Environmental Keywords

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The Environmental Keywords project is a collaborative effort by the undergraduate students in Unnatural Nature: Literature and Ecology, an American studies/environmental humanities seminar taught in the English department at Duke University.

After the class completed the weekly keywords posts, each student was assigned one keyword and instructed to "curate" the set of posts into a coherent short keywords essay, modeled after Vermonja Alston's "Environment" essay from Keywords for American Cultural Studies. During the last week of the semester, the entire class collectively curated our final keyword, "nature/natural," which students selected for this collective curation by a unanimous vote. Final keywords essays are below. To see the individual contributions which served as inspiration for these short essays, you can visit the page to which informal blogs were posted throughout the semester: Environmental Keywords project.



Wilderness (noun)

Merriam Webster: a) "A wild and natural area in which few people live" b) "A tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings; an area essentially undisturbed by human activity together with its naturally developed life community"

Classmates: "I was overwhelmed with a sense of otherness"; "nature, uncivilized, independence"; "robust weeds rooted in cities"; "encompassing all of nature, including human beings"; "nature relatively uninfluenced"; "the sublime"; "home"; "peace in our hectic world".

US Wilderness Act, 1964: "An area where the earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

William Cronon: "A human creation"


How one defines wilderness really depends on his or her relationship to it. As is shown above, the traditional view of wilderness is that of a virgin, relatively untouched land, often majestic, where nature rules. It is a place where humans escape the overwhelming chaos and falseness of civilization and the masses- where we find solitude. This perspective is presented in the majority of art we've read and watched over the course of the semester. From Frank Herbert's desert of romanticized Freemen in Dune to Edward Abbey's beautiful description of the sublime canyons in Desert Solitaire to the dystopian vision of an over-civilized world imagined by Blade Runner, the consensus in the West is that Wilderness is separate from us, a refuge from our madness.

An alternative view of "wilderness", however, is the notion, or perhaps the realization, that we invented the term. William Cronon presents this controversial definition in his essay "The Trouble with Wilderness", which we read in class to start off the term. Cronon asserts that the term Wilderness is no more than a human invention- it didn't exist, according to him, 12,000 years ago, before the advent of agriculture. Before then, when all humans were hunter-gatherers, we were in touch with our animalness. Humans then weren't removed from nature at all: it was their home. They trusted the sky for water and the earth for food, and since there was no physical escape from it, they could not remove themselves from nature or its processes any more psychologically. When farming came along, and humans started living like no other animal does, a separation formed, psychological, physical, and spiritual. The land was no longer a part of them, but theirs to own and work and manipulate. And from there, agrarian humans grew further and further away from nature over time...to the point that nearly our entire species today sees itself as a separate entity and lives as such.

And what that looks like is a society that lives entirely sheltered from nature for the most part, so that it becomes wilderness. Food, water, health, education all bought, not gathered and experienced. Those who grow disgusted with the too-humanness of society flee into the wilderness to escape the human-made. But this is where the danger lies, says Cronon. Because in fleeing civilization to seek refuge in nature, we pretend our one world is split in two. And bad actions proceed from this dualistic view. Backpacking into the majestic solitude of big wilderness and then returning to our cars, homes, and environmentally destructive habits is not sustainable in the long run. It allows us to focus only on saving what is left of wild spaces and simultaneously trash the already trashed world, instead of embracing the earth in all its civilized and wild, faults and beauties. It seems the only way to once and for all reconnect with nature and heal it and its inhabitants (ourselves included) is to see the divide no longer, mending our dualistic vision of the natural and the unnatural, the wild and the human, back into one.

This is what Cronon calls for, and it is certainly a worthy goal. But perhaps it's too large a leap to take now. For someone like Cronon, who has taken many steps through nature, it may be feasible to reunite the one world to it's true state. But for the rest of us, who live constantly in our shelter of technology and concrete, who have yet to experience nature at its most powerful level, it is unrealistic. A better first step is to embrace one's dualism and begin to explore the wild half of it. And that means to walk into wilderness with as many societal comforts as one needs to enjoy the experience, so that he or she returns, again and again, taking less and less, until the two worlds merge naturally into one.--Cole



A place is a space that has meaning. This meaning can be positive or negative, but a place involves a level of attachment. Whether a geographic area is a space or a place is determined differently by each individual person. An area with deep emotional connection to one person may be merely a space to another.


The evolution of spaces and places can be witnessed by examining history. When people migrated to new regions, they left places and entered spaces. These spaces evolved into places over time. When the first pioneers settled in America, they had already imagined a place from a space they had never been before. These preconceived perceptions of a place developed as they created their new lives within this place, which brought on new emotional connections. While most often, it was spaces that developed into places, there have been certain events through history that have caused places to regress back into spaces. For example, Native Americans had their places invaded and moved into spaces through being forced to live on reservations.


Lawrence Buell, Powell M. Cabot Research professor of American Literature at Harvard University, is regarded as a pioneer of ecocriticism, which is the study of literature and the environment through the involvement of the sciences in order to analyze the current state of the environment and generate potential solutions for current environmental issues. In Buell’s book The Future of Environmental Criticism, he writes about the concept of place, particularly in his chapter entitled “Space, Place and Imagination from Local to Global.” He explains that the two words “place” and “space” are not necessarily opposites, but that a place is a space with emotional attachment, and in the same manner, a space is without meaning. With these definitions of place and space, one may think that a “place” is always better. However, Buell states that people may also crave a space. “We dream of a ‘place’ rather than a ‘space’ for me or for us, although by the same token we may crave ‘space’ or elbow room for meditation or leisure to fill” (Buell 63). Space comes with potential, room to expand and explore, while places have reached their potential, in a way, that they are desired to remain in the state they are in currently. Buell also explains that every place one has affects how one views all future spaces or places. “My memory of the place where I grew up has affected my response to all the places where I’ve lived since, and so too I find for those who led a more wandering existence when young” (Buell 73). Therefore, one’s perception of the environment is always evolving and places from the past help shape spaces in the future.


The difference in the terms “place” and “space” are vital in the realm of preservation and conservation efforts. Most often, it is the varying opinions on whether a certain area is a place or a space that results in the debate over what to do with that area. People who have an emotional connection to that region and hold it as a place will be in favor of protecting it, while those who do not have an attachment to it will see it a space. It is the potential that is contained within that space that is being debated. It is crucial to the future of the environment that people take into consideration other individuals’ perceptions of an area as either a space or a place. Progress is made when the potential of an area is considered, but the value it already holds is understood as well.



Throughout human history, deserts have been commonly associated with death and barrenness. With its magnificent and vast scale, nude exposed surfaces and lack of water, deserts seem to be large expanses that are utterly devoid of any life. Indeed, when one thinks of nature, one does not commonly associate such a term with desert landscapes, instead probably thinking of lush forest and beach landscapes that unlike the former, are teeming with life. However, deserts are just as part of nature as any other natural environment on this earth and contrary to common perceptions actually full of life despite its seemingly uninhabitable conditions.

Definition and Perception

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, desert (n.) is defined as "an uninhabited and uncultivated tract of country; a wilderness". Additionally, other definitions define deserts as “natural areas that receive less than 10 inches of rain per year” that have “little water, extreme temperatures, and unpredictable weather”. However, while these definitions overall suggest a lack of life, in reality, deserts, despite the popular imagination of such a term, can be teeming with tenacious life that strives to survive. Indeed, deserts may initially seem barren to those unaware of its many different forms of life. Under the cover of shadows, many different creates might take residence in the desert, including reptiles such as lizards and snakes, water-conserving plants like that of cacti, desert grasses and shrubs and even large mammals such as foxes, coyotes and jackals. However, deserts can take many forms besides that of grainy sand and warm mirages. For example, the frozen tundras of Antarctica and the Arctic, as well as the dry Atamaca coastlines of Peru and Chile in addition to the massive Sahara and Gobi Deserts that might fill the common popular imagination.


Indeed, our human perception of deserts is constrictingly narrow and ignorant of the diversity of deserts and the vast life living within them. However, while deserts may hold more life than commonly thought, one cannot discount the fact that survival in such biomes is nevertheless very brutal and more often than not, the deserts shapes those within its boundaries. All of the fauna and flora in the deserts have been forced to adapt to its harsh environment by changing in life-sustaining ways.


If not, much of the wildlife in deserts simply could not survive; this fact translates also in the presentation of deserts within literature, such in the iconic novel Dune, in which a royal family in a space-age future find themselves in a desert planet among its natural inhabitants the Fremen. These Fremen have adapted and changed in such drastic ways that the reader is not completely sure if they can be termed “human” or a product of nature’s drastic evolution. As the novel explores more about the Fremen within its narrative, one can see how the desert landscape of Dune has shaped the Fremen not only physically, mentally, culturally but even spiritually. The Fremen are not only physically adapted to have moisture retaining skin and congealing blood that help conserve water, mentally aggressive in order to ensure that only the strongest of its members may be able to survive and worthy of the water within them but also have used desert wildlife as primary modes of transportation. Additionally, many of the different beliefs of people in the desert relate to their environment, and its difference inherent resources, including the natural psychedelics that are found in both the American Southwest, “peyote”, and the highly addictive substance of “spice” in Dune, that have a key role in the spiritual beliefs and religions of the Native American of the desert and the Fremen respectively.


Indeed, deserts can also change those within them, and give way to the idea that those in deserts had changed in certain ways in order to be more suited their environment. Therefore, deserts represent more than just sandy, barren landscapes but include a great diversity of climates and hold a plethora of diverse life. In some ways, with its inhospitable conditions, deserts seem to harbor little to no life, while in actually the very opposite is true. Deserts are indeed part of nature, and hold many of nature’s many different creations, all which had to change to survive. While the general public might not associate deserts with nature, without deserts, a significant portion of the diversity and life that constitute our world would cease to exist. Thus, we as humans need to reconsider our own understanding of deserts and their role in the precious nature around us.



Where are you from and with whom do you identify? A small family, a large city, the globe? Although hard to grasp, everyone and everything is interconnected in some way to all else and each engages in multiple systems of interaction. Through these natural and societal structures, things grow closer to one another and form a common bond that is difficult to break once established. These are what one calls a community. In this English class, students have learned to pick apart at different words in hopes of coming to a greater understanding or truth regarding them. In the case of “community,” the majority of student responses discussed how they never realized just how expansive a community could be—encompassing the globe, and universe, even.

                                           Definitional Perspective

The Oxford English Dictionary groups words that represent and define community: “commonness; everybody; public; shared by all; society; fellowship; friendly intercourse; condescension.” Already one notices an underlying paradox involving community insofar as it is both something “for everybody” and “shared by all,” but it can also be exclusive, as in a society or group that judges if others can be in their community based on degrees of affability and/or disdain.

                                           Historical Perspective 

From a historical perspective, communities are omnipresent. Since life began on Earth, networks were set up that involved dependent, mutual relationships. For instance, a species of microbe depended on its hot, volcanic environment to reproduce and thrive. Communities are by no means reserved for human beings, although this is the common perception by which man has operated for several centuries. Once humans emerged into the picture billions of years after Earth was created, groups were immediately established. Historians often correlate what they deem “civilization,” however, with more organized, structured communities. Biological anthropologists and historians agree that much of civilization was founded with the birth of agriculture, in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia (now, sections of the Middle East). Agriculture allowed for a settling down of society, as opposed to migrating peoples. In this way, they would also be more in touch with their natural surroundings. To work against environmental challenges, the people learned to collaborate as a team in their drive to create produce to eat and sell.

                                          Contextualized Perspective

The contextualized focus of community for the class was centered around Leopold’s “Land Ethic,” a philosophy whose drive is to guide human actions in a more thoughtful manner when they wish to change the land—namely, they must take into account the other members of their local and global communities, like animals and vegetation. For the keywords posts, the majority of students referenced this piece and how it evolved their understanding of community. Some reactions leading to changes in student’s thinking about the subject include: “After reading Leopold’s ‘The Land Ethic’, I have come to realize that it is not only reasonable, but necessary to expand upon this definition. This expansion comes in the fact that a community is located and is influenced by the places in which it exists,” and “I read Leopold’s ‘Land Ethic’ and became convinced of what seems to be rather simple in retrospect; if the world is one immense community then surely it is a community of more than just humans.” One student brought in another work we had not discussed in class; Garret Hardin’s essay “Tragedy of the Commons.” What Hardin says about human tendencies directly connects to what Leopold demands. Hardin states that since humans have generally had the power to exploit a territory, they disregard everything else that lives there and could potentially stand in their way. As this is a trend from multiple groups of people, no one person feels directly responsible for the use and allocation of resources along with the weakening conditions of the environment. Leopold asks of humans not to overlook the natural and global communities to which we are inextricably linked in exchange for more governmental or economic prosperity.

                                        Questions, Significance, and Reflection

Community is a significant concept for environmentalists to study because it encompasses everything: the human, the sky, the water, the animal, the ground, and everything in between. Associations students had with this word prior to our deeper discussions of it were confined to the relationships they had with other people and neglected other types as aforementioned. The prime question raised by this mode of thinking is the ethics by which people should function and utilize the resources around them. Concentric circles are helpful to picture oneself as a piece of a larger whole. With each new and bigger circle, one comprehends how great a context they actually live in and from there, he/she may attempt to fix ethically unsound situations in which one group is dominating over another. Balance between these relationships and communities are key in developing a safer, mutually respecting Earth.

--HannahdM 09:32, 22 November 2013 (EST)


Ecosophy, as defined by Arne Naess in The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement, is “a philosophy of ecological harmony or equilibrium”. Felix Guattari, in The Three Ecologies, states it "would link environmental ecology to social ecology to mental ecology”. Considering the presence of “ecology” within these two definitions, an understanding of ecology is thus necessary to comprehend what ecosophy is exactly. Ecology, as defined by the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “the totality or pattern of relations between organisms and their environment”. Rephrased, ecology refers to the interactions between humans, animals, plant life, and the environment in which they all exist. Keeping this definition of ecology in mind, the definitions of ecosophy provided by Naess and Guattari take on new meanings. In Naess’ mind, an ecosophy would require some level of balance between the different aspects of ecology; those being human, animal, plant, and environment. Guattari, on the other hand, actually takes the definition of ecology a step further. He puts forward the idea that the definition of ecology given by Merriam-Webster only takes into account two of the three forms of ecology; those being “environmental ecology” and “social ecology”. The final form, “mental ecology”, speaks towards the individual’s frame of mind. As such, Guattari’s definition of ecosophy speaks to some “link” or equilibrium existing between all three of his ecologies. This link represents harmony among the three ecologies, the same harmony spoken of by Arne Naess.

Since ecosophy refers to some level of ecological harmony between the three ecologies as defined by Felix Guatarri, one key assumption must be made. That is, humans are responsible for maintaining the balance between the three ecologies. The reasoning for this is that the mental ecology is a strictly human realm. No animal or plant can claim to have a mental ecology. No animal or plant can claim to have an alterable mindset to describe their place within the environment. In fact, animals and plants only exist within the environmental ecology, and to some small degree the social ecology. Humans, on the other hand, have a place within all three of the ecologies. They reside in the environment, so they are part of the environmental ecology. The social ecology speaks to the dynamics of human-to-human interaction, which obviously includes humans. Lastly, the mental ecology is all human. Being the dominator of the three ecologies, humans are responsible for maintaining the ecosophy presented by Guatarri and Naess. What’s interesting here is that humans, in order to maintain this balance or this ecosophy, must go beyond preserving “nature”. They have to consider and change the ethics that govern human interaction with nature.

The first and perhaps most obvious change that needs to occur would happen within the realm of the mental ecology. That is, a change in the human mindset in relation to the environment and all those whom and/or that reside in it. Humans (used broadly because the following does not apply to every human on Earth) harbor the belief that we are somehow better than nature, perhaps in part due to our mental prowess. We are under the impression that we do, or at the very least should, exist outside the realm of nature. A complete turnabout is needed to reach an ecosophy. First, we need to understand that we are, in no way, superior to any aspect of nature, let alone nature in its entirety. Secondly, we need to understand that we cannot separate ourselves from nature. It is an exercise in futility. We are products of nature. We’re part of it. No manner of physical separation can change that. It is a philosophical impossibility. However, given current environmental issues such as overpopulation, global warming, species extinction, and the genetic engineering of foods, I find it highly unlikely that humans will stop trying to force nature into submission any time soon. --Drew 10:49, 22 November 2013 (EST)

Environmental Justice


Environmental Justice emerged as a concept in the United States in the early 1980s. It describes a social movement in the United States focused on the fair distribution of environmental benefits and burdens. Among affected groups, high-poverty and racial minority groups disproportionately receive environmental harm. The US Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice (EJ) as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, sex, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership summit in 1991 adopted 17 principles of environmental justice that include affirming the sacredness of the nature and the interdependence of species, the right to balanced and ethical use of land, the right to protection from environmental hazard, and the right to participate in policy making.


The environmental justice movement gathered momentum in response to two issues prevalent in the 1980s. Environmentalism in the first half of the 20th century focused primarily on efforts of conservation and preservation. Yet, individuals of low socioeconomic status often felt negatively impacted by these decisions. The Southwest Organizing Project’s Letter to the Group of 10 argued that the environmental movements was concerned about preserving nature that in turn ignored the negative consequences that resulted. To declare lands as national parks, land ownership is adjusted so that low income or minority groups were reallocated to unwanted land-land that was polluted and held low economic value. Minorities viewed the environmental movement as elitist in composition and impact. The enacted reforms were deemed to have “regressive social impacts” that disproportionately benefited environmentalists and harmed underrepresented populations. William Cronon argues that wilderness preservation encourages dirty industries to move to poorer communities that lack the power to challenge polluters. The EJ movement also benefits from contributions from the Civil Rights movement. Civil rights activists had espoused goals of social justice, equal protection, and the end to institutional discrimination that aligned with those of environmental justice. Both movements also originate and are largely based in the American South. THE EJ movement exists to support, facilitate and organize campaigns protesting the unjust appropriation of environmental harm.

Contextualization and Significance

The meaning and significance of environmental justice is most clearly detailed in The Principles of Environmental Justice (EJ) published by Delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership summit. Only 2 of the 17 principles speak to ecological problems that are experienced by the environment. As such, Environmental Justice is seen primarily as concerns over the treatment of humans, especially marginalized groups. The human focus of EJ runs in contrast to the principles of Deep Ecology movement spearheaded by Arne Naess. Deep ecologists would accuse EJ advocates of being too anthropocentric and that such a view is destructive for the environment. Yet EJ advocates would counter, contending that deep ecologists are oblivious to the problems of social and economic inequality that result from the destruction and taking of land from marginalized groups.

Specific events of the EJ movement also serve as case studies for debating culpability. In Warren County, NC the government directed the placement of the PCB landfill near low-income black communities, understanding that marginalized groups would mount less resistance. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defend minority rights, and yet the disregard and deliberate planning by the NC state government speaks to the institutionalized racism that still pervades American politics and society.

In Cesar Chavez’s 1989 speech On the Perils of Pesticides, we are given narratives of the marginalized individuals similar to the fictional narrative of So Far from God. Fe’s death and the lack of reparations or closure that her family receives evokes feelings of helpless. It can be argued that Fe was forced into this job because of the systemic poverty that affects everyone in her community. The feeling of helpless is reinforced by the dramatic irony and foreshadowing that informs the reader of this impending death. Her foreshadowing then becomes a criticism of how social conditions compel individuals to sub optimum choices, in line with arguments advanced by the EJ movement.

Although there is increased governmental oversight over the environment and increased advocacy for victims of environmental discrimination, Environmental Justice as both a concept and social movement remain important reminders of how institutional racism still exists and environmental marginalization exists in global capitalist markets. --DavidS 09:53, 22 November 2013 (EST)


The terms “risk” and “peril” are synonymous and conditional. Whether one sets themselves or is thrust into a situation, to be at risk or in peril is defined almost exactly the same. According to Merriam-Webster, these terms describe “the possibility that something bad or unpleasant will happen.” The definition of peril goes a little further, including the chance “that [one] will be hurt or killed.” While the two are alike, risk also includes other definitions for medical and economic risk. Anyway you spin it, there is no one who would want to find themselves in a risky or perilous situation. Historically, it can be said that humans innately avoid placing themselves at risk or in peril; as would any animal, in order to survive. The origin of peril dates back to the 13th century, Middle English, from Latin periculum—meaning fear. It is fear which holds us back from risky behaviors. However, in today’s society, we have taken on new views of risk. Some people now associate risk with adventure, instead of peril or hazard. “Risk-takers” are celebrated, and to be an adrenaline junkie is a coveted trait. What is most startling is those people who make the decision to put not themselves, but others at risk-those who are weaker and will not or cannot stand up for themselves. The prime example of this as discussed in this course throughout the semester is environmental racism and the rise of environmental justice. Throughout history we can see that some actions do not account for the sustainability and lives for not just the non-humans around us but also for human lives. One such action was the use of DDT on many farms across America. DDT is an incredibly powerful poison that was used as a pesticide. It killed off many weeds and harmed any animals who fed near the site sprayed; consequently affecting that ecosystem, and putting the health of many farm workers at risk. The work environment for these farmers was indeed perilous and they had no choice. These workers needed pay and worked under the conditions given. Luckily, one man spoke out against this; Ralph Abascal of the California Rural Legal Assistance where these migrant workers did not have a voice of their own. His actions resulted in the 1969 ban of DDT. From this case, it became increasingly clear that environmental justice for those who were put at risk was a must.

Many texts throughout this semester have given examples of the environmental risks that some face. In the readings, the groups most often targeted are the weaker, those that are financially impoverished, and people of color. More often than not, these factors overlap. One novel read this semester was Ana Castillo’s So Far From God. This story relays the lives of three Mexican-American sisters and their mother in New Mexico. One sister in particular, Fe, experienced how some large companies do not properly dispose of dangerous chemicals, harming the environment, and do not inform their employees, putting all of their lives at risk. Fe worked with dangerous chemicals in an extremely perilous and hazardous environment; and in the end there was nothing she could do to stop her death even in this novel of magic-realism and miracles. Another encounter with peril that certain people and the environment around them are thrust into is a PBS documentary viewed this semester. The video discussed the Environmental racism and injustices of Warren County. This cases exemplifies the trend of government and capitalists putting weaker citizens at risk. In a neighborhood in this North Carolina county, there was the illegal dumping of polychlorinated biphenyl in one of the landfills. This was a poorer neighborhood, predominately black. As this toxin leaked into water supply, all of these people’s lives were at risk. Although the entire neighborhood protested, action to clean up the landfill was not taken until decades later. The texts from this semester of course have different approaches, are fiction and not fiction, but the basics of a risky or perilous situation appear the same. There are people in our country who decide to put certain people at risk and there has to be something done about it because eventually we will all be at risk, as we all share this planet. Environmental studies often focus on the nonhuman. However we must realize that the earth is the environment to us all, and we need to find balance with nonhuman. Risk and peril are very real for all of us. This is what is being fought for-being free of a risky environment. This is truly an important issue to solve which encompasses many things. To avoid putting other humans and our Earth in peril there are so many questions to find the answers to. There needs to be more sustainable and earth friendly practices when farming. There has to be new solutions for disposing of toxic waste. There has to be new industrial practices and cleaner fuels with less waste. There needs to environmental justice for everyone, giving a voice to those who can’t stand up for themselves. Truly environmentalism is about avoiding risk and peril, just like all the creatures of earth naturally would.--ZerraL 23:12, 3 December 2013 (EST)


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, nature is defined as, "the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations" and as, "existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind." The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, on the other hand, has two definitions of nature or the natural. The first, similar to Oxford English Dictionary, is “the physical world and everything in it (such as plants, animals, mountains, oceans, deserts, etc.) that is not made by man”. The second defines nature as “the natural forces that control what happens in the world”. These definitions imply that nature is not something that humans are capable of creating; it is just there. However, as we have established through our class, there is a clear relationship between humans and the natural insofar as we ourselves our natural and we may choose to make ethical, responsible decisions concerning the natural. The latter sentiment is expressed by one student from class this semester, Yuxuan, who goes a step even further, describing nature as “how well we as humans live in harmony with elements in our world, as not all substances from nature are truly natural, depending on how they are changed by human influence.” This final definition raises the question: How far will human impact go before these definitions of nature and the natural are changed?


Throughout this course, our definition of nature has been challenged through a wide range of media, including novels, articles, film, and environmental art. These works provided the platform for analytical thinking as a class and the shaping of personal ideas about nature.

In Frank Herbert’s Dune, a science fiction novel published in 1965, many questions arise over the idea of nature. In the novel, a royal family moves to the desert planet Arrakis, where water is a scarce and precious resource. The Fremen, who call Arrakis their home, have thrived in an environment most view as a living hell. They developed suits which allow them to survive for lengthy periods of time in the desert. Their manipulation of the environment which enables their survival parallels modern technological advances, and how they can be used to enhance our life on Earth. This corresponds to how the unnatural can be used to improve human life in connection with the surrounding environment.

The idea of nature is also at play in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel Oryx and Crake. The manipulation of nature in the pre-apocalyptic life is extended to the point where life revolves largely around the unnatural. The apocalypse brought about by Crake results in the end of this society and leaves the Crakers with Snowman. These Crakers were genetically engineered, and had many of the human “defects” removed from their life-form. In this way, they are easily deemed unnatural. However, they seem to have a much closer connection to the Earth than humans did in pre-apocalyptic times, which in some ways, makes them more natural than the humans in the story.


Over the course of the semester we have encountered numerous definitions of “nature”, from Cronon’s all-encompassing definition to the more dualistic views of unnatural/natural presented in works like Bladerunner and Oryx and Crake. What constitutes nature is not a hard set line and depends upon the relationship that each individual holds with nature. As biotechnologies mature, the once apparent lines between the natural and the unnatural are blurred by questions of origin, intent, and manipulation. Regardless of how one defines nature, what matters is his relationship to it, and how actions stem from that. Generally speaking, our society subconsciously holds a higher regard for what is classified as natural, as to suggest the natural inherently holds greater value. Take, for instance, the rapidly growing organic food movement, the increasing popularity of our national parks and wilderness areas, and the increased focus on “going green” in every day actions such as driving, building homes, and recycling. These are all examples of the modern human respect held for what is closer to “true nature”. Our relationship with nature informs our obligations to the natural world. If a dualistic view of nature as separate from the human pervades, especially one that concludes that the natural world was made for the use by humans, then ethical obligations become minimal. However, if a non anthropocentric viewpoint is adopted as in Naess’s deep ecology then the natural world, in its broadest sense, is valued as significant. From this standpoint, the wilderness becomes as important as the tree in suburbia. And the effort to keep what is left of the wild clean becomes a commitment to the world’s health in its entirety, including all the humans and other animals of the earth and sky, the land itself, the water, and the forgotten city park.


Artificial objects are becoming more and more prominent in the world that we live in today. As an obvious example, it seems that nearly everywhere you look you see individuals playing or working on their smart phones, or driving man made vehicles. Many of the artificial devices and tools that we use are very helpful, while others have the potential to cause great harm. Others work in both directions such as creations like atomic power, which can be used both for renewable energy and for mass destruction. An understanding of this term is absolutely essential in this day and age, as it is likely that the bounds of human creatures are going to continue to stretch further and further, and the line between what we consider to be natural and what we see as being unnatural will be stretched and blurred as well.


According to Merriam-Webster, the formal and accepted definition for artificial (adj) is: not natural or real: made, produced, or done to seem like something natural: not happening or existing naturally: created or caused by people. This is an interesting definition, as it brings a vast array of items over its reach. In fact, almost everything that you can think of that does not occur by itself in nature, but is instead influenced and created by human behavior, can be considered artificial.


The word “artificial” comes from the Latin word “artificium” which refers to a theory or system, or area of skill and knowledge. While describing the history of the actual word is challenging as it has so many different applications, the history of the actual applications are quite traceable. One example can be found in its use in “Artificial intelligence”. The concept of artificial intelligence was brought about by classical philosophers who believed that human thought was comparable to the mechanical manipulation of a variety of symbols. Fundamental ideas such as this were essential in the ultimate make up of a computer in 1940 that utilized logical mathematical reasoning to create a programmable interface. Another area where artificial utility has made a major impact on the lives of humans is through the invention of man-made light. While some could argue that artificial lighting started with the cavemen when they learned to manipulate the forces of nature to create fire, many would consider the invention of the light bulb to be the first real place where humans created light. Before this time, most lighting consisted of gas lamps and or oil lanterns. While earlier impractical versions of the light bulb were created before this, the first commercially usable light bulb was created by Thomas Edison in 1879 ( For full history see [1]) This invention has changed the world as it made it possible to work at night and not be forced to conform to the hours of usual daylight.


Many of the themes within the movie Blade Runner speak to the ideas that are brought about in relation to the term “artificial”. Within the film, artificially made humans known as replicants are being created to be used as workers and fighters. These creations are nearly identical to humans in every regard except for the fact that they do not exhibit emotion responses to stimuli. While tests are done at the beginning of the film to help indicate whether or not a “person” is a replicant or a human using this notion of emotional physical response, later in the movie, a problem occurs. Instead of statically remaining emotionless throughout their life spans, the replicants seem to evolve to begin showing different signs of physical and psychological emotions through their experiences. The difference between humans and these artificial human creations begins to minimize in a very dramatic way. This movie poses many questions about the reality and the natural world.


Ideas regarding artificial devices are extremely important to environmentalism as a whole. Examples of the ways in which artificial creations have made their way into the field are not difficult to find. One prominent illustration is the production of genetically modified crops. Farmers have bred crops for certain desirable traits for many years. Farmers choose to do this so that plants may be more resistant to pests, looks better and more appealing to consume, and have a longer shelf life at grocery stores. While there are certainly many benefits that can come about (especially to industry) through genetically modifying plants to achieve these desired outcomes, it comes at a cost. While there are obvious food safety risks for these crops, as something could go wrong with the engineering, there are also negative potential ecological effects. As an example, if these genetically modified crops were to cross- breed with wild naturally occurring crops, this could drastically harm the biological ecosystem. There are also concerns that some ecologists have risen about some creatures, such as monarch butterflies, that are not harmful targeted insects that could still be damaged by the engineered crops. (see [2] for more info)


--Andrewb 09:45, 22 November 2013 (EST)



According to the Oxford English Dictionary, extinction is “the quenching, putting out of fire, light, anything burning or shining.” This definition can be applied to many things. However, to say “extinct a fire” rather than “extinguish a fire” would be highly antiquated. Additionally, while the putting out of physical fires is generally favored in society, most uses of the word “extinction” have a negative connotation.

The concept of extinction can be attributed to many things, but the most common context of the word in today’s society is in relation to environmentalism and the loss of species. Species as defined by modern biology refers to a group of organisms that can mate and successfully reproduce. The extinction of species refers to the process of losing all individuals in a species. This can occur indirectly through a gradual loss of habitat and resources that species need for survival, or it can occur through targeted actions like poaching or poisoning. As humans demand more of ecosystem services and shift resources in unnatural ways, many plants and animals have struggled to adapt to the new conditions.

The extinction of species is alarming because of the loss of biodiversity. Biodiversity is important for ecosystem stability. In many ecosystems, species regulate the growth of each other so that resources in the ecosystem are used efficiently and sustainably. For example, in freshwater ponds, there is a balance of photosynthesis from aquatic plants and respiration from organisms. When excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphate are released into the ponds from fertilizer in runoff, algae can proliferate. This can lead to hypoxic conditions where a lack of oxygen kills other organisms like fish. Similarly, the loss of larger hosts for ticks in American woods has led to the increase in mouse hosts. Mice are the most efficient carriers for lyme disease, and this increase in the relative proportion of mice carriers has been attributed with many lyme disease outbreaks.

The environmental movement has championed many species in risk of extinction. While the objective is noble, often the emphasis is not put on the key issues. Campaigns to save the bengal tiger or polar bear appeal to people’s love of the exotic. There is rarely any explanation about the role of a certain species plays in the larger community or the greater impact. Furthermore, the gradual loss of species has become so ubiquitous in the environmental movement that it is often taken as an unfortunate aspect of reality.

The combination of the environmental movement’s lack of proper focus and their constant appeals to save some species or another has created an apathy towards a very serious problem. As identified in The Lorax, what the environment really needs is for people to “care a whole awful lot.” This is not referring to the superficial caring of fuzzy white bears in a distant land, but rather to the understanding of each species role in the world. Humans are inherently selfish, and without the ability to connect the loss of species to their own lives, people will not fully recognize extinction as a threat. Without this recognition, the environmental movement will likely remain unfocused and species will continue to suffer from society’s demand for resources.

The potential human impact on biodiversity is described in many of the texts we have studied. In Blade Runner, there are practically no more real animals. Most of the animal references in the move are artificial. From the mechanical snake pet to the paper crane left on the floor, all the animals are created by humans. While the impact of this loss is not expanded in the movie, it is implied that the loss of species was a part of the descent into the gloomy world in which the movie takes place.

Oryx and Crake shows what can happen when extinction is taken too glibly. The game that Jimmy and Crake play called Extinctathon contains thousands of extinct species. The recall of these species is turned into a game, and the species are in a sense glorified. Crake becomes obsessed with this game, and the concept of extinction consumes him. Crake realizes all of the problems in the society and decides that extinction would be the best thing for humans. This motivates him to engineer an entirely new race and to wipe out the humans with a disease. While he means well, Crake’s reasoning is ultimately flawed. There are too many connections within ecosystems for any one person to engineer. Even his creation, the Crakers have attributes that he did not plan.

Currently, our society faces many types of extinction. Many are familiar with the extinction of species, which has been brought to the forefront by environmentalists. Another less mentioned type of extinction is that of cultures. It is similar to losing species and decreasing biodiversity. With the rise of globalization, regional traditions, dialects, and structures are being lost. For instance, in China, the Shanghai dialect used to be ubiquitous in the region. However, it slowly started being supplanted by Mandarin, and now, Mandarin is taught in schools and spoken in most day-to-day encounters. Speaking the Shanghai dialect is now a specialty. Similar losses are happening with Bavarian German, Native American languages, and other cultures with small populations. This can be seen even more noticeably through the entertainment industry. America dominates the entertainment industry. While this may not seem like a significant role, entertainment shapes our perception and values. With the homogenization, of these integral parts of society, we are at risk of becoming one of the dystopias that we read and hear about.

JenniferZ 09:36, 22 November 2013 (EST)