Around the World,  Nature

What is nature?

By Roberta Attanasio

Try to find an answer to the question “what is nature?” and you will be surprised. There is not a clear definition of “nature,” although there are a variety of opinions on what it is. Even in biology or ecology textbooks, you won’t track down an agreed-upon view of the word “nature”—despite the fact that its use is widespread.   

The Cambridge Dictionary defines nature as “all the animals, plants, rocks, etc. in the world and all the features, forces, and processes that happen or exist independently of people, such as the weather, the sea, mountains, the production of young animals or plants, and growth.”

You may have noticed that the Cambridge Dictionary definition includes “happen or exist independently of people.” But is this true? Is it true that nature includes all that which happens or exists independently of people? Most Western cultures seem to think so. Several cultures around the world—instead—think humans and nature are one and the same.

Last year, researches from 30 countries across the globe published a study outlining what “nature” means in more than 60 different languages, including some indigenous peoples’ languages.

Luca Coscieme, lead author of the study, said: “When we refer to ‘nature’ and ‘the environment’, we tend to assume that every one of us has a pretty similar understanding. However, ‘nature’ can mean very different things to a biologist studying invasive species, an art critic exposing Monet’s lifework, a farmer developing his crop plan, or a kid excited to go camping with his dad.”

He added: “The words we use to express our understanding of the world have a very contextual meaning, which is shaped by our past and present experiences, our moral values, and our culture, and the same is true for the stories we tell by these words. Ultimately, the multitude of languages we find around the world results from the various ways of interacting with reality and, thus, the true meaning of words needs to be decoded when we relate to different cultures.”

The researchers found that in Western culture people tend to refer to “nature” as a pristine element where human activities are mostly harmful, a violation of the natural order. They also tend to think that humans thrive only if they have total control over nature. In other cultures, there is a more inclusive understanding of nature, which exists in mutually beneficial relationships with people. Other cultures, and most indigenous people, hold a more spiritual and holistic understanding of it.  

Holistic understandings of nature lead to implementation of policies that reflect the value given to nature. “For example, strongly influenced by Mahayana Buddhism, Bhutan has enshrined ecological resilience into its constitution. Mandating that at least 60% of the nation remain forested, the country is one of just two in the world to absorb more carbon than it emits. It measures progress not by GDP but against a ‘gross national happiness’ index, which prioritizes human and ecological well-being over boundless economic growth.”

How can more and more cultures around the world, and especially Western cultures, adopt a holistic view of nature?

Heather Alberro thinks that it will take time, and education is key.” Higher education textbooks and courses across disciplines consistently perpetuate destructive relationships with nature. These must be redesigned to steer those about to enter the world of work towards care for the environment.”

How will we answer the question “what is nature?” 20 years from now?

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