Strange natures: Geography and the study of human-environment relationships
Nature's not what it used to be. Consider the following. In 2001 alone, scientists and so-called 'lifescience' companies, like Monsanto, unveiled a seemingly non-stop array of new 'genetically modified' (GM) organisms. Perhaps the most notable of these were ANDi, the rhesus monkey - implanted with genes from a jellyfish! - and Bessie, an American cow, who gave birth to an Indian gaur, an ox-like animal threatened with extinction on the other side of the world. Not surprisingly, these remarkable feats of biological engineering have caused considerable controversy. In Britain, for example, government attempts to assess the safety of GM crops were sabotaged by environmental organizations like Greenpeace, whose UK leader, Lord Melchett, was famously arrested for his part in destroying field test sites. More notable still has been Prince Charles's outspoken opposition to GM foods. As he put it in a BBC Radio 4 lecture given in May 2000, producing these foods entails 'playing God with nature', which is why he has been a strong advocate of more natural, organic farming methods - methods he has used on his own farms in Cornwall and elsewhere. Charles's desires to 'get back to nature' before we destroy it altogether was boosted in 2001 by a remarkable venture, again in Cornwall. The Eden Project, which cost 75 million pounds, is an attempt to harness modern science and technology to preserve nature rather than tamper with it - in this respect contrasting with GM organisms. It was established by environmentalists concemed about species extinctions worldwide. Situated in two reclaimed c1ay pits, the Eden Project's giant geodesic greenhouses contain whole biomes from around the world, including those, like tropical humid forests, that are currently under threat from human activities such as logging. The name says it all: echoing the famous Garden in the Bible, the Eden Project attempts to be a storehouse for life on Earth. It literally transplants nature, recreating it in an artificial environment designed to ensure its continued existence. Together, the proliferation of GM organisms and the Eden Project give us two glimpses of nature in the new millennium: the new 'engineered natures' of advanced societies and the fast-disappearing 'natural natures' bequeathed by evolution. Or do they? Despite their apparent differences, I would argue that in both cases nature is, in fact, a human fabrication. In other words, even the Eden Project - despite its intentions - serves up an 'unnatural' or 'strange nature'. This may seem a peculiar, even outrageous, claim, but I am not alone in making it. In recent years many human geographers have been arguing that nature today is no longer natural. They insist that it is a human construction through and through. In this chapter I want to explain what is meant by this and why it matters. I shall do so by saying more aboUt GM organisms and nature-protection schemes like the Eden Project. But first it is necessary to say a little bit about how geographers have typically studied nature.