‘Ideas I will discuss how his ideas have been

‘Ideas
of nature’ are as Williams says ‘complicated and changing as other ideas and
experiences change’ (1980). Hence, attempts to capture the complexity of nature
in a single definition are bound to be unsuccessful. In this essay, I will explore
what Williams intended us to understand from his famous adage and how he
develops his ideas of nature through the mirror of history. A discussion will
follow on how his ideas of nature are still relevant today and the implications
that they have had in the eco-cultural field. By doing so, I hope to
demonstrate that Raymond Williams’s ideas on nature have been extremely
influential paradoxically in both the environmentalist and eco-criticism
movements. I will discuss how his ideas have been developed to create modern
views on the society-environment relationship, an example being the
Anthropocene.

A
crucial part of studying history is to understand and make sense of what has
happened in the past so that this knowledge can be used to inform contemporary
debates and ideas. In “Ideas of Nature”
from which this quote derives, Williams traces the evolution of the concept of
nature through the course of human history. The ‘idea of nature’ to Williams
was a ‘fundamental idea’ that expressed ‘mankind’s vision of itself and its
place in the world’ and is ‘central to many different kinds of thought’
(Williams. R., 1980). Hence studying changing views of nature throughout
history enables us to develop a deeper understanding of ourselves and, in
recent centuries, of changing political and ecological ideologies. Such changes
have impacted and will continue to impact both the human and the non-human
worlds.

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For me,
the most important aspect of the “idea of nature” that Williams explores is
whether or not man includes himself in his perception of nature. Man’s
perception of nature has changed greatly in history and is closely linked to his
attitude and behaviour toward nature (Williams. R., 1980). In medieval times,
society was based on the Genesis Creation Narrative, where God created man
along with the rest of the natural world (Genesis 1:1-2:3). Man was part of
God’s plan and a part of nature. Nature was worshipped and even “became a
goddess, a divine Mother” (Williams. R., 1980). Such beliefs put man very much
at the heart of the natural world and thus he greatly respected it and at that
time, lived much more harmoniously with the non-human world. However, already the
development of farming and the domestication of animals had begun and man had
been ‘learning to control’ nature (Williams. R., 1980).

As
scientific developments enhanced our understanding of natural processes,
including Darwin’s theory of evolution, nature came to be perceived as being separate
from God and also separate from man. This happened against the backdrop of the
agricultural and industrial revolutions. The rapid developments at this time
led to increasing exploitation of our natural resources – nature became a thing
to be used and abused and no longer something that we were in communion with. Williams
describes a ‘ruthless economic selfishness’. These attitudes can still be seen
today with the rise of Neoliberalism in the second half of the twentieth
century, led by Thatcher and Regan, a return to the so called ‘laissez-faire’
liberalism of the nineteenth century (Goldstein, 2010). This free market ideology sees nature being
viewed as a “commodity to be bought and sold by those with sufficient monetary
assets” (Castree. N., 2010) rather than something that should be valued in its
own right.

The ideologies
of Imperialism and Colonialism also involve the domination of nature, but this
domination extends to include other countries and other men. Williams describes
this as “seeing both men and physical products as raw materials” (Williams. R.
1980). The extreme example of this was slavery where people in the colonies
were considered to be inferior beings and were deprived of their liberty and
had no rights at all.  Williams had
Marxist ideologies, and espoused the idea of ‘uneven development’. He felt that
there was still inequality today tied up with the exploitation of nature, stating
that “if we alienate the living processes of which we are a part we end though
unequally by alienating ourselves”. Although colonialism can be regarded as an
evil episode consigned to our past history, postcolonial theorists argue that
‘colonialist practices and rhetoric’ remain evident today (Willems-Braun,
1997). This is particularly apparent in what would appear to be laudable
activities such as conservation. We need to heed Williams words and take a step
back today and responsibly appraise our attitudes to fellow humans as well as
to nature.

This
change in the relationship between man and nature has seen man’s impact on the
bio-physical environment increase exponentially since the advent of the
industrial revolution in the mid eighteenth century. His activities, particularly
the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, have been shown to impact
the Earth systems so enormously, that they may have caused us to enter into a
new geological epoch; The Anthropocene (Steffan et al., 2007). This demonstrates
that when we have thought of ourselves as being separate from nature, there
have been disastrous consequences on both the human and the bio-physical
worlds. By showcasing this, Williams was increasing awareness of man’s impact
on the environment. He wanted us to learn from the environmental degradation,
pollution et cetera that had happened and was happening at the time, encouraging
us to live more harmoniously with ‘nature’. Furthermore, it is important to
appreciate that modern conceptual ideas regarding man’s relationship with the
natural world, such as the Anthropocene, are just extensions of this
fundamental relationship between culture and nature of which Williams was a
pioneer, highlighting the importance of this adage and his work.

Today,
man’s impact on the biophysical environment is continuing to increase. However,
there is undoubtedly an awareness of our actions which had previously been
absent. At Williams’ time of writing, this was not the case at all. In fact, as
a public figure, he was quite ground breaking in discussing “ideas of nature”,
environmentalism and sustainability at all (Ryle. M., 2011). Although academics
have been concerned about global warming and its potential impacts since the
1980s, it took until the turn of the century for the idea to be accepted in the
public sphere. Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’
(2006) was particularly influential in educating people of its importance. Much
of society in the developed world now recognises the human impacts on the
bio-physical world and the separation we have caused between ourselves and ‘nature’.
Since Williams’ famous and ground-breaking adage, environmentalism movements
have really caught steam and raised wide scale awareness of the impacts of
human activities, not limited to global warming, that were previously unappreciated.
Therefore, William’s ‘ideas of nature’ should be seen as influential to the
modern environmentalist movement.

In
addition to Williams’ adage being influential in creating more awareness of
man’s adverse impacts on the bio-physical environment, his concept of considering
man as part of nature has also been important in proposing responses to inhabiting
the Anthropocene. There have been calls for, and indeed experiments with, man
living more harmoniously with himself and nature. The anti-capitalist feminist
geographers Katherine Gibson and the late Julie Graham believed this and called
for a “radically inclusive habitility” and promoted “adventures with living”.
On a local scale, certain experiments, such as the ‘The Evergreen cooperative laundry’
in Cleveland, Ohio have been successful; it provided ‘reasonable wages for
staff’, saved local hospitals and institutions valuable money and space, as
well as recycling water and using renewable solar energy (Gibson-Graham. J. K.,
2011). Globally there are also some extremely successful examples of the
sharing economy driven by online technology, such as the home-sharing website
Airbnb and the increasingly controversial and unregulated car-pooling company
UBER. Such experiments with cooperative living reduce resource consumption and echo
William’s belief that man should consider himself part of nature. 

However,
Williams also criticised what he felt were mistaken “ideas of nature” held by
many 19th century people who would have considered themselves environmentalists.
At this time, people began to envisage a different kind of nature to escape to,
“nature as the lonely places, the wilderness”, apparently unspoilt and
untouched by man (Williams. R., 1980). However many so called wilderness places
were in fact “quite profoundly a human creation” (Cronon,1996a), a cultural
invention. Demeritt (2002?) describes two meanings for this concept of the
social construction of nature. It can be in a real physical sense, for example,
the work of the American landscape architect Olmsted who designed so called
natural areas such as the Boston fens (Whiston Spirn 1996) or it can be a
social construction of our concepts of nature. This view holds that reality is
socially produced and not simply given, extending the views of Williams into
more epistemological philosophical realms.

These
visions of a wild nature also reflected “our own unexamined longings and
desires” (Cronon. W., 1996a). They were human constructions designed to meet
our spiritual needs and not nature in its true sense (?). Paradoxically just by our being in a
wilderness landscape, it can no longer be a true wilderness and as history has
taught us (?). Viewing
nature as separate to ourselves can lead to environmental degradation as we are
not respecting it. Both Williams (1980) and Cronon (1996) dwell on how we haven’t
learnt to live responsibly with nature. We can designate areas as national
parks to be separate places where we respect nature. However we are
inextricably tied to nature whether we live in the countryside or cities. Our aim
should be to live sustainably with nature as our home rather than separating
ourselves from nature and creating a utopian vision of a wilderness nature that
excludes humans (Cronon 1996b). (link to answer q)

This
questioning of the validity of created nature is called eco-critcism, since it
fundamentally questions environmentalism; ‘an interest in or the study of the environment, in order to protect it from damage by human activities’ (Cambridge
Dictionary, 2017). Ironically, some consider Williams to be the ‘founder of the
eco-criticism (Giblett, R. J., 2012) when, in my opinion, he was arguing for
environmentalism and in particular for man and nature to live more harmoniously
together again. The eco-criticism movement could be very dangerous

In
conclusion, it is evident that Raymond Williams’ adage has been extremely
influential in the eco-cultural field. By exploring man’s changing “ideas of
nature” through “human history”, he provided us with an innovative way of
thinking about ourselves and nature that both increased awareness in society of
our current unhealthy relationship with the nature, and sparked further debate
in academic eco-cultural fields. Moreover, the adage raised important questions
over motives of environmentalists and was even developed by post-modernists to
question environmentalism itself. On a holistic level, I think there is also a
lot of inherent value in Williams’ statement. One can apply his approach to dismantling commonly
held preconceptions or constructions of nature to a great many concepts, not
least to other concepts he explored in his other works, such as culture.