September 8, 2010

Nature versus Culture

So I am getting back into the rhythm of being in seminar classes again, which means complete inundation in books, articles, films, and INFORMATION GALORE. That's life in graduate school. This semester already has a decidedly environmental focus, since I am taking a seminar about culture and environment, and am also a TA for a course that covers very similar ground. And the recurrent issue that has been cropping up all over the place: the whole idea of nature versus culture.

Should we continue to think of human culture and behavior as something that exists outside of the so-called natural order? The nature/culture binary is not only an old theme in anthropology, it's an old theme in western thought specifically. But, the more that I think about this division, the less it makes sense. Yes, of course, the ways in which people think about or even conceive of the environment in which they live is culturally and socially mediated. But here's my point: If culture (or socially learned behavior) is a defining aspect of what it means to be human, then how can it be something that is somehow "unnatural"? Add to this the fact that primatologists have been showing us for years that there is evidence of culture in many primates, and this notion of culture as something that we should contrast against nature breaks down.

So why the division? Why do we talk about this idea of "nature" as something that is separate from human behaviors and actions? What purpose does this serve? Is it a convenient way to label one as ideal and the other as undesired? What kinds of effects does this sort of discourse have on how we think about contemporary environmental and political issues? If we continually think of "development" as something that is "unnatural" how can this affect our inclination to do something about the ways in we think about development as a social and political process?

I think that we can become somewhat blinded when we only think about human activity as something that occurs unnaturally. This separation of what humans do from some sort of natural condition or state may create a division that only impedes how we think about human-environment relationships. As David Harvey writes, "Energy flows, shifts in material balances, environmental transformations (some of them irreversible) have to be brought thoroughly within the picture. But the social side cannot be evaded as somehow radically different from its ecological integument. There is, as I argued in Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference, nothing unnatural about New York City" (in Spaces of Global Capitalism, 88).

Many people (Harvey included), argue for the need to move beyond the nature/culture dichotomy and instead see nature and culture as co-created through a dialectical process. Recently, however, I am leaning more toward ditching the whole division altogether. What explanatory value is there in saying that the urban development of Los Angeles is unnatural? Clearly, humans have been modifying their environments from the get go, so I don't see how calling something unnatural actually explains anything. It is, in fact, quite natural for humans (and many other species) to shape the environments in which they live. Now, it's an entirely different matter as to how we should assess or evaluate those effects. What would be a lot more effective, at least in my view, would be sidestepping vague philosophical debates about what is natural vs what is cultural, and instead focusing on the particular characteristics (positive and negative) of specific environments--whether we're talking about the Kalahari desert or New York City.

No comments: