Nature <--> Culture <--> Society

Today I came across a phrase that arrested the flow of my otherwise typical Thursday. A new PhD program in Germany called “Environment and Society” (more details here), a collaboration between Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität-München and the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, describes how its interdisciplinary focus will allow students to explore questions related to “the nature/culture/society interface.”

Indeed, what a place this is, this interface.  Many of us spend long stretches of quality time there.  Perhaps our legislators should be required to intern there as a prerequisite for public service.  Hmmm, that’s interesting — but, you might be thinking, how on earth (no pun intended) can an “interface” be a place?

I tend to think of “place” as a phenomenological term, using the idea of phenomenology as it’s defined by Seamon and Sowers in Key Texts in Human Geography: “Phenomenology is the interpretive study of human experience.  The aim is to examine and to clarify human situations, events, meanings, and experiences as they are known in everyday life but typically unnoticed beneath the level of conscious awareness” (2008).  With this in mind, we can see how somewhere below the level of everyday thought and discourse, or as I like to say, deep inside the onion, lie connections between nature (the given, the natural environment, the pre-cultivated universe of things), culture (folkways, material goods we produce, practices and discourses), and society (all of us and all of our inter-relationships).

Readers of Max Liboiron’s recent post, “Defunct Models of Pollution,” explored the nature/culture/society interface when they considered how “plastics are in every body of water and in every human body.”  Public health concerns consistently demand that we think across the slashes, understanding how everyday reality is constructed (and reproduced) and how patterns of thought (that lead to environmentally-destructive actions) become reified.  I applaud the launching of new graduate programs across the globe that stimulate much-needed interdisciplinary research and time well-spent at the interface.