Elmer's English 304 Magazine


The Political Construction of Nature

by Elmer G. Wiens

In "What is 'the Social Construction of Nature'? A Typology and Sympathetic Critique," David Demeritt examines the understanding of what is meant by "nature," and theories of nature as a socially constructed concept and a physical space (778). Demeritt distinguishes nature as a concept of discourse, as either a part of or the entire material world (779). As people talk about and function in relation to nature, they mutually adjust their thinking of nature, and through their actions determine their physical environment. While sharing their beliefs of nature, people develop a common sense understanding based on similar experiences. This common knowledge about nature affects political decisions, determining the way in which private and public lands, forests, and waters are used and pollution is controlled. In other words, people socially construct nature simultaneously, conceptually and materially. Are these constructed truths about nature "epistemologically warranted" (780)? Specifically, can the common sense knowledge of nature be refuted empirically with reference to the reality of nature? What are the philosophical and the political stakes of nature's social construction (786)?

If cultural and historical discourses produce the common sense notions of nature and the material states of nature, the accepted wisdom and physical status quo is provisional and subject to political manipulation (776). Whose interest does the relevant political process support? Do humans have an ethical right to exploit nature at will? Ontologically, does physical nature exist as an "independent, moral" being (782)? How is nature itself represented in the political construction of nature? Dominant groups can and do usurp political power and through education and the media control the process by which ideas become common sense. The resulting ideology maintains the groups' hegemony, permitting them to exploit the political process in favour of their agenda. However, when people realize they have the power to refute these contrived attitudes toward nature, they can oppose powerful, established groups who subjugate nature for private profit (769).

In "In The Shadow of Red Cedar," Wade Davis emphasizes the perils of ignoring ecological concerns in the management and use of natural resources. Davis claims that forestry professionals use language that is "disengenuous, as if conceived to mislead" (222). The forest industry uses terms that enhance the value of timber as logs. Old growth rainforests are "decadent" or "overmature," ripe for "harvesting." Loggers interpret the "annual allowable cut" of timber in a region as "a quota to be met," while forest managers pay lip sevice to "sustained yield" ensuring a perpetual supply of timber as a "theoretical possibility" (222). Timber represents an economic resource to be logged and manufactured into marketable products. Forestry professionsals do not regarded timber as part of an ecological system. In British Columbia, the social construction of forests favours the corporations and workers in the forest industry, and the government entitles private corporations to exploit and develop public forests (223).

Davis maintains that the rainforests of the Pacific Coast are the perfect venue for reconstructing society's shared and contested views of nature (223). In Talk and Log: Wilderness Politics in British Columbia, 1965-96, Jeremy Wilson reviews the challenges mounted over the last three decades by the environmental movement to the forest industry. Wilson states that while public criticisms have obtained some "significant substantive concessions," the ecosystem models of environmentalists have "made little headway against the status quo, the industrial forestry model" (338-39). Unless the tenure and logging regulations of the forestry system are revised, the government's forestry policies will continue to threaten the future of British Columbia's rainforests, whose sublime ecologies Davis describes so passionately.

Works Cited

Davis, Wade. The Clouded Leopard: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1998: 207-24.

Demeritt, David. "What is 'the Social Construction of Nature'? A typology and Sympathetic Critique." Progress in Human Geography 26 (2002): 767-790.

Wilson, Jeremy. Talk and Log: Wilderness Politics in British Columbia, 1965-96. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1998.

Second Growth Forest - British Columbia


Copyright © Elmer G. Wiens:   EgwaldTM Web Services  

  All Rights Reserved. Direct comments to