of Aldo Leopold’s land ethic (1949), this is “the refrain of the biotic community,” the law of nature, the law of the world of predators and prey where the life of some implies the death of others (Callicott 2010, 73). In this form, nature, unlike what Thoreau suggests, is by no means “goodness crystallized.” As John Stuart Mill reminds us, it is “divided, with scarcely an exception, into devourers and devoured, and a prey to a thousand ills” (Mill 1874, 58). For this reason, unlike the ancients and their teleology, we moderns have no lessons to learn from it. Especially not a moral lesson. Why should we live in conformance with nature, as the Stoics and Epicureans suggested, if it is not synonymous with any good? Mill continues (1874, 30): “Either it is right that we should kill because nature kills; torture because nature tortures; ruin and destroy because nature does the like; or we ought not to consider at all what nature does, but what it is good to do.”

5If this is the case, why should we honor nature, respect it, give it—or give back to it—anything at all? To achieve “the greatest good for the greatest number,” nature, as Mill emphasizes (1874, 20), is not our friend:


Everybody professes to approve and admire many great triumphs of Art over Nature: the junction by bridges of shores which Nature had made separate, the draining of nature’s marshes, the excavation of her wells,... the turning away of her thunderbolts by lightning rods, of her inundations by embankments, of her ocean by breakwaters. But to commend these and similar feats, is to acknowledge that the ways of Nature are to be conquered, not obeyed: that her powers are often towards man in the position of enemies. [3]

7Doesn’t our utilitarian relationship with nature come from the obvious fact that nature does not give for good?

What Nature Gives Us (and What We Could Have Done Without)

8This point can be further developed. After all, why do we have to see nature as a generous donor? Isn’t it so parsimonious, and even avaricious, that we have to take from it what it refuses to give graciously and effortlessly in abundance? We are working constantly, ceaselessly producing our means of existence. [4] Nature is poorly made or malicious. Maybe even cruel, as Hume (1739, 311) suggested:


Of all the animals, with which this globe is peopled, there is none towards whom nature seems, at first sight, to have exercised more cruelty than towards man, in the numberless wants and necessities, with which she has loaded him, and in the slender means, which she affords to the relieving these necessities.

10Worse still, doesn’t it bring us sorrow and harm more than good and benefit? Death, sickness, epidemics, pandemics, famines, typhoons, tsunamis. The list is long. Nature is not fair. It does no favors. And especially not for us humans. Mill (1874, 29) writes:


Nature impales men, breaks them as if on the wheel, casts them to be devoured by wild beasts, burns them to death, crushes them with stones like the first Christian martyr, starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold.

12And it does all this, he continues, “with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice.” [5]

13And even when we see it as a giving nature, don’t the gifts of nature aim to crush us with its power? Nature is clearly stronger than us. It taunts us. [6] Aren’t its gifts tainted, displaying its power and putting us under its care, making us indebted and obliged to it? If we owe it everything, life first of all, how can we repay this debt except by giving ourselves up to its power, by making ourselves its weak, submissive, and grateful creatures? [7]

14To the question: “What does nature give?” the answer must be, at random: scarcity, economy, and exchange; but also violence, suffering, and death; and finally, alienation, domination, and religion. We could have done without it. How can we confront this power other than trying to appropriate it for ourselves and making it dependent on us—not thanking it for its favors but placing it at our mercy? An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. This, as Callicott suggests, is the modern Western image of human David and nature Goliath: “The up-and-coming hero armed with Promethean science in the struggle with Titanic nature.”

15It therefore seems quite irenic to understand nature, and especially the relationships between it and man, from the category of the gift. Either nature gives (too) little, or it gives bad(ly), or it only gives to make us submit more. In this sense, to use Mill’s expression again, it is “often towards man in the position of enem[y].” What is human work, moreover, if it is not transforming nature’s parsimony into abundance? And what are science and reason, other than the means to protect ourselves and fight its domination and violence—even to the point of meaning to conquer disease and defy death—emancipating ourselves from the superstitions and other old wives’ tales through which it alienates us? Do humans have any choice other than to remove ourselves from nature and to assert, against it, our legitimate power to act against it?

Why Worry about Nature?

16As much as we might claim to be David or Prometheus, to the extent that we depend on nature and that nature depends on our exchanges with it, doesn’t a good understanding of our best interests mean that we should respect it? Not because it is intrinsically respectable, like a generous goddess, but because our survival is at stake. Gaia is not worried about us, and we know it. As Isabelle Stengers reminds us (2006, 10), “Bacteria will continue on, no matter what foolish things we do.”

17Why should we be concerned with nature? Isn’t it for a utilitarian reason? Doesn’t a good understanding of our interests impel us to “stop acting out foolishly” and take care of nature and our environment? It is clearly in our interests to fight climate change if we want to prolong our stay on this planet, but also to preserve its biodiversity, especially in terms of the medical resources that it offers humankind or the capabilities of genetically diversified species in combating epidemics. Isn’t the very notion of sustainable development a symbol of this modern peace treaty between humanity and nature? Or, in the name of the “greatest happiness of the greatest number over the longest time,” there might be the affirmation of a “utilitarian conception of the rational management of ‘natural resources,’ where their ‘conservation’ serves the ‘development’ of the (greatest) happiness of humankind” (Callicott 2010, 206–207).

18A prudential and utilitarian conception of the human-nature relationship is no more illegitimate [8] than the extrinsic—or instrumental—conception of the value of nature that it presupposes. If nature doesn’t need us—yet how can we be so sure?—we need it. We are still faced with a strange paradox. Callicott describes it this way: “Unless we evolve a nonanthropocentric environmental ethic, Homo sapiens may not be around much longer.” In short, Homo sapiens paradoxically can only ensure their life and survival on Earth on the condition of subordinating their interests to the good of the entire biotic community—therefore sacrificing their role as masters of the universe to adopt an ecocentric perspective.

19There are two ways to overcome this paradox. The first can be expressed in the language of utilitarian calculation: faced with nature, it is in humankind’s interest to be selfless, because it would be more rewarding and profitable, all things considered, to show nature some respect. We would reluctantly have to sacrifice our immediate interests, but it would better serve our greater long-term interests—the interests of our survival—or, less dramatically, it would maximize our “sustainable” well-being. The second can be formulated in terms of the gift: humankind will not ensure its lasting presence and happiness on earth unless it respects the earth unconditionally, sincerely, and without calculating. [9] Or to borrow the words of Catherine and Raphaël Larrère (2009, 270): the more we value nature for its own account, the better (and not less) we can use it for our own account.

Earth Ethics and the Paradox of the Gift

20There are several arguments in favor of the second option. First, while it is not wrong or ineffectual to measure the ecological impact of what we do with nature in terms of its consequences on human well-being, this anthropocentric and utilitarian concept prevents us from making moral evaluations and limiting human actions that destroy the environment without having a negative impact on human beings. What would be the use, in this case, of combatting the threatened extinction due to human causes of several species—like the Houston toad, Bufo houstonensis—which have no utilitarian value for humanity (Callicott 1994, 10)? There is a multitude of threatened species, however, and they are in fact protected by a set of national and international legislation.

21Why do we protect them? Why do we give a value to nonhuman natural entities that is greater than their usefulness? Why do we value some species, and more broadly, some ecosystems, oceans, the atmosphere, the biosphere, and so forth for themselves, independently of the services they provide to us?

22This is where any substantive environmental ethics, especially an earth ethics, encounters the ethics of the gift. As Aldo Leopold, the pioneer of land ethic, asserted with force, “It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land and a high regard for its value.” And, he continues, “By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense” (1949, 261; see also 245–250).

23We recognize this (intrinsic) value in nature because it gives rise to these moral feelings in us. The feeling of shared humanity. Or shared naturalness. Or even shared divinity. It doesn’t matter. The main point is that our “modern” relationship with nature—instrumental, utilitarian, anthropocentric, based on the subject-object duality—is neither natural nor universal. It contradicts not only almost all traditional and religious representations, [10] but also some of our most essential, basic moral institutions—in this sense, to use Latour’s expression (1991), “We have never been (completely) modern”—just as it contradicts what the theory of evolution or contemporary scientific ecology have taught us.

24In fact, these scientific representations, institutions, and theories invite us, in their most diverse forms, to recognize a certain unity—and not a perfect exteriority—between the self and the world, considering that Homo sapiens is part of a landscape, that it is a member—even a citizen—of the Earth-community, a fellow traveler on the odyssey of evolution. In short, of what comes from the multiplicity of exchanges that have formed and are forming within this broader community of humans and nonhumans to which the species belongs.

25The respect or even gratitude that we should then show for this community and for all of its members is not only due to personal interest—to the extent that our survival as a species depends on preserving the biosphere—but also because our self, our individual (and collective) identity depends on it just as much. [11] If, from an ecological point of view, “every entity (including oneself) is a node in a matrix of internal relations,” if “oneself is a nexus of strands in the web of life” (Callicott 2010, 328), then the quality of these relations, of the strands in this web, does indeed have intrinsic value.

26Isn’t this what we already see in our interhuman relationships? They are important to us—whether they are relationships of love, family, friendship, profession, and so forth—not only because of the benefits they provide, but also and above all because they make us the persons we are. A self enriched by the wealth of exchanges that it forms, by the quality of the gifts that it receives and that invite us to give in return to foster these relationships (Chanial 2011, chapter 4).

27From this perspective, an earth ethics, by expanding the frontier of the communities to which we belong to the nonhuman creatures with which we live and interact, also calls for the expansion of the frontiers of the gift.

In Conclusion: The New Frontiers of the Gift

28How should we think of the gift across the boundaries of species? What does it mean in the broader community of land, air, fauna, and flora? Can we extend the family on the basis that all living creatures are “related” either because, from bacteria to humans, they evolved together, or because we are all the creatures of a creating God, or even the sons and daughters, sisters and brothers of the union of Father Sky and Mother Earth, or of one totemic ancestor? [12]

29The extension of the domain of the gift must therefore be carefully measured and circumscribed. While many gifts circulate within this extended community, nature as a whole only gives (to us) in a metaphorical sense. For this reason, religious, mythological, and even poetic languages are important to symbolize this Donatist nature. Nevertheless, the main thing is that most human societies have acted “as if” nature was a (virtual) subject and consequently “as if” it gave to humans. [13]

30Let us not forget the ambivalence of nature mentioned above. This ambivalence corresponds to the ambivalence of the gift itself. As any gift can shift into domination or predation, nature can just as equally be a good mother or a bad one, to use Melanie Klein’s words. It can give us the worst and the best. Life and death. Benefits and harm. The cycle of giving, receiving, and returning is inextricably connected with its opposite: taking, refusing, and keeping. Finally, to make it more dialectical, let us not forget that in nature, death can be a source of life. And that goes for human gifts to nature as well. [14]

31In this perspective, giving to nature, worrying about it, and taking care of it do not come from utilitarian calculations or from compassion. It is not a question of protecting nature above all because it is vulnerable or weak. As if the roles were reversed and we now had to take care of Gaia, the Mother Nature that took care of us and that we have weakened. As Catherine Larrère has suggested (2012, 255–257), “What is weak and vulnerable is not Gaia but ‘us’…, the ‘us’ that we form with all of the relationships that we have with nonhumans, animals, plants, natural units with which we share a common world.”

32Yet if we make the hypothesis that interhuman relations are only sustainable through the gift, doesn’t this expanded “us” inclusive of nonhumans also call for the gift? Or to express it differently, as our ability to destroy our environment is unleashed, how do we preserve this shared world in its plurality and its integrity save by wagering on the gift as I mentioned above? Establishing relations of the gift with nature—and not only of exploitation or predation—only depends on us. To put it in terms of the paradox of the gift, “Only engaged gratuitousness and unconditionality are capable of concluding an alliance that will benefit all and in the end will benefit those who take the initiative of selflessness” (Caillé 2000, 151).

33Shouldn’t we rethink—or reestablish—the alliance between humankind and nature under the register of conditional unconditionality, entering unconditionally into gift/countergift relations with nature, and valuing it for itself in the process—granting it intrinsic value—but in the context of this primary unconditionality also recognizing—in terms of its extrinsic value—what we humans lose or gain in this alliance?

34On this basis, the ethics of the gift, extended in an ethics of the earth, cannot require the sacrifice of humanity for a few ecological necessities. As Callicott reminds us, earth ethics are not a substitute but a complement to “good old human ethics” (2010, 161). Expanding the area of our loyalty and sympathy—extending the domain of the gift—supposes recognition of our different “relatives” who sometimes agree and sometimes disagree. Confronted with these inevitable family squabbles, the ethics of the gift expanded in this way is first—oikeiosis—an ethics of the close and familiar. Humanity comes before more distant animal relatives just as our children come before distant cousins on the other side of the world (Larrère 2009, 311; Callicott 2010, 160–167). Resolving these conflicts of loyalty cannot, however, be limited to a simple personal ethics. Doesn’t this ability to live with tensions that come from our many relationships—this capacity to balance, measure, and arbitrate between our different attachments—come, as Mauss noted in the final lines of his book The Gift, from this “supreme art—Politics, in the Socratic sense of the word?” Or, even better, from a cosmopolitics?


  • [1]
    Emerson (1849). His friend Thoreau noted in his Journal in December 1841: “These motions everywhere in nature must surely [be] the circulations of God. The flowing sail, the running stream, the waving tree, the roving wind... whence else their infinite health and freedom?”
  • [2]
    For a critique of the theories of primitive matriarchy and the fascination with the supposed ancient cult of the “Great Goddess,” see Testart (2010), and for a short critique of the critique, Simonet (2012).
  • [3]
    Echoing this notion, but in a resolutely antiutilitarian and subtly paradoxical vein, Proudhon wrote in Système des contradictions économiques (1846): “Humans do nothing according to nature: they are, if I dare express myself in this way, manufacturing animals. Nothing pleases them unless they alter it: everything they touch, they have to arrange it, correct it, filter it, and recreate it. For the enjoyment of the eyes, they invent painting, architecture, the fine arts, décor, an entire world of extraneous work, for which they cannot explain the reason or the utility.”
  • [4]
    But also count, calculate, and economize these scarce resources. And then exchange, trade, and sell. What a strange gift that makes us Homo laborans or Homo œconomicus in spite of ourselves!
  • [5]
    It is true that it gives us life and not only death. But after all, we did not ask for this life. And we have to deal with it. And sometimes when we ask for it, when we want life to come, the life of a long hoped-for child, it refuses us. Clearly Mater generationis hardly makes it easy for us.
  • [6]
    Sailors do not toy with the sea. Like wanderers lost in the woods, they are no match for it. Farmers bend docilely to the cycle of seasons, to the fickle providence that “bestows rain and sunshine upon them,” as Marx (1852) wrote mockingly in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Leopold (1949, 224) also noted in the same spirit: “Almost equally serious as an obstacle to a land ethic is the attitude of the farmer for whom the land is still an adversary or a taskmaster that keeps him in slavery.”
  • [7]
    “When will all these shadows of God cease to darken our minds?” writes Nietzsche in The Gay Science, “When will we complete our de-deification of nature?” For a Nietzschean critique of a certain idea of nature, see the classic work by Clément Rosset (1973).
  • [8]
    Even Emerson recognized how much nature provided, in the first place, for the “commodities” of humankind, through the multiple “advantages,” “benefits,” and “profits” which it grants us. Yet he did not see the relationship between nature and humanity as being purely utilitarian: “The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man.” This relationship, no matter what obstacles we face, is primarily one of gratitude. Nature and its graces are due this gratitude because its extrinsic value, “which all men apprehend” paves the way for the recognition of its intrinsic value (Emerson 1836, 40). This theme of “natural piety” or ordinary human piety for nature is also fundamental in the philosophy of the pragmatist John Dewey, which was shaped by both transcendentalism and Darwinism.
  • [9]
    Here is the heart of the gift’s paradox. For the gift—selflessness or generosity—to work, it cannot be made in this objective. According to the Carnegie paradox formulated by Jacques Godbout, having friends is very useful for being successful but only on the condition of liking them sincerely and without calculating. “One wins,” the author suggests, “on the condition of not being interested in winning, of not adopting the schemes of personal interest, of not calculating” (Godbout 2000, 167).
  • [10]
    As Callicott suggests in his recent trip through the great traditions and religions of the world: “In many indigenous cultures, nature was represented as inspired or divine, and was therefore the direct object of respect or of reverence; that in some traditional cultures nature was the creation of God, and thus was to be used with care and passed on intact; that in still others human beings were thought to be part of nature, and a good human life was therefore understood to be one in harmony with it” (1994, 8).
  • [11]
    Callicott emphasizes this essential point very clearly: “Utilitarians assume that self and other are clearly and distinctly distinct. One must grudgingly respect the interests of ‘others’ if one expects others to respect one’s own interests, and if an orderly society with all its benefits is to be preserved. But from the perspective of ecometaphysics, while others retain their identity and integrity, oneself and others are mutually defining and interdependent” (1994, 208). This is also one of the major insights of the deep ecology defended by Arne Naess (1990). Marie Gaille summarizes it as follows: “If humans are aware that they cannot exist without nature or live apart from it, and that by destroying it, they are preventing their self-realization, then they understand that it has a fundamental relational meaning and that nature is never a simple means to an end” (2012, 226). For an equally relational approach, as a key for “care” and environmental ethics, see also Raïd (2012).
  • [12]
    To give a Native American example, among many others, the cosmology of the Lakota of the Great Plains sees nature as a vast family that is closely linked. The sky is the father, the earth the mother, and “all living things with feet or wings or roots” are their children (see Callicott (1994, 120)). In other forms, this family metaphor is also very prevalent in Polynesia and in Amazonia. Totemism, in Australia in particular, also displays a deep sense of relation between human and nonhuman members, descendants of a single, eponymous ancestor who is embodied in as many sacred places. And aren’t the ethics of the Stoics an ethics of those who are close (oikeiosis) or an ethics of relatives and familiarity (Larrère 2009, 49 and 310)? This metaphorical register still by no means exhausts the many different ways of representing the community of humans and nonhumans.
  • [13]
    We should also note, in return, that the gift of humans to nature is rarely direct. The anthropological literature highlights the importance of the mediating role of the shaman.
  • [14]
    As Leopold writes (1949, 72): “When some remote ancestor of ours invented the shovel, he became a giver: he could plant a tree. And when the axe was invented, he became a taker: he could chop it down. Whoever owns land has thus assumed, whether he knows it or not, the divine functions of creating and destroying plants.” Our relationship to nature is based on this “primitive pair.” Like the Lord, humans take and humans give. And, we might add, it is right this way. While the image of the axe is not without reference to our ecological impact, “his signature on the face of his land,” it is also a reminder of how destructive human intervention can be creative as well. It is the wisdom of the gardener who uses the axe to give life to a garden. And wasn’t the ethics of hunting the model for Leopold’s land ethic?

Why should we honor nature, respect it, give it—or give back to it—anything at all? Are we so sure that nature gives once and for all? This article questions this figure of nature as gift giver to show both its profound ambivalence and its urgency. As our capacity to destroy our environment increases, is there any other choice but to take up the challenge of the gift? Extending the ethics of the gift into an ethics of the Earth could mean that the only way for humankind to ensure its livelihood and well-being on this planet is through unconditional and uncalculating respect for nature. Paradoxically, the more we value nature for its own sake, the better we can use it on our own behalf.


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