What do we mean by ‘nature’?, Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World

We can talk about three basic concepts of nature but these interlock in different ways:

  • Firstly, ‘nature’ – as a metaphysical concept through which humanity imagines difference and specificity. This concept questions humanity’s relationship to nature and our changing perception of what is ‘human’ and ‘cultural’.

In this sense, nature may be thought of as a social concept, involving issues of equality; ways in which prejudice, exclusion and discrimination in society on account of race, gender and sexuality originate.

  • Secondly, ‘nature’ – as a realist concept which refers to the structures, processes and powers that operate in the world. This concept is of a nature to whose laws and processes we are subject, even though we harness them for human purposes.

In this sense, nature is largely a scientific concept involving the particular laws and processes that are the basis of all biological and technological activity. Such issues as genetic engineering, BSE and AIDS epidemics, carbon dioxide emissions leading to global warming all lead to society’s questioning of the authority of science and the modernist idea of ‘progress’.

  • Lastly, ‘nature’ as a lay concept as it is generally used in everyday discussion. This is the nature of immediate experience and aesthetic appreciation, of ‘landscape’, ‘wilderness’ and the ‘countryside’ as opposed to the urban environment.

In this sense,‘nature’ is largely an environmental concept which speaks of how it is being destroyed and which we are asked to conserve, even though its form may have originally been partly or wholly the result of human activity. Exploitation, wastage, pollution, species depletion and unsustainable farming practices are all current issues that arise from this concern.

Does this definition contribute to discussions about wild land?
Probably I think it does.


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