Nature as ideology

But what do we mean by “nature” or “the natural”? The English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) addressed the problem long ago, pointing out that many of the connotations attached to the two terms led to terminological confusion because they were based on a commingling of moral concepts legitimization, and normative aspects? This article, however, is not primarily concerned with the Millsian definition of nature, which characterized it as, among other things, “a name for the mode, partly known to us and partly unknown, in which all things take place.” This article deals much more with the concept of “nature as ideology,” which the German landscape designer joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn described as, “Nature, understood in this way, is a (more-or-less) systematic scheme of ideas, held by particular social, political, cultural, and other groups.” In that assessment, nature represents an intellectual construct. And according to Wolschke-Bulmahn, it is only human reflection on nature that produces an emotional bond and the assignment of values to nature.

The terms nature and naruralness are associated with positive or negative values depending on the cultural context. In the European context, “natural” is assigned a predominantly positive value and often functions as a kind of seal of approval, with which products, but also landscapes, are stamped. Urban dwellers in particular often express a yearning for “the natural.” But the German philosopher Thomas Schramme argues that when people think of “the natural” they mean only a specific part of “nature”–to wit, exclusively the beneficial part of nature. Everything else, such as the dangers or unpleasantness associated with nature, is ignored. The historian Rolf Peter Sieferle characterized nature as “that which is elementary, self-contained, spontaneous, sprouted, unavailable, unproduced, while on the other side is that which is artificial, technical, regulated by arrangements and agreements, made and compelled, designed and cultivated.” And even things that have the positive connotations of “natural” are subject to differing levels of meaning: “the natural as biological, as self-evident, as non-artihcial, as non-cultural, and as non-technical.” When we talk about the “naturalness” of a landscape in a landscape architecture project, the emphasis is often on the “non-artificial” aspect. However, landscape architecture has in fact a long, historical-cultural tradition of dealing with artificial representations of nature, with the imitation of putatively untouched landscapes. Landscape architects have always been busy creating images that suggest “nature” and “natural,” but are thought through down to the tiniest technical detail and “artificially” effectuated by humans.

Representing landscape as a facsimile of nature is a gardening tradition that has its roots in the Chinese gardens, in which the emphasis was not on the construction of a paradise, but rather on a devotion to honoring nature, by creating as perfect a copy of real landscapes as possible. Chinese garden designers adhered to geomantic principles and focused on designing an efngy of an ideal microcosm that was closely allied to traditional, allegorical Chinese landscape painting. No trouble was spared, and they constructed artificial seas as well as artful replicas of entire mountainous massifs. In Asia, the “natural landscape garden,” which had spread out over ]apan, was replaced over time by sublimely excessive citations of landscapes. Landscapes were reproduced on a smaller scale, or individual aspects, such as water, were symbolized by materials like gravel, turning them into artifacts. An artificial refinement of “raw nature,” in place of purely replicating it, became the expression of the gardening art.

Susann Ahn & Regine Keller, False Nature? (2017)


Nature as ideology


We are living in intellectually troubled times for landscape architecture. Part of the reason for the awkwardness in the present debate is not only due to imminent environmental degradation, but also to the rapid degeneration of our own symbolic understanding of nature. We are the receptacles of models of thinking inherited from our forefathers, and when it comes to nature, these models seriously hamper our actual perception of things. What we find out there has little to do with much of the idealized landscape preconceptions we carry. Older landscape models work effectively, only as ideals, with a deeply warped reception and conception of nature, which in turn, has measurable repercussions on the way we act upon the world. It is my belief that we should start to investigate possible options for a renewed relationship with nature that could also foster a new kind of landscape architecture, defending stronger cultural values of beauty and harmony.

Christophe Girot, Immanent Landscape (2013)

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Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes (2006)


Fashionable Ecologism


Examining a number of strategies to popularize environmentalism in the United States, Damien Cave of The New York Times presented a prescient (and humorous) argument for environmental branding in his 2005 article, “It’s Not Sexy Being Green (Yet).” Cave’s essay, in the “Fashion and Style” pages, drew upon the expertise of advertising executives, cultural critics, and environmentalists to, in effect, make being green cool. Reflecting on past environmental crises, Cave recalled the 1970’s as an era of malaise, symbolized by the cardigan sweater President Jimmy Carter wore while delivering his “Crisis of Confidence” speech (1979), a speech that encouraged the general public to reduce their use of energy. This infamous sweater, once denoting lower thermostats and a dwindling energy supply, seems emblematic some twenty-five years later of a challenging and less prosperous time, synonymous with a “righteous denial of fun” and an unfortunate fashion statement. Ironically, Carter was the first president to bring photovoltaic panels to the White House, a fashionable statement of the time that was promptly negated during the Reagan years when they were disassembled.

That environmentalism might escape its sartorial rappings, Cave recognized the need to resituate the green movement for the twenty-first century. Following a number of experts who advocated a newly branded environmentalism -including Earth Day founder, Denis Hayes, who proposed “the easiest way to make something cool is to get cool people to do it”- Cave suggested environmentalism’s spokesperson might need to be a bit sexier than Jimmy Carter, asserting singer Michael Stipe or rapper Mos Def would be better candidates. To this end, Cave advocated the employment of numerous branding strategies, ranging from the use of humor and self-deprecation to irony and satire, even suggesting “conservation needs to become more trendy than a line of sneakers”.

So, why not draw from a broader rank of artists in this quest for coolness? Bruce Sterling, for instance, sci-fi author and founder of the Viridian design movement, could lend his skills in satire, as evidenced by a number of Viridian spoofs including the “Welcome to the Greenhouse” issue of Whole Earth.

Lisa Tider, Ecologies of Access (2010)

Fashionable Ecologism



Nature causes death. It takes up too much space. It brings ice onto the roads, germs into our living rooms, and water through the windows.

REAL Nature is disconnected from our FANTASY about it: I, like most people, want Nature… functional and in its place.

How we Americans view NATURE, and how we think about it, is different from how we occupy and use it.

We all say that we love nature, but if we stop for a moment and are honest with ourselves, we can see the radical difference between what we say and what we do. This is a much-needed reality check for all of the Nature-lovers out there. Nature today is a commodity that is inserted, in bits and pieces, into an environment that is itself a constructed product of our will. It does what we want, and sadly, all we want is to enjoy the view without being inconvenienced.

Martha Schwartz, I hate nature (2008)


Ecological Health

One important arena for building common ground in design and ecology, for example, would be developing an understanding of health that integrates ecological health and human health. In ecology, health has most often been thought of from the standpoint of biodiversity and sustainability, whereas landscape design in its early formulations included human health as one of its core concerns through civic design. A more unified concept of health than either discipline has embraced to date might conceive of human health in ecological terms, and in ways that dispel the illusion that we and our bodies are somehow separate from ecological realities.

Kristina Hill, Toward Landscape Realism (2002)


If we can choose the kind of nature that we need because nature can be “engineered” (see Technical Reproduction) then,  which is the ruling principle to design the nature that we want?

Traditionally, ecologist thinking has deployed a discourse of social change and Landscape Design had assumed these values as a claim for a different urban model as you can see, for example in Michael Hough.

Instead, once Landscape Discipline has assumed a more relevant role, this engagement has become more ambivalent, claiming for models like health protection, that can at once criticize our model of massive consumption and make it possible, counteracting its effects. Here is where is necessary to study carefully, as Hill does, each project or statement to understand if they are changing things or if they simply are green makeup.



Ecological Health



While the use of environmental language in landscape architecture is prolific, its direct application to professional practice in landscape architecture has created a problem: More often than not, the words are unfulfilled by the work. Creating “harmony between humans and nature,”“providing unity in nature,”“healing the environment,” and “restoring nature to the city” are goals not easily accomplished. In fact, some within the profession believe that it is impossible to fulfill the promise of those words through the individual projects of landscape architecture. And yet those and other similar phrases are frequently used in the practice of landscape architecture.

Additionally, the profession has developed an environmental canon of sorts that includes contrasting, if not conflicting, rhetorical positions. This ambiguous perspective on environ- mentalism reflects a similar ambiguity in society at large. Recent polls indicate that fifty-eight to seventy-three percent of Americans consider themselves environmentalists. The percentage of landscape architects claiming to be environmentalists is likely at least as large given the profession’s traditional interest in nature. Despite landscape architects’ substantial expression of concern for the environment, how they see the profession’s role in dealing with an environmental crisis has engendered considerable disagreement, if not discord.

Daniel Joseph Nadenicek and Catherine M. Hastings, Environmental Rhetoric, Environmental Sophism: The Words and Work of Landscape Architecture (2000)


Nobody likes


Nobody likes it when you mention the unconscious, and nowadays, hardly anybody likes it when you mention the environment. You risk sounding boring or judgmental or hysterical, or a mixture of all these. But there is a deeper reason. Nobody likes it when you mention the unconscious, not because you are pointing out something obscene that should remain hidden—that is at least partly enjoyable. Nobody likes it because when you mention it, it becomes conscious. In the same way, when you mention the environment, you bring it into the foreground. In other words, it stops being the environment. It stops being That Thing Over There that surrounds and sustains us. When you think about where your waste goes, your world starts to shrink. This is the basic message of criticism that speaks up for environmental justice, and it is the basic message of this book.

Timothy Morton. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. (2000)


Nobody likes