There’s more to nature than Man vs Wild

The environment is as much in our heads as “out there”. Flickr/dragonmage 06

Sometimes it feels like nature is out to get us. Fires, earthquakes, hurricanes and floods make paranoid types think that the world is coming to an end.

Rationalists blame news media for causing us to over-estimate the frequency of risk and disaster.

Meanwhile, environmentalists stress the impact of climate change on polar bears, indigenous populations and the inhabitants of low-lying island atolls.

Politicians react to these various conversations with new legislation, guidelines, plans and technologies.

Many of these responses, however, rest upon an assumption that nature is “out there”, a separate reality from our social world.

Discussions that circulate in earth sciences, meteorology, biology and geology shore-up this perspective. Describing the “natural world” through general laws and principles sustains the idea that nature can be understood objectively.

This knowledge is fed to policy thinktanks who interpret scientific ideas and disseminate judicious advice: don’t light fires, save water, build energy-efficient homes, raise environmental taxes.

If we follow these guidelines, then we might improve our relationship with the natural world.

There is little doubt air pollution is a bad thing. Our careless use of high-grade drinking water is shameful. Indeed, if there is anything we can do to lessen our impact on nature, then we should take action.

Nevertheless, when asked to curtail our consumption of various goods and services, our responses are mixed.

If the problem is close to home then we react responsibly. Buckets in showers, sad-looking roses and parched lawns attest to this.

As effects become more abstract however, our resolve wavers. Who wants Queensland’s coal industry to falter? How many of us are forking out for an electric car? Do we really need a carbon tax?

Scientific conversations and conventions that dominate knowledge about nature fail to explain and resolve these contradictions.

We need to investigate how people think about nature.

Borrowing diverse methods from sociology, anthropology and clinical research, a new body of research tracks the clusters of people, objects and stories that constitute what we know as “nature”.

Mixing the accounts of consumers, politicians, historians, poets, and business people with the “natural” worlds of animals and plants, rivers and winds, it becomes clear that what constitutes “nature” in the minds of the public is complex and mediated through the cultural world of language, emotion, politics and poetics.

Nature is not only understood as geographic features and forces beyond our control, but as a phenomenon that exists amongst art, technology, brands, laws, science, advertising, political promises, and perhaps most importantly, popular stories and national myths.

Of course, no amount of story-telling or cultural inscription of nature can free us from the consequences of recent events in Queensland, Christchurch or Japan.

Nevertheless, talking about nature as something separate from our own culture isn’t doing nature – or us – any favours.

It is imperative that policy makers and NGOs recognise the practical use of understanding nature through emotive and cultural perspectives.

By acknowledging and engaging with unusual voices – rational, poetic and magical – that speak for “nature” we can improve dialogue about nature, bring nature to life in the minds of the public, and develop better environmental policies to deal with the the challenges ahead.