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Nature - A Complex Term

by Barnhill, David L. last modified Sep 20, 2010 07:41 PM

The word nature is very common, but it can mean many different things.

Three fundamental meanings of the word "nature" (the first two are characteristic of the West)

1. Dualistic: Nature as what is not human or cultural, or not disturbed by humanity and society.
>> Essentially, humans are distinct from nature.
>> Nature versus human & culture: that which has been created or manipulated by people.
>> This building and plastic and nuclear waste are not natural
>> Cultural products & subjective experience are not part of nature.

2. Monistic: Nature as everything in the phenomenal world. That which can be studied by the “natural” sciences.
>> Essentially, humans are fully part of nature.
>> Nature versus the supernatural .
>> This building and plastic and nuclear waste are natural .
>> Cultural products and subjective experience are part of nature as we are part of nature, although not analyzable by science and not part of the objective world of nature “out there.”

3. Adverbial: “Natural” refers to acting according to your true nature. All things have their distinctive, inherent nature. When they act spontaneously according to their nature, they are natural, and this leads to harmony and order. Humans, however, because of will and reason, can act in various ways. Usually they act on their will, desire, and prejudices. In doing so, they diverge from their true nature, which leads to disorder and disharmony. The goal is to realize one’s true nature and act spontaneously. This is the traditional Chinese perspective, and it shapes Bashō’s view of nature.
>> Essentially, humans are fully part of nature, but they can act (existentially) against their nature.
>> The key distinction is between natural spontaneous action versus forced, artificial, purposive, intentional action


Four different formulations

1. Nature as “ collection”
his particular set of organisms, our current biodiversity and biogeography (what is growing where, individual ecosystems), and the abiotic conditions.
>> Focus on individual organisms.
>> We should attempt to preserve an ecosystem just as it is – keep it from changing (includes fighting all fires).
>> We should keep populations of animals from declining, expanding, or migrating.
>> We should avoid changing global weather

2. Nature as “ web”
The interconnectedness of life. Plants and animals exist as part of a biotic community, and they interact with the physical environment as part of an ecosystem.
>> “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” (John Muir)
>> Species, populations, and ecosystems are the priority, no individual organisms.
>> We should a ttempt to preserve the integrity of the community and the ecosystem
>> We should try to eliminate invasive species that substantially alter the ecosystem
>> Biodiversity is the main criterion for determining the health of the ecosystem

3. Nature as “ process”
Nature as a set of “natural” processes not caused by humans, which includes fires, forest succession, periodic infestations, periodic droughts, “natural extinction,” etc.
>> We should let forests change or regenerate through natural processes of periodic fire, succession, etc., but fight against “unnatural” degradations, such as massive fires caused by build-up of debris, clear-cutting the rain forest, etc.
>> We should let population dynamics occur (but this requires maintaining predators); but fight against human-caused species extinctions.

4. Nature as “ Gaia”
Nature as the long-range conditions, processes, and occurrences. “Nature doesn’t care” whether we have massive species extinction.
>> Determined by a particular level of oxygen and temperature range.
>> Includes ice ages, huge volcano eruptions, or super-fires, and massive extinctions.
>> Massive changes, such as global warming, are irrelevant.

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by Barnhill, David L. last modified Sep 20, 2010 07:41 PM