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Are They Human?

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—the period when the conceptual framework of the “state of nature” reshaped moral, legal and political philosophy —European forests, new technologies for extracting carbon traces from arctic ice reveal, were taken down at the fastest rate to date. The great forests largely turned into cropland and fuel prior to wood’s replacement with coal as Europe’s main source of energy, and the colonial economy’s appetite for ships finished off the rest, with merchant ships and gun boats requiring between 4–6,000 mature oaks—several hectares of forest—each.

While some pockets of woodland did survive, primarily in the less densely populated terrain of the Alps, the Pyrenees, parts of the Balkans, and other areas of southeastern Europe, the line separating field from forest was shifting at an unprecedented speed, retreating north well past the Baltics to southern Scandinavia, Scotland and northern Siberia, and south into the northern Balkans. Abraham Bosse’s etching for the 1651 frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan depicts the figure of the sovereign rising over deforested hills. This is not a coincidence: in the European imagination of the time, the forest line still marked the limit of sovereignty, the areas of productive economy and thus also the threshold of the law. Sovereignty could only rise over cultivated nature—that is, over a destroyed ecosystem. By the end of the eighteenth century, the forest line has ebbed miles north of Edinburgh. With the exception of David Hume, who was settled there, European philosophers using the concept of the “state of nature” to describe an era prior to law and the social contract experienced nothing more than tamed local woodlands, stranded within an ocean of fields.

The hypothetical forest of the “state of nature” was a vast pre-judicial zone, the mythic limit to culture and law. The outlaw and the werewolf, and later the indigenous residents, were humanlike creatures that could be killed without the slaying being considered a murder. With the conversion of European forests into fields, cities, and ships, other forests were discovered beyond the oceans Europeans crossed by floating on their own decimated ones. Those that most captured the European imaginary of the state of nature were found along the equatorial belt in the tropics: Central Africa, South East Asia and Central America. Today we know, from such works as that of Paulo Tavares’ and others, that these forests, in contrast to their Western perception at the time, were environments cultivated by human civilizations and imbued with their own conceptions of politics and law.

Accounts of these impenetrable forests reached seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe by colonial travelers, settlers, traders, and cartographers who had penetrated their dense biomass, unbearable heat and disease. This second encounter with the forest provoked European philosophers to think about the origins of society, savagery and human nature. From the perspective of these early moderns, the “state of nature” was now no longer separated from civilization in time—that is, a condition prior to the foundation of society and legal order—but rather coincided with it in space. Existing beyond this shifting boundary was an extra-territorial space, conceived under the imperial and racist framework of terra nullius which ignored the social structures and forms of ownership of indigenous people and regarded them as “part of the natural environment.”

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