Concepts of nature, and derivative notions such as natural vs. artificial, play a large role guiding our values and behavior. The EcoTypes Nature axis addresses a key current environmental debate over pure vs. hybrid concepts of nature.
- Nature knows best; people should get out of the way and let natural processes flourish.
- The purest example of nature is wilderness, a landscape untouched by humans.
- Humans can at times actually improve upon natural systems by careful and thoughtful management.
- Many landscapes have already been affected by humans, so it’s naive to just let nature take its course.
This histogram shows the overall distribution of averaged responses to the survey statements above. Which side are most responses on? Is there general agreement or disagreement among responses so far?
How do your own responses compare with the overall 2018-19 results? To answer this question, find the personal report you received by email and compare your average response to this axis.
Do most respondents agree with you? Disagree with you? Are most responses to the right or the left of you? What does this say about your responses as compared with overall responses?
Ideas of nature have played a key role in western civilizations for centuries (Glacken 1967); indeed, nature is one of the most culturally laden notions in the English language (Williams 1980) with a variety of uses and critiques in academic scholarship (Castree 2005). Think of how “natural” or “unnatural” are used in a variety of popular contexts, including but not limited to environmental issues, and you’ll agree that ideas of nature qualify as a fundamental EcoTypes axis. Ideas of nature can be found among a wide range of popular environmental concepts; consider for instance how “sustainable” and “natural” are often interwoven.
One key debate concerns pure vs. hybrid approaches to biophysical nature. A good deal of North American environmentalism has been grounded in notions of nature that emphasize its order and harmony, often in contrast to the human realm; witness, for instance, the significance of wilderness protection. As one looks a little deeper, this notion of nature emphasizes purity vis-à-vis humans (cf. White 2000): as the 1964 Wilderness Act stated, wilderness is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by [humans].” The idea of purity in nature goes far beyond wilderness: common slogans around minimizing our environmental impact, for instance, often presuppose that all such impacts are negative, compromising nature’s pure state.
Over the last several decades, many scholars have modified, challenged, or rejected this pure view of nature, claiming both that the reality of our biophysical world is entangled with human actions, and that our very ideas of nature ought best to be understood as cultural and political constructions. Theirs is a more hybrid and relational view of nature that strives to avoid essentialism—one in which very term “nature” sometimes disappears (e.g., Latour 2004).
These arguments have typically been met with resistance: thus, for instance, the early collaborative project “Reinventing Nature,” summarized in Uncommon Ground (Cronon 1995), was challenged in Reinventing Nature?: Responses to Postmodern Deconstruction (Soule 1996); and more recently, a variety of publications (e.g., Lynas 2011, Shellenberger & Nordhaus 2011, DeFries et al. 2012) endorsing the notion of the Anthropocene, a view of Earth as fundamentally shaped by humans, have met similarly fierce opposition (e.g., Wuerthner et al. 2014, Wilson 2016; cf. Proctor 2013, Dalby 2016). Though scholarly literature on hybrid nature is now well established, its place in environmental curricula is not yet secure (cf. Proctor 2009; 2016).