Society and the Environment

Society and the Environment

How have our perceptions of the environment evolved over time?

When we think of primal societies, we think of people who relied on their immediate environment for daily survival for fruits and berries, caves for shelter, and a reverence for the forces of nature. Paradigmatically, when we look at the current state of society, what we see is a species that is still reliant on its environment and yet insists on continuing practices that degrade it. What we see is a species that has so drastically altered its environment that it has become a threat to all other species on the planet. What we see is a species that continues to rely on fossil fuels despite the knowledge of its effects on the atmosphere, to build dams and highways and fisheries even if that means a death sentence for migratory fish and wildlife, a tendency that Joseph Schumpeter terms ‘creative destruction’ (Luke*, 801).

Conservation ideologies and movements have been on the rise for the past few decades as a result of the growing realization that Earth’s resources are not as abundant and limitless as they once seemed. However, the roots of this desire for conservation vastly stem from anthropocentric utility and consumerism whereby a resource thought to be of greater economic importance is said to have a greater intrinsic value. 

In order to truly move away from our exploitation of nature instead of placing temporary bandages on our ecological problems, there needs to be a radical shift in how we think of ecology itself from a shallow perspective that views humans as separate from nature and as the ‘crown of creation’ towards a deeper ecological understanding that recognizes the intrinsic value and right of all things to live and blossom regardless of their value to humans, based on the foundations of earth wisdom and ecological consciousness (Luke, 866). This is quite a challenge given the human desire to dominate and control nature and all her aspects, but self-realization and biocentric equality, as described by Devall and Sessions, are the keys to achieving a sense of deep ecology (Luke, 884). For this reason, the theory of technonaturalization can be applicable to how society may interact with the environment going forward. “Technonaturalization displays the construction of synthetic ecosystems related to the reproduction of machines and capital by showing how the organic becomes enrolled in civilizational life-support networks that partially form the global environment” (Stubberfield, 1). The human desire to dominate and control nature is once again exhibited here in order to manage the environment. 

The process of creating, administering, and governing these synthetic environments are ways for humans to be able to achieve the sense of self-realization, which is not only learning the fact or truth about something but also applying this knowledge in a substantive form. This does not simply deal with the minutiae of everyday life, but it also applies to a larger scale to maintain the environment “populated and supported by humans, machines, and capital” (Stubberfield, 2). CAP is a demonstration of Watts and Peluso’s description of resource complexes in regards to the Greater Sage-grouse. CAP works to ‘foster’ the safety of the Sage Grouse population, yet in doing so thwarts this very goal by valuing economic growth over biodiversity.  This example illustrates how economic and political goals are deeply intertwined in environmental endeavors.  These ulterior motives assess endangered species with little importance in comparison to human political desires.  

The problem with dealing with territories is that if a species is listed as endangered, then there would be the need for strict policing across a certain part of that state’s territory, which was the case in the situation of the grouse. This would also be a threat to the state’s economy, and for this reason, “the Wyoming CAP is theorized as a necessary evolution in wildlife management technology”, and also “provided the regulatory and technological bedrock for establishing the Wyoming Conservation Exchange” (Stubberfield, 2), which is “concerned with producing workforces of private landowners by financially framing relationships to territory and sage-grouse populations by turning representations of sage-grouse habitat into economic incentives” (Stubberfield, 3). The problem with this is that like many other technologically based approaches to nature’s conservation, it depends on the continued destruction and disturbance of the natural environment to remain economically viable. Because of this, the focus has shifted and once again it has become a challenge for humans to let go of their own desire to dominate and control nature.

Not only do we see how the human species attempts to dominate nature in Stubberfield’s research on the Sage Grouse, but we also see this exemplified throughout Death’s Chapter 19 ‘Resource Violence’ in which Michael Watts and Nancy Peluso illustrate how governments reify nature as an object of government ownership as exemplified by the economic and political ventures in the Indonesian forests and the Niger Delta Oil Fields. Stubberfield’s research detailing the relationship between the CAP and the Sage-grouse population is a manifestation of Watts and Peluso’s resource complex.  We reify nature to support greater political-economic desires rather than the immediate habitat itself. 

The environment is viewed as an object of ownership and power that serves as a means to an end rather than an end itself.  Because humans view the environment as a realm to be dominated, specific territories or resources such as the Indonesian forests become symbols of national identity and the state.  Subsequently, these locations become domains of state power with armed forces protecting the so-called nationalized space.  

This heavy occupation of land exemplifies land commodification.  Watts and Peluso have deemed this commodification and land management the ‘Resource Complex’ (Watts & Peluso, 194).  As these two authors have defined the term, the resource complex discovers how relations among resource access, management, violence, finance, and democracy function and stabilize.  This complex is widely shaped by neoliberalism, state power, and capitalism (Watts & Peluso, 196).  

Each of this week’s readings compliment one another and culminate into a larger discussion regarding how humans parasitically commodify and reify the environment and its resources.  In doing so, humans have come to value political dominance, economic surplus, and capitalistic ventures over ecodiversity, human safety, and conservation.  Unfortunately, as Luke described, we do not foresee an end in sight especially since the conversation and responsibility has shifted from that of unified government actions to that of individual, morally conscious acts that will attempt to shape humanity.  Very obviously, we lack any form of a suitable transition period.

*Luke citations based on e-copy of Anthropocene Alerts


Carey Oakes

Carey Oakes is a senior studying International Relations and German.  Her grandfather worked on Capitol Hill as Director of Public Policy for the NRPA and laid the groundwork for her interest in politics and its relationship with the environment.  She currently writes for Remake, a website that discusses the environmental plights of the fashion industry.  

Karan Mirpuri

Karan Mirpuri is a senior studying Political Science with a concentration in Law. He was raised in NOVA, and has started developing more of an interest in nature after taking some classes at Virginia Tech that have to deal with the environment and the issues that it faces.

Reganne Milano

Reganne Milano is a Junior studying International Public Policy. She is also getting a degree in Multimedia Journalism with a minor in Spanish. Her interest in international government sparked from growing up in the D.C. area where she became aware of the overlap between international politics and the environment in highschool. Reganne is currently the SRA for Newman at Virginia Tech and enjoys hiking, watering her many, many plants, and editing for Silhouette. 

Urvi Patel Urvi Patel is a Junior majoring in Environmental Policy and Planning. She was born in India and raised in Uganda and therefore has firsthand experience with developmental challenges in ‘third-world’ countries which is what sparked her interest in political advocacy and environmental justice. Urvi is currently an Economics Tutor with the Student Success Center and enjoys hiking, cooking, and hanging out with her cat.