by Liam Hawkes
For many who choose to ascribe to it, environmentalism is a clear moral question. We have a moral responsibility to care for and not abuse our planet. This is possibly one of the most common and important aspects to any environmentalism as it provides a motivation for action. Not just sitting comfortably saying we should do things, but actually getting out there into the world and doing them. This active engagement with nature and the environments around us goes much of the way to ground environmentalism in the practical, not theoretical. This is why our own individual understandings of what and where nature is can be the key to unlocking the inner tree hugger in us all.
However, there is a problem. The ‘Nature’ that is fought for in conservation and environmentalism may not be natural at all. Human culture has seeped into what we consider to be natural environments. We have, over the course of human evolution, heavily culturised nature. The word ‘culturised’ refers to a process of assimilation of what is considered natural, into what is overwhelmingly human. The natural spaces we place our selves in; our gardens, in parks, and the countryside; should not really be described as ‘natural’. These places are at best semi-natural spaces, only receiving their ‘naturalness’ at the whim of the human gardener, park warden, or farmer. Culturising nature in this way makes it become something we can experience by ‘dipping our toe in the water’. A superficial and temporary experience of nature which can be easily vacated in favour of a retreat into urban life. Perhaps this is what nature is for most now, a convenient and fleeting experience of the natural.
The countryside in Britain is an interesting example here. Emily Brady a Professor of Environment and Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh writes in her book; Aesthetics of the Natural Environment, that the countryside is a cultural landscape. As a result of the countryside being physically manipulated and changed by imposing borders (hedgerows etc), farming the land, raising livestock, there is actually a change in what the concept of nature is in the countryside. Agricultural land covers 57% of the UK, whereas wetland, forests and semi natural spaces (in this example this is taken to be parks, gardens and not agricultural land) only accumulatively make up 14%. Therefore, due to the physical transformation of the landscape, the countryside becomes a manmade and man-managed agricultural entity. We are kidding ourselves if we think any different. What we think of as nature is not the untamed, wild landscapes which maybe we think they are.
In the UK we can see even by looking at the topography of the land and the types of fauna and flora which live or grow there, it is with increasing rarity that we see native species flourish. This is something George Monbiot talks about extensively in his book Feral, which details the practical and theoretical basis for rewilding. What is interesting about this revelation is that it challenges our understanding of what the countryside is, as well as posing a distinct problem for any budding environmentalist; does conserving the British countryside include the agricultural landscapes?
we are stripping these places of their wild natural elements and making then into objects or artifacts
By culturising nature; whether that is in terms on colonising it for agricultural use (and ultimately human ends); or constructing it in our urban towns and cities in the forms of gardens and parks; we are de-naturing it. Even things considered ‘wild’ like forests or nature reserves, are managed and designed in certain ways. Therefore, we are stripping these places of their wild natural elements and making then into objects or artifacts. In this sense, culture impedes on nature and dominates it. It does not only colonise what was once natural, changing its composition and characteristics, it constructs whole new understanding of what is in fact natural. Monbiot encapsulates this when he says that the way in which we engage with nature will always be mediated by culture.
I guess the repercussions of this for an acute understanding of environmentalism boils down to a cliche question. Do we want to be stewards or the land, standing guard of the state it is already in, fooling ourselves that the nature we surround ourselves with is in anyway not completely constructed? Or do we instead want to actively attempt to immerse ourselves in a more wild, untouched, feral nature, one which has been allowed to carve out its own path? Both these options can form a grounding for an environmentalism, and both can take steps to conserve a planet which is in dire need. Perhaps my conclusion would be that we should admit to the fact that many of us haven’t experienced nature in the proper sense. Only in the culturised sense, which is more sterilised and clinical. It is the equivalent of sitting on your sofa and watching Planet Earth, or rather than taking yourself to Swaziland and seeing wild nature first hand. Unfortunately for most, the latter is not an option.
Header image via Pink Sherbert Photography, Creative Commons