Nature. Part 1

It is impressive how much controversy, confusion, and power a single word can have. We have already discussed wilderness, its meanings, how it reflects people’s views of the wild and its implications in the environmental movement. Coates’ book looks at another term that is very important to understanding our relationship with the environment and that is nature.


1. Western ways of looking at nature:

  • Nature as a physical place (today’s major view)
  • Nature as the collective phenomena of the world or universe
    • Including humans (Aristotle)
    • Excluding humans
  • Nature as an essence, quality, principle that informs us of the workings of the world
  • Nature as an inspiration/guide for people and source of authority governing human affairs
  • Nature as a conceptual opposite of culture (seen often)

Nature is both a concrete and abstract term

What is seen in most definitions of nature though is the idea of separation between nature———and———–culture           

These terms are not necessarily opposites though and in examining the relationship between nature and culture one can see the gray area that exists in defining nature in the face of human culture.

            Humans rely on nature for food, water, and shelter

            We have the same body functions as other organisms and are composed of the same material as other organisms and yet somehow we are above/separate from nature.


Nature as a mental and linguistic construct:

  • Nature is anything not manmade
  • The natural state of anything is its state when not modified by man
  • At what point does our domestication, control, rearranging of natural things cause them to be unnatural? Are dogs natural? Are gardens natural? Are farms natural?

Views of nature by people at different ranks of society:

  • Source of wealth and amusement for aristocrats (formally seen especially in the art of hunting, today in eco-tourism)
  • Source of beauty, solace and inspiration for poets and writers
  • A challenge to surmount and a set of raw materials for most people


*Views of nature vary between time periods and between classes of people but also views of nature have always varied among individuals

 *No necessary overlap between environment/ecology and nature (though today it seems most people believe there is)

*Nature’s various defenders conceptualize nature depending on whether their approach is pragmatic (physical, as a natural resource)

Sentimental (intrinsic value, an important essence of life)

Aesthetic Recreational  Or Ecological


2. Concern with nature in its capacity as a phenomena of the universe   VS

     Concern over nature as a fragile entity that needs protected

Ancient religions/world views incorporated nature

  • Gods associated with or lived in the mountains or woods
  • There was definitely some recognition of the fact that human actions changed nature – deforestation, erosion
  • Some areas were kept sacred – mountain tops

Still this simply exhibited concern with nature not necessarily concern over nature

Hinduism/ Buddhism have a lot more concern with nature and foster ideas of communion with nature and humans as a part of a connected world (reincarnation). Provided motivation for acting kindly towards other organisms.

Yet, Asian countries are not necessarily more environmentally conscious in their policies and day-to-day lives than western countries 

CONCLUSION: We should not impose conservation motives on past people and cultures. And Concern with nature definitely does not always lead to concern over nature.

When if ever does Concern with nature lead to Concern over nature???


3. Many civilizations have failed because of overreaching their natural resource base

 Examples include, Rome, Aztec, Mayans, Teotihuarans, Xochicalcuans, Chacoans

These civilizations collapsed at least in part because of natural resource mismanagement and depletion and climate change

Funan – forest devastation

Mayans- drought

Rome – lead

What does that mean for today’s societies? What will the impact of limited natural resources be for different countries as the world’s population continues to grow?

 delivering electricity and clean water to the world’s poorest

 Toilets vs Life as We Know It

4. Pollution was not invented in the nineteenth century. No group of people has lived without impacting their environment.


Native peoples are more complex than the “Pocahontas” portrayal

– they have a very different land wisdom and relationship than us but the Europeans but that does not mean they

“Indians were often the pioneers who had hacked down the forest and turned the earth”


Even hunter-gathers (pre-Neolithic revolution people) had impacts on the environment. The Netsilik –> in the spring and fall they would dam up the stream to make it easier for them to fish. They would then spear as many 100s of fish and then stored them for later use. It is extremely unlikely that they could eat off of that fish before it gets spoiled or is found by another animal and therefore results in a lot of waste. (and a change in stream dynamic)


The Jun/’hoansi also were not perfect. They left a lot of waste when they moved from a sight and their method of hunting (with poison arrows) left a good percentage of animals dead in the woods too far away for the Ju/’hoansi to find


Native Americans –>agricultural practices though obviously on a smaller scale than commercialized farming today, still was destructive to the environment


5. Attempts to restore past environments. To what? The prairies were once forests, were once possibly underwater or glacier filled. So which one do you want to restore it to?


TODAY’S PROBLEM: overpopulation?

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