Future culture

Realism, humanism and the politics of nature

RP 102 () / Article

All of those working in the broad field of environmental studies (and I here include, among others, philosophers, geographers, political ecologists, sociologists, cultural historians and critics) are likely to agree on two points: first that the term ʻnatureʼ, which has been so central to their various debates, has lost its all-purpose conceptual status, and can no longer be bandied around as it once was. This does not mean that it has ceased to be used. Indeed, it still regularly recurs in ecological laments and admonitions (it is ʻnatureʼ, after all, that we are being told is being lost, damaged, polluted and eroded; and it is nature that we are enjoined to respect, protect and conserve). But it is readily acknowledged now that this is no more than a kind of shorthand: a convenient, but fairly gestural, concept of eco-political argument whose meaning is increasingly contested. This bears on the second point of presumed agreement, namely that we can, very broadly speaking, divide between two main parties to this contest over the nature of nature: the realists, on the one hand, and the constructivists, on the other. Since this distinction is now fairly familiar in its general outline, I shall not here elaborate in any detail upon it. But a few specifications might be added at this point.

One is the importance, as I see it, of drawing some distinction between what may be termed ontological and normative emphases of the divide. From an onto-logical point of view, the main difference is between those who insist on the independent reality of a natural domain or mode of being, and those who argue that there is no ʻnatureʼ in this sense, and that everything we refer to as natural is in one way or another a construct of human culture. Realists, of course, come in different forms, some more discriminating than others. They include deep ecologists explaining at length about the intrinsic value of the Grand Canyon as well as those no-nonsense environmentalists who rest content with rubbishing the idea that it is language that has a hole in its ozone layer. The more discriminating will insist – as, for example, I and Ted Benton have at some length in our writing on environmental issues – on the importance of differentiating between ʻdeepʼ and ʻsurfaceʼ natures: between that which is the condition of all human modifications and the perceptible domain of ʻnatureʼ that is the outcome of these modifications (whether this be wilderness, cultivated landscape, flora, fauna, the body, etc.).1 Only the more critical, too, will make clear that there is nothing that can be thought or talked about as ʻnatureʼ, whether deep structures or surface environments, other than in human talk and thought, while insisting nonetheless that the talk and thought (whether scientific, poetical, eco-political, or whatever) can, and often does, refer to entities or processes conceived as existing independently of their representation, and in some cases as also unaffected by that representation. Constructivism, too, comes in somewhat differing forms depending on whether the stress is placed on the conceptual dependency of the idea of ʻnatureʼ as a conventional and inherently revisable binary counter to that of ʻcultureʼ, on the social construction of knowledge, or on the human hand in the physical making of much that is loosely referred to by environmentalists as ʻnaturalʼ. These senses are obviously not exclusive of each other, and are indeed often run together, although the first is more associated with Derridean or Foucauldian-influenced gender studies and cultural criticism, and the last two more emphasized in the argument of philosophers of science, cultural geographers, sociologists and political ecologists.