Nature an ‘Other’ to the Western world, there is

Nature is a widely unresolved term
and “perhaps the most complex term in the
English language”, (Williams, 1983), wherein the different possible
definitions sometimes juxtapose one another (Macnaghten, 1998). It is
fundamental to comprehend that the idea of nature isn’t simply restricted to
the ecological world surrounding us, but it exists “within our own mental worlds and historical awareness” (Arnold,
1996). Nature encompasses many aspects of human geography, and so it is
inevitable that human history is deeply intertwined within it. This can be
illustrated through the complex ways that nature operates: within post-colonial
geographies, through the operation of gender, as an agent, though its various
epistemologies, and finally within socio-political context. Through these
examples, it becomes clear that nature and human history are inextricably
linked, despite the fact that this has been insufficiently explored and can be easily
overlooked.

Post-colonial geographies are
concealed within the category of nature, and so it is said that nature masks a
huge amount of human history. By illustrating how nature operates as an ‘Other’
to the Western world, there is a clear view of the historical and political
context that nature conceals. Within the post-colonial world, nature is
conceptualised as the Other to modern society, highlighting the binaries that
operate; European values have an elevated significance over the Other. The West
is considered to be more distant from nature and therefore more civilised and
rational, whereas the developing world functions closer to the ‘Other’, which
is rather an instinctual and barbaric essence (Latour, 2017). This distinct persistence
of post-colonial legacies in modern society is exemplified through the defence of
nature for its exploited resources, wherein certain voices are thought to be
able to speak on its behalf, whereas the Other is given no say, and is instead
categorically silenced (Braun, 1997). This is highlighted through the disputes
over industrial logging in places such as British Columbia. The main arguments are
centred between environmentalists and industrialists, which leads the
indigenous people native to the forest to be erased entirely, reinforcing the
post-colonial discourse wherein “ideas of
nature are battlegrounds in which dominant and subordinate groups in society
dominate each other” (Castree, 2005). Subsequently, these environmentalist groups
misunderstand nature because they arguably only use it “through science to ground their claims” (Dempsey, 2011)- in other
words, the concept of nature is manipulated according to the duties to be completed
by the groups (Latour, 2017). Industrial forestry arguably only serves to
replicate natural processes on a compressed timescale, because therefore
forests are able to naturally replenish themselves, and thus the argument of
environmentalists is perhaps invalid- or at least less so than that of the
indigenous. Therefore, colonial histories are present in nature, as many dominant
voices are given a say, but minority groups such as the indigenous in British Columbia
are scarcely heard, so historical conditions in contemporary nature allow
nature to be managed in a way that “naturalises
a postcolonial and political terrain”  (Braun, 1997).

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Nature is inextricably
embedded within politics and social history, and so conceals a lot of human
history. As discussed, nature is often viewed as being the distant Other that
is marginalised from society, meaning that ideas of nature are inherently
linked with Western concepts. This can be illustrated through the way in which
the social construct of nature conceals gendered, oppressive ideas of women-
and therefore demonstrates historical discourses of society and politics
(Macnaghten, 1998). Women are presumed to be deeply linked with nature, the
universally personified term ‘Mother Nature’ being one example (Williams,
1983), whereas men are conversely denoted as being responsible for the creation
of nature, through the masculine construction of God as the creator of Earth- and
nature (Besthorn, 2002). This mirrors the gender hierarchy ingrained in both
contemporary and historical society wherein men have absolute dominance over
women (Williams, 1980). These essentialist conceptions of men and women concealed
within nature serve to reflect the dual subjugations enforced upon both women
and nature through the “the dominance
structure of patriarchal social conventions.” (Besthorn, 2002). Nature is
therefore a social imaginery through which gendered concepts are derived;
historical ideas of a woman’s place come into being through how society is perceived
because of nature’s epistemological influence (Soper, 2009). Therefore, nature
encompasses both social and political domains through the determination of what
amounts to nature; it contains human history through these socio-political
categories.

The theory of nature acting as
agent demonstrates that it conceals an extraordinary amount of human history. Many
different material properties of nature have the capacity to subtly shape
social and political lives, leading to a huge influence on human lives and
history (Baldwin, 2007), and so the relational ontologies demonstrate how human
history comes into being in relation to the influences of nature. This can be demonstrated
through the agencies of coal and how this select part of nature contains a
large amount of human history. Human life can arguably no longer be alienated
from fossil fuels, so it is inevitable that the material natures in coal
contain a large amount of human history. In the 1980s, the intensification of
coal production to account for growing energy demand led to widespread strikes
and protests surrounding the physical materialities of coal (Macintyre, 2014). This
is because an increase in extraction was brought about through an
intensification in labour, and this resulted in “an outright disregard for ordinary safety precautions” (Wallace,
1987). Being a subterranean mineral,
coal has to be mined, necessitating a labour-intensive extraction process
involving extremely unattractive working conditions (ABC News, 2006). Subsequently,
coal dust frequently leads to the development of several respiratory diseases
(NIOSH, 2016). As a result, 90% coal mine strikes focus on the poor working
conditions (Wallace, 1987), and during the 1980s the successive strikes eventually
led to the formations of trade unions, bringing about a change to the entire
labour movement (Macintyre, 2014). This emphasises how the materialities of
nature have the power to profoundly influence politics, and these consequences
can still be seen in modern society, demonstrating the extent of the influence
nature has over human history.

The theory of
post-structuralism additionally illustrates the proximity between human history
and nature by theorising that society and nature reflect one another, and so the
concept of nature is derived from humanity and its history- and vice versa. This
epistemology gives power to nature through the way in which society is
transformed through its ideas (McNeil, 2005). An exemplification of this is the
way in which the Western world has constructed the term nature into one of
aesthetic beauty; it is now a category that has evolved into a term of “commercial appeal” (Williams, 1983),
wherein the consumer society becomes attracted towards products boasting
natural and organic components. This transformation can be explained by the concept
of Social Darwinism, which suggests that the different concepts of nature give a
“sweeping account of human behaviour and
social life” (Williams, 1983), and so the various conceptualisations of the
nature reflect human history. The complex tensions within society can be
explained by natural selection and other natural processes: every layer of
humanity can be traced back to evolutionary roots that are embedded deep within
the concept of nature (Williams, 1983). In brief, the escalating recognition
that  “nature is neither unconstructed nor unconnected”, and so is merely
a social construct, (Escobar, 1996) renders comprehensible the belief that
nature contains an extraordinary amount of human history, as societal phenomena
reflect and can be traced back to the natural world.

As previously discussed,
nature is a highly contested term with “numerous
collateral concepts” (Castree, 2005) and so the various definitions given
to it can reveal a great amount about human history- calling something nature
is deeply politicised and layered with social context. One of the most frequent
understandings of nature is alongside the discourses of sustainable
development, wherein nature is interpreted as being the physical environment in
order for capital to continue to drive society (Escobar, 1996). The ecological
restoration and replenishment associated with this category of nature becomes a
way for large businesses to appear environmentally conscious (Harvey, 1995).
Consequently, understandings about the functions of capital and the way in
which it drives the dialect of society can be explained through the various
conceptions of nature. One other interesting collateral concept of nature is
the idea of wilderness, and what it means to society. Wilderness is seen as an
abstract concept that is distant from society; a category which ought to be
preserved for its ‘natural ‘ beauty, and completely alienated from humanity and
society. It is however rather paradoxal, as we are blinded from recognising
humanity’s inherent bond and place within nature- this “foundational myth of nature as wilderness, nature untouched by humans”
(Anderson, 2009) causes us to unknowingly lose the social imagines of living
within nature, as it is part of the biophysical world around which human
history centres. This understanding of nature is derived from the
post-industrial era, where the contextual framework encouraged a politicised
alienation from nature with a demarcated sphere that was entirely separate from
human agency (Castree, 2005). Society’s growing fear over nature and its
implications, and the way in which nature has begun to “haunt and animate the contemporary Western world” (Williams,
1983) can subsequently be understood through the idea of wilderness. Therefore,
the different definitions of nature conceal components of human history.

To conclude, this essay
has shown that we should heed Raymond Williams’ adage, because nature is
inextricably linked with social, cultural and political components of human
history in multiple ways. It is true that this it is regularly unobserved, as human
history is very subtly embedded within different categories that only tend to
reveal human history when deeply analysed. Although, as discussed, nature is
often overlooked and under analysed in practice, in the future geographers will
hopefully look further into its meaning and associated context to allow the
term to be fully understood.