Theories of nature – what works

Opinions vary widely about which theories are most useful, but there are some constant themes that cut across different approaches and analytical frameworks; for example the idea that nature is being polluted, degraded, endangered and lost is widespread, paradoxically, society’s interaction with nature is usually one that is characterised in terms of respect, with a desire to both control and protect nature (Soper 1999). While there may be an accusation that attempts to integrate natural themes into development are mere window-dressing or empty gestures (Smith 2008, 21) that conform to the paradigm shift in environmental attitudes during the 20th century, there is a widespread belief also that the impact of nature on development and the community creates a genuine concern for nature’s well-being. The impact on society of uneven development and degradation of landscapes has led to a  debate about stewardship and a general desire to ‘draw the line’ on future destruction of nature. However, the nature that we see and the ideals we envisage for nature’s future are mediated through capital and the production of river regeneration is undertaken within the conditions of development.

Neil Smith

Theoretical explorations of the many ‘natures’ under capital prompted Neil Smith (2008) to suggest that there may be different and contradictory definitions of nature at work simultaneously: there is the idea of an external nature: where nature is separate and outside of humans (nature is defined as that which is not social), but there is also the idea of universal nature where nature is defined as every material thing (including humans and their works): then there is human nature, which contains aspects of deontology and emphasises the unchanging biological character of human behaviour, and internal nature: which captures a sense of our personal feelings, a yearning for or fear of nature. Castree suggests that changing attitudes to society-nature relations, particularly those associated with conservation, rely heavily on ideas of external nature because of their abhorrence of the destructiveness of society, which in turn suggests that a more sympathetic valuation of nature occurs whereby its ‘essential quality’ (2001, P6) is recognised.

These ideas can be usefully explored using the concepts of first and second nature (Fig 11). Society’s internal yearnings for an abundant and unspoilt external nature are captured in the conception of “first nature” (Smith 1984, 2008), that is a pristine, primary nature that is untouched by human activity, the ambiguity here is that while it may appear that this nature is lost to capital there are perceptions that natural processes demonstrate elements of first nature, or wilderness leanings. In contrast, second nature includes all forms of nature that have been transformed by human activity  – agricultural and urban landscapes, a commodified nature where the stuff of the environment is transformed into trade goods and economic resources. Concepts of first, second and even third nature, are not new. Neil Smith’s discussion on first and second nature is based on Karl Marx’s work on nature under capital in the mid 1800s (Pepper 1993). Marx said that first nature gave birth to humankind, which saw the creation of second nature; a nature ‘as part of the natural evolution of society’ (Bookchin 1987). However, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43BC) mentioned first nature (wilderness), second nature (sowing corn etc) and third nature or terza natura (the landscaping of gardens). The artistry of landscaping, it was believed, was capable of demonstrating all three aspects of nature (Dixon Hunt 2000).

Such forms of nature are located within society, whether they a resource utilised by industry or a landscape viewed from the top of a mountain. Such is the extent of human activity, Smith suggests, that it is now meaningless to try and actually find first nature – even those landscapes such as the poles, the ocean floor or unexplored rainforests have been transformed into potential commodities valued for the resources they might hold and claimed by capitalist states seeking to assert their ownership of resources that might be discovered in the future. As such, if it is agreed therefore that all nature is now socially mediated it places first nature in the realm of a utopian ideal that is unobtainable. According to Pepper (1993, 117), everything is a commodity, even amenity and aesthetic enjoyment, to such an extent that all of first nature has become second nature. But was there ever a time or place when this was not true? Schmidt (1971) argues that in its pre-bourgeois state, nature exhibited first nature tendencies. With regard to ancient indigenous civilisations, nature was not seen as a commodity but as a co-evolutionary partner. Cronon (1996), however, disagrees with this position, stating that consistently through time natural resources, including rivers, have been utilised and valued and this placing of value on an object is commodification whether or not it falls into a capitalist framework. In other words there is nothing distinctly capitalist about the process of transforming first into second nature.

If it is understood that there is no first nature as all nature is socially mediated, then creations of natural space, such as national parks, or in this context river regeneration projects, are appropriations and approximations of perceived first nature. By definition humans can’t create first nature, because first nature is that which is not human. Yet the essence of these projects is that there is a persistent idea that these landscapes are part of first nature. Such an idea, some critics suggest, must therefore be something of a delusion. Smith (2008, p77) states: ‘With the production of nature at a world-scale, nature is progressively produced from within and as part of a so-called second nature. The first nature is deprived of its originality’. Indeed, what is deemed as natural is in fact a social product that is tailored to current human needs and perceptions. As Kate Soper (1999, p56) observes: ‘Much of which ecologists loosely refer to as ‘natural’ is indeed a product of culture, both in the physical sense and in the sense that perceptions of its beauties and value are culturally shaped’. As urban cultures diversify so do perceptions of what nature really is.

In addition:In ‘Japanese Images of Nature’ 1997 (Thanks Muneezay) Kalland and Asquith state that there is an internal and an external nature and a place in between. A small human dwelling in a forest is ‘in-between’ the outside of nature (urban life) and inside (concepts of wilderness). The spirit world is ‘inside’ and any appropriation of resources by humans from this place must be offset with an offering to the aforementioned spirits.


Bookchin M 1987: Social ecology versus ‘deep ecology’ a challenge for the ecology movement. The Raven 1(3) 219-50

Castree N 2001: Social Nature: Theory, practice and politics – Introduction. Blackwell. Oxford

Cronon W 1996: Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the human place in nature. Norton. New York.

Pepper D. 1993: Eco-Socialism: From deep ecology to social justice. Routledge. London

Schmidt, Alfred 1971: The concept of nature in Marx. New Left Review Editions. London. Section 106 explained at: – accessed 2/8/2010

Smith N. 2008: Uneven Development. Nature capital and the production of space. Third Edition. University of Geogia Press. Athens, Georgia p 21

Soper, K. 1999 The Politics of Nature; Reflections on Hedonism, Progress and Ecology. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 10/2, pp. 47 – 70

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