Chapters 6-9 of Nature: Western Attitudes Since Ancient Times

Chapters 6-9 focus on what is considered broadly by historians the “modern” times, or the fifteenth through twenty-first centuries. However, he does occasionally reference older times to tie everything together.

I appreciate his detailed look into Georgian England’s relationship with nature. This is an interesting period to me in general because of the transitions and conflicting ideas about art and nature that existed among British intellectuals of the time. He uses a clever literary device to introduce Chapter 6 as well, by introducing philosopher Ronald Hepburn’s idea that nature is viewed through immersion while art, which is often literally framed, is viewed through seperation of the viewer from the object. By the end of this chapter, Coates shows how untrue Hepburn’s distinction actually is by citing English landscapes, even the ones with the more “wild” were, in fact, framed and contrived. The description of the “ha ha” gave me a sense of deja vu because it is mentioned in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a play set in one of the late Georgian estates where the garden and its design figures prominently. In this Chapter, Coates reinforces the idea that all landscapes are human-constructed in the story of a the last member of the Native American tribe that lived near Yosemite. He came back and thought that it looked unkempt and improperly managed.

In Chapter 7, Coates brings up an idea that has been mentioned before but is still difficult to believe. This is the idea that mountains and wilderness were not always considered beautiful or of spiritual value; in fact, some elite travelers would close the windows of their carriages to avoid seeing hideous mountains! For people to believe that mountains are beautiful, there first had to be the development of the “sublime” nature, spiritually or culturally valuable in the same way tragedy is, by its horror, and picturesque, or orderly, which soothes.

In chapter 8, Coates points out that our ideas about nature and human nature are influenced by our general political world view. He says that even in the natural sciences, which are stereotyped as objective and not biased, this is still true. He is right because social darwinism has been used to justify capitalism, but appeals to a return to nature have been used by communitarian anarchists as well. His most intriguing example, however, was in chapter 7 of Walter Clyde Allee,a Quaker zoologist who asserted that the animals he studied became more fit to survive when they cooperated than when they competed and fought. Because he was a pacifist, writing in the post World War Two years when pacifism was popular, it makes sense that he would come to this conclusion.

Towards the end, Coates examines Marx and Engels in order to see how well their ideas line up with leftist environmentalists who claim them. The answer to this question seems to be the same as any answer to the question of how “green” people were in the past; they were and they were not simultaneously. Marx did not like industrial pollution, but thought rural life was banal. Communist Russia taught children to plow the virgin steppe and create industry, but Gorbachev praised pristine old growth forests. In these final parts, Coates also looks at the latest environmentalist ideas. Most interesting among these is the social justice environmentalism, which dismisses wilderness worship as elitist and wants to broaden nature to include the city. It focuses on the fact that most pollution and environmental suffering happens in the poorest areas of cities to the most marginalized people. I think this movement is headed in the right direction; we do need to save the woods in our backyard. However, I think wilderness preservation is a noble cause as well, so why cannot both be promoted?

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