The nature of the unnatural nature

By Bipasha Banikya

What is nature? When confronted with this question, any human being is not taken aback. All have some idea about it. However, when asked to give the question a detailed thought, this idea which is indeed very familiar seems extremely elusive. The “nature” is a complex concept. It is broad in itself. It has multiple meanings and all these meanings though seemingly easy are difficult to unravel. As Noel Castree puts it “Nature is both a concept and all those physical things to which the concept refers.” This idea is prominently used everywhere in everyday life by almost everyone. So, the concept is definitely omnipresent. But what then can be the best way to define nature?

Noel Castree suggests that however elusive the idea maybe, the idea of nature can be defined under three broad definitions:

1) External nature — This is the familiar traditional way of defining nature, which assumes that nature is an external entity. It is pristine, pure and untouched by the society. As geographer Neil Smith (1984, p. 2) puts it, “external nature is pristine, God-given, autonomous; it is the raw material from which society is built.” This definition makes nature the nonsocial, nonhuman kind of space where everything is different than the society where humans live. This simplistic way of looking at the nature started to change. By mid-twentieth century geographers were interested in understanding the society-nature relationships which was never sought for before. Today the idea of external nature has given way to a different humans-and-geography kind of understanding of nature. The focus has shifted to the more contemporary research on how human interact and impact nature/environment.

2) Intrinsic nature — This idea of nature is another way of defining the value inherent to someone or something. The nature is seen as fixed that is an essential intrinsic quality of something. This idea of nature is applied to both humans and environment. The definition thus goes beyond just ‘the environment’ and spreads in the sphere of literally everything. This nature is definable by one or the other fixed key attributes.

3) Universal nature — Then comes the third category of ‘universal nature’. In contrast to the ‘external nature’ idea, the ‘universal nature’ sees everything as a part of an universal entity. It has two parts to it; one, to see everything as a general phenomena and the other, is to see nature as encompassing everything and thus being universal, which is also the the “Gaianist” way of looking at the nature.

The definitions are definitely overlapping, however serves a great deal of clarity on the subject of what nature means. Noel Castree argues that the ‘nature’ is social through and through. The concept of social nature came up much later created by critical geographers. It embraces the idea of a socialized nature. The idea emerged with the writings of the first critical geographers like David Harvey, who insisted on the public and the governmental concerns over ‘overpopulation’ and ‘resource scarcity’. Geographers argue that nature can be said to social in three related ways;

  1. Knowledge of nature — Knowing nature is invariably depends on the knower. Thus, knowledge of knowledge by someone is nevertheless greatly inflected with the biases and presumptions of the knower. These presumptions and biases come from the society that these individuals are a part of. This is a very strong argument because it can be applied in various fields and prove to have meaning. There is a profound effect of social and power relations on the way an individual defines nature. Thus, nature and the perception of various definitions or knowledge of nature is social.
  2. Engaging nature — Social dimensions of nature do not restrict to knowledge alone. The critical geographers believe that it is impossible to disentangle the idea of social and nature. But what does that mean? Does this mean that we deny the material reality of what we routinely call nature? The critical geographers insist that the same nature will have different physical attributes and meanings based on the way that they use it. In this sense importantly, the nature is no more a fixed pure entity, rather it changes every time the society uses it in a different way.
  3. Remaking nature — Societies, intentionally or unintentionally, reconstruct nature, especially in the western societies. For instance today, the world is talking about modifying almost everything genetically for better resilience and content. This is how societies remake the nature for its own sake. Another example can be the science fiction movie series “Jurassic park”, where this idea is so prevalent. A bunch of people empowered with technology go out and create a completely new world which had ceased to exist millions years ago. This remaking of the nature is social.

Thus can we say that the nature is not natural? There has been wide claims about nature being social and so have the attacks. People who attack the idea of social nature go on to say that this idea makes the whole idea o f nature seem nothing but merely a social construction. Another major criticism is that if nature is social then every natural phenomena (especially a natural crisis must be a social construction or fabrication of ideas). This idea also emphasizes that nature being socially created gives too much power to the society and makes nature look like small at the mercy of the society.

Though there are criticisms to the idea of social nature, but the concept of social nature is a strong one. It is important for us to think and understand nature more closely. This is an era of the kind of nature which has been technologically influenced to an extent that we no more know what is natural in some situations. The concept of social nature opens up scope for more discussion and understanding about the kind of nature we want and the kind it has now become!


Castree, N., & Braun, B. (2001). Social Nature. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc.

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