Concepts of Nature

The term ‘Nature’ and its associated values have implied a wide variety of meanings across time and space. According to the Oxford dictionary, ‘nature’ can refer to:

the physical world and its internal systems and features “as opposed to humans or human creations”, the physical forces that work in this material environment, as well as “innate or essential qualities or character” of a person, animal or thing.

These various definitions have led to the concept of ‘nature’ differing greatly. Whatmore (2005) discusses two ways in which definitions of nature change; according to human use (Marxist social construction) or according to changing concepts of nature through time and space (cultural social construction). The way we use nature determines the concepts of nature, and vice versa, not only changing its physicality but also our relationship with it.

The first relationships with nature are generally believed to be animistic. Many ancient civilisations personified nature, much like the popular belief of the “mother nature” (Merchant, 1983), often seen as a nurturing mother figure, who “provided the needs of mankind”. This concept implied a maternal bond between humans and the earth, and effectively imposed cultural and moral restraints on human actions (1983, p2). Exploitation of earth’s resources were often kept to a minimum, or done in a way which demonstrated respect for the earth. The idea that ancient societies lived without disturbing the equilibrium is challenged by Ginn and Demeritt (2003, p307), who state that the evidence for this was only assumed by the low populations at that period of time. They claim that the earth was being exploited by solar-powered food productions a long time before fossil fuel exploitation began, creating surpluses from intensive farming in certain areas.

Although this would have been on a much smaller scale, these surpluses would have allowed land to be used for other purposes instead of agriculture- making space for recreation and developments. The new agricultural society encouraged a human need to dominate their surroundings (2003, p306) and for the first time nature wasn’t such a dominating part of people’s lives.

Merchant also describes nature in another female form; an unpredictable, “wild and uncontrollable” personality, inflicting violence and causing chaos. Promoting the view that nature was something that needed to be controlled and ‘tamed’ was necessary in order to change human concepts of nature so that it could be exploited. Social communities, (e.g. Christian religion), harnessed this idea in order to control nature for the safety of ‘mankind’. Merchant here relates nature not only to the physical female form but also to the female struggle against the male dominion.

The scientific revolution rendered nature-concepts a lot more technocratic, questioning former knowledges based on religions. During the European enlightenment in the 16th century, nature came to mean something isolated from where humans were, “beyond the reach of explorers” (Whatmore, 2005, p9). Ginn and Demeritt support this, describing the concept of these untouchable ‘pristine natures’, such as the atmosphere, mountain ranges and oceans (2003, p299). But this was based on very Eurocentric thinking which was ignorant of all other cultures, and is inapplicable today as few areas are left ‘untouched’ by society (Castree, 2001, p1).

With the discovery of fossil fuels in the 19th century and the industrial revolution, humans had access to the energy vital for shaping our earth, allowing manipulation of the environment on a much larger, less time-consuming scale. Ginn and Demeritt examine how this enabled people to devote themselves to other things, giving opportunity for the noosphere to develop. New inventions were created, along with theories and technologies, for example Darwin’s theory of evolution, profoundly affecting understandings of nature. Hinchliffe (2007) notes how this industrial way of life made nature less recognisable as a “pure category”. Increasingly specialised expert systems appeared which resulted in concepts of nature diversifying, creating a whole variety of arguments based on aspects of nature that had never previously existed. Where humanity was once overwhelmingly small in comparison to the vast natural world, new discoveries and increased mobility decreased these disparities. Today the natural world is seen as much smaller, even provoking concerns that it will ‘run-out’ (Ibid.).

Harrison and Burgess (1994) examine the effect of the mass media on concepts of nature during the 1980’s, when scientists really started discussing the environment in the media. Environmental issues appeared more on political agendas, affecting public interest and government policy. However, as these interests increase, it is necessary to be critical of representations of nature. They argue that these representations of nature are often used to legitimate policies and practices, using the sensitive subject of environmental issues to gain public support. Developers are accused of using “narratives of nature” appealing to the lay society with emotive language and subliminal messages. Harrison and Burgess criticise that this method is wrong, using moral motives instead of using rationale.

Although scientific evidences have meant a general acceptance that nature is social, the idea is still contested. Castree describes three modern concepts of nature as: people and environment; which implies them as separate entities, ecocentric; a nature centred as opposed to human centred world, and social; society and nature are intrinsically related. Some argue that it is not possible for humans to be part of nature if they are the ones who have caused the environmental problems, (essentially self-infliction). Yet we must consider that many of these harms were caused before the consequences were known. ‘People and environment’ sees nature as a mere resource and denies social exploitation of these resources can have effect on society.

Further criticisms attack both the former two concepts as they assume nature is fixed. The ecocentric determination to “get back to nature” doesn’t take into account that nature is not a universal entity. While Whatmore argues that the scientific evidence that nature is being produced proves that nature isn’t fixed, Hinchliffe (2007, p1) argues that culture is what changes, not nature. These arguments are assuming culture and society to be separate entities. It could perhaps be more accurate to say that the relationship between society and nature is what changes over time, which affects both culture and nature.

Four common concepts of nature are shown in Schwarz and Thompson’s 1990 model ‘Myths of Nature’ (Fig. 1). The first, ‘Nature Capricious’, represents natural events as random, and denies any link between society and nature. Secondly, ‘Nature Benign’, implies nature can recover quickly from any human or other effects, an equilibrium. ‘Nature Perverse/Tolerant’ shows nature as relatively stable, but with potential to be knocked over the anticline, if pushed too far. Finally, ‘Nature Ephemeral’ depicts nature as highly unstable, able to cause absolute catastrophe at the slightest push. Nonetheless, it doesn’t show the variability of nature’s reactions, particularly in ‘Nature Benign’, which insinuates nature is fixed, always recovering to its original state. Furthermore, these diagrams do not necessarily imply a social impact acting on the environment, as it could be any kind of impact.

According to Castree, nature is social in that knowledges of nature will inevitably be formed with biases, natural events are measured in terms of effect on societies (therefore contingent upon social practises), and societies intentionally or unintentionally physically impact the natural world (2001). Critics state that this intrinsic relationship could be interpreted to mean that humans have complete power over nature, so perhaps it’s necessary to form a compromise between this idea and Merchant’s concept of ‘wild uncontrollable’ nature.

Whatmore describes how cultures have not only shaped nature by physical manipulation, but also by the human imagination. How we’ve interpreted nature to be has had a profound effect on what nature actually is (2005, p12). This could be described as the ‘natural idyll’- ideas of nature projected into reality, although this can be unnerving to many people. Concerns of how societies should behave towards nature, if the two are so intrinsically related, (Castree, 2001, p17) have provoked questions as to who is responsible for determining these ‘appropriate’ behaviours. Ginn and Demeritt query the rightness or wrongness of the changes in nature. Who decides what changes should/should not happen? Can we trust that society will limit the management of these changes just to the changes which they have influenced, when some changes may seem more attractive than others? (2003, p314).

New ‘natures’ produced by humans cause much debate as to whether they can be classed as true nature. According to Marxist Geographers, nature which is produced for a specific function is referred to as “second nature” as opposed to the original “first nature” (Whatmore, 2005, p10). A third nature is also introduced, a hybrid of the natural world and art, seen in the media. This is produced specifically for aesthetic appeal, exemplified in gardens where natural constructions have been harnessed to form an idea of what nature should be (Panelli, 2009, p82); a place for relaxation and enjoyment; somewhere to find “sense of self” and a place for therapeutic and mental benefits (Ibid.). This can be seen on a much bigger scale in National Parks and Natural Reserves. Beinart (1995) outlines how National Parks are often perceived and promoted as the “purest and most altruistic” form of nature.

However, today they increasingly cater to the desires of tourists, a source supposedly inexhaustible for income (unlike exploiting natural resources), which shows how nature is being sold as a commodity. Whatmore highlights that this third nature environment isn’t as pristine as it first appears. Nature documentaries are edited and enhanced to live up to our ‘wild expectations’, giving distorted representations. Essentially, “third nature” has created concepts of nature based on false representations; a more dramatic, aesthetically engineered nature shown in the media.

Castree, Whatmore and Ginn and Demeritt have all provided evidences for, and expressed the importance of understanding the interconnectivity of nature and society. By stressing the impacts of concepts of nature on the environment, they have also opened space for discussion of the potential for nature as a commodity, advising people to be wary of representations of nature in the media, and to question the motives of social groups advocating certain concepts of nature. In support of the concept of social-nature, popular concepts of nature must be based on sound evidences and scientific rationale so that unbiased decisions can be formed on managements of nature.

Beinart, W. Coates, P. (1995) ‘Nature Reserves and national parks: revaluing and renaturing the wild’, Environment and History: The Taming of nature in the USA and South Africa. New York: Routledge.

Castree, N. (2001) “Socializing nature: theory, practice and politics”, in: N. Castree and B. Braun, Social Nature: Theory, Practice and Politics (Blackwell: Oxford)

Ginn, F. and Demeritt, D. (2009) “Nature: a contested concept”, in: N. Clifford, S. Holloway, S. Rice and G. Valentine, Key Concepts in Geography (Sage: London)

Harrison, C. M. and Burgess, J. (1994) “Social Constructions of Nature – a Case-Study of Conflicts over the Development of Rainham Marshes”, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 19

Hinchliffe, S. (2007) Geographies of Nature: Societies, Environments, Ecologies. London: Sage

Merchant. C (1983). The Death of Nature; Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. New York: First Harper & Row Publishers.

Panelli, R. (2009) “More-than-human social geographies: posthuman and other possibilities”, Progress in Human Geography 34

Whatmore, S. (2005) ‘Culture-Nature’, in P.Cloke, P.Crang and M. Goodwin (eds.) Introducing Human Geographies. London: Hodder Arnold.



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