Nature and society
How are society and nature related? How and why do the relationships vary over time and across space? Together, these questions virtually defined the focus and raison d’être of academic geography when it first gained a toe-hold in Western universities over a century ago. Today, they remain key questions for many geographers—and the stakes are not purely academic. When, in 1864, George Perkins Marsh published Man and Nature, or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action he was in a distinct minority. In the early twenty-first century, by contrast, his warnings about humanity’s capacity to cause irreversible changes to ecosystems and habitats are hardly out of place. Indeed, Marsh’s concerns about our treatment of the biophysical world are today echoed by those anxious about the way we are altering human as much as non-human nature. Ours is the era of genetically modified foods, ‘designer babies’, artificial life (AI), cloned mammals, accelerating species extinctions, global climate change, the deforestation of the Amazon Basin, oil and water scarcity, and much more besides. Such is modern humanity’s capacity to transform natural processes and phenomena that the Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen calls our time ‘the anthropocene’. In his view, it is akin to a new geological era and a distinct phase of earth history. What is to be done about the ‘human impact’? This is among the defining questions of our time.
In this chapter I describe the changing and diverse ways in which geographers have interrogated society–nature relationships over the last century or so. This is a grand ambition given the word constraints imposed by writing for this Handbook: as we will see, it involves discussing geography as a whole rather than a few select parts of the field. This reflects the continued centrality of the ‘society –nature problematic’ to geography’s identity, even during the long post-1945 period when its human and physical components drifted progressively apart. My review reveals some stark intellectual and ethical differences in the approaches taken by geographers past and present. There has long been little consensus about what dimensions of society– nature relations should be studied, how and to what ends. I speculate on the causes of dissensus, and also consider whether a lack of unity is problem or a plus-point. Throughout, I focus on Anglophone geography—in part because it is quite influential within the broader landscape of academic geography globally, in part because I know far less about the subject beyond the Anglophone world. Because I cover so much ground in so few pages, my discussion is necessarily sweeping and lacks the usual subtleties and qualifications. I hope the simplifications made do not amount to misrepresentations. Although I take a chronological approach in what follows, I in am in no way assuming that what is newest is, intellectually speaking, intrinsically better or worse than what came before. I’ll explain why towards the end.