Open Letter

Leaf Print
To the publishers of dictionaries in the UK,

We believe that you, as the publishers of dictionaries, can play a crucial role in people finding their true place within the concept of Nature. We are a group of progressive organisations, charities, academics, artists, activists and school children who believe passionately that humans should see themselves as within and a part of Nature. We believe this shift in mindset is key to the survival of the natural world for ourselves and for all future generations of life on Earth. 

We were dismayed to discover that the dictionary definition of Nature excludes humans from the definition in all major UK dictionaries. Dictionaries and their definitions reflect the words and the meanings of the time. They act as a mirror to our culture, society and views. We believe that the preferred definition does not reflect the scientific evidence that humans are part of Nature and a wider eco-system. Nor does the definition currently offered by dictionaries reflect the overwhelming consensus amongst those using English as a language that humans are a part of Nature. A definition is used in the educational, legal and political systems of a society and can be treated as the final arbiter of meaning and a scientific pronouncement of a word’s essence. This is quite a responsibility. As the single most important authority in understanding the accurate meaning of a word in the entire English speaking world, the particular definition of a word chosen by a dictionary editor can have a powerful impact, both positively and negatively on outcomes and behaviours of humans.

We recently presented our case to the Oxford English Dictionary (the OED) and asked them to revise the entry of Nature to respect the historical and current usage of the word, changing it to one that includes humans. We specifically asked them to revise a sense of the word which previously on their website was described as ‘obsolete’. This was: ‘In a wider sense: the whole of the natural world, including human beings; the cosmos’. The OED replied and confirmed that the editors have now updated the relevant senses of Nature to take account of current evidence. They said: ‘Thank you for helping to draw our attention to this recent history’. The wider sense of the word Nature is now no longer listed as being obsolete, and the OED now has full evidence of this usage up until the present day. 

We asked them to go further, and for this wider sense of the word to appear in the search list when a user of the dictionary searches for the word Nature. Their response was this is based on frequency of use, something they cannot alter. However, they have made the OED’s entry for Nature free for all to view, they said, ‘This means that the full history and senses of the word are accessible to all’ (and you do not need the usual OED subscription to view the word Nature). This means that anyone searching for the word Nature is able to see the version which includes humans. That, of course, is inclusive, wonderful and to be commended. 

We now ask the OED to pledge to keep the frequency of use of the word Nature under review, and to amend the definition if and when the wider sense of the word becomes the most frequently used definition. 

We also ask the remaining UK dictionaries to follow the OED’s precedent and update their definition of Nature to include humans, or at the very least, to acknowledge that there is a wider, alternative definition which includes humans within the definition, there is evidence of its use historically right up to the present day, and to make the wider definition available for all to see.

At the moment Nature does not have a voice in the decisions we take that are scientifically proven to be driving climate breakdown and destroying biodiversity. Our view is that we have separated ourselves from Nature, and see ourselves as exceptional rather than interdependent with Nature and this is a root cause of our behaviour as a species towards our natural world. By changing the definition, there is an opportunity and responsibility to help shift the understanding of our place in Nature; and to remind users of dictionaries that we are part of an interconnected web of life with all living organisms including plants, animals, rivers, mountains, oceans and their co-created living systems which have a right to be recognised as part of a nested definition that includes humans.

Our aim with this campaign is to help create a definition that sees humans as part of Nature, not separate from it. We hope this means that when decisions are being made that impact Nature, they are taken with a deep consideration for Nature and the realisation that any actions that harm Nature harm us all. This will hopefully encourage us collectively to take the urgent action needed to protect the natural world upon which we depend on for our survival.

Changing the definition of Nature in this way is the first important step in this movement towards protecting the intricate balance of life in the natural world, of which humans are an intrinsic part. We have an opportunity to shift the course we are on and bring ourselves back to a place of congruence with Nature, both in terms of how we define Nature, and how we protect it in practice. Only then will we begin to remedy our relationship with the natural world and put it on a truly sustainable footing. By campaigning for an inclusive definition for Nature where we are part of something bigger than our own species and, in the future, by giving Nature legal rights to exist, maintain itself and ultimately regenerate its vital cycles, it will enable us to find balance in and with Nature for the benefit of future generations.

Thank you for taking the time to consider this.

We look forward to hearing from you,

Jessie (Lawyers for Nature) & Frieda (House of Hackney)

Leaf Print
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NATURE IS FOR ALL

The impact of your support has the power to help truly consider Nature as our Home.

What we believe about our place in Nature, largely determines how we perceive, value, shape and interact with it.

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