Krystal Yhap, Rebecca Wenker
In Ecuador, a young girl is studying marine life with artisanal fishermen. While on the beach, she found herself mesmerized by the rippling waves of the sea. Amidst the waves she notices a large red fish flapping to shore. A crowd surrounded this mysterious fish, intrigued about its possible identity. The girl and her professor proceed to join the circle. They both find joy in this discovery and hope to satisfy the curiosity of the locals. It was in this moment the girl realized she has a passion for fisheries and marine science. The young girl had an encounter with nature that would forever change her life. This led her to chase after her passion. Meanwhile, in North America, a college student is asked to tell his class about his most recent experience out in nature. The student responds by describing an evening at home watching television with his family. But wait…can that really be considered nature? Is the young girl’s experience with nature more legitimate than the college student’s experience? Do their individual epistemologies factor into how they experience nature? What is nature?
These are all questions we grappled with during our class discussion this week. We started off the class by discussing what experiences we have had with nature that have inspired us to pursue our current paths. The examples above are one’s that were given in response to this question. We played with the idea of viewing nature as an individual’s cultural construction of the natural world. This gave the word a more flexible definition, as your culture heavily influences the way you think and relate to the world around you. Nature is no exception. Our ideas and understanding of nature shape our relationships with the natural world around us. During our discussion we defined culture as the knowledge you have that allows you to behave in a way that is understandable by those around you. Culture is indicative of the sharing of ideas, knowledge, and values within groups. Nature as a cultural construction is incredibly fluid and dynamic, having a lot of implicit meanings. Obvious things about nature are easy to agree on, but what our role and relation is to the natural world is harder to agree on.
But while many of those in our class would regard humans as being a part of nature, some cultures would not. This theme rang true in our reading entitled “Uncommon Ground-Rethinking the Human Place in Nature” by William Cronon. Cronon brings out the concept of people treating nature as an “other”, looking at nature as a separate entity instead of looking at humans as imbedded parts of nature. Some people view nature as a resource we use and possess rather than something we live in. Humans have a tendency not to view nature as a part of their daily lives, placing nature in a separate category away from our reality and culture. This type of thinking produces many problems. Understanding the different ways people view nature can help us to understand how these views impact the environment.
Society has so many different ways of valuing nature. We discussed how some people place value on nature as an oasis, a resource, or a form of wilderness. If nature is a human construct, then the different values we place on nature, based on our culture, begin to produce an image of nature that’s not so natural after all. We as humans even observe the fact that there are non-human phenomenon that exist without us, while recognizing the uniqueness of humans imbedded in this phenomenon. It seems that the trouble comes in when we focus on trying to figure out the line of distinction between the two. This allows a concept of separation between humans and the natural world to form in the mind. But how do different people view nature? During class we participated in an activity where we were paired off and defined one of the views of nature outlined in Cronon’s book including: nature as a naïve reality, moral imperative, Eden, artifice (self-conscious social construction), virtual reality, commodity, demonic other, and contested terrain.
Nature as a naïve reality is us putting our own descriptions and definitions to things in the natural environment that were already in place and existing before us. When we talk about the “nature of something” we are trying to describe its actual essence based on what we see or what something has historically meant. This view does not encourage looking deeper into understanding how certain things in our construction of nature came to be, simply accepting things as they are. The moral imperative view is how people derive moral correctness from nature in the way that something being natural makes it better. An example of this given during our discussion was a Panera Bread commercial and how it show what they consider to be healthy natural foods. Panera’s famous saying is “food as it should be” implying that their presentation of natural food is what should be the standard. The Eden view looks at certain landscapes in the natural world that are considered superior to others (i.e. Amazon Rainforest) and deeming them destroyed once they are touched by humans. It’s a way for people to compare landscapes and justify environmental decisions about what place is more important to save.
Panera Bread Ad-example of the moral imperative view. Different companies in our society perpetuate what they feel nature is and should look like, attempting to create a standard. Whole Foods was another example given in class during our discussion.
The Artifice view is looking at the moral ideal-transforming landscapes like National Parks to celebrate the natural world by preserving pieces for human enjoyment and education. But things like golf courses mimic nature and become what we consider the natural world. The virtual reality view is when simulations of the natural world become so real that it’s hard for people to distinguish the natural world from the virtual one. The commodity view is seeing nature as a resource that can be bought or sold. The demonic other view was described in class as the nightmare version of the Eden view where you experience the natural environment in different ways and you see the uncontrollable, natural disaster side of the natural world. And finally, the contested terrain view is when people use the word nature and assume that everyone has the same definition and understanding that they do of it. When we voted in class, the moral imperative and commodity view are the views our class felt were the most prevalent in society today.
Most cultures have this dichotomy of nature versus humans, especially in western culture. But we quickly learned during our discussion that this distinction does not reign true in other cultures. An example was given during our discussion of groups in Africa that believe that all animals exist in the human world and visa-versa. This led these African groups to support the preservation of chimps, which are smart and have human characteristics. But some people in these African groups fear these chimps may become too human and see preserving them as dangerous because of their display of the human emotion “anger”. To these African groups, there is not a clear separation between nature and humans. They look at things like violence being out in the world that they believe is embedded in chimps and around humans. But they view humans as more evolved creatures than chimps, having more control over emotions like anger. This creates a cultural expression and depiction of a fluid relationship between humans and nature. This also shows that there can be differences in our views of nature not only across cultures, but inside cultures as well.
This example gives us an idea of the cultural differences that can be observed when looking at our perception of nature. Some noted during our discussion that our perception of nature has changed as our vernacular has changed. The word “jungle” is replaced by “tropical rainforest”. The word “swamp” is replaced by “wetland”. The word “jungle” was depicted a nasty dangerous place with dangerous creatures while using “tropical rainforest” depicts a place of luxury, beauty, and desirability. The vernacular change reflects how society views those areas, replacing undesirable words to make them more palatable and attractive. We found during our discussion that this change in vernacular is highly influenced by science; words matter and carry meaning. Some felt strongly that this is indicative of cultural influences that have trapped the world. We discussed Cronon’s example of “wilderness”. Wilderness was once seen as a desolate wasteland associated with a state of despair and confusion. In today’s society people look at the idea of wilderness as an oasis, the last part of the natural world left untouched by humans. Wilderness is a human created concept where people idealize the distant wonderland of wilderness that leads us to abandon where we actually live.
Our discussion lead to the shortcomings of environmentalism, outlined in the chapter of a book we read written by Robin Grove-White. Trivialization of the public’s role, inflation of the role of science, focus on orthodoxy, and the perverse dominance of interest are the four shortcomings of environmentalism. The first two shortcomings caused much debate during our discussion. In our society, if science does not confirm that something is an environmental problem then the problem does not exist. NGO’s and environmental activists experiential knowledge about an environmental problem is less believable by the public until science recognizes it as legitimate. Science is looked at as the moral ground for what is factual and real, dismissing other knowledge systems. In an ideal world, experiential knowledge and local knowledge should be evaluated and brought together. Having knowledge systems enter into a dialogue and use that dialogue to self-critique, producing knowledge and learning is the goal. Science has a place and it’s an important one. But it would be a great disservice to the natural world and ourselves if we did not look to understand nature and environmental impacts through scientific means and other knowledge systems.
Our discussion concluded by considering how we do not leave any space for the mystery of nature in science and for retraining ourselves not to look at the natural world from an interest perspective. What if we reimagined a natural world not assessed by “this is the interest I have in it”, but rather studying the natural world as this is “what I belong to/a part of my identity”. Seeing our impact and our role through the knowledge that we create and share is important. You cannot get to the natural world without going through culture. Our relationship with the natural world is infinitely more complex than we realize. Science should not be the measure of other knowledge system’s legitimacy. Rather, science should seek to consult with other knowledge systems to produce a better understanding of our natural world and the people living as a part of it.
- Coleman, Megan. “Wilderness.” Odyssey. N.p., 28 Sept. 2015. Web.
- Cronon, William. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York, NY: Norton, 1996. Print.
- Dominga, Alicia. “What Is Nature? What Are We?” Waste Not. N.p., 13 Nov. 2013. Web
- Ecuador’s La Costa. 2012. Ecuador. Taking the Road Less Traveled. By WorldNomads.com. Web.
- Fassbender, Eric. “Inducing Physiological Stress Recovery with Sounds of Nature in a Virtual Reality Forest.” Atmosphaeres Blog. N.p., 29 Jan. 2016. Web.
- Grove-White, Robin. “Environmentalism: A New Moral Discourse for Technological Society?” Environmentalism: The View from Anthropology. By Kay Milton. New York: Routledge, 1993. N. pag. Print.
- Kisselev, Igor. These Scientists Can Prove It’s Possible to Reduce Prejudice. 2016. Shutterstock. Vox. By Brian Resnick. Web.
- Kisser, Charles. “Finding God in the Wilderness – Part 1.” In the Storyline. N.p., 29 May 2013. Web.
- Mulcahy, Kate. “10 Comparisons Between Chimps and Humans.” Listverse. N.p., 14 Feb. 2012. Web.
- Rogers, S. A. “Virtual Reality Nature: Helmet Lets Humans See the Forest Like Animals Do.” WebUrbanist. N.p., 04 Nov. 2016. Web.
- The Learning Landscape. 2012. Oregon. What Is Nature Play? By Michelle. Web.