The psyCommoner: Nature vs Civilization

August 9, 2016 § Leave a comment



Guest post by Thomas Allan

Around this time of year it’s common to see newspaper and magazine articles featuring the wild: wild swimming, wild gardens, wild food, wild camping, wild running, hidden beaches and lost lanes.

These representations of a variety of human activities in the wild are usually set against a backdrop of rare spaces of natural beauty. Ancient woodlands with spectacular spreads of bluebells, beautiful lakes and wooded dingles cut into hills, meadows where Owls and Kestrels hunt. These exuberant and fertile landscapes awaken our senses, helping us get back in touch with our selves, with nature and leave the real world behind.

In fact, according to Community Psychologist and researcher Carl Walker, much research demonstrates the curative impact of green and waterside environments on mood, where regular use of the natural environment reduces the risk of mental ill health.

‘Nature’, though, is often represented as much by what it is not, as by what it is. It is places of natural beauty: countryside and rivers, mountains and creeks. It is not production or social organization: towns, roads, cars, offices, airports or factories. One, the profane, implies ‘contemporary sources of unfreedom’; mundane individual and societal problems. The other, the sacred, carries ‘a promising but unspecified sense of an alternative’. Manufactured objects, landscapes and the negotiation of social relations are not part of ‘nature’.

Yet, to a large extent, an individual’s capacity to access ‘nature’ depends on a range of contingencies embedded in everyday social and economic life. You’ll need physical health, mobility, cognition and psychosocial wellbeing (or otherwise access to social support). You’ll need communication, and affordable transportation such as a car, bike or public transport. You’ll need entitlement to time (paid or unpaid leave), money, food, clothes and equipment. You’ll probably want somewhere to stay and perhaps some company.

In our familiar notions of work, production and value, ‘nature’ is produced and repackaged as ‘leisure’ or ‘recreation’: apparently free time spent away from our work organizations, career building, formal education and domestic households. Yet this is a separation that ignores the economic and social forces which capture free time from an individual and sell it back to them as a commodity. Today, zero hours contracts, endless workplace restructures, reduced wages and welfare, anxieties, insecurity and a crisis in public health have left many without the means to traverse ‘real life’ into ‘nature’.

And if you are serious about leaving it all behind? You will need to consider other issues of accessing nature. According to an article in the Guardian, the UK has 60m acres of land; two thirds of which is privately owned by 0.36 percent of the population. The project of living within ‘nature’ is subject to the rules and exclusions of private or state land ownership and management. Historically, Simon Fairlie describes how the enclosure (privatization) of land in the UK over a number of centuries has led to extreme levels of land ownership concentration, depriving most British people of access to agricultural land.

However, many decades living afloat on the Thames in London led to author, activist and group therapist Denis Postle’s extended experience of the wild. For Postle, ‘Wilderness’ serves as an integrating notion for the split between ‘nature’ and ‘civilisation’: “Intimate appreciation of the dynamics of this wilderness led to the realisation that the city surrounding it and urban civilisation in general was also a wilderness and that the split between ‘nature’ and ‘civilisation’ was a major category error. Cities, the Internet, aircraft, washbasins and supermarkets are also ‘nature’.”

Here, nature and civilization are two inseparable spheres in symbiotic relationship. One may be described as the natural environment, not altered by human intervention. The other as what Castree (2001) and colleagues have termed ‘social nature’, referring to how societies physically re-constitute nature ‘intentionally and unintentionally’ to the point it becomes institutionalised and ‘internalised into social processes’.

The natural environment: climate, weather and natural resources, affects social nature: human survival and economic activity. The ‘economy’, originally conceived of as household management and by extension the commons, relies on nature in the form of resource extraction to produce commodities that we buy and sell in private markets for profit or use; while traditionally the state has harnessed ‘nature’ through investing in infrastructure such as roads, bridges, airports, railways, buildings and power stations to facilitate expansion, employment and ever more production and accumulation (market growth).

Different forms of production and social organization for survival are not unique to the modern era. But the endless drive for strategies of growth in the era of industrialization has fundamentally transformed human geography such as through extensive urbanization and agricultural land conversion, disturbing the ‘metabolic interaction’ between humans and the earth. One ‘nature’ has modified, displaced or diminished the ‘other’.

More reflections from The psyCommoner to follow…

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