Foreword to the Paperback Edition
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Even when we travel through a beautiful mountain landscape in the Sierra Nevada or a remote rainforest in the Amazon — places that on their surface may seem as uncontaminated by humanity as anywhere on earth — we cannot help experiencing them not just as natural environments but as cultural icons . We turn them into human symbols , using them as repositories for values and meanings which can range from the savage to the sacred . At one moment they can stand for nature red in tooth and claw ; at another , they can seem to be the purest earthly embodiment of sacred nature . What we find in these places cannot help being profoundly influenced by the ideas we bring to them .
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Stated so simply , this hardly seems a radical proposition ; it is in some ways so obvious that one might almost regard it as a truism . So why do some readers find it so threatening and objectionable ? Three possible reasons suggest themselves . One is that environmentalism has often asserted its moral authority by invoking nature as an uncontested and transcendent category whose appeal is so compelling that no right – thinking person could resist it . As soon as we label something as “ natural , ” we attach to it the powerful implication that any change from its current state would degrade and damage the way it is “ supposed ” to be . But in fact we are rather selective about the parts of nature we choose to view in this way .
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Some readers apparently fear that the critical perspectives offered in Uncommon Ground point toward a world in which anything goes , in which everything becomes relative to our own ideas and there is no stable ground on which we can hope to make a stand in defending the natural world . If one person’s ideas are as good as any other’s , how can we defend some uses ( and non – uses ) of nature over others ? How can we protect the environment if everything is up for grabs ? The answer , of course , is that not everything is up for grabs , and not all ideas or uses of nature are equally defensible . There are very real material constraints on our ideas and actions , and if we fail to take these into account , we are doomed to frustration if not outright failure . The material nature we inhabit and the ideal nature we carry in our heads exist always in complex relationship with each other , and we will misunderstand both ourselves and the world if we fail to explore that relationship
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The essays in this book try to suggest some of the things we can learn if we reflect as much on nature as an idea as we do on nature as material reality . They suggest that environmentalism is as much a cultural prospect as a “ natural ” one .
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We had come together under the rubric “ Reinventing Nature , ” and the task we had set ourselves was nothing less than to rethink the meaning of nature in the modern world . Lest this seem too grandiose , we took as our point of departure two key insights that have emerged from the work of scholars and scientists over the past quarter century . Let me discuss them in turn .
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First , recent scholarship has clearly demonstrated that the natural world is far more dynamic , far more changeable , and far more entangled with human history than popular beliefs about “ the balance of nature ” have typically acknowledged . Many popular ideas about the environment are premised on the conviction that nature is a stable , holistic , homeostatic community capable of preserving its natural balance more or less indefinitely if only humans can avoid “ disturbing ” it . This is in fact a deeply problematic assumption .
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The second of our two starting insights was perhaps even more challenging to popular conceptions of nature , and it soon emerged as the central dilemma to which our research group kept returning . The work of literary scholars , anthropologists , cultural historians , and critical theorists over the past several decades has yielded abundant evidence that “ nature ” is not nearly so natural as it seems . Instead , it is a profoundly human construction .
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Popular concern about the environment often implicitly appeals to a kind of naive realism for its intellectual foundation , more or less assuming that we can pretty easily recognize nature when we see it and thereby make Uncomplicated choices between natural things , which are good , and unnatural things , which are bad . Much of the moral authority that has made environmentalism so compelling as a popular movement flows from its appeal to nature as a stable external source of nonhuman values against which human actions can be judged without much ambiguity .
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If it now turns out that the nature to which we appeal as the source of our own values has in fact been contaminated or even invented by those values , this would seem to have serious implications for the moral and political authority people ascribe to their own environmental concerns .
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Here , then , were the chief questions our seminar sought to tackle : How should popular conceptions of nature and the environment change in the face of these insights ? What would a more historically and culturally minded way of understanding nature look like , which would take seriously not just the natural world but the human cultures that lend meaning and moral imperatives to that world ? Can our concern for the environment survive our realization that its authority flows as much from human values
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as from anything in nature that might ground those values ? And if the answer to this last question is yes — as surely it must be — then how can a more self – critical understanding of what we mean by nature enhance our efforts to protect the environment in ways that are both sustainable and humane ?
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In fact , one of our secondary agendas in this book has been to try to demonstrate the practical relevance for practical problem solving of humanistic disciplines that are rarely even consulted by policymakers and activists who devote themselves to environmental protection . People often appeal to the natural and social sciences in trying to understand environmental problems ; we hope that after reading this book they will appeal to the humanities as well .
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This is not the place to offer a comprehensive history of nature in Western thought . For the purposes of this book , I simply wish to argue that the burden of proof should be with those who assert the universal nature of nature , for the evidence against such a view is enormous . Ideas of nature never exist outside a cultural context , and the meanings we assign to nature cannot help reflecting that context . The main reason this gets us into trouble is that nature as essence , nature as naive reality , wants us to see nature as if it had no cultural context , as if it were everywhere and always the same . And so the very word we use to label this phenomenon encourages us to ignore the context that defines it .
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This points to one final vision of nature that recurs everywhere in this book : nature as contested terrain .
Paradise Lost and Found
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set aside national parks and wilderness areas began to gain real momentum at precisely the time that laments about the passing frontier reached their peak . To protect wilderness was in a very real sense to protect the nation’s most sacred myth of origin .
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This , then , is the central paradox : wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural . If we allow ourselves to believe that nature , to be true , must also be wild , then our very presence in nature represents its fall . The place where we are is the place where nature is not . If this is so — if by definition wilderness leaves no place for human beings , save perhaps as contemplative sojourners enjoying their leisurely reverie in God’s natural cathedral — then also by definition it can offer no solution to the environmental and other problems that confront us . To the extent that we celebrate wilderness as the measure with which we judge civilization , we reproduce the dualism that sets humanity and nature at opposite poles . We thereby leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical , sustainable , honorable human place in nature might actually look like .
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But such a perspective is possible only if we accept the wilderness premise that nature , to be natural , must also be pristine — remote from humanity and untouched by our common past . In fact , everything we know about environmental history suggests that people have been manipulating the natural world on various scales for as long as we have a record of their passing . Moreover , we have unassailable evidence that many of the environmental changes we now face also occurred quite apart from human intervention at one time or another in the earth’s past .
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And yet radical environmentalists and deep ecologists all too frequently come close to accepting this premise as a first principle . When they express , for instance , the popular notion that our environmental problems began with the invention of agriculture , they push the human fall from natural grace so far back into the past that all of civilized history becomes a tale of ecological declension .
Highlight (yellow) – Amazonia as Edenic Narrative > Location 1933
In the following pages , I argue that the tendency to see the Amazon — or Amazonian nature — as a kind of Eden fosters a skewed and largely static approach toward a multilayered and decidedly fluid reality . The problem is not just that this vision is often false or exaggerated but that it obscures the people and places that actually exist there .
Highlight (yellow) – Amazonia as Edenic Narrative > Location 1935
Although native peoples and the rain forest are essential elements of Amazonia , an insistence on seeing the one as an idealized embodiment of the other conceals the multiplicity of worlds that lie within the region’s borders . To the extent that an abstract Edenic landscape crowds out the teenage rubber tapper in a faded World Cup T – shirt , the stinging smoke of factories in a treeless city ringed by forest , or the lone plant sprouting in the cracks of a sunbaked roof , it impoverishes our vision of Amazonia , as well as of a larger natural world that demands not just to be respected but , first of all , to be rethought .
Highlight (yellow) – Amazonia as Edenic Narrative > Location 1956
There are two major types of Edenic stories . The first sort is directly linked to the account of Adam and Eve that appears in Genesis . This story presupposes an initial state of harmony and perfection in which human beings live as one with other divine creations . Next , it posits the notion of human separability from , and potential mastery over , nature . These ideas are implicit in God’s initially giving humankind dominion over “ the fish of the sea , and over the fowl of the air , and over the cattle , and over all the earthy and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth . ” Finally , “ strict ” accounts of Eden include an obligatory Fall from grace following Adam and Eve’s refusal to obey the divine mandate not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge . They conclude with the exile from the garden that imposes upon human beings the necessity of labor and thus challenges their original mastery over nature .
Highlight (yellow) – Amazonia as Edenic Narrative > Location 1963
The second sort of narrative offers a less ordered and less orthodox reworking of elements contained in the biblical story of the garden . While these “ new Edenic ” or “ quasi – Edenic ” stories recall aspects of the account in Genesis , they do not share its carefully prescribed beginning , middle , and end . Many of these tales are actually “ after – Eden ” stories that highlight nostalgia for a perfect past or deep fears about continuing loss . Such stories may imply hopes for the rediscovery of paradise ( the recovery , for instance , of an original state of innocence and plenty through a return to nature ) . They also may focus on the construction of a new Eden through the alliance of nature with technology or the radical replacement of the first by the second .
Highlight (yellow) – Amazonia as Edenic Narrative > Location 1978
Although Edenic stories are always cosmic dramas with panhuman implications , the presence of a universalizing impulse that implies the underlying presence of a single , master narrative about human beings and nature does not keep the elements from forming different constellations in different times and places . Moreover , different sorts of natural spaces may be Edenic ( or non – Edenic ) in different ways . Thus , while the two terms most frequently associated with Amazonia for much of its postconquest history — “ wilderness ” and “ jungle ” — both suggest Edenic underpinnings , they are by no means synonyms . Even though meanings change over time , the wilderness is apt to conjure up visions of a primeval landscape reminiscent of a world before the Fall . The jungle , in contrast , is in many ways a counterpoint to the garden that God fashioned as a home for human beings .