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  A term with three main meanings:

{img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } The essence of something (as in \'it\'s in his nature\'); {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } Areas unaltered by human action, i.e. nature as a realm external to humanity and society; and {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } The physical world in its entirety, perhaps including humans, i.e. nature as a universal realm of which humans, as a species, are a part.These three meanings often overlap (particularly the first and third) and are at times contradictory. In each, \'nature\' can also be invoked as either a barrier to human action (e.g. resources have \'natural limits\' which cannot be exceeded) or else as a normative standard of value (e.g. an activity may be deemed to be \'unnatural\' and thus perverse). In practice, the three meanings of nature have appeared in everything from everyday speech to literature to science. More specifically, each meaning has been used in an immense variety of ways. As Neil Smith (1984, pp. 1-2) notes:

Nature is material and it is spiritual, it is given and made, pure and undefiled; nature is order and it is disorder, sublime and secular, dominated and victorious; it is a totality and a series of parts, woman and object, organism and machine. Nature is the gift of God and it is a product of its own evolution; it is a universal outside history and also the product of history, accidental and designed, wilderness and garden.This polysemism has led cultural critic Raymond Williams to make three important observations. The first is that \'nature is perhaps the most complex word in the language\' (Williams, 1988, p. 221). The second is that \'[W]hat is usually apparent [when reference is made to nature] is that it is selective, according to the speaker\'s general purpose\' (Williams, 1980, p. 70). And Williams\' third observation is that \'any full history of the uses of nature would be a history of a large part of human thought\' (Williams, 1988, p. 223).

The first meaning of nature has both prosaic and specialist uses. In everyday speech nature is a commonplace which is invoked in a variety of contexts (\'she\'s naturally generous\'; \'it\'s a natural event\'). In more specialist uses the first meaning of nature is often linked to deep claims about the nature of the world or its ontology. For instance, the realist philosophy of science developed by Roy Bhaskar makes a set of claims about \'natural necessity\', that is, fundamental causal imperatives inherent in things. Such specialist invocations of nature as the essence of something have also been used to political ends. For instance, one major strand of limits to growth thinking in population and resource management is a neo-Malthusianism which argues that resources have inherent natural limits which people must adapt to (e.g. through birth control) or else perish (e.g. through starvation) — see Malthusian model.

The second meaning of nature — areas unaltered by and external to human action — is as old as it is familiar. Today it is central to the environmental movement, particularly at the \'deep green\' end of the movement which, among other things, is concerned to protect one of the last vestiges of this nature — namely, wilderness — from further destruction by humanity. This notion of an external, nonhuman, \'first nature\' is so ingrained in western cultures as to seem obvious and unquestionable. However, historian of ideas Michel Foucault (1970) has suggested that it is an historically specific notion which only emerged during the period of the European Enlightenment. Prior to this time, he argues, Europeans in the Middle Ages linked nature directly to God insofar as they believed it had been made by Him for humanity\'s perfection. Building on this, Fitzsimmons (1989) and Grove (1995) suggest rather different reasons why nature became separated out as an external realm in Euro-American thought during the Enlightenment period. For Fitzsimmons this separation was bound up with rapid capitalist industrialization and urbanization during the early nineteenth century. As formerly unoccupied landscapes were developed, she argues, a series of stark contrasts were developed between nature and society, the rural and the urban, and the country and the city. For Grove, by contrast, the invention in thought of an unhumanised nature coincided with the imperial outreach of the European powers into tropical islands like Mauritius. Compared with the increasingly dessicated landscapes back home, Grove argues, these islands appeared as \'tropical Edens\' or paradises.

These processes of Euro-North American industrialization, urbanization and imperial outreach went hand in hand with an ambivalent valorization of nature in western thinking. On the one hand, as industrialization proceeded the \'conquest of nature\' became an ideological and practical project. Thus, areas of nature that remained \'untamed\' were often regarded with fear and suspicion, as was the case with the early American settlers who often demonized the temperate forests of the eastern seaboard (Williams, 1989). However, on the other hand, as nature succumbed to settlement and economic development on a scale unprecedented in world history, concern began to be expressed that this \'domination of nature\' (Leiss, 1972) was going too far. Not surprisingly, then, the modern environmental movement began life in western Europe and North America, where the defence of nature became an increasing preoccupation leading to today\'s widespread environmentalism.

Aside from this negative and positive valorization, the separation of nature from humanity also gave rise to three predominant views of human-nature relationships: humankind in harmony with nature; humankind dominated by nature; and humankind dominating nature (Glacken, 1967). As noted, the third of these has been the predominant reality in the modern world, while many environmentalists have argued for a shift toward the first. However, some have also argued that if humanity does not alter its socio-economic modes of appropriating nature, nature will takes its \'revenge\' and once again dominate humanity as it did in pre-industrial times (Hardin, 1996).

In its third meaning as the physical world in its entirety, nature has also been a long-standing concept. In its more general meaning as the physical world including human beings it also has a long history. Harking back to pre-Enlightenment notions of a Great Chain of Being linking God and even the lowliest species into an organic whole, this notion of a universal nature is today most strongly articulated by deep greens, like Gaians. Drawing on James Lovelock\'s (1979) work, the Gaia hypothesis is that the biosphere is a self-regulating superordinate whole of which humans are but one part. However, more diluted notions of a universal nature can be found even in more technocentric forms of environmentalism, like that articulated by US Vice-President Al Gore. His The earth in balance (1992) argues that humanity should recall that it is steward — not master — of the planet lest nature discipline its upstart child.

Given that geography has, among other things, been defined as the study of human-environment relations, it is not surprising that geographers have made a number of contributions to understanding of the three predominant meanings of nature, particularly the second and third. With regard to nature as that which is unaltered by humanity, geographers have made four contributions. One is to describe and explain how this notion of an external nature came about (Simmons, 1993), whereas another is to examine the process of the destruction and disappearance of this \'first nature\' (Thomas, 1956). A third, more popular early in the twentieth century than today, is to analyse how nature affects humanity (e.g. Semple, 1911; see environmental determinism). A fourth contribution, more critical, is to question whether it is in fact practically possible to talk of an external nature anymore (Smith, 1984: this is discussed further below). With regard to nature as the physical world, by definition physical geographers have long studied that world. They, and several human geographers, have also studied nature in the wider sense of the physical world including humans. For instance, both systems theory in geography (Chorley and Kennedy, 1971) and human ecology in different ways sought to understand people as key parts of wider natural complexes.

It should be clear from all of the above that nature is as much an idea or concept as it is a material reality. In recent years critics within and outside geography have sought to show how nature in both these forms is both a social construction and an instrument of social power. The notion of nature as a social construction seems perverse insofar as nature in its second and third meanings is separate from or superordinate to humanity respectively. However, critics argue that nature is anything but separate from or superordinate to humanity and suggest that it is constructed both discursively/ linguistically and materially. In geography the notion of the discursive construction of nature (see discourse) is associated with Marxist and cultural geography respectively. Marxist geographer Neil Smith (1984) argued that the notions of nature as either external or universal formed an Enlightenment ideology of nature associated with the bourgeoisie. More recently, cultural geographers have argued that particular social groups in society construct images of nature according to their interests and desires (e.g. Henderson, 1994). In both cases these images are argued to have real power in structuring societal views of nature such that they come to stand for the reality they represent (see representation). If sceptics have found the notion of nature as discursive construct difficult to accept, the idea that it is also a material construct has seemed heretical. After all, nature is supposed by definition to be beyond human intervention. However, both Marxist geographers and geographical critics of science suggest that in an era when everything from the genetic manipulation of food to the cloning of sheep has become reality, nature is increasingly remade according to human dictates. Thus Smith (1984) argues that modern capitalism \'produces nature\' (see production of nature), while Demeritt (1998) identifies an \'artifactual constructionism\' in which modern science and technology are increasingly able to intervene in nature at the most basic level.

These various forms of the social construction of nature are, it has been argued, equally forms of social power. Rose (1993), for example, suggests that in western culture — including geography — notions of nature have been feminized such that the domination of nature parallels the domination of women in society (see feminist geographies). Similarly, Willems-Braun\'s (1997) investigation of modern forestry struggles in British Columbia, Canada, shows that western ideas of nature as wilderness embody a cultural politics which serves to obscure and marginalize native First Nations\' communities. In addition to these forms of discursive power, the material construction of nature has been seen by Goodman and Redclift (1991) as part and parcel of the profitability strategies of large multinational corporations operating within agro-food systems whose activities on world markets affect the livelihoods of smaller farmers and consumers. More controversially, Latour (1993) suggests that the material separation between humanity and nature is an illusion which has served to empower those laying claim to expert knowledge of nature, while all the while humanity and nature have long materially interfused as hybrids.

The social construction of nature arguments suffer two drawbacks. First, because they are all drastically anthropocentric, they may over-emphasize the powers of human societies (hyper-constructionism) and underplay the material powers and capacities of the \'natural\' entities supposedly constructed. At a time of so-called \'environmental crisis\', such hyper-constructionism ignores the powers of nature at its peril. Second, because they are so anthropocentric, social constructionist arguments also risk ignoring any aesthetic, moral or spiritual value nature might have in its own right or for humans. However, this said, social constructionist views clearly have the advantage over naive realist positions of nature as either external or universal, for at some level nature undoubtedly is constructed discursively and materially and is undoubtedly implicated in the exercise of social power.

Much of the debate over nature in geography has focused on western — and specifically Anglophone — ideas and practices. However, it is important to understand non-western concepts of and interventions in nature. There is an important history of commonality and difference here. On the one hand, imperial outreach into the New World and beyond from the sixteenth century onwards led to successive waves of the export and import of ideas and natural objects to and from the Americas, Asia and Africa. This traffic was often tied to processes of colonialism and imperial violence involving the discursive racialization and feminization of nature as part of Orientalism, the material appropriation of natural commodities by imperial powers (everything from rubber to gold to timber) and the transfer of disease and other natural health hazards from Europe to indigenous peoples. On the other hand though, many non-western ideas and practices concerning nature survived colonial conquest and remain today in various original or hybrid forms in countries as different as China and Iraq where they form an important part of everyday social, economic, cultural and often religious life. (NC)

References Chorley, R. and Kennedy, B. 1971: Physical geography: a systems approach. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Demeritt, D. 1998: Science, social constructivism and nature. In B. Braun and N. Castree, eds, Remaking reality: nature at the millennium. London and New York: Routledge, 173-93. Fitzsimmons, M. 1989: The matter of nature. Antipode 21: 106-20. Foucault, M. 1970: The order of things. New York: Vintage Books. Glacken, C. 1967: Traces on the Rhodian shore. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Goodman, D. and Redclift, M. 1991: Refashioning nature. London: Routledge. Gore, A. 1992: The earth in balance. New York: Earthscan. Grove, R. 1995: Green imperialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Hardin, G. 1996: Living within limits. New York: Oxford University Press. Henderson, G. 1994: Romancing the sand: constructions of capital and nature in arid America. Ecumene 1: 235-55. Latour, B. 1993: We have never been modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Leiss, W. 1972: The domination of nature. New York: George Braziller. Lovelock, J. 1979: Gaia. New York: Oxford University Press. Rose, G. 1993: Feminism and geography. Cambridge: Polity. Semple, E.C. 1911: Influences of geographic environment. New York: H. Hold. Simmons, I.G. 1993: Interpreting nature. London: Routledge. Smith, N. 1984: Uneven development. Oxford: Blackwell. Thomas, W.L., ed., 1956: Man\'s role in changing the face of the earth. Chicago: Chicago University Press. Willems-Braun, B. 1997: Buried epistemologies: the politics of nature in (post)colonial British Columbia. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 87: 3-31. Williams, M. 1989: Americans and their forests. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Williams, R. 1988: Keywords. London: Fontana. Williams, R. 1980: Problems of materialism and culture. London: Verso.

Suggested Reading Glacken (1967). Soper, K. 1996: What is nature? Oxford: Blackwell.



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