Making Sense of Nature

castreeRating: ★★★☆☆

Noel Castree. 2014. Making Sense of Nature. Routledge. ISBN 978 0 415 54550 1

Many years ago I started a wildlife conservation course by asking students to construct a media campaign for a certain animal. My list was designed to be controversial because I didn’t care about the product, I cared about the process and thinking that went behind it. So, we had the panda (already been done, think of something new), rabbit (pest, hard to see beyond cartoons) and tiger (obvious, how do you make it new) and then again, the plague rat (it’s endangered) and head louse (ditto!). My point was to get the students to think about the actual concept of nature and what we mean by conservation (especially given that Britain is about as “natural” as a motorway). Why do we flock to conserve the panda and have so much trouble getting people to save the insect. At the time, it was put down to a concept of “psycholovability” – the idea we like small and furry and hate large and scaly. The aim was to get students to contemplate the actual meaning behind such terms as “nature” and “conservation” given that they seemed at the time (and now, with this book, even more so) socially constructed terms implying and inferring far more than their dictionary definitions.

So, I come to this review as both consumer and producer of the concepts of nature, what Castree refers to in his preface as “epistemic workers” i.e. ones who make the conceptualisations that others might use.  The central argument seems to be that “nature” as a word refers to something constructed by dialogue, and a dialogue that is often one-way i.e. from the epistemic producer to consumer. Along the way he admits that many readers might not possess the analytical skills to critique his thesis. We can but try! He also produces sufficient small examples to demonstrate that the idea of nature is both diverse and claimed by a large number of disparate groups.

The book is divided into three covering the development of the idea and then extending that into a range of examples and illustrations. Chapter one presents the reader with the foundations of the debate. Nature is often seen as something apart from us rather than a part of us which, given we live in and depend upon “nature” is paradoxical to say the least. He argues that ‘nature’ is a keyword in that it endures and has considerable significance for us all (the opposite of ‘buzzword’). The argument continues to open up the debate of what ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ might mean and how they might be constructed rather than given. Chapter two moves away from the terms to those who might make them. It is clear that we rely on others to help us make sense of the world, and it was probably always so, but here it is argued, we should be focussed more on the groups that control meaning (the ‘epistemic communities’). Using a series of examples, Castree shows how groups can mould our understanding from the wildlife conservation organisation to car manufacturers.  So far, we have the idea that words can have power and meaning outside their original contexts and that groups can use this. The next stage is to consider how this might happen. From an examination of the methods of communication we move to look at how groups can construct meaning and give it power. There is an underlying message here, although it needs to be teased from amongst the dense collection of ideas – the need to construct some sort of  political semiology – an appreciation of the political power of words.

Part two uses these concepts to explore a range of examples. The first set for discussion comprises old forests, genes and dingoes. An unlikely set but one which brings together the idea not so much of what these terms mean but what changes they might bring about in the listener (or reader). Here we see the author’s focus on the pragmatic; the use to which words are put and the resulting impact rather than such uses are right/wrong. If this first set of examples looked at the use of language and the arguments between opposing groups, chapter five looks at how groups carve out their own meanings through setting boundaries – a sort of linguistic turf war! Patents are a key field in the growing idea of ‘intellectual property’ and are, rightly, guarded to protect the interests of the patentees. However, we don’t often consider the words and ideas used to be part of the patent. Gene sequencing and the ‘right’ to specific gene pairs has long been an issue but here it is seen as a way of controlling the language so that genes can be seen apart from the nature they came from. A sudden turn to examine bestiality and gender-differences in people shows that the same ideas and constructs hold, albeit in a less well-discussed area. A final chapter examines the case for social power of language by using the complex case of deforestation in Central Africa. As is made clear, it’s not just the terms used or the people using them but the very area over which they apply.

Part three looks at those institutions that seem to represent the most ‘power’ both in terms of shaping language and getting it across to the widest number of people. We start with the mass media and the impact it has, particularly in the West. The impact is accepted but there is the suggestion that we should be more critical. Global Warming is used as the case study.  Research on key newspapers showed the coverage to be “balanced” but then, what is the issue isn’t? What if the outliers of climate doubt are genuinely wrong and the mass of IPCC readings are correct? Of course, there are counter-arguments to suggest that the IPCC has, by virtue of the volume of material produced, created its own orthodoxy! We stay with the IPCC at least for the first part of chapter 8. The argument put here is how do we check those who construct the most powerful ideas? Using the cases of ‘climategate’ and ‘glaciergate’ to illustrate areas where the scientific consensus was broken by either release of information or  misinformation we get to see how powerful epistemic communities can be attacked and their power diminished. One possible antidote would be the development of a “citizen science” a way of bringing more people into the science community. Interestingly, we finish with a guide to using the book as a teaching resource (to produce better epistemic communities perhaps?).

This is a fascinating text. It is not an easy read because it demands that most difficult of juggling tricks – to both read and be critical of reading at the same time. Its basic themes – that nature is a contested term and that groups of actors manoeuvre around it to best outline their theses might owe more to Foucault or Bourdieu  but its message is plain enough – if we want to really understand the natural environment and the way we perceive and therefore act upon it, we need to be far more critical not just of what is said (or, even, unsaid) but also who said it and how it was said. These themes are hardly new but what Castree has done is put them in a far more credible framework.

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