Earth's shards melded again

Humanity and Environment
October 31, 1997

The social construction of nature is all the intellectual rage these days, so much so that one might be led to believe that there is no "real" material world out there, only products of imagination, culture and activity. Most intellectual pendulums swing a bit too far and have to be adjusted, and this book is just such an attempt to modulate the swing. It tries to weld, in "a body of knowledge without meaningful divisions", the content and concepts of "environment", "nature", "landscape" and "culture" - which, as Raymond Williams reminded us long ago, are some of the most difficult words in the English language.

The book is also aimed at an undergraduate audience which has been badly served by the cult of modular courses that compartmentalise even more the fragmented nature of knowledge.

Ian Simmons is well-qualified to attempt this Herculean task. During the past few decades he has produced a number of excellent syntheses of the natural world, the humanised world, and the socially constructed world - the very thing that geographers "should be aiming at". He has also written at least a few dozen papers or books on the environmental and ecological archaeology that have revolutionised views about mesolithic and early agriculture in upland Britain.

Humanity and Environment is carefully constructed, but difficult to summarise as it ranges across a great amount of material and ideas. It begins with a broad-brush picture of human societies, dealing with approaches to the environment and environmental problems. An underlying theme is the uncertainty of knowledge and the measurement of "nature", which depend on how humans "know" about the world and communicate that knowledge.

Simmons concludes that knowledge is subject to distortion by the individual, and inference from others, all mediated through the residues from history, such as human population numbers, historical processes, and different cultural linkages with the environment. The second chapter considers the main findings of the natural sciences about the natural world. But these are always mediated by social settings and aims. Science is not a detached "free-floating activity" but part of human culture. The realisation that science is incomplete and contains a residuum of ignorance leads to consideration of the human uses of the earth. And the fourth chapter investigates the human tools of earth use - in energy, migration, adaptation and change.

The second half of the book is an exposition of cultural constructions and the "real" world and its alternatives. The content of "cultural constructions" examines the natural sciences and technology, the social sciences, philosophy, and environmental ethics, while the "real world" of chapter six is concerned with environmental law, administrative frameworks, alternatives of the imagination, and religion.

The final chapter tries to bridge the knowledge of fragmented disciplines, to build a more unitary view. Simmons asks two basic questions: can social theory provide the bridge, and why bother to look for a bridge? To the second question he gives some partial answers: at the personal level, the effort has been a stimulating intellectual adventure; more generally, the construction of a unitary view may be a matter of human survival, or at least an enterprise that preserves human dignity in an ever-more-crowded world.

Finally, one must ask one's own question: does Simmons succeed in "papering over the cracks"? I think he does, largely. Students will be well-served by the boxes on the page that do not provide detailed examples and additional knowledge, but do sum up preceding sections and explore links with the following chapters. Two pages in the middle on links with other chapters are also helpful.

Written in refreshingly clear language, this is a thought-provoking work that should have a long and lively currency, and might alter quite a few geography courses in the process.

Michael Williams is professor of geography, University of Oxford.

Humanity and Environment: A Cultural Ecology

Author - Ian G. Simmons
ISBN - 0 582 225477
Publisher - Addison Wesley
Price - £17.99
Pages - 328

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