Which Nature is Your Nature?

Citation: Coscieme, L., et al (2020). Multiple conceptualizations of nature are key to inclusivity and legitimacy in global environmental governance. Environmental Science & Policy. 104, pp. 36-42, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2019.10.018 .

What is Nature?

 How do you refer to nature? How do you feel it? Does nature speak to you, do you walk through it, or are you, in fact, a part of nature? Our answers to these questions depend largely on our cultural background. Scientific policy is not meant to depend upon or be shaped by culture, but, naturally, it is. Because of this, the current state of global scientific policy largely reflects the view of nature familiar to the policy makers themselves, though policy makers seldom represent the values of every human population under their jurisdiction. This narrow view of the relationship between humans and nature can result in legislation that fails to respect the broad characterizations of nature common to people groups across our globe. As global policy regarding nature becomes increasingly important, so does our responsibility to recognize and respect the diverse conceptualizations of nature attributable to members of all cultures.

So… where do we start? Virtually all human culture is shaped and perpetuated through language. There are thousands of languages spoken around the world today, each with their own words for, and associations with, nature. Many of those words and attitudes are quite distinct in terms of their significance to the speakers and their culture. The authors of this study aim to help promote more inclusive conservation policy so that policy makers and scientists can better consider, communicate, and enact strategies for worldwide conservation that will benefit nature in all its forms and people of all worldviews. To do this, however, we must work to understand different conceptualizations of nature so that we may effectively communicate with and learn from diverse people groups.


How we See Nature 

To help us understand the wide variety of cultural conceptualizations of nature, Luca Coscieme and his team developed a continuum in which understandings of nature among speakers of 63 different languages are distributed (Figure 1).The team investigated the deeper meaning behind terms for nature from each language by having native speakers describe (in writing) how they would translate ‘nature’ into their own language, what the term(s) they used to translate it mean, and how their meaning relates to the relationship between humans and nature. These responses were then analyzed and sorted into groups based on relevant cultural and anthropological research and results from similar studies.

Figure 1: The four classes of nature conceptualizations identified in this study, with examples of a few nature-words from various languages. Though not identified in this picture, note that some languages have multiple terms for nature reflecting a variety of understandings grouped by the authors into distinct classes (for example, Sato-yama and Sato-umi in the Japanese language are classified as “Inclusive,” but another Japanese word, Shizen (see following paragraph), is considered “Non-Inclusive.”) Source: Based on Figure 1 from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2019.10.018 .

From their study, the authors identified three broad categories of nature conceptualizations, which they termed “inclusive,” “non-inclusive,” and “spiritual.” Some languages, however, represented a variety of connotations associated with nature, and these were sorted as an unofficial fourth group. Inclusive understandings of nature are those in which humans (as well as our farms, cities, etc) are considered a part of nature. An example of words that demonstrate this are Természet, a Hungarian word that we would translate as “everything,” and iwigara, a Raramuri word that considers the connectivity among all living things. Such inclusive concepts of nature are found in many Indigenous languages. Non-inclusive conceptualizations of nature, on the other hand, are those that consider humans and nature as separate, distinct, entities. The Japanese word Shizen, for example, reflects an understanding of nature as above and beyond the control of humans. Finally, conceptualizations of nature that are considered ‘deifying’ or spiritual are those in which nature is revered in a God or Goddess-like sense, or as something specifically created by a deity. An example of this view of nature is Pachamama,the Quechua and Aymara term most closely translated as mother nature in parts of South America.


 What do Multiple Understandings of Nature Mean for Conservation?

To make science and policy respectful and effective, we must consider the language through which findings and legislation are presented. The way we speak, write, sing, and otherwise verbally communicate stories and information about nature has a large influence on the way that information is received. In addition to the necessity of clearly and respectfully communicating science and policy, there is much we can learn from cultural conservation practices based on culturally derived understandings of nature. For example, many Indigenous practices strongly promote the preservation of biodiversity. Dedication to these practices is related to the way in which the Indigenous people view themselves and their environment, and there is much we can learn from their (and other) understandings of nature and our place within it. Hence, improvement of global environmental policy may be achieved through greater recognition of nature as interpreted by a diversity of peoples and cultures as well as the integration of scientifically backed conservation practices with a history of sustainable practice.


Featured Photo: Am Enteborn nature reserve in Dülmen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:Search&limit=20&offset=20&profile=default&search=nature&advancedSearch-current=%7B%7D&ns0=1&ns6=1&ns12=1&ns14=1&ns100=1&ns106=1&searchToken=475gfs73cr270gynirkhucxak#/media/File:Dülmen,_Naturschutzgebiet_-Am_Enteborn-_–_2014_–_0202.jpg


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Riley Lovejoy

I am a PhD candidate at the University of Alabama, where I completed a Master’s degree in 2017. My current research focuses on biological invasions of ecological communities, using freshwater plankton as a study system. I believe science is for everyone, and love connecting others with topics they can become passionate about. Because of this, I founded an organization called Delta Tree Initiative that introduces middle and high school girls to STEM research and careers. If I’m not at a microscope, in a pond, or doing outreach, you can likely find me hiking, baking, or spending time with family and friends. Instagram: @love.joy.science

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