Mentality for Reality: Re-Thinking “Human-Environment Relations”

To say that humans are part of a larger environment is a very banal observation. Or more accurately,

“it would be a banal observation if so many people did not constantly fail to register this simple state of affairs,”

as Norbert Elias observed about the idea that individuals are part of a larger social whole [1].

It’s not like we haven’t made any progress on this front. We seem to have mostly moved away from the view that humans are completely separate from and dominant over nature, and toward acknowledging connection and interdependence.

Still, the prevailing image we are left with is of humans and nature existing side-by-side.

NSF diagram depicting “coupled” human and natural systems


This odd mental picture keeps us from registering the “simple state of affairs” which is actually always at work.

As a result, widespread ignorance about the consequences of our activities persists. And so we blithely carry on, despite the harm being done—even to ourselves.

It’s not hard to observe the implications of this malformed mentality. They are increasingly and painfully apparent in multiple earth system trends and most aspects of more localized socio-environmental systems too.

We Need a Mentality for Reality

If you’re familiar with permaculture, you may have heard it described as a system of principles and practices that works with nature rather than against it.

Similarly, we need a mentality that works with reality and not against it.

men·tal·i·ty   /menˈtalədē/   noun

the characteristic attitude of mind or way of thinking of a person or group

Of interest here is the characteristic attitude toward, and way of thinking about, humans’ place in nature in the dominant culture.

Woody Allen famously joked about being “at two with nature.” Though meant as just a funny line, it expresses quite well the prevailing attitude in the modern western-influenced world.

To be “at one with” something is to feel a part of it. When it comes to nature, it seems most moderns don’t feel that way.

How we think and feel, of course, has no bearing on the fact that we are part and parcel of the overall biophysical conditions we refer to as “nature” or “the environment.” Though things would be much better if our feelings were more aligned with the reality of our situation.

As the minority voices in sociology recognized early on,

“any competent theory of human associations…must square with knowledge about those physical and vital relationships upon which the later social phenomena rest.” [2]

Unfortunately, an attitude of “human exemptionalism” won the day and continues to reign.

How to begin to overhaul a collective mentality? In some ways, it’s a daunting task. At the same time, as I’ve written elsewhere,

“the fix is surprisingly (even embarrassingly) simple.” [3]

It involves using what we already know to situate ourselves squarely and explicitly in our bodies and the world. When we do, it’s easy to see that the reality we experience does not consist of biophysical happenings here and human social phenomena there. When you stop to really consider it, this way of thinking makes no sense at all.

Of the many ways to characterize what’s actually happening, one of the simplest and most helpful approaches is to recognize the operation of distinct — but inseparable and hierarchically emergent — levels of phenomena.

Thinking in Levels

Living organisms emerge from and are made of physical stuff. Human social phenomena emerge from and are made of both. Although this observation may seem painfully obvious, learning to think about the world that way requires a good bit of re-training. That training begins with explicit attention to three basic levels of phenomena we occupy.

Physicality in Reality

The matter and energy that make up everything that concerns us in the ordinary world constitute the “physical.” But some of what’s happening there is just physical. Among other things, this means that:

  • It’s not alive (or dead).
  • It’s highly amenable to explanation via investigation of its constituent parts (e.g., particles, atoms, molecules) and their configurations.
  • And those parts can come apart and back together repeatedly with little fundamental change to them and their functionality.

Vitality in Reality

Biological phenomena represent a distinctly different level. Living organisms are obviously comprised of, dependent on, governed by, and operate within physical conditions. But there’s something different going on here which requires wholly new concepts such as life and death.

What’s primarily different is that:

  • The units of interest (e.g., cells, tissues, organs, organisms) exhibit greater functional interdependence.
  • Their properties and behaviors are more influenced by the organization and integration of their constituent parts.
  • The processes occurring at this level tend to be irreversible. (You can’t, for instance, bring a dead organism back to life by reassembling its parts in the same way that carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen atoms can assemble, disassemble, and reassemble to form essential molecules.)

Sociality in Reality

Like other organisms, humans are made of, depend on, operate within, and are in relationships of mutual influence with biophysical conditions. But there’s something more happening among us which constitutes a third distinct level. 

On top of biophysical conditions, human social phenomena is also governed by meaning in the forms of symbol systems, shared understandings, and the social learning through which we come to interpret and navigate the world.

It’s important to understand that the learning, making, and sharing of meaning is not just something we can do, it’s something we must do. Stemming from an evolutionary shift in the balance of learned versus instinctual behaviors, this mandate forms the basis of our inherent and particular kind of sociality as humans.

Another Way of Thinking About Our Place in the World

Putting all this together renders a picture very different from the conventional one.

In it, each level “up” implies and includes phenomena at levels “below” it and increases in complexity — mostly a matter of the degrees of differentiation, integration, and interdependence among the constituent parts and wholes at work.

(Of course, it doesn’t really look like a layer cake!)

However simple, this visual captures an important and often overlooked fact: we humans and our social life together are always already biophysical. It portrays the hierarchically-emergent and ontologically-nested nature of human social phenomena — a reality that current habits of thought obscure.

At no point are humans or our activities separate from, or sovereign over, biophysical conditions.

Taking on this way of thinking allows us to see the side-by-side image of humans and nature (or environment) as absurd, and not at all helpful. It becomes clear that there is no gap, no “point of connection,” no arrow to be inserted in order to initiate a relationship or add dynamism to it.

The relationship, if we can call it that, just is. Social phenomena is always made of the biophysical conditions it is simultaneously always affecting.

With this simple shift in our mentality, we might just be capable of finally registering our simple state of affairs — that we are undeniably, inescapably, and wonderfully part of a larger environment.

Now What?

A picture (no matter how amateurishly rendered, in my case) may be worth a thousand words, but words remain necessary for thinking and speaking about anything.

It follows that this mentality, if it is to be disseminated and used in constructive ways, requires language that can support it.

In other words, our concepts need to catch up.


Want to bring these ideas to life in the classroom and beyond? Click below to access “In Practice,” a pdf containing some ideas for helping us practice our way into a new paradigm.



[1] Elias, Norbert. 1991, p. 11. The Society of Individuals. New York and London: Continuum.

[2] Small, Albion. 1905, p. 420. General Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[3] Kasper, Debbie. 2021, p. 76. Beyond the Knowledge Crisis: A Synthesis Framework for Socio-Environmental Studies and Guide to Social Change. Palgrave Macmillan.

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