Geographies of Nature: Societies, Environments, Ecologies


Steve Hinchliffe

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  • Part I: What are Geographies of Nature?

    Part II: How and Why Geographies of Nature Matter?

  • Copyright

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    For Caroline, Dylan and Nate, for teaching me a looser kind of sense


    This book is the product of many places, people, friends, colleagues, books, articles, fields, rivers, plants, conversations, arguments, animals – some of these are quoted in the book, some are described, many will recognize elements of themselves without necessarily being granted the formal recognition they deserve. But my thanks to all those who have inspired me over the years and taken the time to engage with my misreading and misunderstandings of their words and deeds in order to set me right. That I am not right is of course partly inevitable, but something for which I take full responsibility.

    The theme of this book, geographies of, or spaces for, nature is indicative of the practice of borrowing and translating that goes on in academic worlds – the term ‘Spaces for Nature’ had a former life as the name for a project which aimed to increase the number of local nature reserves that existed in urban Birmingham. Being involved in the early stages of that project and in thinking what it might mean for nature to have spaces, inspired some of the arguments that are worked out in this book.

    Some of the chapters emerged from projects with others, notably with people involved in the Habitable Cities Project at the Open University (Sarah Whatmore, Matthew Kearnes, Monica Degen and staff at the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust and CSV Environment). Meanwhile ongoing work with Nick Bingham on biosecurities is included in Chapter 7. Thanks to all these people for helping to generate these and other materials. Work on habitable cities was kindly funded by the UK's Economic and Social Research Council (No. R00239283). I have also benefited greatly from small grants from the Open University, enabling me to carry out fieldwork, and from study leave time made available by the Geography Discipline and my colleagues at the OU.

    Special thanks also go to the following people who have read or commented on large or small parts of this book in earlier or later drafts – they include Nick Bingham, Lucila Lahitou, Nigel Clark, John Law, Ingunn Moser, Kristin Asdal and Annemarie Mol.

    In addition, there are many people who in recent years have shaped my thinking. They include John Allen, Michael Pryke, Doreen Massey, Sarah Whatmore, David Featherstone, David Papadopoulos, Clive Barnett, Kevin Hetherington, Steve Pile, Nigel Thrift, David Demeritt, Noel Castree, Eric Laurier, Gail Davis, Jacquie Burgess, Andrew Blowers, Carolyn Harrison, Tony Phillips, Glyn Williams, Martin Parker, Jennifer Wolch, Chris Wilbert,

    Chris Philo, Jenny Price, Beth Greenhough, Emma Roe, Gareth Enticott, Jeanette Pols, Martin Gren, Mikael Jonasson, Ian Cook, Michael Crang, Paul Harrison, Brendan Gleeson, Sue Owens, Richard Cowell, Adrian Passmore, James Evans, Bronislaw Szersynski, Phil MacNaghten, Claire Waterton, Brian Wynne, Parvati Raghuram, George Revill, and Alistair Phillips.

    At Sage I would like to thank Robert Rojek for running with the initial idea and for his encouragement and patience, also Katherine Haw and Susan Dunsmore for their hard work at the editing stage.

    Finally, and most importantly, Caroline, Dylan and Nate have taught me a great deal, enchanted me at every turn and have made writing a joyful possibility.

    List of Figures

  • Afterword: Activating Geographies of Nature

    The natures that animate the pages of this book are different. They do not obey the easy cuts of Nature and Society, Science and Politics, to which many have become accustomed. Indeed, the old divides are counterproductive. On farms and food processing plants, nuclear waste repositories and military battlefields, hospital wards and government offices, the practices of making some thing happen are being let down by the anti-politics of Nature. Matters are closed down too quickly, and with too great a degree of irrevocability, with the result that reality comes back to haunt those who have declared things to be safe, under control, or no longer worthy of attention. It is increasingly clear, then, that the space-times of things are not well served by the ‘one stop shop’ that Nature offers.

    Similarly, Nature doesn't seem to be working as a rallying site for everyone and everything anymore. If in the past it has allowed us to terminate debate and – like God before it – secure an agreeable collective, things certainly don't seem to be as easy now. Already, faced with an unruly and heterogeneous populace, a massive demographic of humans and nonhumans who won't fall into place (Callon and Law, 2004), what or who counts is very much up for grabs.

    How do we proceed politically without Nature to ground us? How can a democracy be built that refuses to kowtow to Nature, but at the same time takes into account the space-times of the new demographic? There are at least two possible general means of moving these questions forward. The first is to proclaim ‘no nature’, to work towards political settlements in a purely cultural register. The second is to argue for many natures, a kind of multi-naturalism (de Castro, 2000; Latour, 2003).

    No Nature, or Politics Without Nature

    Certainly the one nature, or the timeless space of nature that marks an attempt to settle disputes, to declare the truth of the matter, the matters of fact, as Latour (2004b) calls them, is both objectionable politically, and, it seems, is increasingly a rather weak myth by which to govern affairs. One response is to retreat from any notion of nature, to declare the ruse of nature to be well and truly finished and seek alternatives. If a singular nature never really existed, then we are left only with a social world, narrowly defined as consisting of human beings and their interrelations, within and upon which to develop a collective. And yet, every attempt to declare a purely social order merely re-invents a natural counterpart, and in so doing merely reproduces the old Kantian settlement of society/nature. Far from being a crude idealism, the lurch to the social tends to reproduce, as its mirror, a singular nature. The dynamic social world creates its other, a dead world of non-social matters, a world of timeless bare facts that can be called upon again to settle debates once and for all (Latour, 1999). Indeed, as Mol (2002) has demonstrated effectively, in focusing attention on the who rather than the what of politics, and despite setting out to democratize proceedings by problematizing who gets to decide, we end up with a residual nature that is both lacking in vitality (Fraser et al., 2005) and which produces the same old short cuts or determined outcomes as before (see Chapter 3 and Hinchliffe, 2001).

    To explain this further, the focus in this no nature politics becomes only one of discussing ‘who’ gets to decide what should happen and how to organize the who so they can decide as ‘freely’ as possible. Organizing this ‘politics of who’ takes at least two general forms, both suffering ultimately from a dualism which leaves Nature as a problematic, anti-political, residual. Constructing markets is one way of developing a ‘politics of who’, in this case, giving consumers the ability to direct resources. The mechanisms are varied, but the general theme is of finding ways of providing choices to individualized decision-makers, who may ‘choose’ through their purchases to collectively produce better environments, particular medical interventions, and so on. The second general form of democratization is of who is civic, where the focus is on more deliberative and collective formations, debating the best or least cost options. But even with their well-known differences, what market and civic methods share, as Mol (2002) says, is a suspicion of experts and professionals, those who in the modern constitutions would have determined matters in the name of the external arbiter, in this case, in the name of nature. And yet, ironically perhaps, they also maintain or even underpin the notion of expertise. For in this social and moral world where humans debate and choose, experts are now asked only to give us the facts of the matter, the unbiased bare facts which can be laid out, transparently, before the citizenry or on the market stall.

    Even if such ruses of bringing nature back in as bare fact are avoided, there are other problems with this ‘politics of who’. One example would be the long-standing tendency to assume the issue for politics is simply one of giving voice (to people with already formulated desires). Another would be the tendency to simplify choices as momentary decisions rather than practical achievements made up of the numerous ‘intertwined histories that produce them’ (Mol, 2002: 169). But as Mol and many others have noted, the subject and the we of politics is in no simple sense ‘us’. As Haraway put it, ‘all of the actors are not human and all of the humans are not “us” however defined’ (1992: 67).

    Given such concerns, Mol offers us a politics of what, a politics where expertise and the things of expertise are neither determining nor immaterial to finding ways forward. Moreover, it is a politics that makes use of, rather than patronizing, tolerating or ignoring (or most likely all three), differences and different ways of understanding and enacting things (be they a body, a disease, a climate, an environment …). What Mol, Haraway and Latour share in this respect is a version of politics that takes who and what seriously, and seeks the means to refuse to settle debates on one side or the other. So this is a politics that is materially and socially multiple, and that attempts to find ways of moving toward assembling answers that refuse to eviscerate the politics of what by declaring matters to be natural or social.

    Many Natures – Doing Politics as Multinaturalism

    Even if we sympathize with the project of democratizing the sciences and/ or of articulating a politics of what, is a concept of nature really needed? Do natures still have work to do? This book has started from the premise that there is a case to be made for natures. There are a number of arguments which together suggest that the processes of reconstituting politics is one that can be enriched, rather than impoverished, by natures. Let us take each in turn.

    First, the natures that are talked about here are not starting points. They are not the initial grounds for politics (or more likely anti-politics). Rather, if they arise they are the sometimes fragile, sometimes fairly robust, end points of a complex of activities. Microbes, rare species, diseases, animals, gardens are all matters that in the end are more real than representations, but whose reality is not outside the fraught constitution of political world-making (Latour, 1999). They are the outcomes of all manner of works and mark more or less stable assemblies which can themselves do further work. But in being produced, they are not necessarily determined by their relations. They are objects that have objected, that have become more real as the constitutional work has gathered apace. It is this apparent contradiction between a manufactured object that is nevertheless more than human that marks the interest in geographies of nature. Neither made up nor pre-existing, both formed and forming, natures mark the lures that mobilize an indeterminate world.

    Second, if natures mark the irreducible and indeterminate outcomes of activities, then they can also figure in the opening up of apparently settled matters. Any closure, or attempt to settle matters, any constitution, will create outsiders, matters that are not known about, or if known, matters that are considered irrelevant to the business of going on. Many of these natures will happily work alongside an assembly, without a grumble. But then there are those that will demand to be taken into account, or those things that refuse to be ignored. They are the surprises, the unaccounted for, that produce political and scientific events that re-open the settled collectives (be they scientific norms or political institutions).

    Third, geographies of nature are not solely about the openness of the world in terms of its refusal to be closed. This is more than a politics of insiders/outsiders or of the process of othering and dissent that goes on every time a constitution is formed. Geographies of Nature also marks an attempt to consider what being given to the world can involve. ‘Being given’ is not synonymous with being already established, timeless or fixed. Being given marks the play between being open to others at the same time as making and marking a difference. There is then a generosity that inhabits geographies of nature, a concern with and for others, not only after the event, as they come back to haunt our schemes and assemblies, but in the very make-up of the world (Diprose, 2002). In short there's an ethos here that is generous with and to others. Which means that geographies of nature are complex, involving others (but not, it should be emphasized, suffocating otherness). In this, to return to an opening problematic, there is to be sure more than one nature. Natures are multiple. But this is not a statement of perspectival politics or even pluralism. Multinaturalism is not relativism. The politics here is an ontological process, subject to various modes and forms of power, as things are pulled and shaped by numerous practices in numerous places with numerous interrelations.

    So what is to be done? This book has opened up the possibility for a geography of natures, and for nature rather than arguing for its end. It has also suggested that any doing of nature will be multiple, spatially and materially. The assemblage of nature is in process and the processes can be engaged in through many different activities, practices and places. How to engage in the making of better natures is a fraught empirical and political question. I have suggested that the question is both ontological and political, and requires detailed engagement in the multiple practices of nature making. If nature is done, in lots of ways, places and with lots of others, then rather than offering interpretations of nature, or analytical concepts, the injunction must be to join the doings, to experiment, to engage in the doing of environments, to environ in different and better ways (Thrift, 2005). The examples given here have only been indicative. I have not been able to elaborate on the roles that can be conjured for scientists and social scientists in this world-making. Big questions remain or need further experimentation. For example, once the old forms of criticism have been surrendered, how are social scientists in particular to operate? Ethnographies of natures and experiments that don't necessarily have human-being at their centre and which attempt to change the make-up of an assemblage are a starting point. Clearly though, any old experiment won't do, and there are codes to develop and normativities to build. While the old normative certainties have gone, as nature has moved from the past-present and another country to the future-present and to a multiple spatiality, a non-foundational framework for moving forward is starting to take shape (Latour, 2004a; Mol, 2002; Stengers, 2000), one that offers roles and places for social scientists to involve themselves. This involvement will not be to act as interpreters or as legislators with some hot line to the truth (Bauman, 1992), but as co-generators of more and different representation-interventions to an assembly (representations that are, it needs always to be emphasized, matters that are made rather than pure images of the world) (Latour, 1999; 2004b; Whatmore, 2003). It may be to act in tandem with some groups, it may be to work alongside others, and in opposition to many others, but it is always to generate more things, to add more to the world (rather than to subtract from it). The multiple geographies of nature suggest that there are many ‘wheres’ for doing nature politics, many sites and organizations to engage. This book has started to provide an opening to map some of those spaces in order that we can engage with matters that are not, after all, so dead and buried.


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