This blog was originally posted on the website Valuing Nature.

I’ve talked to many people over the course of the last month or two about our ‘connection’ with nature, or our ‘embeddedness’ in nature. Many people have suggested to me that we would do better if we had a greater collective awareness of the fact that we are ‘part of nature’. What does this mean? What is ‘nature’?

I’ve just read an article, Writer’s Block, by Jenny Price in a recent edition of the Conservation Magazine. Price, who gives tours of the Los Angeles River, is critical of the North American tradition of nature writing. “Historically, nature writing has hewn to a powerful definition of nature as only the wild things, which we destroy and banish when we build cities. This way to define nature… has become so firmly entrenched that seeing nature in other ways has been next to impossible.”

In the UK ‘nature’ has the superficial connotation of an environment that is relatively unaffected by man. Heathland might be commonly seen as nature, a municipal park perhaps not. But of course, the whole of the UK environment has been shaped entirely by human intervention; so our delineation of what is ‘natural’ is necessarily arbitrary. We do not have wilderness, in the sense that it is found in the US.

But what of our dependency upon nature for everything else? Price reflects on this, too. “[T]o narrate all the encounters with nature that define my hike [in the wild], I also have to ask myself where the natural resources in my GORE-TEX shell and hiking boots come from – the oil, stone, metals and animal skins in twenty-first century hiker gear… How do they connect me to the global transformation of nature?”

Environmentalists often highlight our reliance upon natural resources for everything we consume, seemingly in the belief that a greater awareness of our material dependence upon the natural world will lead us to care for it better. (This doesn’t seem inevitable. Depending upon one’s worldview, such awareness might just as well confirm one in revelling over our ingenuity in exploiting nature, to meet all our needs.) But Price gives me a different sense of what it means to be embedded in nature. She goes on:

“The hike has to be a story about how our connections to one another define our encounters with nature. And its about how the National Park Service in the Santa Monica Mountains has chosen my favourite trail routes, and how they manage fire suppression, and how they draw up hundreds of rules and policies to keep both the visitors and the parklands happy.”

All that we possess is transformed nature, and our sense of nature itself is mediated by these things, and by our relationships to one another. Reflecting on this leads me to feel an existential embeddedness in nature, which includes me; a feeling which transcends an understanding of material dependency.

But if nature is everything, what value does it have as a concept? In their essay ‘Death Warmed Over’, Shellenberger and Nordhaus asked the same question of our concept of ‘the environment’: “there’s something funny about the concept of ‘the environment’. If the concept includes humans, everything is environmental, and it has little use other than being a poor synonym for ‘everything’. If the concept excludes humans, it is scientifically specious (not to mention politically suicidal).”

If we are to recognise the true extent of our embeddedness in nature – from our material possessions, to the fabric of society, to our relationships with one another, does this mean that we may as well dispense with the word? Perhaps our concept of nature conveys an understanding not so much of something ‘out there’ as a balance we need to achieve. To live entails that we frustrate the urge of other things to live. To live in a way that recognises 'nature', implies a recognition of the need to be conscious of these impacts; and, indeed, a recognition that we are in some way more fully alive when we are aware in this way.