Ideas of nature underlie a great deal of social thought and have done so through recorded history. The changing meanings of “nature” and the tensions among co-existing meanings have been analyzed brilliantly by the English cultural analyst Raymond Williams; he shows us a history readable in terms of the social order being defended or promoted [Williams 1980]. The romantic ideal, for example, of a unspoiled places and sentiments (i.e., nature separate from “man”) arose at a time when industrialization was rapidly escalating exploitation of people and natural resources (i.e., producing unprecedented interdependencies among peoples and nature), exploitation underwritten by the removal of traditional checks in the name, ironically, of the natural principles of individual autonomy and of unconstrained pursuit of utility in social transactions. Following Williams, whenever we hear the environment and its conservation being talked about we should factor into our interpretations the social concerns and social-historical location of those who hold those ideas. The recent literature on conservation efforts in colonial Africa and India, for example, has been revealing vividly how policies and actions to preserve species and habitats were greatly motivated by anxieties about changes back in the metropole and by the need to assign “primitive” peoples some less threatening place in the colonial order.
Taylor, P. and R. García-Barrios. 1995. “The social analysis of ecological change.” Social Science Information, 34: 5-30, referring to Williams, R. 1980. “Ideas of Nature,” in Problems of Materialism and Culture. London: Verso, 67-85
Suppose we want students to consider how, for example, the valorization by the romantics of untouched (non-human) nature might be interpreted in terms of the romantics’ need to turn the attention away from the industrialization and colonial exploitation of which many of them were beneficiaries. It’s too much to ask students to jump straight into advancing their own social interpretations of claims about “nature.” First they have to get comfortable with the very idea of exposing what is not literally stated—what people state only when prodded, and then not all the time. The conversation starting in the next post: i) develops this idea of interpretation in a dialogue—or trialogue because there are three voices; ii) allows students to go through and mark where they don’t understand the response given or where different responses could be given; and iii) provides a start—the first five statements—from which students could write their own trialogues.