The Emic and the Etic

Stumbling Block Word: Environment



  1. the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates.

synonyms: habitat, territory, domain

  1. the natural world, as a whole or in a particular geographical area, especially as affected by human activity.

synonyms: the natural world, nature, the earth, the planet, the ecosystem, the biosphere, Mother Nature;

This is the dictionary definition of “environment”. However, there is another aspect to this term, which is the one that conflates the term with “nature”, and all of the accompanying associations of that term. Steven Vogel argues in his book Thinking Like a Mall: Environmental Philosophy After the End of Nature that we are in a fundamentally post “Nature” state and even if there was a natural world to go back to, it’s long gone. In fact, the very definition of a pristine pre-human natural world is created within a colonialist structure, one that ignores any pre-European influence. In 1491 millions Indigenous of people lived in North America who had interacted and modified their “natural” landscape for thousands of years prior (Mann, 2005). America may have been a pristine environment for Europeans maybe, but this description seems to relegate all aboriginal peoples to non-human fauna (Vogel 2015: 5). Here the concept of a natural “environment” is revealed to be a social construction; “wilderness” is related to external conceptions of what humans are, and is a position always situated counter to something else, in this case the viewpoint and positioning of a European culture. This in turn informs the philosophy around what is considered natural and worth saving and what isn’t; which ultimately has a negative impact on changing attitudes toward what is valuable. Classifying some phenomena with the proprietary idea of “nature” and excluding others (human made), and all that classification entails, is in direct conflict with our agency for enacting societal change. This position also obscures the fact that there is no such thing as a non-built environment: the only environment you will ever see and touch and interact with is the quotidian one we are immersed within every day. “Nature” and the environment in the sense of a world unaffected by human action doesn’t exist any longer (and arguably never did) (2015: 65). Vogel feels that environmental philosophers must drop the concept of nature, because it is far too ambiguous and prone to leading to antinomies.

     This disassociation of human agency from the natural environment is problematic in that: “The identification of the “environment” with “nature”…is itself a symptom of alienation…” (Vogel 2015: 67). He suggests that we abandon the quest for the “originally original”, and then clarifies that what we are in fact philosophically separated from is the “environment” and that we are always embedded in nature. Vogel uses Hegelian Marxism as a lens for analysis of this phenomenon of alienation and observes that in fact, the human relation to nature is an active one; and that: “It is precisely in this failure of humans to ‘see themselves in the world they have created’ that their alienation consists.” (2015: 72). Alienation arises when we are unable to see ourselves in our environment. In Marx it is the worker’s inability to see that the wealth and hierarchy of the capitalist is something that he has created and maintains through his labour: “the human origin of objects (and institutions) that have been produced by human activity” (79). The “illusion of naturalness” is the reality that we are unable to see when we are embedded in the anthropocentric binary that always positions “nature” as out there, and non-human. When we enact a division of experience versus artifice, we are simultaneously creating the concept of nature that we are striving to save.

For his part, Vogel does not passively accept the state of the environment we have created, he categorizes it as: “…Pretty awful: polluted, ugly, toxic, dangerously warming, and harmful to the creatures living within it, including ourselves” (Vogel 2015: 90). It is an alienation we must overcome, and the view of a massive other “nature” that is disempowering these efforts. It is a structure we: “…Must acknowledge but can never question or change” (2015: 90). This misses the: “…’active side’ of materialism”. The fact that we are embedded in nature, and more specifically the environment, and: “ it depends on us” (91). Our circumstances are not a fact of nature, they are a direct result of our actions, and these actions are “socially organized” (91). “We can genuinely acknowledge our active involvement in transforming the world only through action, which is to say through actively transforming the world in new ways” (91). Vogel steps back from the semantic debate around the ontology of “nature” and instead recommends an active engagement with the ”environment”, recognize it as something that we have created, and through the recognition of this dynamic, break down the binary of “nature as other” so that solutions can be generated and applied.

Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Alfred a Knopf Incorporated, 2005.

Vogel, Steven. Thinking Like a Mall: Environmental Philosophy After the End of Nature. MIT Press, 2015.


“Wolman” 2010 Mark O’Connell

@Mark O’Connell 2017, all rights reserved, no reproduction without authorization

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