Landscape analysis: a call for conciliating idealism and materialism

On September 21, I went to an interesting talk given by Ismael Vaccaro, a professor from the department of Anthropology and the MSE, on “Environmental Anthropology and Landscape Analysis”. The main objective of the talk was to present a methodology for doing landscape analysis, which he exemplified by some earlier field research he did in the Valley of Lillet, situated in the Catalan Pyrenees. Briefly summarized, the methodology identifies six social variables to be used as guidelines to read the different layers of meaning a landscape can contain: 1) demography, 2) property regime, 3) managerial institutions, 4) productive practices, 5) cultures of nature, 6) anthropogenesis and ecological changes.
A lot could be said on any of these variables, but one aspect of the talk that struck me as especially interesting has to do mainly with the last two: cultures of nature and anthropogenesis and ecological changes. The first one consists in the perception different groups of people inhabiting a land have (or had) of nature. Said otherwise, this variable tries to grasp how different group socially construct something like “nature” and hence what meaning they attribute to it. And since “nature” is such a broad and basic concept, we can suppose that this variable is meant to grasp something like the basic metaphysical conception a group of people has, implicitly of explicitly, of itself. It is meant to grasp their answers to such questions as: What is nature? What is their place in it? How should they behave toward it? And so forth. Any explicit or implicit ethical relation toward something like “nature” would hence be captured by this variable.
As for the second variable, “anthropogenesis and ecological changes”, it is meant to capture the material transformations of the landscape done by those groups of humans, over time. According to professor Vaccaro, a ‘purely’ natural landscape, in the sense of a landscape that hasn’t been modified by humans at some point or another, is something that does not exist. This statement entails, for instance, that restoration ecologists have to make a decision as to which previous state of the landscape they want to bring it back, since there is no ‘natural’ or ‘original’ state to which it could be restored.
The interesting aspect to which I alluded to above is that professor Vaccaro’s research led him to conclude that both variables where incomplete without the other and that it were both necessary to refer to cultures to understand the ecological changes of a landscape and to refer to the latter in order to understand the former. If this is true, then it means that both an idealist analysis of a culture made in order to understand the impact of a given people on its environment and a material analysis of the changes in this environment (and hence of the impact this people has) would be insufficient. The study of landscape would therefore call for a conciliation of the materialist and idealist traditions, since, according to professor Vaccaro’s framework, material conditions transform cultural frameworks, but cultural frameworks also transform the material conditions in a way that cannot be properly understood if one takes only the material conditions into account (and vice versa). This process, wherein world-views are modified as a result of material conditions and material conditions are modified as a result of evolving world-views, is, I think poorly understood. So it could be thought of as setting up interesting research projects.

2 Responses to “Landscape analysis: a call for conciliating idealism and materialism”

  1. ellis says:

    This approach, and in particular the intertwining of nature and culture that it suggests, has, as you note, some profound implications. Discussions of environmental policy and ethics have tended to turn around this distinction. Approaches such as deep ecology have been critical of mainstream political and ethical approaches for seeing the world from an anthropomorphic standpoint and failing to take into account the needs and interests of ecosystems. Many deep ecologists and others argue that what is needed is a turn away from culture – or perhaps more accurately, an understanding of culture as embedded in nature – and a privileging of the ecological – the natural – point of view. What Vaccaro’s approach seems to indicate, however, is that we simply cannot choose between nature and culture and in particular we cannot choose nature over culture. We always see nature from the standpoint of culture, while we can no longer conceive of nature as standing outside of, in opposition to culture.

  2. Jones says:

    A very well-written and interesting book called ‘Political Ecology’ by Paul Robbins (2004) has an illuminating section on the construction and destruction of nature. What I find fascinating about this idea is very similar to what Merle and ellis pointed out: that concepts of nature are contingent upon the person or group of people conceiving. The message from this argument, to me, is that humans are integral pieces of nature, and not separate from the natural world. I am surprised that many still conceive of the human and the natural as two separate worlds, where one, the human, often interacts with and imposes its will on the other, nature. If evolution has taught us anything about a justifiable world-view, it has taught us that humans are part of the natural order, and everything that we do, and everything about us and the world around us, is natural.
    In many protected areas throughout the world, indigenous people have been displaced to facilitate a ‘natural’ landscape. In doing so, the landscape is actually less natural than before. In many instances, one might as well uproot all the tress or dam all the rivers in a natural area if one agrees to the displacement of its human inhabitants.