Nature matters: Systems thinking and experts
Nature matters: Systems thinking and experts

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Nature matters: Systems thinking and experts

1 Framing nature matters: from language to systems thinking

1.1 Framing nature using language tools

By framing, I mean the structures and pre-assumptions that we consciously or unconsciously apply to a situation in order to make sense of it. So are there any differences between the way in which we frame nature in caring for environment and the way in which we frame it to provide accountability? What significance might this have, and what tools might be used to bridge the responsibilities of caring and accountability?

Caring for environment makes manifest the informal aspects of obligations (developing values regarding human and non-human nature) and entitlements (nurturing appropriate relationships amongst humans and between human and non-human nature). Providing accountability for environmental harm focuses on the more formal issues of duties (as codified sets of obligations) and rights (as codified sets of entitlements).

A question prompted by these divides is how we might better frame what matters with respect to environmental responsibility in a more integral manner. Higgs suggests nurturing practitioners in the field of environmental management who are conversant with the languages of both arts and science. Indeed, the language we use provides a useful device for framing what matters. Consider the metaphor of conversation as a language tool for drawing out what matters in environmental responsibility. Metaphor is a conceptual device without any real-world existence, the value of which might be measured by the purpose it serves – in other words, it has instrumental rather than intrinsic value. Metaphors can be used in prose, as demonstrated by Talbott, but also in other art forms. For example, consider the poem ‘O sweet spontaneous’, which is given in Box 1. This was written in the early part of the twentieth century by the US poet E.E. Cummings (1894–1962). Cummings also uses metaphor, which in its own way can remind us of ‘nature matters’.

Box 1 'O sweet spontaneous'

O sweet spontaneous

earth how often have



    fingers of

prurient philosophers pinched




,has the naughty thumb

of science prodded


  beauty  .how

often have religions taken

thee upon their scraggy knees

squeezing and

buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive




to the incomparable

couch of death thy



    thou answerest

them only with


(Source: Cummings, 1923)

This poem brings out for me the perennial conflict between significant human endeavours to engage with nature in a caring, co-respondent kind of way, and the humility required in attempts to appreciate, understand, predict, be accountable to or even have control over nature.

Activity 1 Poetic ideas on climate change

Read through the poem by E.E. Cummings again and describe any points of significance with respect to contemporary issues of climate change. Select the link below to compare your answer with mine below.


Cummings adopts an externalist view that nature (or ‘earth’) is something quite separate from humans. This is perhaps not too surprising, coming from a white male citizen of the USA in the early twentieth century. Yet Cummings also portrays an optimism regarding the overall power of nature as something that ultimately will flourish despite human activity. One wonders if he would still hold this view now, given the recent dire predictions regarding the effects of human activities on planet Earth. What language might frame his ideas nowadays?

Poetry is an art form. As with any other art that addresses questions of environmental responsibility – including the performance arts of music, dance, comedy and theatre, as well as painting, cartoons and other forms of drawing, and writing – it provides particular ways in which environmental issues may be framed. ‘O sweet spontaneous’ resonates with contemporary matters of significance – for example, issues of climate change continue to raise philosophical questions about what we ought to do, scientific questions around the full extent of the impact of human activity on the environment, and some profound and quasi-religious ideas regarding our relationship with the survival of planet Earth. It frames a tension between the human desire to fully appreciate and use nature, and nature's resilience to such desires.

Poetry uses language as a framing device – a particular way of perceiving the world that makes sense of other symbols and concepts within it and provides meaning to the person using the framing device. The study of the use of words as symbolic representations is known as semiotics, while the way in which words and language ascribe meaning to the objects being represented is the focus of study in semantics. Box 2 gives a brief description of these traditions.

Box 2 Framing reality and the study of semiotics

Framing belongs to a tradition of semiotics, semantics and the meaning of words. In the late nineteenth century, Charles Peirce's semiotics and theory of representation made the distinction between objects being represented and the representation itself. Later, in the tradition of semantics, it was argued that concepts have no meaning outside a specific context and content. A concept is not merely its content – a symbolic name such as ‘nature’ or ‘pollution’ – but is a function of the context it is in. Alfred Korzybski (1933) famously captured this idea in his phrase, ‘the map is not the territory’. Just like a road map, a conceptual map is a way of representing the world rather than a reality in itself.

Maps are perhaps the most common type of framing, with a clear instrumental value attached. They are a framing tool for making sense of the real-world territory and communicating with others about features of that territory. They can also provide a means of enhancing accountability for harm done to the territory – a point of reference for any change to the territory. Yet a map remains a conceptual device, composed from particular perspectives associated with particular purposes – for example, either principally providing an understanding of the relative spatial dimensions, area or positioning of a place (an atlas), or guiding a route to somewhere (an A – Z map), or providing an aesthetic piece of artwork (for hanging on a wall or as a global bedside lampshade)!

The study of semiotics and semantics, and later philosophical pragmatism, provided an important departure from ideas in mainstream science, challenging the notion that our framing devices are direct representations of reality. In contrast to the supposition that reality can be represented in a value-free way, semiotics suggests that all languages and associated tools for representing reality come with values built in by the users of those language and conceptual tools. Framing devices should be considered more as tools towards enabling an understanding of reality, helping to generate meaning and purpose in order that we may engage more responsibly with the real world. Framing devices of language enable us to make meaningful sense of what matters in the natural world. A framework is an example of a framing device: a device that works for a particular (pragmatic) purpose, using (symbolic) features – words, diagrams, icons, etc. – arranged in a meaningful (semantic) manner. The actual use of any framing device or framework, however, is always dependent on the values of the user in a particular context of use.

But is there not something intrinsic in nature that matters separately from human perception through framing informed by human values? This question is addressed by Ronald Moore in terms of a framing paradox, which is the subject of the next subsection.


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