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What is “The Environment”?

Sunlight shining through the tree canopy.
Image by Comfreak from Pixabay 
Audio version of What is “The Environment”?

What is “the” environment? Do you know where the border is between environment and not environment? The environment has featured heavily in conversations about sustainability. In fact, most people assume that sustainability is really environmental responsibility and that we need to be better in how we manage natural resources. This, we connect directly to nature. So, I want you to take 30 seconds and picture your perfect nature scene. You can do this in whatever form you would like, be that a memory, a photograph, a description, or a drawing. What is your perfect nature scene?

–30 s–

If you’re not ready to come back yet, just pause me and come back when you’re ready.

Now that you have a picture of nature. I’m going to ask you some questions about it. To give you time to answer, I’ll wait 20 seconds before continuing. This may seem like a long time but continue to reflect as you may start to notice things that aren’t immediately apparent.

Where are humans in your scene?

–20 s —

What signs are there that the scene is changing?

–20 s–

How close is the scene to what you would call wilderness?

–20 s–

I have a particular fascination with how we picture things. I even used participant-led photography as the method in my research for my PhD. I think how we picture something or how we frame a photograph can reflect many things that are unsaid, hidden from the viewer and perhaps even hidden from ourselves. My perfect nature scene does not show any humans, but its perspective is such that the image taker or creator is surrounded by nature, embedded within nature. You can feel the sunlight on your face as you look up into the glowing canopy of trees in my nature scene. If you strain hard enough you should be able to hear the leaves rustling and the birds singing. And yet, even though you are there, right in the middle of nature there is a barrier. You can’t actually strain hard enough the hear the birds. You are not warmed by the sunlight. Ultimately, you are just a distant visitor who may as well be looking down upon the scene. My perfect nature scene has changed for me. The boundary between me and “the environment” has reappeared.

Did you know that landscape was “not considered a fit subject for painting by Europeans until the 19th century” (Talbot, 1969)? Europe didn’t really have wilderness, except for that inaccessible and barren (Talbot). What “wild” areas there were existed for hunting (Talbot). Thus, landscape painting was not an appropriate medium until colonizers from Europe and England spread across the world. Indeed, in the quest to differentiate themselves from their European counterparts the landscape, or more specifically the frontier, the boundary between wilderness and civilization became a popular artistic subject among the colonizers in places like the U.S. and Canada (Hall, 2002).

This idea of the frontier was important because it was only once a colonizer had built a comfortable urban environment that they could appreciate nature and wilderness (Hall). Depictions of Indigenous people’s ranged from childlike to savage, reflecting the European belief that to live with nature was a lesser form of being (Talbot, 1969).

Wilderness, however, was perceived as part of the American identity, and arguably other colonized nations as well such as Canada and Australia. The wilderness was to be preserved in a way that set these populations apart from their European beginnings and thus began the creation of national parks (Hall, 2002). George Catlin, a painter in the early 1800s expressed that we should preserve the animals and the Indigenous Peoples for the “refined” American to view and appreciate (Hall, 287). When the first National parks were signed into being they focused on preserving nature and excluding the local people’s. Banff National Park in Canada evicted the local Nakoda to ensure that their subsistence practices didn’t interfere with growing tourism economies. In addition, their eviction ensured that they remained on reserves where they could be exposed to assimilation tactics through the church and residential schools (Mason, 2018). They were allowed back into the park each year for Indian Days, in order to, just as Catlin had argued, to perform their traditions for the spectacle of the civilized colonizers. And thus, we preserved the frontier, the edges of civilization that we may explore while maintaining the constant movement towards progress and separation from “the” environment.

This is why in my ideal nature scene I am unable to recognize the role of people in living with nature. I can’t see how careful, thoughtful actions would alter the landscape without destroying it. I can’t see how Indigenous Peoples might have used fire to increase the diversity of the plants, and how those increases plant diversity would in turn support the populations of bear and deer and caribou that could be in this space. I can’t see how thinking of nature as anything other than natural resources and national parks might be creating nothing more than an imaginary wall that makes me think that I am not part of environment. And thus, I am part of not the environment but of the Eurocentric quest to, in Rachel Carson’s words, alter the nature of his (sic) world” (p.23).

But, this isn’t who I am. I am often stuck with language that conveys a separation between environment and humans but I don’t believe that. I do appreciate my raincoat and my winter boots but rather than seeing these as things that separate me from nature, I see them as things that bring me closer. I had never heard of the Norwegian term friluftsliv until a recent news article (Ferrier, 2020) but I have lived it for many years. I don’t have sufficient fat stores or thick enough fur to get outside in the middle of an Edmonton winter but I can use clothing so that I can be active all year. So that I can enjoy free-air-life (Ferrier). I may not have the green thumb to grow my own food but neither does the bear. The bear shops at the stream for salmon and the forest edges for berries, I shop at the farmers market. Richard Lewontin was one of the first biologists to question the idea that there is a genetic background for race, he found that there is not (as cited in Aronson, 2001). He also questions the idea that there is a “the environment” that is somewhere out there in need of and even waiting for human protection (1991). These social constructs of race and the environment are not unrelated.

Indigenous protected areas, Indigenous-led research, and the recognition of the importance of culture in relationships with nature are pushing back against the idea that Eurocentric organizations should invite “others” to the table. Perhaps we shouldn’t have a table. Perhaps the Eurocentric organizations need to be invited.

How do we talk about sustainability without talking about the environment? Perhaps we should be asking those people who have never needed to create a word for sustainability because it was simply part of living. So perhaps I can feel the sun on my face as I stand as part of nature and not looking at a nature scene.

Aronson, J. (2001). Profiles – Richard Lewontin. Retrieved from http://authors.library.caltech.edu/5456/1/hrst.mit.edu/hrs/evolution/public/profiles/lewontin.html.

Carson, R. (1962). Silent spring. Penguin Books.

Ferrier, M. (2020, September 23). Fjord focus: is Norway’s friluftsliv the answer to surviving the second lockdown? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2020/sep/23/fjord-focus-is-norways-friluftsliv-the-answer-to-surviving-a-second-lockdown

Hall, C. M. (2002). The changing cultural geography of the frontier: National parks and wilderness as frontier remnant. In S. Krakover & Y. Gradus (Eds.) Tourism in Frontier Areas (pp. 283-298). Lexington Books. https://www.academia.edu/151973/The_changing_cultural_geography_of_the_frontier_national_parks_and_wilderness_as_frontier_remnant

Lewontin, R. (1991) Biology as ideology: The doctrine of DNA. Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press Ltd.

Mason, C. (2018, November 29). Indigenous protected areas are the next generation of conservation. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/indigenous-protected-areas-are-the-next-generation-of-conservation-105787 

Talbot, W. S. (1969). American visions of wilderness. The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, 56(4), 151-166. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25152270 

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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