ECPR

Install the app

Install this application on your home screen for quick and easy access when you’re on the go.

Just tap Share then “Add to Home Screen”

ECPR

Install the app

Install this application on your home screen for quick and easy access when you’re on the go.

Just tap Share then “Add to Home Screen”

Back to Paper Details

Modernity and the concept of nature: A tale of ambiguity

Rickard Andersson
Lunds Universitet
Rickard Andersson
Lunds Universitet
Open Panel

Abstract

In light of ongoing environmental change and growing scientific findings suggesting that modern society stresses its environment in ways that put its long-term future and the planetary ecological systems at risk, sustainable development is becoming an important guiding normative framework for political praxis from the local to the global. This raises a number of important theoretical questions regarding the ways in which society and nature interact, and in terms of political theory it emphasizes the need to engage explicitly with what role nature plays in political thought. There is a widespread conception, both in political theory and in environmentalist groups, of modernity’s approach to nature as one of a reified object, as something external and completely alien to society, something to be mastered by instrumental reason through science, technological development and rational control. In addition, this rational mastery of an objectified nature is thought to be chimerical, a false security that is impossible to realize due to the complexities of the material world and the necessary partiality of knowledge. Lastly, the externalized and objectified nature, the manipulation of it in order to fulfill societal ends, and the unawareness of the actual incompleteness of this process is by many thought of as a major driving force behind contemporary environmental change, perhaps the most important one of all. In this respect, the modern conception of nature is thought to hinder further realization of the illusive normative framework of sustainable development. However, historical accounts of the simultaneous constitution of modernity and objectified nature, with primary emphasis on how nature has been conceptualized in modern political thought, are far fewer than such critical remarks. In this paper I undertake such and historical endeavor by studying how important thinkers of early modernity conceptualized nature and its relation to society. My main historical argument is that during the early scientific revolution there were widespread and dominating ideas about nature as something external to society and something that ought to be conquered as a means for human emancipation, but that these ideas were soon complemented, through developments in natural history (e.g. geology and zoology) during late Enlightenment, by notions of man as at least a partial product of biological and chemical processes. Further, I take this latter view not as an anomaly in modern conceptions of the relation between society and nature, but as a central characteristic of it, and I argue that this ontological ambiguity has created a moral ambiguity about man’s proper place in the world as well. Hence, it has provided momentum to those developments in modern society that now seem to be causing unsustainable environmental change. According to this line of reasoning, it is not the conception of nature as simply an external object that is the main driving force behind environmental change, but the ambiguous and contradictory view of nature as both external to and essential for society. Lastly, I suggest that it is towards this problematic those engaged with issues of sustainable development and environmental change ought to direct their attention.