Nature matters in conversation
Nature matters in conversation

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Nature matters in conversation

1 Environment: the challenges of what matters

1.1 Natures and environments

The title of this unit is deliberately ambiguous. From one standpoint, the assertive dominant emphasis on nature in ‘nature matters’ is one that rings true amongst many environmentalists. What matters in environmental responsibility is what might widely be referred to as nature. This unit might be expected to be about how to argue the case for prioritising nature above other concerns. However, if instead the assertive emphasis is placed on matters, you may anticipate that the unit will cover the wide array of matters associated with nature. Both understandings are relevant and trigger questions regarding the meanings attached to the terms ‘nature’ and ‘environment’.

To begin, if what matters most is nature, how might an environmentalist draw a boundary around matters of nature? What actually is ‘nature’ and how might it be different from ‘environment’?

Activity 1 Describing nature

Think for a few minutes about the meaning of the word ‘nature’. How would you describe it to someone not familiar with the concept? Compare your responses to those presented in Box 1.

Jot your notes down.

Activity 2 Nature and environment

What differences are there between your understanding and use of the term ‘nature’, and your understanding and use of the term ‘environment’?

Jot your notes down.

The word ‘nature’ can be used to describe a behavioural attribute –‘it’s in our nature to be selfish’ – or as a noun to denote an entity, although here there is often uncertainty as to what it specifically means. Your responses to Activities 1 and 2 may have touched on the difficulties associated with describing nature as something distinctively non-human. For this reason, a distinction often made is that between human and non-human nature. This distinction is sometimes accentuated and given further weight and acceptance when using the term ‘environment’. Box 1 presents some descriptions of nature that were collated by Riyan van den Born from a sample of lay citizens (people not professionally associated with environmental management) in the Netherlands.

Box 1 What is nature?

In his paper on lay people’s attitudes towards nature, van den Born describes a typical respondent’s thought processes as follows (2008, p. 93):

When thinking about whether humans are part of nature or not, the respondent first says yes, then has doubts, because humans do not really grow up in nature. She does not know whether to say yes or no, but tends towards no, because ‘it has something to do with nature and culture’. When asked for her own definition of nature, this respondent answered: ‘nature is everything that grows and flourishes … So, that would include humans … But I am thinking more of plants and animals’.

He then goes on to quote other respondents (ibid.):

[I]t is only possible to stay in contact with nature when there is respect for nature. If we are not careful, we deny our place in nature.

We cannot be untouched anymore; for that you must be in the inlands of Brazil, then you are one with nature.

[W]hen I see what people are doing, it does not have much to do with nature anymore.

Later in the paper, viewpoints are expressed regarding the relationship between humans and nature (pp. 96 – 8):

Nature gives us a lot, that we can use, medicines, oil … But are we equal with nature? … What do we give back? A lot of filth and dirt.

Because humans have more possibilities than nature, we can destroy things. I think that brings along responsibility … that you should handle consciously.

When you walk through nature you think what little idiots we are. When you see the mountains or a waterfall, then you feel the power of nature. We cannot do anything against it.

We are a part of nature … we are at the top of the [food] chain, but nature keeps embracing us.

[H]umans are part of nature, because [nature] contains the living and the non-living entities.

When I am in nature, it doesn’t matter whether it is by the sea or in the woods, I have the feeling that it does something to me. It gives me a certain peace of mind. I cannot describe it, and I do not know whether it is really spiritual.

In nature, things occur that you cannot totally understand, that also gives you amazement about nature. In this, trust between nature and myself plays a major role … which gives me an immediate connectedness in nature … then you come in an area between nature and God, for me, that is spirituality.

Do any of the impressions in Box 1 resonate with your own understanding of nature as expressed in Activities 1 and 2? The key feature of resonance for me is the recurring reminder of the integral relationship between human and non-human nature.

As you can see from the descriptions in Box 1, there is a shared implicit understanding of nature as an entity – although what kind of entity is unclear. Kate Soper (1995) makes a distinction between first, ‘nature’ as a codified construction that is often contested in its meaning (and that hence is sometimes put in inverted commas), and second, Nature as an extra-discursive reality, something that we acknowledge as existing outside conceptual construction or any attachment to human meaning; something that we have limited knowledge about, yet that also includes ourselves as humans.

So how might our different understandings of ‘nature’ compare with our use of the term ‘environment’? And what significance might this have for considering what matters in environmental responsibility?

While nature (whether ‘nature’ or Nature) tends to be inclusive of humans to some extent, environment is commonly regarded more as something external. One way of understanding the term ‘environment’ is as follows: ‘The environment of an entity can usually be described as that which surrounds it, affects it and in most cases is affected by it. The entity concerned may refer to an individual (as in my environment) or a group of living and/or non-living things (as in an organisation’s environment).’ Making reference to environment rather than nature is very common, particularly in most industrialised countries of the global North, but its use can tend to reinforce the idea of non-human nature having a more instrumental rather than intrinsic value. The term ‘environment’ can carry connotations of nature as being mere ‘resources’, or as being some source of externalised ‘threat’.

So in what sense might we understand ‘environment’ as something more integral to human flourishing? To help answer this question, I shall start by stepping back to look at the origins of the term (Box 2).

Box 2 The nineteenth-century environment

The concepts of ecology and environment are both products of the third quarter of the nineteenth century. The precise stimulus of their creation was Darwinian biology. The underlying condition which made them of interest was man’s changing and accelerating interaction with other things: the astonishingly rapid urbanisation and industrialisation of Britain, setting a paradigm for other nations to follow, and the rapid colonisation of the non-European world, especially the United States.

‘Environment’, in a loose and rare way, already existed in English; it is an application of the French environner, to surround. It acquired a more precise meaning as ‘The conditions under which any person or thing lives or is developed; the sum total of influences which modify and determine the development of life or character’. Herbert Spencer was using the term in this way in 1855 … By the 1880s scientists were giving it the more pithy definition: ‘the sum total of the external conditions of life’. As German geography became influential in British universities it acquired a meaning with a geographical or economic slant, specifically concerned with human activity, as a translation of the German umwelt.

(Source: Allison, 1991, p. 26)

According to the view presented by Allison in Box 2, the external conditions of life of any creature – that is, its environment in this sense – expand outwards as we consider them: the conditions that impinge directly on the creature, the conditions of those conditions, and so on until we reach the level of global conditions (stopping there for convenience). This structure of the sequential nesting of environments, one within another from the local to the global level, leads to the conclusion that most of our interactions with the natural world can be described in terms of global impacts. This is at the root of the modern scientific idea of environment (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1 Modern concept of environment

However, a contrasting perspective is provided by David Cooper, whose argument is presented in Box 3. Cooper criticises the ‘scientific’ concept of environment (which he calls The Environment) as being too vague, calling instead for a more ‘local’ understanding of the term.

Box 3 Towards a more local meaning of environment

In his 1992 article ‘The idea of environment’, David Cooper characterises the ‘global’ conception of ‘environment’ as a notion of ‘something much too big … nothing less than nature itself … the whole natural order … there is just one big environment – the biosphere, the order of things’ (p. 167). This is essentially the same conception implied by the nested structure inherent in the idea of ‘the sum total of the external conditions of life’ mentioned in Box 2. He also identifies this conception – which he calls, to match its size, The Environment – with the scientific worldview, claiming that ‘Ecology is as much of a leveller as any other physical science, since the environments of which it speaks are merely instances of general mechanistic processes’ (p. 171).

Having criticised the modern conception of the environment as too vague, Cooper goes on to present a contrasting and much older concept of ‘environment’ – one that in important ways is distinct from the scientific conception, and that encounters less difficulty in making moral sense of our relationships with the natural world. He invokes words such as ‘milieu’, ‘ambience’ and ‘neighbourhood’ to indicate that this older idea characterises environment as somewhere where a creature belongs: ‘An environment as milieu is not something a creature is merely in, but something it has’ (p. 169). Environment is what a creature is ‘at home’ in. It constitutes for the creature ‘an arena of significance … in which it can develop the degree of mastery over its life which is appropriate for its species’ (p. 179).

The key point emerging from Cooper’s alternative conception of the environment is that a creature’s relationship to its environment is an intentional, or active, one – that is, it has to do with how the creature looks at and understands its surroundings, and the pattern of significance it derives from those surroundings. According to this alternative conception, what constitutes a creature’s (including a person’s) environment will be limited by, because it is defined in terms of, the scope of what has real and direct significance for that creature.

Cooper goes on to point out that concern for environment envisaged as a field of significance will not generally be liable to the kinds of problem that affect our ability to apply ethical principles at the global level. This is because:

  • Ignorance and uncertainty will be much less significant factors, as we will generally know the relevant effects within a limited range fairly directly; where the significance of a milieu for the people who belong in it is concerned, we can even take the simple course of asking them.

  • Responsibility for harm or damage to an environment comparatively near at hand will typically not be hidden and lost in some complex causal nexus, but will be out in the open.

On the basis of this alternative, intentional conception of ‘environment’ recaptured by Cooper, the notion of global environment makes little sense.

For in Cooper’s alternative conception, an environment is defined as an arena of significance for a creature; and the globe, the world as a whole, cannot constitute such an arena of significance for any creature, not even for humankind.

This is not to deny that we have imaginative and intellectual capacities that enable us to envisage the world as a whole, to be concerned about its condition and to understand at least something of how our actions affect it. These are the capacities on which we draw for the new vision of planetary integrity and fragility. The world can matter to us as a whole in this way, and to that extent might be said to form the arena of a kind of significance: a kind that is obviously of great and growing importance as human populations put increasing strain on the planet’s ecological resources.

However, it is clear that this is not the kind of ‘significance’ that Cooper builds into his definition of the older conception of environment. What he intends by the term is an intuitively recognised meaningfulness, the upshot of ‘unreflective familiarity’, ‘being at home’ and ‘knowing one’s way about’ – the kind of relationship in which we can stand only to a defined and specific milieu. Such a milieu may in specialised cases be geographically dispersed, but some fairly obvious features of human nature and scale mean that environments defined in this sense are, in general, comparatively localised. Certainly we cannot stand in this kind of relationship to the world as a whole, or even to substantial tracts of it.

We may ask why the field of that sort of intimate, intuitive relationship of practical familiarity should be taken to define ‘environment’ in the context of a concern about our dealings with the natural world around us. Cooper’s point here is that it is only in terms of such a relationship that the deepest and most characteristic aspects of that concern are intelligible. Our essential need for unity with our natural surroundings, for belonging integrally to something unique and precious of which we need also to stand in awe, is what gives real strength and substance to the modern goal of ecological sustainability. This kind of concern cannot be transferred to The Environment, the global dimension; and without it, ‘environmentalism’ tends to the hollowness and rhetorical strain that Cooper identifies.

According to Cooper, although environment remains distinct from humans (or any other creature), the term needs retrieval of a deeper integral sense of significance compared with the more abstract ideas of The Environment perpetuated through ideas of global warming, the global economy, etc. At the most fundamental level, environment can only be understood locally (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Goldfish bowl

Cooper’s distinction between more localised ideas of environment and wider scientific notions of The Environment resonates with Soper’s distinction, mentioned earlier, between ‘nature’ as a codified construction and Nature as an extra-discursive reality. However, the two sets of terms are not necessarily equivalent. Cooper’s idea of environment represents a more integral relationship between human and non-human nature, which may seem to conform more with the actual reality of Nature as understood by Soper. Similarly, The Environment as described by Cooper might be considered to be an abstracted idea of Nature, or more precisely ‘nature’.

But what might all of this mean for nurturing a particular understanding of nature for environmental responsibility? The ambiguous meanings associated with the title Nature matters might, I suggest, be associated with the contrasting ideas described above of nature and environment respectively:

  • First, where the emphasis is on nature rather than matters, the tension between ‘nature’ and Nature appears to be particularly relevant. In advocating a sense that nature matters, the sense of responsibility lies more with the caring dimension. It invites a concern for what constitutes nature and our own particular relationship with it. In caring for planet Earth or a tropical rainforest, the actual realities do of course matter, but in nurturing appropriate responsibility it is our value-based conceptions of earth or forest in relation to those actual realities that perhaps matter more.

  • Second, where the emphasis is on matters rather than nature, the tension between ‘environment’ and Environment would appear to have particular relevance. Nature matters are environmental matters of significance associated with nature, inviting more the sense of responsibility associated with the accountability dimension. This invites concern for what is particularly significant about environments such that we may wish to devise measures of accountability – and this is inevitably based on what we register as being significant in our environment.

To put it briefly, what we care for will depend on whether we focus on ‘nature’ or Nature; and what we consider ourselves to be accountable for will depend on whether we focus on environment or Environment. These two dimensions of responsibility are further explained and illustrated below. For both dimensions – caring and ensuring accountability – I shall argue that attention needs to be given to where we stand as humans in relation to non-human nature; that is, the connectedness between human and non-human nature.

However, before moving on I would like to make a final point about the ideas introduced above. In everyday language – including language used amongst professionals – the terms nature and environment are used interchangeably or synonymously. No differentiation is made between upper-case and lower-case variants (e.g. Nature and nature), nor are terms usually made questionable or explicitly contested through the use of inverted commas. But in fleshing out nature matters in relation to environmental responsibility, it is perhaps as well to remind ourselves as Homo sapiens (people, folk, citizens, communities, cities, economies, private corporations, nations, regions and intergovernmental bodies) of three important issues:

  1. Whilst environmental responsibility involves some understanding of the natural world, there are essential limits to our understanding of the (upper-case) natural world to which we belong, whether this is understood as the extra-discursive realm of integral relationships (including humans) that Soper calls Nature, or more scientifically as some globalised conception of The Environment.

  2. Ideas of nature and environment (using inverted commas) are often contested depending on the practical situation and personal perspective taken. In any particular instance, for example, one person’s idea of nature might be more inclusive of, say, humans than another person’s perspective; similarly, an environmental issue might be regarded by some people as being more local than global, whereas for others it is the other way round.

  3. Given the idea that natures and environments are partial (both in the sense of being incomplete and in the sense of being subject to perspective), it is helpful to have some appreciation of the human purpose behind the use of these terms. So, for example, the two generalised purposes of environmental responsibility – caring for and ensuring accountability for harm and wrong – may invite particular use of terms such as nature and environment respectively.

The aim here is not to set out some standardised lexicon of environmental terminology; rather, it is simply to sharpen your awareness of the need to contextualise the use of these words.

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