Echte natuur : een sociaaltheoretisch onderzoek naar natuurwaardering en natuurbescherming in de moderne samenleving

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


The subject of nature valuation and nature conservation has attracted a vast body of social research. And yet there is hardly an accepted theoretical framework with which to clarify dominant present-day concepts of nature and their social backgrounds. Many of today's authors would rather emphasize the diversity and controversy in nature conceptualization than provide an integrated view. This book starts from the assumption that it is possible to trace long-standing and dominant social traditions of nature conceptualization across the multiplicity of natures encountered in modern societies. My aim is to present a theoretical framework that is able to illuminate the social structure of these traditions. In addition, I aim at contributing to the nature policy debate by developing the perspective of a democratic nature policy, and by analysing the relationship between public perception of nature and nature conservation. The argument of the book is divided into three parts.

The first part is dedicated to tracing the main forms of nature that appear in Western modernity. It draws on philosophical, historical and sociological studies, in particular the works of the social theorists Serge Moscovici, Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, Anthony Giddens, and Colin Campbell. I identify two main traditions in the shaping of nature in modern society. First, there is the tradition of science and technology, in which nature is shaped into a physico-chemical system of elements and processes that operate according to mathematical principles, without meaning or objectives in terms of human purposes. This form of nature I have called systemic nature. Following Moscovici's analysis, I argue that the development of systemic nature can be described as the establishment of a new 'state of nature' by an emerging category of scientists, who were able to impose the way they deal with nature as a dominant concept of nature in modern society. Notwithstanding the clarity and exactness of the scientific world view, it is characterized by fundamental problems, as demonstrated by Foucault. Human subjectivity and its place within the reality of nature are highly problematic concepts in modern thinking. The natural sciences seem to lead to the 'dehumanization' of the world. Simultaneously, however, scientific concepts become appropriated to the lifeworld of citizens. Conceptual problems regarding the place of humans in nature are represented in the current debate on reflexive modernity and 'the end of nature'.

A second tradition of nature conceptualization is equally characteristic of modernity. It is situated in what Habermas refers to as the aesthetic and expressive domain. After Donald Worster, I call this tradition 'Arcadian'. Surfacing most prominently in Romanticism, the Arcadian tradition shapes nature as rural idyll or wilderness. Arcadian nature consists of living beings in their landscapes, and in particular it consists of living beings and landscapes positioned at a distance from industrial society. This type of nature is imbued with positive aesthetic and moral values. The Arcadian tradition, as analysed in this book, is complementary to industrialization and urbanization. Arcadian representations of nature are in many respects idealized symbolic types, rather than concepts based on actual experiences of nature. However, the Arcadian tradition also results from increasing sensibilities to nature a multitude of modern citizens. It arises from a society in which most people are no longer directly dependent on nature for their livelihood and increasingly encounter nature in lifeworld practices of enjoyment and care: nature recreation, nature study, and nature protection in a broad sense — ranging from a trip into the countryside and feeding birds to hikes in nature reserves and nature conservation activism. However, like the tradition of science and technology, the Arcadian tradition is not devoid of fundamental tensions. Drawing on Campbell, I show that in many respects these tensions go back to the social structure of Romanticism. A typical feature of Romanticism is the prominence and close relationship of emotion, intuition, aesthetics, and morality; another feature is an aversion to modern, industrialized society. In the representation of nature, these features are reflected in a strong emotional and moral attitude towards natural beauty, and in the admiration of rural life and wilderness. These features contrast with the rational attitude of citizens, and the exploitation of nature for production and consumption in modern society. In order to cope with this contradiction, modern thinking about nature has created symbolic divides — for example, between pet animals and animals raised industrially for food.

Part I concludes that nature, as it appears in the lifeworld of modern citizens, is influenced by two major traditions: by the concepts of science and technology appropriated to people's lifeworld, and by the idealized representations of rurality and wilderness articulated in the Arcadian tradition. In the lifeworld, both traditions are mixed, modified, and moulded according to people's concrete experiences of nature. In addition to these traditions, many other frames of reference are of importance in the shaping of nature in the modern lifeworld, but none of them are as influential as these two.

The next part of the book explores the conceptualization of nature in contemporary environmental sociology and develops subsequently a theoretical framework for social research into nature valuation and nature conservation. In environmental sociology—which is taken here in its broad sense — three clusters of nature conceptualization can be identified: one focusing on nature as a resource, one focusing on Arcadian nature, and one focusing on the social construction of nature. The first two are closely linked to the traditions identified in Part I. Instrumental values of nature for production and consumption are central to the resource approach. Nature is protected to safeguard the provision for human purposes of services that are not intrinsically related to nature, such as the supply of water and raw materials, food production, or genetic information. Environmental sociology, according to the resource approach, is concerned with the sustainable and socially fair exploitation of nature for production and consumption. Non-instrumental values are central to the Arcadian approach — that is, values intrinsically related to nature itself, such as the moral right to exist, aesthetic values, or cultural-historical values. With regard to the Arcadian approach, I stress the point that intrinsic values are not limited to moral, ecocentric values. Aesthetic values too can be regarded as intrinsic when they are directly related to the character of nature. In fact, the motivations of the modern nature conservation movement are largely based in such 'anthropocentric' intrinsic values. Environmental sociologists who take the Arcadian approach are primarily concerned with the protection of nature against human exploitation for the sake of these intrinsic values. The third approach arises from the recent flowering of constructionist thought. Although they attribute a different set of values to nature, both the resource and the Arcadian approach consider these values to be grounded in the reality of nature. The social construction approach, though not necessarily denying such a reality, explains nature as something constituted symbolically rather than given objectively. It emphasizes the diversity and contextuality of nature concepts.

In reviewing the three approaches, it appears that each one makes a significant contribution to a social theory of nature, but none of them can provide a framework that adequately covers the phenomena of nature valuation and nature conservation. Such a framework, I suggest, would have to meet two essential requirements. First, it should be capable of reconciling two fundamental notions: on the one hand, the social construction of nature and, on the other, the 'materiality', or relative independence, of nature as experienced both in scientific practice and in everyday life. Second, it should provide a theoretical space for the type of nature valuation central to the Arcadian approach. In other words, the 'materiality' of nature should not only harbour systemic nature, but also living beings and landscapes bestowed with moral and aesthetic meaning. The remainder of Part II is dedicated to developing this framework.

The first step towards the framework consists of the elaboration of the concept of 'primary practice'. Drawing on Moscovici, I define a primary practice as a specific practice of interaction with material reality constituting the major basis for the conceptual development of a state of nature. The primary practice of systemic nature, as discussed in Part I, is the research of scientists in the context of laboratories and industrial processes. Nature is manifested in this practice as an independent reality, but at the same time it is socially constructed through invention and experimentation. Furthermore, Moscovici's theory opens up the theoretical possibility of other states of nature. As argued earlier, Arcadian nature can be considered as a second major state of nature in modern society. The primary practice that constitutes the basis of Arcadian nature, I argue, is the set of practices of enjoyment of and care for nature that has become part of the lifeworld of modern citizens.

In the second step towards a theoretical framework, the concept of lifeworld is developed in discussion with Habermas. Following Habermas, I take the lifeworld as a frame of reference that is shared by a multitude of citizens and that fulfils a crucial role in social communication. Diverging from Habermas, I argue that the domain of the lifeworld is not restricted to linguistic communication, but encompasses also the dimension of body and senses. The lifeworld consists not only of shared scientific knowledge and shared social norms, but also of shared sensual and emotional experiences, including sensibilities to nature.

Thus, the outline of the theoretical framework as laid down in Part II is as follows. There are three overlapping spheres of nature conceptualization in modernity: the sphere of science and technology, the sphere of the Arcadian tradition, and the sphere of the lifeworld. In the interaction between science and technology and the lifeworld, concepts of science are appropriated to the lifeworld — but the primary practice of these concepts is situated outside of the lifeworld in the 'province' of scientific research. Interaction takes also place between the Arcadian tradition and the lifeworld, but this is of a different character. The idealized images of nature are mostly created outside of the lifeworld by small groups of nature lovers and artists. However, the primary practice of materially 'realizing' these images is situated within the lifeworld. In the interaction between the Arcadian nature representations and the lifeworld, therefore, the lifeworld practices of enjoyment of and care for nature are, in the end, decisive. Rationalization of the lifeworld is a crucial condition for the democratic direction of nature management. This kind of rationalization encompasses both the appropriation of instrumental scientific knowledge and the articulation of sensibility to the moral and aesthetic meanings of nature.

In the third part of this book, the theoretical framework is applied to two case studies of nature conservation in the Netherlands. The first case study deals with the development of the nature conservation movement and nature conservation policy in the twentieth century. It is clear that the Dutch nature conservation movement has its roots in the Arcadian tradition. The appreciation of nature aesthetics (in Dutch 'natuurschoon'), linked to practices of nature recreation, occupies a central place in nature conservation texts of the first half of the twentieth century. However, the concept of nature aesthetics is much broader than only visual attraction: it encompasses also features such as rarity, unspoilt character, and cultural history. Hence, I speak of 'inclusive' aesthetics. From 1940 onwards, however, the concept of aesthetics loses its prominent place in nature conservation documents. After 1970, a new term comes to the fore: ecological values. In fact, this term refers to two kinds of values: instrumental values based upon the 'life support functions' of nature, and intrinsic values. In this context, the term intrinsic value refers, however, only to the moral values of nature, and not to other non-instrumental values, such as aesthetics or cultural history. Notwithstanding this shift in conservation arguments, inclusive aesthetic values continue to play a pivotal role in practical nature management. The institutionalization of nature conservation was possible because of the strong social support of the Dutch public. Non-instrumental, moral and aesthetic values are prominent among Dutch citizens. Aesthetic values in particular are closely related to lifeworld experiences of nature recreation. Although it is hard to establish the exact influence of the lifeworld, there exists a plausible link between the continuing Arcadian character of nature conservation in the Netherlands and nature as it is experienced in the lifeworld of citizens. This is in line with the idea of primary practice in the theoretical framework.

The second case study concerns the biodiversity debate. Notwithstanding the differences between the Arcadian approach and the resource approach are distinct, both approaches are often intricately linked, in the lifeworld as well as in nature conservation policy. The biodiversity debate is a case in point. Within this debate, both internationally and in the Netherlands, there is an important, perhaps even dominant, strand that conceives nature in terms of evolutionary genetics and whose arguments for nature conservation are based mainly on the economic importance of genetic diversity. Following the terms set out in the theoretical framework, the tradition of science and technology moves to a central position in the thinking about nature conservation. This strand of argumentation is disputed, however. On the one hand, attention to the economic utilization of nature can contribute to a more realistic approach of nature, which demystifies the symbolic ideal type of wilderness and leaves more room for combining nature conservation and socio-economic development. On the other hand, the scientific foundation of the resource arguments is often poor, and it easily becomes a pseudo-scientific cover-up for other, Arcadian motives. In international forums as well as in the Netherlands, this way of biodiversity argumentation appears to end up in technocratization rather than reflexive modernization of the biodiversity debate. I suggest that for a more rational debate on biodiversity to take place — in the sense of the theoretical framework — a broad view of biodiversity is more appropriate. According to this view, the modern scientific concepts of biology can inspire, augment, or modify Arcadian nature concepts, but not replace them.

In the epilogue, I draw up the balance of this book. In addition to summarizing the main conclusions of the three parts, I discuss the question whether nature conservation is a socially engaged movement or, instead, a manifestation of modern hedonism. I suggest that establishing a clear link between our longing for nature and social harmony, on one hand, and our decisions on production and consumption in their global consequences, on the other, would be an important requirement for nature conservation as a socially engaged movement. In other words, we should try to overcome the Romantic divide between 'real nature' as an ideal state beyond modern society, and real nature as something we live in and use.

Original languageDutch
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Nooij, A.T.J., Promotor
  • Kunneman, H.P., Promotor, External person
Award date8 May 2002
Place of PublicationS.l.
Print ISBNs9789058086334
Publication statusPublished - 2002


  • nature conservation
  • valuation
  • man
  • psychology
  • impact
  • environment
  • society
  • sociology
  • philosophy
  • nature
  • nature and environmental education

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