Thursday, May 13, 2010

What Is Nature Anyway?

A person who calls him- or herself an environmentalist is presumed to love nature. More than that, you could say that an environmentalist is someone who perceives a threat to nature (e.g. extinction, pollution, clearcutting) and wants to alter circumstances that are creating that threat.

But what is nature anyway? The dictionary defines nature as the physical or material world and its phenomena, in other words, that which is not created by humans. Most of us think of nature as the world of plants, rocks, hills, seas and beaches, and animals, entities that “surround” (environ means to "surround") human beings and exist independently of them. The Norwegian ecologist, Fern Wickson writes that, if “nature” is a place that is uninfluenced by humankind, then, really, there is no nature on the planet at all. “However, even if one sees nature as including humanity, the concept becomes so all-encompassing as to be practically useless…. An atom bomb becomes as ‘natural’ as an anthill.”

Culturally, we live with two contrary depictions of nature. On one hand nature is a fragile, tender thing that needs protecting from large, brutal forces that would destroy it. This is nature as the cute baby seal on the rock, imminent victim of cruel hunters with harpoons.

On the other hand, nature itself is the brutal force. This is the version Hollywood favors. This nature can—and will—get out of control and wreak havoc. People are going about their ordinary lives, rather like the seal on the rock, when relentless nature swoops down upon them in a terrible and deadly form: volcano, tornado, plague of insects, forest fire.

Nature is like that famous image that tests your ability to perceive dualities: look at it one way and it’s a vase, rearrange your gaze and see it as two profiles regarding each other. Nature swings back and forth: victim/villain, victim/villain. Cute and cuddy/ugly, terrifying, and out of control. What the current ecological crisis presents us with is an image of nature that is both these visions at once: Nature about to go amok and destroy the world because of climate change, and nature victimized and killed because of climate change. Nature is the perpetrator of disaster and nature is the victim of the disaster.

What do you think nature is?

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