In the first chapter, Coates stated that we as human interpreted the word nature into five different meanings. I found it interesting because it is not only the western culture interpret different definitions of nature, but in my culture as well. I would also define nature in the Chinese community into the first four categories Coates talked about: 1) nature as a physical place, 2) nature as the collective phenomena of the world or universe – and these phenomena are actually taught as a class in elementary school in my age (the class itself is called “Nature“), however, I don’t think we still have this class in China anymore. (but I think this meaning of nature comes from the western ideas, as well as the third one) 3) nature as an essence, quality and/or principle that informs the workings of the world or universe – this is also taught in the Nature class, and 4) nature as an inspiration and guide for people and source of authority governing human affairs – this definition is more likely to be used as a verb in Chinese. However, we do not define nature as the fifth definition that the western culture hold – nature as the conceptual opposite of culture. I could only be able to understand this idea when I came here to the United States and has took the Environmental Ethics class. But one thing interesting that caught my eye was, the relationship of nature and the God as Coates stated, claiming that it is not focusing on the impact of human activities on nature as we understand it. Because right now, I fount that we almost always have to talk about human interactions with nature when we are mentioning nature, and that the nature is not itself with all of the human activities, modifications we made on earth, such as we modifying plants into the way we think it is beauty, we modify the characteristics of our food (like GMOs), as well as the living conditions of the animals. I feel like there is nothing that could purely defined as nature anymore.
Also, I have noticed that there has been a change in meaning of nature in modern times compare to the ancient times. In the ancient times, nature would purely have a meaning that is interpreted by human, which is a definition no more related to human. But when we are talking about the nature in modern times, we are giving an strict definition of something that is nonhuman. I think this assigned definition is interesting because the western culture have been modifying the nature and trying to make it more beautiful and favorable in the past centuries, and when they failed, they started to appreciate nature. However, whatever human thinks beauty and favor to them is human’s interpretation of the nature. And this might have no meanings or even considered as bad to other creatures. For instance, when Coates talked about the ants’ interpretation of their world as beauty, it is the ants’ definition of beauty for nature (p.9).
I am very interested in history. When Coates writes about the environmental history, he claims that it is human being tying to study themselves. I totally agree with that. As addressed by Coates, the book The Pulse of Asia(1907) suggests that the climate would have an effect on people’s personality (p.20). I remember in one of the psychology research I have studied, it is suggesting that the cold whether (region) is somehow negatively correlated with the crime rate of the country, the study shows that the countries in Northern Europe (probably Finland or Iceland) have lower crime rate than other countries near the equator. In studying the environment, we could somehow define a vague pattern of our own personalities.
This first half of the book explains a lot of western history of the environment back from the Ancient Greece and Rome, toward the Middle Ages, then the Renaissance and modern times. Through all of the western history, I found that the western has once hold an illusionary thought about conquering the nature, and being able to control and manipulate nature. And this thought has never developed in any type of the eastern religion, including the Chinese Taoism, Japanese Zen, and Buddhism. The Asian religions, as claimed by Coates, “has always regarded man as living in a somewhat precarious position, as a guest of doubtful welcome … in the great household of the natural world” (p.97). When Coates mentioned Taoism in the book, especially metta (the action of buying captured animals and liberating them), I found it is still rooted in my tradition. Like when I traveled to Inner Mongolia this summer, I see some people is turning this religious belief into their career, because the customers would be like to doing this for their own longevity and immortality. In my interpretation, the ancient Chinese does not seem to regard nature as crucial in their lives and as something they will be talking about in their daily lives. Even though some of the traditional Chinese thinking were somehow related to nature, but our focus is on the development of human being themselves, their personality, their relationship with other human beings, and seeing nature as only something it could provide them their needs, and fulfil their intention of living longer by metta because of the precarious of nature.
Overall, I feel the first half of this book talked a lot about the environmental history of the west, it gives me a general idea of what the nature means to the western people. However, I do feel some part of this book is a little bit dense that it reads more like a philosophy book to me, which requires more of my time and attention on it, rather than read it quick by skimming.