This question was suggested by the French botanist Francis Hallé. His project for a primary forest in Western Europe – about 70,000 hectares straddling several countries, including France – presupposes that, in his words, human beings “come down from their pedestals” and show humility in the face of the “temporal scale” of the forest, which is out of all proportion to the temporality of a human life (1). But such an attitude is not self-evident. We discuss it in this article.
Launched in 2019 (2), the project for a large primary forest in Western Europe is part of the European Union’s reflections on its new forest strategy (3) – it has moreover received a favorable reception from the Commission (4). Here is the description given by Francis Hallé:
“A primary forest is a forest that has never been exploited by man, or if it has been, it goes back far enough that the ‘primary’ character has had time to reappear. [It is time] for Europe to restore what it has destroyed. Our project is to bring about a new primary forest on the continent, promoting the return of the great fauna – wolves, bears, deer, bison, etc.” (5)
But its temporality far exceeds a human lifetime and its implementation excludes any human intervention:
“The calendar is imposed by nature. If we start with a 400-year-old forest, it will take six centuries. It is a very long-term project, indeed, but it is not a titanic one. On the contrary, what we are proposing is very simple: just do nothing!” (6)
The position of “doing nothing” – that is, not acting on the forest, in particular not seeking to exploit it – implies more than an omission to act. It implies a genuine renunciation.
This renunciation evokes the idea of humility, which covers the fact that a person adopts an attitude of withdrawal or voluntary abasement stemming from the awareness of his or her limitations or weakness. In this case, it implies that human beings accept to give up their absolute power to act on nature, as Francis Hallé underlines in the following excerpt:
“[The primary forest project] requires only political will and, above all, work on ourselves, since it forces us to abandon the idea that we are the protectors of the forest and that we know better than it what is good for the future. Coming down from our pedestal is painful for many of us.” (7)
In a 2011 book, Francis Hallé explicitly uses the concept of humility about the characteristic time scale of tree life:
“The current record [for tree longevity], held by a clone of Royal Holly (Lomatia) from the Bathurst Mountains in Tasmania, is 43,000 years; this tree is therefore contemporary with Neanderthal man and we can […] conclude that the entire history of our zoological species fits comfortably within the life of a tree. [I] find reassuring this questioning of our temporal scale, which brings the human being back to a humility of which he is hardly used to.” (8)
The humility that is evoked here – that of renouncing action, which “forces us to abandon the idea that we are the protectors of the forest and that we know better than it what is good for the future” – is not only descriptive. It is also normative, because it refers to the kind of attitude and conduct we humans should have toward the forest and nature in general. This virtue of humility towards nature requires an effort on our part. It requires that we recognise that the primary forest has an intrinsic value and that we renounce to consider it according to our own interests.
This form of humility is based on an accurate representation of the place of human beings in the world. An example of this is the relationship that people who are used to living in contact with the primary forest have with it:
“The cultures as well as the livelihoods of Indigenous Peoples are inextricable linked with the forests they inhabit. The forest is not viewed simply as a resource to be exploited but rather as their ancestral home, central to their cosmologies, and to which they are personally linked and have traditional obligations.” (9)
In this vein, philosopher Thomas Hill described humility “as an attitude which measures the importance of things independently of their relation to oneself or to some narrow group with which one identifies” (10). He calls it “proper” because it sets aside the interests and illusions that are most often used to value things. It is these interests and illusions that can lead human beings to value nature only in terms of its utility or with a view to its exploitation.
However, the need to change our perspective – which Thomas Hill interprets as finding our rightful place in the world and which Francis Hallé summarises as abandoning our “pedestal” – is not obvious. It is true that movements for the preservation or protection of nature have already led to an increase in environmental awareness (11). But the change Francis Hallé is calling for – abandoning the idea that we are “the protectors of the forest and that we know better than it what is good for the future” – has the nature of a conversion. It should both affect our worldview and be universally shared.
This conversion does not require us to transform our view of nature to the extent that we adopt beliefs that are alien to our civilisation or that draw on mythological knowledge. We can admire the power of Yggdrasil, the cosmic tree, “the biggest and best tree” in Germanic mythology (12), but we cannot believe in Yggdrasil today and perceive nature on the basis of this belief. One can recognise the legitimacy of the goddess Nemesis’ vengeance against the moral outrage resulting from the manifestations of human exaggerated pride, but one cannot believe that Nemesis could punish humans today for their indifference and lack of humility towards nature (13).
How can we become humble in the sense of Francis Hallé and Thomas Hill? A spiritual answer to this question can be found in Paul Valéry’s Dialogue of the Tree (14). It is a matter of recognising that every plant is a work of art, that we do not need to believe that this work of art has been created (perhaps it has not been created) but that it proceeds from an idea. It is also about understanding that the life of every plant is a slow, deep meditation (“I say that if someone on Earth does meditate, it is the Plant”) and that, as human beings, we can participate in it.
Then Paul Valéry, through one of the two characters in the dialogue, evokes the spiritual gaze that we can have on plant nature:
“What you perceive of a shrub or a tree is only the outside and instant, offered up to the indifferent eye, which only skims the surface of the world. But to spiritual eyes the plant presents not just a simple object of humble, passive life, but a strange will to join a universal weaving.”
The “spiritual eyes!” What they see is not a humble and passive plant being – it is what the unspiritual eyes see. They see a being with a life that communicates with our own. This vision is perhaps the manifestation of a genuine humility towards nature.
Updated on 18 May 2021.
(1) “Francis Hallé veut recréer une forêt primaire en Europe : ‘Elle sera un don aux générations futures’,” L’Obs, 27 December 2020, and F. Hallé, Du bon usage des arbres. Un plaidoyer à l’attention des élus et des énarques, Arles, Actes Sud, 2011.
(2) See the website of the Association Francis Hallé pour la forêt primaire, where one can find the Manifesto “Un projet de création d’une grande forêt primaire en Europe de l’Ouest.”
(3) See “The European Forest Strategy – The Way Forward,” 8 October 2020.
(4) Francis Hallé recently declared in Télérama that “Marco Onida, in the Commission’s Directorate-General for the Environment, follows us 200%” (“Une forêt primaire en Europe, utopie nécessaire,” Télérama, 3720, 28 April 2021).
(5) “Francis Hallé veut recréer une forêt primaire en Europe…,” op. cit.
(8) F. Hallé, Du bon usage des arbres. Un plaidoyer à l’attention des élus et des énarques, Arles, Actes Sud, 2011.
(9) C. F. Kormos, B. Mackey, D. A. DellaSala, N. Kumpe, T. Jaeger, R. A. Mittermeier & C. Filardi, “Primary forests: Definition, status and future prospects for global conservation,” in D. A. Dellasala & M. I. Goldstein (eds), Encyclopedia of the Anthropocene, Elsevier, 2018.
(10) T. E. Hill, “Ideals of human excellence and preserving natural environments,” in Autonomy and self-respect, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991 (reprinted from an article published in 1983 in the journal Environmental Ethics). The passage about Hill also appears in my column of 18 May 2021 on the French radio station Euradio: “Le projet de forêt primaire en Europe et la vertu d’humilité. ”
(11) See for example (in French) C. Larrère, “Développement durable : quelques points litigieux,” Les ateliers de l’éthique / The Ethics Forum, 1(2), 2006, pp. 8-18.
(12) J. Brosse, Mythologie des arbres, Paris, Editions Payot & Rivages, 1993.
(13) On the goddess Nemesis, see M. B. Hornum, Nemesis, the Roman state and the games, Leiden, Brill, 1993.
(14) P. Valéry, Dialogue de l’arbre, Paris, Gallimard, 1945, translated by W. McCausland Stewart, in J. Mathiews (ed.), The collected works of Paul Valéry, volume 4, Princeton University Press, 1989.