First Nature and Colonial Rifts: Response to Critical Naturalism: A
Jasmijn Leeuwenkamp
Krisis 2023, 43 (1): 128-132.
The prior issue of Krisis (42:1) published Critical Naturalism: A Manifesto, with the aim to
instigate a debate of the issues raised in this manifesto the necessary re-thinking of the role
(and the concept) of nature in critical theory in relation to questions of ecology, health, and
inequality. Since Krisis considers itself a place for philosophical debates that take contempo-
rary struggles as starting point, it issued an open call and solicited responses to the manifesto.
This is one of the sixteen selected responses, which augment, specify, or question the assump-
tions and arguments of the manifesto.
Critical naturalism, Colonialism, Eurocentrism, Critical theory, First and second nature, Met-
abolic rift
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC
BY 4.0). © 2023 The author(s).
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
First Nature and Colonial Rifts: Response to Critical Naturalism:
A Manifesto
Jasmijn Leeuwenkamp
While a central focus of critical theory has been modern man’s relation to “inner” and “outer
nature,” a noteworthy ecological theory has not developed within the tradition. Famously,
Adorno and Horkheimer already connected enlightenment and reason to “the mastery of na-
ture,” although their analysis did not so much lament the exploitation of nature but rather ex-
plained how the mythical function of enlightenment (and its dialectics) derived from the fear
and terror of “nature.” In this sense, the Critical Naturalism Manifesto (Greggoratto et al. 2022)
revisits the constitutive role that “nature” plays in the tradition of critical theory, and they
usefully repurpose the tradition in service of a more complex account of today’s environmental
challenges. The manifesto’s key strength resides in its comprehensive overview of many new
directions in eco-philosophy that update and reboot critical theory’s insights for what they call
a “new critical naturalism.” In line with the tradition’s idea that overcoming social domination
in all forms should be the aim of critique, the authors rightfully see an urgency in reorientating
it towards the “environmental catastrophe” and all its related health and social crises. However,
in its conceptualization of the notion of “nature,” the manifesto largely overlooks the colonial
and gendered history of deploying this notion for domination. The question remains as to what
extent the manifesto’s attachment to the dialectical relation between “first” and “second na-
ture” limits the possibility to address who or what belongs to “outer nature.” In aiming to
respond to the particular social and political inequalities that characterize the climate crisis,
the manifesto would benefit from a more sustained engagement with decolonial thought.
The manifesto acknowledges the contested ontological status of “nature” but emphasizes the
need to hold on to distinctions between nature and society/history/culture, albeit with recogni-
tion of the different meanings these terms have in different language games. Therefore, in the
debate between the “hybridists” (e.g. Bruno Latour, Jason Moore) who think we should do
away with the distinction, and those who emphasize the need to uphold it (e.g. John Bellamy
Foster, Andreas Malm), the manifesto clearly aligns itself with the latter position. This posi-
tioning has to do with the manifesto’s investment in the Hegelian distinction between “first”
and “second nature.” For the authors, this distinction between “internal” or “primordial nature”
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
(first nature) and its transformation or reification through the “process of socialization” (sec-
ond nature), shows that Hegel was not so much a body-disavowing idealist like Kant, but was
rather critical of mind-body dualism. The authors emphasize the distinction because it enables
them to think through a dialectical relation between man and nature that leaves open the pos-
sibility of using critique to “renaturalize” what actually is “first nature” (“humans remain nat-
ural organisms”), and “denaturalize” the “distorted mirror” that is “second nature.” The dis-
tinction also aligns with the eco-Marxist “metabolic rift” theory, according to which the dia-
lectical relation between man (society) and nature characterized as a metabolism (Stoffwech-
sel) is distorted.
Despite the “continuous” and dynamic conception of the relation between nature and society,
and the statement that “concepts and theories of nature are not innocent,” the manifesto still
seems to hold on to a relatively traditional (objectified) notion of nature. By deploying such
formulations as “societies’ natural environments,and “our experiences of nature” (own em-
phasis), a critical reader is permitted to wonder if the manifesto’s working conception of nature
might in fact be regarded as too innocent. Precisely because notions of “nature” have been
essential for legitimizing oppression and domination, it is not clear how the distinction be-
tween “first” and “second nature” can be so easily drawn in the first place. From within modern
European societies, “second nature” refers to all the existing rules, norms, customs, and beliefs
that “enslaved” humans within this sociality, the “dereification” of which critical theory saw
as one of its main tasks. However, what in modernity belonged to “first nature” were also
humans and non-humans considered to belong to “primordial” or “wild nature” (the literally
enslaved). The question of who or what belongs to “first nature,” and who or what to “second
nature” is thus itself part of “second nature” (engrained, socialized norms and institutions).
Moreover, the manifesto mentions the Marxist/Hegelian idea that “for a society to reproduce
itself, it must satisfy the needs of its members via a transformation of external nature.” The
problem, though, is that it does not account sufficiently for the fact that it was the subjection
of colonized and enslaved people which enabled the reproduction of capitalist societies
through their metonymic equivalence with “external nature.” In the same way that colonization
was viewed as the primary stage of “primitive accumulation” in Marx rather than part of the
social struggle between capitalists and the proletariat the colonized seem to be left out of the
Eurocentric picture by not being part of society, or “second nature.” How can we account for
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
the gendered and racialized naturalization of unpaid work and slavery when “nature” is only
seen as “external”/ “wild” or “socialized”? When “second nature” prevents Europeans from
seeing the colonized and enslaved as human and as possessing culture or society (through their
ontological reduction to passive extractable matter that awaits White domination), then we
must ask if such metaphysical violence necessarily places them in the category of “external”
or “wild nature” which can only be mastered or worse, saved through White enlightenment.
This blind spot of critical theory remains urgent, especially now that the climate crisis exacer-
bates neocolonial relations (Bhambra 2021, 80).
Despite the manifesto’s suggestion that critical theory “must overcome” its “Eurocentric bias,”
it does not adequately address the many metabolic rifts between humans and “nature” (and
colonizers and colonized) that already happened in Europe’s centuries-long colonial project.
Like Kathryn Yusoff’s (2018) important insight that there have been “a billion black anthro-
pocenes” rather than one (the Anthropocene), we cannot suggest similarly that there has only
been one metabolic rift that developed from Europe’s industrial revolution. In a similar vein,
Malcolm Ferdinand (2022) suggests that the problem of many environmental theories is that
they only focus on one fracture (the metabolic rift) instead of the double fracture that charac-
terizes modernity: the colonial and environmental fracture (3). A combined decolonial and
ecological approach is not only crucial to fully understand the complex ways in which histor-
ical injustices affect today’s unequally distributed vulnerabilities to climate catastrophes,
health and social crises, but it is also necessary because it urges critical theory to look beyond
its own tradition for more fruitful ways of thinking about nature. As Gurminder Bhambra
(2021) asks: “why valorize what can be presented as ‘its own theoretical tradition’ rather than
the possibility of learning from other traditions?” (81). Such a dialogue with other traditions
might however mean that the dialectical notions of “first” and “second nature” and “metabolic
rift” limit the manifesto’s aim to “come to terms with ourselves.”
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
Bhambra, Gurminder K. 2021. “Decolonizing Critical Theory?” Critical Times 4 (1): 7389.
Ferdinand, Malcom. 2022. Decolonial Ecology: Thinking from the Caribbean World. Translated by Paul An-
thony Smith. Critical South. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Gregoratto, Federica, Heikki Ikäheimo, Emmanuel Renault, Arvi Särkelä, and Italo Testa. 2022. “Critical Natu-
ralism: A Manifesto.” Krisis | Journal for Contemporary Philosophy 42 (1): 10824.
Yusoff, Kathryn. 2018. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Jasmijn Leeuwenkamp is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis,
University of Amsterdam. Her research focuses on anthropocentrism in human rights discourses and explores
the interrelations between political philosophy, critical theory, ecological concerns, and rights-based environ-
mental protection strategies. Her work appeared or is forthcoming in the volumes Post-Everything: An Intellec-
tual History of Post-Concepts (2021) and Religion, Populism, and Modernity: Confronting White Christian Na-
tionalism and Racism (2023).