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"Nature": A Complex Term

by David Barnhill last modified Sep 20, 2010 07:21 PM

The term nature is one of the most complex terms in our language. Too often when people are trying to communicate about nature or debating environmental policy or philosophy, they are unaware that they are conceiving of the term in different ways. Here are just some of the distinctions that can help clarify such discussions.

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: This type of definition is more in line with Chinese thought. What is natural is whatever accords to the inherent nature of something. All things in “nature” (in the dualistic sense) exhibit this, unless humans consciously force them to go against its nature. Humans may or may not act naturally. If we act according to our true nature, which for the Chinese this means acting spontaneously, the action is natural and will harmonize with the nature of other things. If we act according to rational intention, desires, and prejudices, however, we do not act according to our nature. We are natural in our essential nature, but we may or may not act naturally. The goal is to realize one’s true nature and act spontaneously.
>> Natural spontaneous action versus forced, artificial, purposive, intentional action
>> Essentially, humans are fully part of nature, but they can act against their nature


1. Nature as “ collection”: this 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 putting out 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”: 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”: the long-range conditions, processes, and occurrences. “Nature doesn’t care.”
>> 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 David Barnhill last modified Sep 20, 2010 07:21 PM