Putting Culture back into Nature

Guided_growth_rootbridge_882x300We have spread across and changed our world.  Change is the constant.  But it is maintaining the integrity of our systems that is more important than whether there is any particular ‘natural state’.

I doubt there is any such thing as a natural state.  I was taught climax ecology in the early 80s, but by the mid 80s Pickett & White and Daniel Botkin were strongly suggesting that the idea of a deterministic path to some natural ‘climax’ was very dubious indeed.

Pristine landscapes

It has been thousands of years since the Earth had pristine landscapes.  A new article identifies four major phases when humans shaped the world around them with broad effects on natural ecosystems: global human expansion during the Late Pleistocene; the Neolithic spread of agriculture; the era of humans colonising islands; and the emergence of early urbanised societies and trade.  Credit: po808 / Fotolia

The whole idea is a hang up from Modernity: certain predictable deterministic paths governed by mathematical ‘laws’ that science will discover through time.  Never mind that Lorenz showed that even within a deterministic system with only a few variable, you got chaotic predictive patterns with slight ‘butterfly effect’ changes to initial conditions.   Then along came complexity theory, complex adaptive systems, the inseparability of observer and observed, and the whole challenge to reality that came about in the 20th century with Heisenberg and Einstein.

Pick your place, then pick your geological epoch, then pick your discordant harmony and patch dynamic, then see the particular structure and composition of individuals and associations.  They are never constant.

And then you add humanity to the disturbance mix ….

The nature-culture debate is always an interesting issue. What do we mean by ‘pristine’?  In what context?  Does it simply mean completely devoid of human influence?  What, both direct and indirect?

Yet we breathe and we connect.

We used to ask three questions within environmental philosophy and ecosystem health workshops at Otago University. We were trying to challenge embedded assumptions of Modernity, and all its dichotomies – nature from culture for e.g. – all the analytical separateness, mechanisation, seeing through Newtonian-like mathematical laws – Wordsworth’s ‘murdering to dissect’.

The questions ….

Are humans ‘a part of’, or ‘apart from’ nature?

Does direct human interaction (harvest etc.) necessarily harm?

Do preserves necessarily protect?

Some great discussions, and students were seriously challenged.  You can imagine the discussion.  Context is all.  Yes in these contexts.  No in these.  Contingency.  Under these conditions, not those.  Suddenly you had to define a system space, a locus of action, a nexus of considerations that went beyond the environment to encompass society, culture, specific community … even economics.  Everything is connected.  We live in a system.  Extend yourself out to synthesis and connection and meaning before you draw down to the analytical detail.

We needed students to dig deep into our assumptions of our human relationships with nature. We clearly cannot think of the environment in an industrial utilitarian ‘resource’ way – outside, separate from ourselves – and hope to care for either our ecosystems, the many values associated that are beyond economics, or our future generations.

But the flip side of the dualist Modernity coin that sees humans as separate is the idea that the only ‘healthy’ ecosystem is one without people in it – preserves.

“Pristine” in the context, the narrative, of people not being involved, ever, at all.  …… Consider, if you will, the values around that view of “pristine.”  Are we bad?  Do we always do bad things?  Is pristine good per se, always?

Think only of that context that removing culture makes a place ‘pristine’, and you create a a type of Faustian bargain with the other Modern thinkers who would treat the land and people as utilitarian ‘resources’.   Both views are deeply Modern.  Both views segregate people from the land.  Both views emphasise one thing – economy or environment – without a context of connection.

And then the battle begins about where to put the fence between the two camps – factory and the preserve.  It is a form of partnership in separation – in segregation of culture from nature – which then marginalises examples and exemplars of the very systems of integrated socio-ecological relationships that represent our future.


Human specimens (resources) in a jar

Preserves in a jar – the people and land as resources; the land without cultural meaning.

Because if you happen to be a little Tolkein Shire of close relationship – the forest people of South East Asia, a New Zealand family that lives within and from its Kauri forest – you will tend to be looked at askance by both the industrialists and those who can only think of conservation as preserve. There can only be one fence – on one side land as Mordor and on the other the Wilderness, sans the elves. The Shire dies.

Nature preservesCase in point ….. The equatorial tropical forest zone is a hot bed of how we look at socio-ecological systems. Authorities are still trying to get people out of the forests, either to make them preserves (is that ‘making’ a natural or an anthropogenic process?), or to turn them into the local equivalent of a Palm Oil plantation.


So what is ‘good’ within an environment: a context of social exclusion, or one where the processes of renewal and ecosystem health are maintained and enhanced?

Land Health LeopoldThe challenge I think is to shift from a structural/compositional (noun) view that any disturbance and harvest is a negative – to a functional (verb) view that a healthy system is one where the integrity of all the functions is maintained above all else – the fertility, reproduction, recruitment, dispersal functions etc. In the long run, culture can only survive within that framework.

Being *a part of* does not mean a static world. It is much more defined by verbs than nouns – processes and relationships, not things like ‘resources’. Harvest is not ‘bad’ per se. What is bad is extraction and degradation that destroys the functions and connections that ensure renewal.

Making the shift away from Cartesian dualities means thinking as integrated socio-ecological systems which cannot be known by dissection (see www.ecologyandsociety.org).

Modern times Chaplin

Chaplin’s Modern Times

Modernity is not working. We cannot solve the problems created by mechanical deterministic metaphysics (Modernity) unless we shift away from thinking of an economic system as *separate* from an social system, itself *separate* from an environmental system.

It’s why I also like an integrated landscape approach to environmental conservation issues rather than a focus on preserves. We need preserves *as well as* a functioning landscape that involves ‘working’ lands …. and people.  Leopold we abuse the landTurning those lands into factories that separates and treats everything – EVERYTHING – as a ‘resource’, simply and inevitably leaves the reserves as dysfunctional elements within an environmental desert. It inevitably degrades.  It all degrades because it is all connected, each is integral to the other. That degradation includes cultural values because it is valued by neither the ‘resourcists’ nor preservationists. And it inevitably includes the loss in the end of the gold ‘rush to destruction’ economy.

Most indigenous cosmologies see themselves as embedded, including European Celtic and Germanic roots. It is only the current Modern age since Bacon & Descartes 400 years ago that posited the mechanical analytical view.

I suspect that if you were an indigenous culture *without* that cosmology of being a part of nature, then you wouldn’t last long (relative to ecological time scales).

And that applies to our current culture as well.


Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.

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1 Response to Putting Culture back into Nature

  1. Makere says:

    Reblogged this on The Turning Spiral and commented:
    Superb piece from Chris Perley

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