Nature is not for ‘our wellbeing’

The article by Sophia challenges traditional views of nature and conservation, highlighting the often overlooked violent and colonial roots of nature preservation. It argues that the concept of nature as a pristine, remote wilderness separated from human influence is a Western construct, deeply intertwined with colonialism and the marginalisation of indigenous and local communities…

Connecting to nature is not inherently good. In fact, much of what we picture as ‘nature’ is not pristine, natural, or apolitical. Land, country, and nature are connecting in the way any relationship is: contextual, political, impermanent, and sadly, open to (predominantly erased) violent and disempowering processes. 

The idea of ‘preserving nature’ has, from the onset of the conservation movement, been sadly intertwined with colonial land clearances and genocides. In the 1800s, American scientists and policymakers claimed that Indigenous communities were “improperly managing” wilderness by way of conducting human activities on the land. The first national park, Yosemite, was made possible by the forced eviction and wiping out of the Miwok community for government management of lands which had been sustainably related to by its Indigenous community. 

This separated approach to nature conservation  – natural land is empty of humans, and humans are the dominant species that must tame wild animals in their spaces – is a predominantly Western idea. John Muir, one of the most famous names in the conservation movement both in the US and Scotland, argued that wilderness areas and nature species should be kept remote and pristine from human settlements, to fulfill “emotional need” for wild places. 

Of course, this “emotional need” was only legitimate for white (often middle and upper class) Americans to recreate, not work, in these national parks. This model of separating people from their lands to section them off for extraction and controlled recreation was no less violent than the witch hunts. Combined with racism, the imaginary of “separate” nature for “wellbeing” took on a dark legacy. Acts of terror and violence on Black communities attempting to recreate in national parks in the US (far fewer and less accessible “non-white” national parks were created in the 1800s) illustrates that nature for wellbeing, in practice, was really nature for the dominant classes, reinforcing white supremacy. 

Today, we still see this assumption in many environmentalist groups and policy initiatives that assume communities of colour do not care for the environment, simply because they do not access national parks in high numbers or engage in environmental action that are seen as legitimate. Why do we only see environmental action as legitimate when we think of humans as the separate “protectors” of nature? Why do we only want to use it for our cultural and wellbeing purposes, and not to work and live with as a part of us? 

The concept that nature exists for human emotional wellbeing is a slightly strange one. People – as species existing within ecological webs of plants, animals, and fungi –  are of course as connected to soil and land as any other creatures. However, there is no inherent reason why people, unlike all other species, must view nature as far away, romantic, and for our enjoyment and recreation. 

In Scotland, the areas we now imagine to be remote and empty of Central Belt bustle have never really been “natural.” As with most ecological systems around the world, human activity has long existed through small-scale fishing, grazing, and through heather picking and burning. Feminist scholar Silvia Federici argues in her text Caliban and the Witch that the European witch hunts – in which 1,500 people in Scotland alone were killed – were highly linked to the clearances of common lands (the commons). The Highland clearances of land modeled a new form of land connection; where hills would be empty of people to pave way for larger scale sheep pastoralism for commodification of wool in international trade, a source of profit for new landowners, who fenced off some land for production and some for recreation, leisure, and eventually nature tourism and outdoor sport. 

Working people and peasants, who could no longer access hill spaces for communal grazing and heather burning and picking, pushed to North America and beyond where they greatly benefitted from imposing the same “empty land for nature and highly extracted land for profit” model through colonial administration. Federici argues that the most affected group by the Highland land clearances was women, as they could no longer work due to being barred from accessing common land. Their l knowledge of foraging and healing, which relied on  access to the land and harvesting from nature, were vilified as ‘witchcraft. The vilification of Highland women in this way aimed to deal with the new excess of labour and landlessness and ensure that nature was only used as a highly extracted resource for profit or for upper-class recreation. People quickly became separated from nature and pushed into new models of urban or class-based work. Now, the relatively empty hillsides of the Highlands reinforce our imagined idea that this beautifully empty wilderness is empty of human culture, without acknowledgement that the grazing allowed by Highland clearances  killed the old growth pine forests that once covered them. This landscape is not natural at all, but tells a story of violent extraction of people and nature. Now, hillsides are species-poor from the lack of forests and disturbed soils. The people who cared for biodiversity and needed it for their traditional practices of healing and foraging were killed or forced out, and relational living was no longer valued.  

Nature for well-being, and human-nature connection, also centres human experiences of ecosystems. In reality, the international tourist trade and movement into “wild” areas is hugely polluting. In the Serengeti, Maasai communities have been forcefully evicted and legally barred from grazing their cattle (their ancient cultural practice and greatest chance of survival in harsh desert conditions) to ensure tourists can take “wild” safari rides without seeing the people and cattle who have inhabited it for hundreds, even thousands, of years. These tourists have taken hugely polluting flights and stay in vast lodges using massive amounts of resources, yet the Maasai communities who have lived sustainably for so long are barred from accessing their version of ‘nature’. 

Thus, nature is not natural. It is colonial and capitalist in the way we have been taught for hundreds of years to imagine what, where, and who it is (for). It is not inherently beautiful, safe, or peaceful. It is messy, shifting, and a part of the same processes which shape our bodies and minds, in a relationship as complicated as any other. 

So, when conservation policies propose “protecting” nature, and when government initiatives promote “nature connection” and “stories of the land,” we need to interrogate who – not what – is being protected. We need to ask who is benefitting, and whose voices and cultural practices (or even homes and livelihoods, in the case of NGO backed-rising militarized conservation in Africa) are being erased. We don’t need more hero stories set in the Global North, but rather quieter webs of reciprocity and acts of care – in the words of Indigenous ethnobotanist Robin Wall Kimmerer. In her text Braiding Sweetgrass, she shares her scientific research on the sweetgrass plant, which she shows to improve in plant health and growth when harvested in sustainable ways through Indigenous methods. Without these human harvests, the sweetgrass does not thrive. Plants and animals need us, and we need them. 

Maybe we shouldn’t be connecting to nature. We should be caring for, and with, nature. We should be confronting the undeniable entanglement of what we see in nature with violent, colonial, and patriarchal histories. We should not try to benefit from stories or uses of nature and land, but rather we should reframe connection as our relationship for, within, and about ecological systems without romanticizing, reinforcing, or reproducing the language and logics of “nature.” 

By Sophia, Environment Writer


Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women by Silvia Federici – The Sociological Review

Conservation Policy and Indigenous Peoples | Cultural SurvivalThe “Decolonization” of Conservation is Deeper than You Think (

Colonialism shaped today’s biodiversity | Nature Ecology & Evolution

Shenandoah National Park Is Confronting Its History (

Braiding Sweetgrass

Radical Mycology