Evaluating Our Place in Nature

The linking of urban dwellers through tourism to rural areas to have positive experiences in nature to foster environmental values has a direct relevance to achieving a sustainable future. The link between tourism and its use in influencing a sustainable future is emphasized by DEFRA who, when encouraging visitation to the nation’s national parks, comment that one of the main reasons for doing so is ‘allowing society to experience sustainable development in practice’ (DEFRA, 2010, p. 12). The chances of achieving environmental sustainability and a sustainable future for ourselves has a close correlation to people making choices and adopting behaviour that is pro-nature even when this may mean a less easy option. Yet, a possible loss of convenience acts as a strong disincentive to pursuing pro-environmental behaviour. One approach in trying to overcome this barrier is to re-orientate our interpretation of the type of community we belong to, extending its definition to include the biodiversity of nature, and the systems and services we rely upon for our survival. Such reasoning was the essence of Leopold’s concept of the ‘land community’ (Leopold, 1949, p. 204), of which we are a part along with other sentient and non-sentient beings. Similar to a human community where our survival is dependent upon cooperation and consideration, there is a recognition we have a shared fate with other species within a biotic community, thus the ethos of consideration extends to other beings as we develop an ecological consciousness that encourages emotions and behaviour to ensure our actions towards other beings are ethically just. Our belief as to whether we are a part of nature or separate from it carries profound implications for the way we value it and our attitudes and subsequent behaviour towards it.

Recognition of the need to reassess our relationship to nature has become a pressing one, if for no other rationale than as a matter of human self-interest as science has proven that many of the emergent environmental challenges in recent decades, including pollution, biodiversity loss, climate change and ozone depletion, have anthropogenic causes (Holden, 2016). At the same time, it is recognized that just as we can damage the well-being of nature, a spoilt environment can simultaneously harm our well-being, a reciprocal relationship that stresses the inter-linkages between ourselves and our surroundings. Yet this re-evaluation of how we interact with nature and our standing relative to it has lengthier historical roots. In his seminal book on the thesis of the history of human thought in the West upon nature, Glacken (1967) states that understanding the purpose of life and our relationship to nature has been of concern since the times of the Sumerians. Central to this historic search for meaning are the thematic discourses of how the surrounding environment influences society and how humans may change the natural environment (Glacken, 1967), two poignant themes of the early 21st century as the hopes of scientific mastery of nature for social benefit, envisaged in the Enlightenment, have been replaced by concerns of negative environmental changes that threaten the security of humankind.

The paradigm of an ideal that through scientific investigation we could understand the laws of nature and master it, combined with urbanization and technological advancement, are key influences on what McKibben (2003, p. 68) calls a disconnect between our ‘modern minds’ and nature. For Soper (1995), this acts as a priori separation of humanity and nature as a precursor to any discussions on the environment, whether we accept we should be doing more to safeguard it or continue with its use in an instrumental fashion. This separation represents a Cartesian dichotomy, a binary divide between ‘us’ and the ‘rest’ within which nature takes the identity of the ‘other’, a community of which humans are not a part.

The interpretation of separation is influential on how the urban connects to the rural through tourism as we seek the ‘natural’, an authenticity of a world that is understood as being largely free of humans or human interference, even though science may suggest otherwise. Even in the most peripheral locations, evidence of human intervention in the material environment can be found, leading Giddens (1999, p. 27) to refer to the ‘end of nature’. For example, in one of the most geographically remote areas of the planet, the Antarctic, an increasingly popular ecotourism destination, traces of the insecticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) have been found in penguins (Attfield, 2003). Yet the imagery of an authentic nature that is seen as being separate from us remains a strong one for linking urban and rural environments by tourism and as something that many people wish to connect to.

An authentic nature also only makes sense in the context of a differentiation between urban and rural areas. Thus, the urban is equated with the civilized, a product of human creation in contrast to the authenticity of wilderness, leading Cronon (1996, p. 16) to refer to the term ‘myth of wilderness’ in the context that it only exists as a construction in relation to the urban. Wilderness as a construction is similarly emphasized by Budiansky (1995, p. 5) in the sense of how we aim to experience it: ‘The fashion of our times demands that nature be a setting for soul-stirring contemplation of the infinite and unknowable, a cathedral to be entered with hushed tones and reverent thoughts, a place of God’s, not man’s’. It thus becomes an illusion of a place that is pure, untouched by human activity, a space free from the corruptions of culture and civilization (Soper, 1995; Cronon, 1996). This image of authenticity is often evident in the promotion of destinations for nature tourism that emphasize their natural assets, such as Costa Rica’s labelling as nature’s paradise and Iceland as being the place of Europe’s last wilderness.

Whilst places that we hold as having authentic and natural ecosystems are held as highly attractive environments within which to connect to nature, the constraints of distance, time and price are important in determining where we can actually realize this relationship. For many urban dwellers, this means that the link to the rural is likely to occur much closer to home, through visitation to the countryside that is within a manageable proximity to their home. Whilst human interference is recognized in this environment, typically through agriculture, it permits an opportunity to connect with a different topography and a richer and more biodiverse ecosystem than the urban one. Even when aware of this human presence, we may still identify with having had an experience in nature, in an environment that is non-urban, characterized by an openness of view and perimeter, less polluted air and a biodiversity of ecosystem.

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