This post is intended to add context to the readings my Environmental Theory students are doing for next week on nature.
Reality is a messy business these days. If there is anything we can say for sure about the reality our children will inherit, it is that theirs may bear little resemblance to ours. But reality is a good place for us to launch grounded theory, rather than immediately relocating theory to the realms of knowledge, ethics, and/or politics. If those skeptical of the value of environmental theory tend to be overly comfortable talking only about reality, those who revel in theory seem much more comfortable talking about knowledge, ethics, and politics.
Let’s see if we can bring the theory skeptics and true believers together to build better frameworks for reality. Frameworks are the vehicles by which we navigate reality as scholars and as persons, and better frameworks will get us farther across the landscape of reality, across more varied terrain, and perhaps more beautifully or effectively than others.
We are building frameworks by attending carefully to Big Words, and here the big words we will focus on are nature (and its shadow, culture) and what I recommend as a better big word, place*. (I say place* because it’s not the standard environmentalist definition of place—more soon.)
One of the most significant recent challenges to thinking of reality in terms of nature vs. culture is the phenomenon of the Anthropocene. Originally propounded by geologists to suggest a potential new era of the Earth (Zalasiewicz et al. 2010), the Anthropocene soon caught the imagination of environmental theorists, e.g., in geography (Lorimer 2010), as they reworked frameworks for reality—and their epistemological, ethical, and political implications—based on their reading of the Anthropocene, suggesting that nature and culture are far more interwoven than one encounters in classic American environmentalism.
There has been a lot of literature and debate on the notion of the Anthropocene (Proctor 2013). Without examining this work in detail, we nonetheless race ahead and wonder: what to make of “the environment,” the reality framework grounding environmental studies, if not with reference to nature? There are many answers to this question: later in the class we’ll read a recent work of Bruno Latour (2017) that argues for the metaphor of Gaia* (again reworked from its standard interpretation) as a replacement for nature.
In a very brief essay (Proctor 2016) I recommend the geographic concept of place—which is not exactly the same as its common use in environmental circles, e.g., “place-based education“—as a suitable big-word framework for reality. Place is, as I suggest in that little essay, both etymologically true to the word environment and open to the realities the Anthropocene suggests. Here’s an extract (p. 750):
Places are now commonly understood in geography as diverse nodes in larger hybrid nature-culture networks; senses of place are now understood as “glocal” identities; and place thus becomes uneven and restless, not stable and timeless. Geographers studying sense of place have no a priori commitment to this being a good thing, as they know that sense of place has bred violent nationalisms in Europe as well as favorable naturalisms in other locations. Places to geographers certainly include local biophysical dynamics, yet they are always about much more than nature and the local.
So, this launches our journey into the realm of reality, and anticipates our next steps to knowledge, ethics, and politics. My students and I will apply what we’ve learned so far about big words—thinking of them as keywords and cognitive metaphors, situating them in the four realms of environmental theory and attendant fallacies, and considering how we navigate them by counting to two, counting to one as a corrective to this binarism, and then counting between/beyond two as a corrective to both.
- Latour, Bruno. 2017. Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
- Lorimer, J. 2012. “Multinatural Geographies for the Anthropocene.” Progress in Human Geography, February. https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132511435352.
- Proctor, James D. 2013. “Saving Nature in the Anthropocene.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 3 (1): 83–92. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-013-0108-1.
- ———. 2016. “Replacing Nature in Environmental Studies and Sciences.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 6 (4): 748–52. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-015-0259-3.
- Zalasiewicz, Jan, Mark Williams, Will Steffen, and Paul Crutzen. 2010. “The New World of the Anthropocene.” Environmental Science & Technology 44 (7): 2228–31. https://doi.org/10.1021/es903118j.
—Featured image: Anthropocene upper strata movement negligible, near Fife, Great Britain