Is nature where you take your dog for a walk? Perhaps it is that holiday destination you are planning? Or do you simply enter into nature when you step out into your backyard? Maybe nature is not a place. It could be an entity, or more ominously a cataclysm of ecological systems that comprise many places and things.
Depending on who you ask, you will often get very different definitions of what nature is, so how do we know what the true reality is and why does it matter?
This is what I would like to discuss today. Or more accurately, it is what I’ve been discussing with various individuals of opposing belief systems. Interestingly, lawmakers and ecologists have played a contradictory role in how the public has created and resisted the dominant narratives of nature. And as we will uncover here, these differing perspectives have played a critical part in environmental disaster, mediation and reconciliation.
The following are excerpts from real conversations placed in the context of law, science and political ecology. The thoughts of these people are not meant to be an exhaustive representation of any particular demographic. They instead can inform on wider discussions about what nature means to different people. It can also explain why it is important to have these dialogues brought to the forefront of contemporary debate. As an environmental anthropologist, I believe dialogue must be situated in a diversity of lived experiences and that is what I hoped to capture through this and other interviews that I will feature in future.
The first person I talked to is Kim (she prefers for a real name not to be known). Kim is a Christian business owner and parent who lives in the UK. I asked Kim about what nature was to her and she told me:
Nature to me is God's way of showing humans love.
I was curious about what it meant to show love. In what way does nature give us love? At a basic level, we might consider that we benefit from the resources that nature gives us, but does that mean nature exists only for our benefit? Kim had this to say:
I think there's a scripture that says ‘God made man… God put the animals in subjection to man’ but you wouldn’t allow man to then harm his creation. In that sense, [we’re] not more important... But they’ve [man] got more power. So there’s another scripture that says, ‘he knows every single sparrow that falls to the ground’ so then how much more so would he then know how a person feels in comparison to an animal? But it doesn’t mean that we can take advantage and treat animals cruelly.
Kim’s reflection on power was a very interesting insight. Particularly, when we consider why some beliefs about nature come to be accepted and leave others as marginalised. Humans have power over nature and each other. Power has always had a pervasive effect on deciding consensus. Moreover, the people who control the language of discourse often control the dialogue. When we create value-laden systems for interpreting nature, we are essentially deciding for whom it has value, with explicit political implications for all involved.
For instance, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) is the governmental advisory on nature conservation in the UK. They play a key role in the designation of which land is conserved, how the land is monitored and categorised. On their UK protected areas page, they describe three categories: nature, landscape and amenity. This distinction effectively translates as aesthetic, referring to green infrastructures such as parks and public spaces; environmental, wherein areas are designated for biodiversity and species conservation; and the last category is productive land management, such as agriculture.
Similar distinctions are made by governmental planning schemes which reinforce these divisions. These ideas of nature are not new. In the arts and literature, romanticism is a prevalent language of the aesthetics of nature. Kantian philosophy has influenced the notion that we create nature through the "world of our ideas". It is a wholly subjective construction of nature.
However, this conception of nature is theoretically in contrast to the two other categorisations, namely from an environmental science perspective. The Environmental Agency (EA) is composed of more than 10,000 scientists, policymakers and project experts who make their decision on the merit of empirical evidence. For them, nature is something measured and explainable through the instruments of science. They use these tools to fit and create frameworks of classifications. In this sense, nature is compartmentalised into distinguishable units. Nature can be explained through facts and figures.
Yet how does this account for our lived and embodied experience of nature? Moreover, does it capture the political and economic nuances of nature? From one perspective, a quantifiable nature is much easier to manage. Not just for the government, but for the market as well. Referring back to the conservation of agricultural land, we might suppose this position allows economists to extrapolate the value and distribution of natural resources.
This tells us a lot about the power of these views. As Kim points out:
When you go to the doctors, they know... they’re not treating the ‘why’ have you got these symptoms, they’re treating the symptoms but not the cause. But then if you think about it, the pharmaceutical industry is very very profitable so that’s obviously another thing. People are trained to just treat the symptoms for a specific reason. So then in science, maybe there’s a thing where [you know] it’s that way for gain, personal gain, profit and things.
What is gained from an economic view of nature? And who gains? In the UK, for instance, we have a neoliberal governmental style. Resources are decentralised as a means to garner more participation in nature management. Yet, this approach also allows for private capital to take control over natural resources. Moreover, when these forces take control, it often leaves little room for local and indigenous communities. Scientific positivism often asserts a particular reality of nature that situates other beliefs as inferior or insubstantial to their methodology. Or at the very least, making nature amenable to governmental control.
In history, colonial authorities have used the same logic to remove indigenous people from their homes, implement haphazard environmental schemes and dismiss local knowledge altogether. The state does play a key role in regulating natural resources, often to the advantage of local people. However, this fact dismisses political and economic factors which have become institutionalized in such perceptions of nature.
This is why belief plays such a crucial role in how we conceptualise nature. As Kim highlights:
I believe people that are raised in a certain way, maybe like people that were raised on the bible and the holy scripture, it doesn’t have to be Christianity, have better morals, in a certain sense of things, as opposed to people who are raised to just do what they want, they have a better sense of what’s right and what’s wrong for people, as well as themselves. But [I was going to say] then saying, that type of person who was raised in a scriptural way, best upbringing with as much love as they can get, if they get a certain amount of power, eventually they’re going to change. Like if a person is given too much power, either way, it’s inevitable that they’re going to turn into a certain type of person… Man has dominated man to his own to his own imagery. He cannot [basically] cope with the power of having too much power, especially over another human being. He will always abuse it, so it's like he needs a higher power in order to manage it. That’s kind of the thing [is the purpose] of the bible.
In Kim’s perspective and within the role of the state, there is always a ‘higher power’ that designates the ultimate meaning and reality of nature. Belief, in this sense, can regulate behaviour, change our perspective and create the social world around us. However, this is not to say there is no empirical basis of nature.
Science has widened our understanding of the natural world and given many new dimensions to the meaning of nature. It also has brought our relationship with non-human actors to the forefront. Humans are not the only creators of nature. Where our perceptions were limited to our human experience, we now know we are not the only producers or influencers in our environment. Highlighting a number of ethical and moral quandaries that we must address in any conception of nature.
Political ecologist Paul Robbins reinforces this perspective when he tells us that nature is co-produced by animals and plants, as much as it is by social, political and economic forces. So then, where does nature end and man begin? As Kim elucidates:
I believe that we’re all kind of connected so it’s all one. God is in everything that we see around us.
In this instance, God is nature. Thus, nature is belief.
This is another interesting idea, in two ways. Firstly, in terms of scientific belief, as anthropologist Carolyn Rouse attests in her book Engaged Surrender, “all individuals are religious”. She argues that secular and atheistic beliefs can be just as strongly held as traditional religions. This is because these systems give people their ‘orientation’ of the world. While religion may rely on faith and science on empiricism, there are very few times when so-called objective realities have no social component. Consider how scientific information and language has changed over time. Presently, we even see different nations adopt very different perceptions over the facts of nature. As espoused by their apparent misuse.
We may live in the post-truth era, but that doesn’t absolve us from our environmental obligations. In essence, environmental conflicts are inherently about conflict of ideas. Rather than presuming there is no truth or problematising complexity, we must see it as necessary. Wherein, nature and its construction is a dialectical process. This means different ideological interpretations are given equal validity, allowing us to widen the scope of what we call knowledge. We must move to a co-produced account nature. This is in part because of the power-laden dynamics which manifests in all belief systems. Co-production is a means to redistribute power and authority, not just to humans, but to the environment.
So what is nature? Nature is cooperation. Nature is dynamic and ever-changing. Nature is immanent and transcendent.
Nature is belief.
Thanks to Kim and everyone else who contributed to this piece.