“Environment” is a word so embedded in environmental discourse and scholarship that it has effectively disappeared. We all know what the environment is—or do we? And what do our unexamined assumptions about environment mean for how we approach environmental issues? A careful examination of the word might lead us to recommend earlier, pre-20th century meanings—and thus avoid thinking of environment as an object, “the environment,” which unfortunately channels all the complexities, ambiguities, and perils of the concept of nature.
Most summaries of the concept stress its historical meanings over time. To some, this might mean how the term came to be associated with, say, determinism or crisis (Sörlin 2018), or the ways in which environment has been inextricably associated with colonial power and exploitation (Alston 2016). In a larger sense, however, the notion of environment has served to channel a much deeper notion, one with longstanding cultural, ideological, and political baggage: the idea of nature.
To many of us, “nature” sounds like a vague allusion to wilderness, whereas “environment” sounds like tangible, policy-relevant realities such as pollution and protection. But the meaning of environment has changed markedly over time, from a relation with one’s surroundings—say, our environment—to the stuff of physical surroundings alone—the environment, with resonance in both science and spirituality, otherwise known as nature (Proctor 2009). Nature, “perhaps the most complex word in the [English] language” (Williams 1983, 2019), has similarly changed in meaning over time, from the essence of something (e.g., “human nature”) to the biophysical world bigger than, and external to, us.
It is ironic, indeed, that many environmentalists champion a deeper connection with nature, yet deploy meanings inextricably linked with disconnect. What might be alternatives? One is to decouple “environment” from “the,” and thus reverse the implication of disconnect. Other might be to deploy entirely new words entirely, such as place (Proctor 2016): a concept that embodies how a host of connections, from local to global, from past to present, gather on the ground. Place, and related notions, may be the only way to reimagine an environmentalism freed of the limitations of environment.
[This entry is a sample for ENVS 350 students, along with these instructions.]
- Alston, Vermonja R. 2016. “Environment.” In Keywords for Environmental Studies, edited by William A. Gleason, Joni Adamson, and David N. Pellow, 93–96. NYU Press.
- Proctor, James D. 2009. “Environment after Nature: Time for a New Vision.” In Envisioning Nature, Science, and Religion, edited by James D. Proctor, 293–311. West Conshohocken, Penn: Templeton Press.
- ———. 2016. “Replacing Nature in Environmental Studies and Sciences.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 6 (4): 748–52. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-015-0259-3.
- Sörlin, Sverker. 2018. “Environment.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor, 27–32. London: Routledge. https://www.routledge.com/Companion-to-Environmental-Studies/Castree-Hulme-Proctor/p/book/9781138192201.
- Williams, Raymond. 1983. “Nature.” In Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Rev. ed., 219–24. New York: Oxford University Press.