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Summary Article: Nature
from The Encyclopedia of Sustainable Tourism

The totality of physical things considered distinct from the influences, activities and constructions of humanity. It is a complex concept with multiple meanings, but in contemporary popular discourses, nature is most often understood and used in one of three ways (Castree and Braun, 2001; Demeritt, 2002). ‘External’ nature refers to what is perceived to be the original and inherent material aspects of the world: the self-evident and so-called natural environment, inclusive of non-living and living (albeit non-human) components. In this view, nature is raw and pristine, autonomous from society and associated with conventional distinctions such as rural/urban, country/city and wilderness/civilization. ‘Intrinsic’ nature refers to an unchanging essential quality or attribute that is discernable in some thing or some being. This conception of nature finds expression in references to the inherent characteristics of an entity, such as human nature, or an event, such as a hurricane or earthquake, which tend to be cited as natural disasters dictated strictly by physical processes. The third common meaning, ‘universal’ nature, implies that nature is a holistic and integrated force guiding worldly processes. In this meaning, nature refers to the ‘natural’ order of things and is represented in notions like ‘the laws of nature’ or James Lovelock's (1979) widely debated Gaia hypothesis.

Notwithstanding these contemporary meanings, nature is not a timeless or universal idea, nor is it a politically innocuous one. In fact, various social science and humanities scholars have traced how the meanings of nature change over time, evolve from particular contexts, and enact a great deal of worldly effects (e.g. Glacken, 1967; Coates, 1998; Braun, 2002). For example, the idea of nature as strictly biophysical space, which in its most pristine state stands for ‘wilderness’, is widely regarded as a product of the Western Enlightenment tendencies to categorically distinguish human society from other environmental phenomena. Along this trajectory, nature has been both feared and revered, and perceived as a place that is sinful, harsh, unproductive, resource-rich, sacred and intrinsically valuable (Peterson, 2001). Over the last century, wilderness ideology has been instrumental to the development of protected areas and other conservation/preservation initiatives designed to ensure patches of pure nature remain free from human use, occupation, and degradation (Nash, 1967).

The view of nature as something ‘out there’, or external to modern lifestyles, has nevertheless been challenged extensively. Much of this wide-ranging critique has transpired in the wake of Cronon's (1995) provocative essay, which argues that conventional ideas of nature/wilderness dissuade us from engaging responsibly with the diversity of ‘wild’ spaces that we inhabit in our daily lives. From the purview of many disciplines in the social sciences and humanities, the unconditional acceptance of any of the three aforementioned meanings of nature is certain to draw criticism. Primarily, for the external, intrinsic and universal meanings, the social dimensions of nature are ignored, including the biases and political interests embedded within taken-for-granted ‘facts’ about nature. As Castree and Braun (2001, p. 9) have argued, the ‘truth’ of nature depends on the perspectives of the analyst as ‘statements about nature say as much about who is doing the talking, and what their individual group interests are’. Scientists, for example, often sponsor views of an external or universal nature, which provides them with an exclusive hold on explaining nature with predictive properties or laws discovered through methods designed to be value-free and objective. For Fitzsimmons (1989), these are issues of power and persuasion, and echo other forms of structural domination, such as capitalism. Accordingly, if we do not explore the socially embedded aspects of nature, ‘we abandon them to those who use Nature to justify not only the domination of nature by humans, but also the domination of humankind itself’ (Fitzsimmons, 1989, p. 117).

Several critically informed understandings that see nature as inescapably entangled with social and cultural realities have surfaced in recent decades. Broadly conceived as the social construction of nature, or as a ‘social nature’ orientation, these critical perspectives have drawn on various feminist, post-structural, post-colonial, Marxist, phenomenological and relational philosophies (Evernden, 1992; Castree & Braun, 2001; Demeritt, 2002). Common among these theoretically informed accounts is a sceptical insistence that things are not as clear as they seem; ‘that what we once accepted as self-evidently pre-ordained and inevitable is in fact contingent and might conceivably be remade in some other way, if only we would try’ (Demeritt, 2002, p. 776). Supporters thus identify social nature as opening up analytical and political possibilities for a radical environmentalism. They find social nature useful because it implies that humans have the capacity to improve current environmental circumstances by understanding, producing and practising different versions of nature and in ways that are more responsible and socially just.

Within tourism studies, Franklin and Crang (2001) have argued that theory has been preoccupied with an unproblematic acceptance of the object of ‘nature’ and travellers’ desire for that nature. This continues to be noticed, for example, in alternative styles of tourism that endorse nature conservation and attempt to quench travellers’ thirst for authentic experiences. Similar assumptions are exercised in research accounts that flesh out the motivations, patterns, and development opportunities of nature-based tourism (e.g. Hall and Boyd, 2005; Mehmetoglu, 2007; Luo and Deng, 2008). However, since Franklin and Crang's critical remarks, a number of tourism researchers have engaged various social nature perspectives (e.g. Brookes, 2001; Grenier, 2004; Saarinen, 2005). Particularly innovative approaches by Mullins (2009) and Reis and Shelton (2011) have invoked a ‘dwelling perspective’ to depict nature as deeply relational places in which humans, like other creatures, are embedded as active, skilled and perceiving bodies. The blurring of nature/human boundaries has been pushed even further by others who have employed ‘hybrid’ ontologies to explore how tourists’ sensuous and emotional experiences are intermingled with material objects and nonhuman agency (Cloke and Perkins, 2005; Waitt and Cook, 2007). Despite these conceptual advances, the extent to which the multiplicity of nature will affect the operations of the tourism industry remains very much in doubt.

Bryan Grimwood
© CAB International 2015

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