*Ladies, Gentlemen, and those who just looked down to figure out this difficult conundrum, put your hands together (not there, geesh) for our very own TXRed who is here to discuss on nature, nature (the other one) and the environment.*
Environing Your Nature: the Difference between Nature, nature, and Environment.
“I’m an environmentalist.” “The First Nations/Amazonian tribes/Sami lived in harmony with nature.” “There is no such thing as a natural disaster.” “They are destroying the environment!” “I’m a naturist.” All these phrases . . . Hey, wait a minute! You, yes, you, put some clothes on. This is a PG-13 blog.
Ahem, sorry about that. As I was saying, all but one of the phrases at the start of the previous paragraph work on some basic assumptions, including the idea that nature, Nature, and environment have the same meaning, and that those meanings never changed. As the great moral philosopher Sportin’ Life sang, “It ain’t necessarily so.” This little essay is going to look at the history of nature vs. environment, how ideas about nature changed over time, and what this means for us as writers and thinkers.
A quick fast-forward to modern usage: environment refers to one’s surroundings, be they human made or otherwise. “Nature” (or as I sometimes call it Nnnnnature) is the personified, idealized non-human environment, and nature means whatever modern English speakers believe it to mean at the moment. Clear as mud?
Nature is the older of the two words, and has changed the most over time. It is a direct Latin translation of the Greek word physis, meaning growth, specifically of plants. The Romans added it to their word natura, relating to birth, and gave the word two meanings. One meaning refers to the essential qualities of something, such as in the phrase “human nature” or “the nature of the beast.” The second meaning was that of something not created by a rational being, such as natural vs. artificial (created by skill or artifice). This is source of later meanings of “nature.”
In contrast, “environment” came into English via the Old French in viron, meaning “in a circle,” from Latin vertere to circle (around something). Environ was first used in English in 1603 and at the time meant a state of being environed, like what the Persians did to the Spartans at Thermopylae. It was not until 1827 when we find the first use of the word in the modern scientific understanding — “a being’s surroundings” — as a translation of the German Umgebung. We still find the older use when we talk about something or someone’s environs. Unlike the word nature, the meaning of environment has changed relatively little.
OK, now this is where we have to wade through some academic stuff, so please bear with me. (I said, “bear,” not “bare!” Will someone get that naturist out of here? Mike, Wayne, Free Range, please? Thank you.) The idea of nature is a Western concept in large degree, that’s what I’ll be focusing on.
In many ways nature is a human construct. Not all cultures have the idea of “nature” that Westerners do, and in fact most cultures did not or do not view humans as being separate from their environment. Pretty much all historians and anthropologists agree that Native Americans and other tribal groups saw no difference except in shape and form between themselves and their surroundings. They were part of the greater energy system flowing and functioning around them, one to which the landscape, animals, most plants, and humans all belonged. Everyone and almost everything had medicine power, manitou or puha or whatever term they used, to some degree.
The Western idea of nature as being the non-human environment goes back to Aristotle and Plato, when they tried to make sense of things not made by a rational mind, be that the mind of a man or of a deity. Some scholars argue that one can go back further, to the Gilgamesh epic and the walled cities of Mesopotamia. The Romans still believed that nature contained deities, but by the Imperial era, one could find prayers to use when cutting down a sacred grove, sort of “to whichever deity it may concern, I need this more than you do.”
Christian theology came to describe humans as a special creation, unique because of being made in the image of the divine. But since nature had been made by G-d, it remained a textbook and guide for people, a place where one could see G-d’s will and learn to understand Him better. St. Francis of Assisi is one of the best examples of this approach. In some senses, nature was the Lord’s deputy, rewarding and even chastising believers.
Changes began with the Renaissance and accelerated with the scientific revolution. According to Raymond Williams, in his chapter about “Ideas of Nature” (1980), artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and writers such as Galileo began setting the landscape behind humans, diminishing nature and enlarging the role of man. The Enlightenment then simplified the earlier complexity through developing ideas of natural laws. The English in particular came to value reason and experimentation over the older, perhaps more syncretic view of man and his environment, although even Francis Bacon urged people to “rule by obeying Nature’s laws.” Hobbs and Locke’s writings on man and the “state of nature” in some ways finalized the mental separation of society from nature. This is the age of experimentation, vivisection, and eventually of Rene Descartes’s formulation of dualism. (If you really want more about how this may have come about, Carolyn Merchant’s book The Death of Nature is the classic. There is much to disagree with, but it is one everyone points to. See also Neil Evernden’s The Social Creation of Nature.)
By modern times, we writers have several different meanings of “nature” to sort out, to use or not use depending on our readership and intentions. There’s the idea of nature as the non-human environment (trees, hills, fuzzy bunnies). The popular understanding of nature is almost the same as wilderness, such as when people talk about getting close to nature in a national park or wildlife refuge. A more radical interpretation, voiced most notably by Bill McKibbin in The Death of Nature, holds that nature is something completely without influence of humans, a pristine wilderness sort of thing that no longer exists. And then there’s Nature, a non-human environment (and its denizens) that is morally better than human-created environments. This is the Nature of EarthFirst!, some members of the Sierra Club, Sea Shepherd, and other organizations. A similar, and often related sense is that Nature is where non-Westerners are (the so-called White Man’s Indians and the primitive peoples so beloved of Rousseau and the New Agers.) Yes, you in the back waving your hand. What about women? Sorry, ecofeminism and the idea that females are more representative of Nature than males are is another topic for another day.
Environment first came into common use in the English-language scientific literature in the late 1800s. It retains the sense of referring to all surroundings, be they man-made or otherwise. One can talk about the built environment, the legal environment, an artificial environment (space ship or space station), or the non-human environment. In the 1960s and 1970s “environmentalism” became the term of choice to separate the new activists from the older conservationists (new version of the Sierra Club vs. Ducks Unlimited, for example), naturalists, and naturists. And that’s another topic for another post, too.
So what does this mean for writers? I prefer to use environment as a general term for someone’s surroundings. My characters tend to take a rather jaundiced view of Nature, in part because they are too familiar with the “red in tooth and claw” part to take cries of “slimemold is people too” very seriously. It comes down to the sense that you are trying to capture. Are you describing a manicured park or the River of No Return Wilderness? Is someone protesting terraforming a world? Does a character see himself as a conservationist rather than an environmentalist? Those considerations should affect your use of words, especially words with as much emotional freight as nature and environment.
Any other questions? Yes, on the third row, behind the laptop. Naturist? That’s an Anglo-English term for . . . no, no, you don’t need to demonstrate the meaning. Put that kilt back on right now!
UPDATE: Sarah speaking, I put up a sample of A Few Good Men at Mad Genius Club.