To understand something, we can objectify it, to regard it as an object and give a logical description with facts that are universally true, not imagined. For example, H2O is the chemical formula for water. 

Yet, understanding is not just knowing the facts, it’s about knowing the “why” behind those facts. Experiencing something first-hand is the best way to gain a deeper understanding, hence expressions like, “In their shoes, I understand why they did that”. Our personal interpretation is subjective, influenced by our own feelings and opinions. It’s not necessarily the absolute truth but it is our truth based on what we find meaningful as we explore the facts from different perspectives.

French anthropologist, Philippe Descola highlights this division between objective and subjective understanding in his book “Ethnographies des mondes à venir”  (Edition Seuil, 2022). He also refers to other divisions such as that between nature and culture, nature being non-human, giving rise to the idea that it should be tamed, transformed and exploited while culture belongs to human society and development. This separation underpins his concept of “naturalism” and his desire to see non-human beings, i.e. everything that forms nature, as social partners equal to humans instead of objects.

Although we now have national parks, protected areas and rewilding projects, is our concept of nature and the way we treat it any different now compared to colonial times and the industrial revolution?  Such a reconciliation, as Descola argues, might be key to a sustainable future but for now, interpretation can at least provoke reflection among people to consider our surroundings and gain a deeper understanding of our complex relationship with our environment.