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Nature versus environment

I had to write a little about the meanings of the words "nature" and "environment" for my Political Ecology class. Instead, I wrote a lot. I figured I'd put it up here since I may want to refer to it in the future.

Both nature and environment are used to refer primarily to ecological systems. However, their broader applications – in phrases like “human nature” and “social environment” -- indicate that they reflect larger views of the relationship between the self and the other.

Nature is that which stands outside the sphere of human agency. The archetype of Nature is the Newtonian worldview, in which things operate according to fixed rules, ordained either by God or by the laws of physics, chemistry, etc. Nature is the world deprived of the agency and will that it had in an animist or pagan system (religious visions of Nature draw on a Judeo-Christian God whose free agency has been stunted by Neoplatonic concepts of him as the ultimate necessary being). In contrast, humans experience their own existence as characterized by free will and agency (at least, enough people with enough power experience enough agency to establish this as the commonsense understanding in the modern west). Nature provides a fixed substrate upon which human action takes place. Because Nature can, on its own, be no other way than it is, it acquires normative force. Human agency, on the other hand, is dangerously open to making mistakes, which can damage the Natural order (see, for example, the Christian idea that we all inevitably sin and fall short of the glory of God).

The idea of environment results from a breaking down of the separation between human agency and natural determinism, on both technical and intellectual levels. Technologically, we have a growing power to inject human agency into more and more of the workings of nature. Intellectually, we have come to see how ideas of what constitutes Nature are socially constructed, particularly ideas about “human nature.” The power to change nature (both its actuality and its manifestation through our understanding of it), not just accept it as given by external forces, forces us to be reflexive about it, questioning what meaning we will make of it (the environment’s existence precedes its essence, so to speak). The word “environment” was originally a synonym for “surroundings,” and thus conveys the idea of a context that activity is wrapped up in. Taken too far, the idea of environment saps its referent of the remainder of Nature, putting all control into the hands of human agents. This has led some to propose giving the environment back not only the quasi-agency that comes from determination by outside laws, but also actual agency, turning the environment into a Mother Earth that can bite back.


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